More Readers Means More Buzzfeed and How Work-for-Free is Inegalitarian

Writer says writing is dying–or maybe it’s just really hard to make a living doing it–or something like that.

I apologize if I appeared short in some of the comments on my post yesterday. I think a lack of clarity in my post, combined with a subject matter which most of us have already thought a lot about, and have developed certain opinions about, led to some confusion about where I stand on writing for free and the general economics of digital journalism, essayism, and blogging.

By way of wrapping up my thoughts on the issue I’d like to address a column penned by  at the New Yorker.

In noting Philip Roth’s eightieth birthday, Gopnick writes of the author that, “He was ‘serious in the fifties,’ to use his own coinage, satiric in the sixties, sober in the seventies, sane in the eighties, and became—with the amazing sequence of big late novels that commenced with ‘Sabbath’s Theater’—a kind of sage in the nineties and right into our confused new century.”

But from there Gopnick pivots to, “Happy as the birthday promises to be, it is hard not to worry that it doubles as a bon voyage party for the American writer’s occupation itself.” Having thus declared Philip Roth the last employed or employable American writer, Gopnick remarks ponderously, “The future of writing in America—or, at least, the future of making a living by writing—seems in doubt as rarely before.”

“Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away
for the naches. It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer. The strange anatomy of the new literary manners has yet to be anatomized: the vast schools of tweets feeding
on the giant whales of a few big books, the literary ecology of the very big, the very small, and the sudden vertiginous whoosh; the blog that becomes a book; the writer torn to pieces by his former Internet fans, which makes one the other.”

It is extremely curious here, and indeed stupendously important to note, how easily Gopnick is willing to conflate “writing in America” with “making a living writing in America.” He stops himself before the fusion can be completed, but in such a lazy and half-hearted way as to make the manuever appear less a sincere belief than an attempt at insulating what follows from accusations of over sentimentality and good-old-daysism.

Of course, Gopnick is certainly guilty of being late to the party, or at least sounding that way. Yes, a surplus of writing has made writing cheap. Yes, the Internet makes old revenue models difficult or completely unmanageable. But it’s the present, it will probably be the future, so best to get on with things; the sooner people like Gopnick stop getting paid to utter unoriginal and stale thoughts on the matter at the New Yorker, the better.

Yet when he notes the explosion in reading, and its necessary vulgarization as a result, I think he touches on an understated aspect of the writing market.

“Count the Proust groups out there, looking at one another, suspiciously eying the others’ translations. Consider the David Foster Wallace-ites, with their enormous, personally annotated texts and inextinguishable passion for their poet. Every novelist needs a circle—the Browning Society, the Austenites, the Dickens Fellowship—and nothing is better than social media for building one. The Brits protest the vulgarity and the hype of the Man Booker Prize, but that a literary prize—given, on the whole, to good books, including Roth’s, in 2011—can still command enough attention to become vulgar is itself a thing to marvel at.”

As far as I can tell the Internet has done two big things for writing, (1) erase the physical barriers to creation and distribution, shoving aside slowly but forcefully the old-guard and established gatekeepers, and (2) diminished, proportionally, the total available money for funding such projects (given how many of them there are).

This means dramatically more competition, which is fine, but also dramatically fewer financial resources. More money than ever is spent on trying to find out HOW to make money in publishing, even as less of it is available for the writing itself. I don’t think this hypermarketization for writing is “good” (relativists, please hold your questions till the end!)

In fact, I think it’s bad in so far as it encourages everyone to iterate on the Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Drudge Repot models. I think it’s bad in so far as publishers search for the next Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey rather than taking chances on lots of different kinds of books, experimental and traditiona, genre and “literature,” and so on. I think it’s bad in so far as there are less resources for original reporting, even original blogging, than there are for aggregation and combing Reddit. I think it’s bad in so far as it excludes those from impoverished backgrounds, especially many minorities, from taking part.

However, I don’t think any single code of ethics or business pratice will fix that. My criticism yesterday was more of the individuals involved, and the ethos that pervaded their reactions and rebuttals, than the inevitablity that none of them have an answer in the end; a solution to the problem of how to pay for BOTH important writing and fun writing, serious writing and entertaining writing (rather than 90% GIFs and “Girls” recaps, and only 10%0 James Fallows cover stories).

And in so far as the Atlantic and other websites’ practices are exploitative, the issue isn’t one of getting paid but of equalizing the risk and the costs. The League is a social endeavor. We write for (I think in many cases) ourselves, one another, and anyone interested in good conversation and sulpherous stimulating debate. The Atlantic publishes to make money, not just to sustain itself and its quality, but to turn a profit (sometimes to the detriment of quality), the rewards of which are given to some people, and the costs extracted from others, without complete overlap between those two groups. That’s what is devious.

Imagine, for example, the Atlantic takes a chance on some young writer, for no pay (read minimum downside), and her piece explodes–100k page views and so on–and the Atlantic sees that upside. Clearly in that instance the company, if they did not let the young writer share in that upside, would be similar to investment firms which all too often realize large profits even as the risk involved is carried by public citizens. But in those scenarios the biggest losers tend not to always be the general taxpayer, but the smaller banks in competition with the larger ones. They are not bailed out and never will be.

