Why It Sucks to Be a Writer
Written by
Spike Gillespie
July 2009
Written by
Spike Gillespie
July 2009

Note: I write a weekly column for The Austinist. A few weeks ago, I submitted a piece that they declined to run. So I posted it at my blog. In truth, I expected any number of folks to tell me to quit complaining. Instead, so many commenters commiserated with me. The post got more hits than any other I've published at the blog. Since it relates to writing, I am reposting it here. To read the comments, you can go to the original post here. The other day, I got a note from an editor telling me that a book proposal I thought was long dead was actually being accepted. Good news, right? Wrong. Because they offered me $6000 for 40,000 words plus a bunch of photo research. I declined. It was not the smallest amount I’d ever been offered, but it was the latest in a series of last straws. Last week, I wrote a column for the Austinist that my editors declined to run. I am sad they made this choice, though we did talk through it some and I know some reasons they declined and I also know they are willing to sit down at the table and go over other reasons more thoroughly. That said—and despite the fact I know that the column has more than a hint of supreme bitchiness to it—I am going to publish a slightly revised version here. It’s long and if you don’t make a living as a writer (or, I should say, if you aren’t one of those people desperately trying to continue to make a living as a writer) it will likely be of little interest to you. However, if you know other writers, I am asking you to please point them to this post. I’m really curious to here, via comments, the many ways writers are getting screwed these days. And so, here ya go: Some days, my work is way easier than I deserve. I’d been mulling writing about how much it sucks—financially—to be a writer these days when a brilliant black illustration of my point fell into my lap. We’ll get to that in a bit, but first let’s look at the bigger picture. The Internet is such a curious beast—it has, in some senses leveled the playing field for people who like to write. Anyone can be published in an instant. But anyone with an interest in being paid for writing also knows that with the advent of the Internet has come a huge decrease in the ability to make a living as a writer. Newspapers and magazines are folding everywhere. Internet ads generate far fewer dollars than print ads. And as a result, those of us who used to get paid upwards of $2 per word are now lucky if we can pay the mortgage. Having been in this game for over twenty-five years, I’m beyond well-versed in the necessity of the Hustle, the constant pitches, the articles written sometimes lovingly, sometimes fluffily, often in haste, and nearly always altered by some editor that has his/her own ideas of how it “should” be. If you want to make it at this game, you suck it up. So whatever bellyaching I’m about to indulge in here, let the record reflect that I’m not an idiot. Years ago, a writer friend said to me words that have echoed ever since: Writing is a privilege. It certainly is. To be paid anything at all for what has been my passion since I was at least eight is just icing on the cake. To have had not one but five books published, though in total these have paid far less than a full year’s income, has been like hitting the jackpot anyway—because, by applause, how many of you can say you’ve realized your childhood dream? Excepting a few lucky years when I actually did generate enough dough through my craft to survive, I have always had to find creative ways to support my habit. Waitressing, bartending, dog sitting, nannying—I’ve done all these things and more just to be able to keep on typing. These days, I perform upwards of forty weddings per year to hang onto the house and that, I must say, was a tremendously fortunate career stumble as it allows me to spend my weekends driving around the Hill Country, mingling with very happy people and, if I want, eating great food. I also head up camps and workshops, which are at least related to writing. And this week, with my tongue only partly touching my cheek, I have decided to unleash my latest endeavor to stay afloat. In a mash-up between public radio fund drives and Medieval patron-of-the-arts sponsorship, from here on out I am offering you all an amazing pay-what-you-can opportunity!! Call me a whore if you must (and who among us is not a whore, I ask you cubicle jockeys) but I am now offering a plug-for-donations scheme. You’ll see I’ve added a donate button to this site. In exchange for a donation, I will mention you right here in my blog. Depending on the level of donation, I will provide anything from product placement (a picture of me and/or my dogs happily displaying whatever it is your company peddles) to birthday greetings for your grandmother or other beloved. Substantial contributions will allow you to negotiate—I will even entertain writing an entirely worshipful entry all about you, you, you if the price is right. Because, for now, at least until the Internet thing settles down a little, people like me, if we want to keep earning at least part of our living with words, are going to have to take matters into our own hands. We’re not going to get cash