It’s Not About the Money

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

Online Education and the Commitment Problem

There’s no question that the internet is a boon to learning. It’s a rare day when I do not pop open a browser and look up information that helps me solve a problem or move a project along. Compared with life before so much knowledge was available there’s also no question about which reality I prefer, even allowing for the inevitable costs and tech headaches that accompany such momentous change.

Given that others seem to share that preference it’s not surprising that there are widespread efforts underway to turn the internet toward education in a more directed fashion. From online courses that can be taken for continuing-education credit to the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and even the appearance of online-only ‘universities’ offering full degrees, there seems to be a genuine hunger for virtual academics, and why wouldn’t there be? Instead of having to alter or uproot your life to go where the knowledge is you can now simply log on and learn.

It’s probably also not surprising that some of the jazziest online schools and programs are for-profit. While making an honest living is a laudable goal in life, some of these for-profit online schools — like their for-profit brick-and-mortarboard kin — are nothing more than a skimming operation aimed at federal student-loan dollars. Couple premeditated leeching with administrative efforts to heap for-profit debt onto students at abusive interest rates and the worst of these schools are little more than a gussied-up Craigslist scam looking for student suckers.

Standing in opposition to the for-profit paradigm are fully accredited non-profit and governmental schools offering free MOOC’s. While academically laudable, it’s also true that some of these staid institutions are getting into MOOC’s for branding and marketing reasons, some are using MOOC’s to up-sell students on fee-based courses, and a few are acting as incubators in order to spin off for-profit start-ups that will eventually help enrich already bulging endowment coffers. Still, cynicism aside, a free course is a free course, and if a MOOC gives far-flung students a chance to learn at a distance I think that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, even if we narrow our attention to free MOOC’s and impute only golden motives to institutions hosting them, there’s a problem with this most benevolent form of online education. And as a recent New Yorker article points out, it’s a big problem:

An average of only four per cent of registered users finished their MOOCs in a recent University of Pennsylvania study, and half of those enrolled did not view even a single lecture. EdX, a MOOC collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has shown results that are a little more encouraging, but not much. And a celebrated partnership between San Jose State and Udacity, the company co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor turned MOOC magnate, also failed, when students in the online pilot courses consistently fared worse than their counterparts in the equivalent courses on campus.

Read more ]

On Being a Successful Writer

If you have an interest in writing, and at some point you feel you’ve become a writer, is being a writer success in itself? If not, why not?

How should writers measure success? How should non-writers measure the success of writers? Should writers pay attention to what non-writers think about success? Should writers pay attention to how other writers define success?

Can the success of a writer be measured objectively? In judging your own success are there specific metrics that matter to you? The number of fans you have? The amount of money you make? The number of awards you receive? The nature of the awards you receive?

Are all award-winning writers successful? Can a writer be successful without winning awards?

If you make money as a writer are you successful? Is your measure of success tied to how much money you make? Can you be successful as a writer if you don’t make money writing?

If you never win an award and you never make any money but you have devoted fans are you successful? If you don’t think you’re successful does that make your fans wrong?

Are subjective measures of success more or less valid than objective measures? Is that true for all writers?

Is your definition of a successful writer fixed or does it change over time? Is your sense of your own success fixed or does it change over time?

Do you measure success relative to your writing or how your writing is received? Both? If you write something you don’t respect and it makes a lot of money or wins a lot of awards or pleases the public, have you been successful? What if you write something that garners no interest but you believe to be your best work? Is that success? Failure?

Is it possible to objectively prove some writers are good and some writers are bad? Do you believe good writers eventually succeed and bad writers inevitably fail?

Is there such thing as a failed writer? Is that something writers decide about themselves or something non-writers say about writers? Is a failed writer someone who failed at the craft of writing? Someone who failed to make money writing? Someone who failed to turn writing into a career?

Does writing itself sustain you, or do you need feedback from others? Are you driven by the process of writing or the outcome? Both? If you could choose only one, which would you choose?

When it comes to defining success as a writer you get to choose what success means to you. Choose carefully.

– Mark Barrett

On Being A Writer

If you have an interest in writing, what will it take for you to think of yourself as a writer? If you already think of yourself as a writer, what convinced you? If you write but don’t think of yourself as a writer, why not?

What does it mean to be a writer? Is being a writer like being a plumber? A doctor? A cleric? A singer?

What does it mean to be anything? Does it mean that label is your whole life, or what you’re doing at the moment, or what you’re doing at the moment for money?

Who gets to decide if you’re a writer? You? Somebody else? If somebody else, who? Your friends? Your family? An authority who knows nothing about you except what you’ve written?

What if there’s a difference of opinion? What if some people think you’re a writer and others don’t? Does it matter who thinks what? If your friends think you are and your family thinks you aren’t, are you a writer? What if your family thinks you are but your friends think you aren’t? What if an authority thinks you are or aren’t?

What if nobody thinks you’re a writer but you? Can you still be a writer? Can you be a writer by yourself? Can you be a writer if no one ever reads what you’ve written? What if you write in the woods and nobody reads your work until you die? Were you a writer while you were writing? Or are you a writer only after your work is discovered?