I don’t think the Atlantic and other institutions should pay everyone who writes for them–I think they shouldn’t have people write for them (willing or not) who they can’t pay. Buzz might be good for the individual but working for only that makes everyone involved worse off in the long run; the work for free prestige model might help a few people, but it hurts many, many more.

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23 thoughts on “More Readers Means More Buzzfeed and How Work-for-Free is Inegalitarian

  1. I’d think, in your exploding author example, that she would reap significant benefit in that the Atlantic and other publications would be paying serious attention and considering hiring her. That prospect presumably would have been cut off if she had never had the option of being published on the Atlantic at all.

    Another quibble I have; you seem to think that if institutions paid everyone who wrote for them that people would get the same opportunities that they get now. I’d protest that if the institution is having to shell out dough for their content then they’d be even more strongly inclined to go with tried and tested authors and content methods leaving the new, untried and untested authors frozen out in the blog wilderness.

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    • “I’d think, in your exploding author example, that she would reap significant benefit in that the Atlantic and other publications would be paying serious attention and considering hiring her.”

      Can you think of ANY reason why the Atlantic, in that example, shouldn’t just offer an amount of money if certain benchmarks are surpassed? Regardless of whether you think she’s getting equal value already.

      “Another quibble I have; you seem to think that if institutions paid everyone who wrote for them that people would get the same opportunities that they get now.”

      As the opportunities they get right now are unpaid, I don’t see there being a huge difference. The point I made above is that exposure will help a handful of people, but not the majority of bloggers/amture writers, most especially the poor ones who can’t afford it, literally, because they need to eat and live somewhere.

      I am by no means in that group. I have a good paying job that gives me a decent amont of time to still write if and when I write, and with ample room to work at trying to spin that off. I also recognize though that I am a rareity in that regard. And I don’t see how the FTP model levels the playing field in any meaninful sense.

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      • Well -I- certainly think The Atlantic might be well advised to have a slot or slots that are “we won’t pay you but if you manage to write a smash hit we’ll tip you a cash payment” spot. Sounds plausible to me. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that a reason The Atlantic doesn’t have such an option on offer is that they are deluged with offers from writers to put content up for free. If you are The Atlantic and your issue is not “finding writing to print” but rather “sorting the gold nuggets out of the dross in our submissions box” then the last thing you’d want to do is encourage even more submissions.

        I’m also probably too neoliberalish in inclination for this conversation but the idea of a person who has the mental capacities to write interesting professional prose not being able to support themselves with some side job AND find time to write is ludicrous. A single author with a studio apartment and no kids could probably keep themselves in rent, internet money and ramen on a waiting job or working thirty hours a week at Starbucks. Plenty of time for writing there. Some people like to do nothing but write and would like to make a living doing it? That’s awesome, I’d like to play board games and video games, watch TV, debate on the internet and make a living doing it. It seems we both have the same problem; finding someone who’ll pay us to do what we want to do. My solution was to find a job I didn’t loathe and then do my favored activities in my free time *cough* (mostly).

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    • “Another quibble I have; you seem to think that if institutions paid everyone who wrote for them that people would get the same opportunities that they get now.”

      Actually, I’m not sure you need to go to the theoretical to answer that question.

      Back before the internet, when the Atlantic (and every other magazine) was print-only and paid everyone for every word that was in their magazine, do you think they gave opportunities to young, unknown writers?

      Or do you think that, with a finite budget and a desire to get people to buy, they instead only paid a small stable of very established, big-name free-lance writers over and over – say, paying Steven King for a short story or two and five essays every year?

      As someone who was a subscriber throughout the 80s, I can tell you what I think they did.

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  2. Could they offer the writer x percent of the revenue generated by the article? That should reduce the concerns about making a profit out of free work (which I agree with), while allowing for the reality of the market.

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  3. Maybe what it means is that in the future, everyone will be a writer…as a hobby. There will be a very few “professional writers” who are as much celebrity figures as they are writers, in much the manner of current professional sports players. Having them “co-write” with you on a book will be a status symbol.

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    • Actually, now that I think about it, pro sports is maybe the best model for where this will go. There will be untold millions of hobbyists who might get paid a little for what they do, but strictly as a sideline; and there will be a few pro “teams” who write for website/magazine/newsfeeds. And the primary purpose of these teams will be to exist as a team. The actual content will be valuable only in the moment of production; there will be occasional claims that it has value afterward, but nobody will really take that seriously.

      The only real divergence will be single authors, who will evolve into a sort of “team” with a single player and thousands of owners.

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  4. I think I made a hash of trying to unmake yesterday’s hash. Oh well.

    I agree with Matty and Jim above. Writers should be paid a %, even if that’s pennies–there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be feasible.

    Two, I do think everyone will write as a hobby (well not EVERYONE). But everyone who wants to, and that won’t be a bad thing, and it will elevate what it means to be a hobby, since there will be plenty of people who are much better at it than other (this is obviously already the case). I dream of an age in which the means of product allow people to grind work for a 1/3 of the work day, community support work for another 1/3 work day, and whatever they please for the remainder.

    Clearly that’s untenable horshit though. Or something. Population grows faster than productivity.

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  5. Also has anyone noticed that Freddie’s occasional musings on everyone having a guaranteed minimum income is functionally almost identical to libertarian ponderings on a negative income tax?

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