Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Literary Reality Check

We're all wrong, sometimes. Some, like myself, are fated to be just a little more wrong, and a little more often, than most. You know, the kind of person who sometimes makes predictions about things that are, in the cold, hard light of hindsight, a bit giddy,a tad over-optimistic...

So what the hell an I talking about? Well, first go back and read this blog about self-publishing that I wrote back in 2013. It offers most of the context for this blog post...

Finished? Good. Now to the present...  

Last night I was talking to a fellow freelance writer about assorted writing stuff (OK, so it was an extended bitch-and-moan session, which is pretty much all that freelance writers are capable of when they get together) and he told me about an interesting story he had seen on the New York Times opinion page last month. It was penned by a guy named Tony Horwitz, who is a helluva good book writer (I've got his Blue Latitudes, about Cook's voyage, and have been meaning to read his others, all universally lauded) as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. 

Horwitz's piece in the Times chronicles his foray into the world of digital non-fiction, and it's an eye-opening read. In fact, I'd say it's a must-read for anyone considering (as I am) stepping into the world of digital non-fiction, which is a completely different beast than the genre fiction that makes up so much of the digital self-publishing world.

From the story

Five months ago I published a short book called “Boom.” Commercially it was a bust. No news in that: Most books lose money and are quickly forgotten by all but their wounded authors.
But this experience wasn’t just a predictable blow to what’s left of my self-esteem. It’s also a cautionary farce about the new media and technology we’re so often told is the bright shining future for writers and readers.

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.

The rest of the story details his long, strange trip through the digital publishing world. Like I said, it's a must-read. While I continue to believe that self-publishing is the future for a lot of writing, Horwitz's experience shows that it's just not yet there for non-fiction, and in fact may never be there. 

Why? Because it takes money to write good non-fiction. You can't just dream it up, like fiction (and to be honest and fair, a helluva lot of good fiction is as thoroughly invested, researched and vetted as the best non-fiction). You cannot sit down at your desk and create a good, engaging, non-fiction piece out of thin air, Google, and a few phoners (although I've had many editors expect me to do exactly that). You've got to actually get out and, you know, report things. Travel expenses, research expenses, the time invested in the piece's creation, all that adds up. The fact is, most freelancers can't afford to to write a non-fiction piece on spec. It's too much of a financial gamble for folks who already live on razor-thin margins. And with editorial budgets drying up faster than Lake Mead, magazines have never been less willing to give writers that needed upfront money, especially if they can find some cheaper, easier way to plug holes in their feature well.

It's endemic pretty much everywhere. Truth, especially crusading, adventurous, independent, close-to-the-bone truth, just doesn't generate as much profit as it used to. These days we like our truth to come cheap, packaged, and easily understood. Sponsored truth (I'm trademarking that phrase, BTW). 

I thought self-publishing would alleviate that, and hopefully it still will; the business model will somehow work itself out, writers will find paying, viable markets for their independent, enterprise work and we'll enter some Golden Age of independent journalism. The freedom to write what you want is great and liberating and all, but in the end writers still need to be able to make a living regardless of where or how their material is published and what kind of material it is.  Am I giving up on it? Hell, no. I'm still drinking the Kool-Aid, mainly because there are honestly no existing markets left for some of the stuff I'd like to do, and self-publishing at least gives you the opportunity to create your own market. Or fail trying. But when a real journalist as successful and talented as Tony Horwitz has trouble finding digital markets for top-shelf non-fiction work, it does give one pause...

And that doesn't even take into account the ancillary-but-connected issue alluded to in Horwitz's story concerning Byliner and its struggles to stay afloat. That's a whole other subject...(for a read on that click here). Takeaway? No one has yet figured out a business model to make independent digital longform profitable, for anyone. My takeaway is that while it truly is a Golden Age for independently publishing your work, we're still stumbling around in the Dark Ages trying to figure out a way to get paid for it...

Interestingly enough, Horwitz's subject, the Keystone XL pipeline, is something I used as an example of the potential of digital self-published non-fiction journalism in yet another cheery, rah-rah blog post from 2013. And yes, if anyone would like to help fund that particular journalism idea, I'm still game. Otherwise, I'm trying my hand at genre fiction and trashy, pen-name romance, 'cause that's where the real money is...          


  1. I think that the bullshit filters of most people will be dialed in more acutely in the near future. People don't want the cut and dry bullshit like you described in the TU mag post or from corporate sponsor shill pieces, but they also don't want uncredible opinions of bloggers who haven't made their names working for alternative platforms they do trust. I look at what Vice has done bridging the gap between news and, forgive the term, new media and it gives me hope that authenticity will merit it's own reward. I know that Vice is a far cry from self-publishing non-fiction, but it gives me a modicum of hope that a platform for independent journalism will be sustainable in our lifetime. As I stated above the problem that arises with being independent is credibility. If you don't have a respected logo above your story it's going to be put off as the bullshit, and you're not going to get paid. But if you have a resume with credible new media outlets I believe your self-published stories will net you some sort of living in the future.. At least I hope it's trending that way.

  2. I still think it's gonna get there (self-publishing). I just think it's going to take some time to work out how, exactly, it's going to do so. Until then, I guess we can keep flipping burgers, figuratively (and perhaps literally) speaking...

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