Can you be a writer if you make a living doing something other than writing? If you’re being paid to write are you a writer? Always? Is writing a profession? A career? If you work as a writer and you stop working as a writer does that mean you’re no longer a writer?

Do you think of some writers as real writers? Are writers who make money real writers? Are writers who don’t care about money real writers? Are writers who make money better or worse than writers who make no money?

There are a lot of questions in life. There are forty-one in this post alone. Some questions can only be answered with experience. If you think of experience as making mistakes you will always be in pain. If you think of experience as learning you will never know your limits.

When does your interest in writing turn you into a writer? You get to choose.

– Mark Barrett


On Writing

What is writing? What does it mean to write?

In thinking about those questions do you need more information before you can answer? If so, why do you feel that way?

How is all writing the same, or can all writing ever be the same? Is some writing inherently better than other writing? If so, how do you know which is which? Is that something you decide or something others decide for you?

Is writing a means or an end? Both? Always?

Does the written word inherently have value? Does the act of writing inherently have value?

I ask these questions to separate writing from the context in which writing takes place. Yes, context matters, always, but context is not writing. Writing is writing.

I believe all writing is communication. Writing can also be art and commerce, but I think the implications of writing as communication are worth considering.

You don’t have to agree with me, of course, but if you’re interested in writing for any reason — and I mean any reason at all — I don’t want you to confuse writing with fame, fortune or being an author, because those are separate things. They may spring from writing, but they are not writing.

There are many people in the world — tens if not hundreds of millions — for whom writing is intensely personal and private. These people use writing as a means of reflection and meditation. Most of their writing will never be shown to another human being yet still provides communication with the self.

If you have an interest in writing, protect it. It doesn’t matter what age you are, what your educational background is or isn’t, or anything else. Don’t let anyone trivialize or denigrate your interest in writing.

There are people who believe words are sacred and only certain people should be allowed to use them. Words are not sacred. You are sacred. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is to be ignored.

There is a lot in life that cannot be communicated through language, let alone writing. At times there really are no words. Encountering the limits of writing is as interesting as discovering what writing can do.

You are not obligated to tell anyone that you are interested in writing. You get to keep your interest private unless you want to talk about it. You don’t have to justify it or defend it, and no one who cares about you will ask you to.

What is writing? You get to choose.

– Mark Barrett


The Long View in Context

Following up on the previous post, I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider where we are as a culture, and how we might evolve in the future relative to independent authorship and self-publishing.

The current explosion of interest in self-publishing is being driven by a number of factors, not all of them constant. I believe that as long as the internet exists, people will use it to reach out to each other without engaging the services of middlemen and gatekeepers. That goes for everything from private conversations to business — meaning, ultimately, that every attempt to mediate those direct connections will ultimately fail, if only to inevitably be reborn in some slick new guise. Whether we’re talking about sites like Facebook or device manufacturers like Apple, they’re all simply along for the ride, even as they purport to be driving the revolution.

What’s important to remember with regard to self-publishing is that what we are witnessing today is the explosive origin of what will be a future norm. As such there’s a built-in, pent-up demand for this new opportunity that simply won’t exist in the future. It’s not just kids or hipsters who are learning how to use the internet to do things like self-publish books, it’s everybody, all at once. In a generation or two, however, it really will be only the kids who need to be taught. Like young drivers they’ll learn at a developmentally appropriate age how to use the same self-publishing tools their older siblings, parents and grandparents have been using most of their lives.

Today there are clearly a lot of people who have always wanted to self-publish a book or two. Whether those books are collections of family recipes or deranged manifestos, until now these personal works have been financially and technologically beyond the reach of most would-be authors. This pent-up demand, again, crosses all generations, but over time — and perhaps a relatively short amount of time — that demand is going to be flushed out. Yes, there will be people who decide to pursue self-publication either as a hobby or avocation, but most would-be self-publishers will produce the titles they’ve always wanted and then stop. Or they’ll hang out a shingle and try to make a few bucks helping other independent authors realize their own pent-up dreams.

It’s also important to note that there’s a perfect convergence right now between the availability of self-publishing and the amount of time people have on their hands. If you crater the economy and drive millions of people into unemployment, they’re going to look around for something to do. If they’ve always wanted to self-publish a book they now have the time, and can probably afford to get it done. They may even have extra motivation to explore self-publishing as a means of making a buck or two when a couple of extra bucks would really be handy.

For these reasons, then, I think the current avalanche of demand for and interest in self-publishing will necessarily decrease — perhaps quite precipitously — as people find more time-consuming and remunerative pursuits, and as pent-up demand becomes satisfied over time. Which means those writers who are determined to take the long view, both in terms of future works and the value or present works, will almost certainly find themselves in a less-crowded market in the future. Which strikes me as a very good place to be.

– Mark Barrett

Writing is Work

Whether you’re a dabbler, seasoned pro or tortured soul, pressing keys on a keyboard takes time. The more time you have available, and the more disciplined you are about protecting that time, the more productive you will be as a writer.

