Last week author Tony Horowitz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times detailing his tragicomic experience writing an e-book:
Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.
At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.
Alas, things did not go well. If you’re eying the e-book boom Horowitz’s piece is a must-read because it comes from someone in the trenches, not someone selling you a shovel that you will eventually only use to dig your own grave. Based on the totality of his experience I don’t begrudge Horowitz his eventual retreat, but if you’re new to the writing game I think it’s important to understand what has and has not changed during the past few years of publishing upheaval.
Making money as a writer — to say nothing of making writing a career, even for a few years — has always been brutally hard. If you’re passionate and lucky and plucky and willing to do whatever it takes, and you meet the right people at the right time, and you have the chops, and you’re less trouble than you’re worth, you can, maybe, get a gig. If you do a decent job and meet your deadline you might get another gig, or even an actual job with regular hours and benefits and somebody else paying two thirds of your social security taxes. But it’s hard. Always.
While the e-book craze is in large part being driven by people who hope to profit from doing so, and it’s always nice to make a buck, the real value of e-books, and by extension, self-publishing, is the fact that you no longer have to ask someone for permission to write what you want to write. You may not make any money following your bliss, but when was that ever guaranteed? The best you could usually hope for was to write for hire, to get someone to pay you for services rendered, then use that income to cover the cost of personal projects. Even if you were a literary lion your high-dollar advance came with expectations and limits.
If you want to make money as a writer you’re looking at a hard life, but it was always thus. What’s changed — what the e-book revolution and self-publishing are really about — is that everyone now has access. So while you’re right to think about how much money you can squeeze out of the marketplace with your talent and guile, take a moment to ballpark the opportunity cost of the self-publishing and internet distribution options currently available. What would it take to replicate those opportunities if you had to pay for them yourself? A billion dollars? Ten billion? A trillion?
The e-book market will sort itself out in time, at which point it will become just another market you can sell your services to if you aspire to be a working writer. What you no longer have to do is wait for someone to say yes if you’re willing to bet on yourself, and I see that change as priceless.
– Mark Barrett