PCMag.com has an article up today about telecommuting and productivity, but because all writing is work — whether you’re getting paid or not — anyone trying to find regular writing hours at home can profit from the piece.

– Mark Barrett

One Million Characters

Writing is a solitary pursuit often requiring long periods of self-imposed isolation in order to complete a given work. Whether the end product is a book, script or blood-scrawled scroll, many writers compensate for the inherent loneliness of authorship by leading bawdy social lives centered around chemical binges and chaotic if not ultimately destructive relationships. While I fully support any writer’s determination to find a healthy work-life balance, not all writers are constitutionally inclined to such interstitial exuberance.

If you live a fairly quiet life, as I do, the time you spend writing may not seem all that different from the time you spend staring at the wall, flipping channels, surfing the web, or leaning on the open door of the refrigerator for the fourth time in twenty minutes. Such mind-numbing activities may actually increase the appeal of the writing process, turning each typo and turn of phrase into the most galvanizing thing that has ever happened to you, but the banality of such an existence presents a problem. Where more outgoing writers survive secluded toil by subsisting on memories of social conquests and defeats, or even pending legal action, mild-mannered types are at serious risk of cerebral whiteout, where the isolation necessary for work merges indistinguishably with the vapidity of down time.

While it is possible for introverted writers to break up the monotony of their non-writing life by engaging in socially acceptable forms of self-abuse like exercise or watching the news, the real problem with being a low-key person in a low-key profession is that it’s often hard to find motivations that can withstand the darkest hours of the writing process. Where your more socially engaged writer always has an intellectual foe they’re determined to prove wrong or embarrass, or a object of fancy they aim to seduce with the words flowing from their fingertips, the loner writer (not to be confused with the antisocial writer) often struggles to remember why they’re subjecting themselves to torment when they could just as easily be staring at a crack in the ceiling.  Read more ]

Demystifying Authorship

I grew up with a reverence for authors. If you made a movie, or wrote a play or directed a play or starred in a play, that was cool, but if you wrote a book (fiction, and to a lesser extent non-fiction, but to a greater extent philosophy) you were somebody. Authors weren’t just artists using the medium of words, they were culture.

As the internet has devalued writing it has also demystified authorship in ways that I think are unique to the times. From the dawn of the first printed book until the public began expressing itself en mass I think a reverence for authors has been the norm. To be published was to be validated in ways that most people could only aspire to.

This does not mean, however, that any cultural stewardship claimed by the publishing industry was real. Far from it. Publishers have engaged in gatekeeping for no end of duplicitous purposes, and the people populating those power centers have never shown the slightest hesitation in abusing whatever trust the public placed in them. Where power, money and desire meet you can scoop cockroaches by the pound and never see the bottom of the barrel.

So complete was publishing’s power over the concept of authorship that anyone who attempted to publish outside the industry was deemed by all to have admitted failure. A painter could work in solitude, a musician could compose for an audience of one, a filmmaker could go independent, but to be a real author — to be a part of the culture — you had to sign a contract with someone else and give them editorial control.  Read more ]

Pandora Internet Radio

I have a love-hate relationship with radio. I love when a song comes on that I enjoy, whether it’s one I’m already familiar with or something new. I hate everything else, including songs in heavy rotation, announcers using compression mics, commercials commercials, commercials, and incessant announcements about many songs in a row a station will play before brutalizing me with commercials, commercials, commercials.

I have various writing moods, and not all of them are music compatible. When I’m in the mood for a backing track, however, having a steady stream of songs I don’t have to manage, and that won’t be interrupted by histrionics, feels good. I can’t say I’m more productive while I’m listening to music, but there’s something about music that makes it easier to find a writing groove, and particularly a rewriting groove.

I have a lot of music on my computer, ripped from old CD’s, but even choosing which tracks I want to hear can be a pain. I either have to invest time in creating playlists that go quickly stale or I have to choose something new when each CD ends. I know there are a lot of music options available to me over the internet but until recently I didn’t know somebody had solved all my music problems in a way that would leave me utterly satisfied. And all for free.

If you haven’t tried Pandora yet I urge you to give it a look and a listen. Not only is it a free streaming music service with no commercials, you can program your own stations by adding artists that define the music that station will play. The algorithms behind the selections are not obvious, which I like, but with a little trial and error you can easily create a station that serve up a good mix of artists you included as well as songs from similar artists.

My main list has about twenty artists on it — mostly late 90′s alternative rock. I’ve added a few new artists based on songs that were played outside my playlist, and I’ve removed two artists to keep the station from wandering too far afield. On the whole, however, I couldn’t be more satisfied with the result.

Which leads me to the only caution I have about this service. It’s been a constant in my life that anything I really enjoy disappears soon afterward. If I find a favorite restaurant it either closes or burns to the ground. If I find a favorite food item in the local grocery it is soon discontinued for lack of purchases by anyone other than me. So it stands to reason that by enjoying (let alone recommending) Pandora I am ensuring it will either quickly die or go to a monthly subscription price, at which point I’ll think long and hard about paying for it before deciding not to.

Until then, however, enjoy.

– Mark Barrett