from the sources of old—publications—because they just don’t have it. Which brings me to the point illustrated I mentioned at the beginning. Despite the futility of the exercise, I continue to be on the lookout for paid writing gigs. Toward this end, on really slow days I’ll stoop so low as to peruse Craigslist for gigs, where I typically find “offers” to get paid $2 for a 300 word blog post—and that’s the good news. There are other “offers” of nothing more than “exposure.” Honey? If I want exposure, I’ll hop up on the bar and take my shirt off, thank you very much. A while back, I did see an ad that caught my attention. Trilogy, that local giant, announced they were starting up an online newspaper and needed an editor in chief. It’s a job I was semi-qualified for but not at all interested in as, I figured, it would be a forty-hour desk gig at the very least. No thanks. I did, however, send in my resume hoping for a position—consultant, columnist, reporter. No response. Then, the other day, I received a tip that the Trilogy project, known as the Austin Post, had selected an editor and was now looking for writers. I eagerly sent a note to this editor, Lyssa Myska Allen, outlining my credentials: twenty-six years of experience, five books published, national magazine pieces, column in the Dallas Morning News, commentary for KUT, yadda yadda yadda. Lyssa sent back an exclamation point riddled response (that should’ve been my first clue to something amiss) saying sure I could write for the Austin Post!!! In part, she wrote: Basically, you can write about whatever you want whenever you want, we're going to let the community reading the Austin Post decide what's good or not! Of course, I will have some oversight as the Editor in Chief, but for a seasoned writer like you I wouldn't expect much oversight would be needed. She included an attachment with more information, including the following: The newspaper business is going through a period of wrenching transformation. Over the last 3 years, total newspaper revenues have fallen over $20B, and industry icons such as the Rocky Mountain News have folded. An Austin-based VC is funding a new venture to reinvent the local newspaper business for the Internet age. Dubbed “Newspaper 2.0”, these local papers will combine great content with a modern, real-time, and interactive consumer experience - with a cost structure that works in the new economics of the online world. Turns out that the “new economics” translates to “no pay for writers.” Though they do offer, in a very Tom Sawyer gets you to paint the fence sort of way: Exposure! Traffic to Your Site! Visibility and Brand Affiliation! Oh boy! Really?!!! How soon can I bend over my keyboard and take it up the ass for another no-pay website?!! And how soon will the promised exposure net me invitations from still more websites willing to not pay me for my writing in exchange for still more exposure? Before I go on with my exchange with Lyssa, full disclosure: In fact, I do not get paid for the weekly installment I write at the Austinist. Well, I don’t get paid in cash. I do get those very things—exposure and traffic—that Trilogy is promising but I also get something bigger. On the warm fuzzy side, I get to be part of an actual community of writers and editors that joined forces to put this site together to be of genuine service to Austinites. Unlike, say, Lyssa (whose salary, I confess, I am quite curious about), we all pitch in and none of us are making anything outside of events tickets and some cross marketing. That is, we’re all here voluntarily and no one is exploiting anyone else. I find it hard to believe that Trilogy is merely undertaking their venture as a similar community service. I did ask Lyssa for an interview to discuss just what it is they are aiming for. Here’s what she said: I'd love to meet you for a drink or coffee and talk state-of-the-industry. Off the record, naturally. Let me know if you'd be up for it. I explained to Lyssa that not only do I not do “off-the-record,” but even if I did, considering I have to work seven days a week, I wouldn’t have time. Though I must admit, “off-the-record” being code speak for “stuff I’m not supposed to say,” I was fleetingly curious what she had in mind for our conversation. Lyssa wrote again saying, in part: I didn't mean to offend you by asking to be off the record, I simply meant to suggest that we could meet as colleagues rather than me representing Trilogy and the Austin Post. I fully understand the writer's plight--I've done time as a full-time freelancer, and as a magazine editor have fought for higher rates for my writers. Austin Post, however, is a different sort of endeavor, a non-profit built to serve a community. Admittedly, this chapped me. You see, I’d googled Lyssa to see just what her qualifications were. In a town crawling with writing and editing talent, what did she have to catapult her to an Editor in Chief position overseeing “the best local writers in Austin”? (Which, can I just say—“local writers in Austin” is directly from the Department of Redundancy Department?) Lyssa has a website: LyssaWrites , a couple of years experience writing for local rags, and a degree from Rice, procured in 2006 in history and religious studies. Oh, there you go. So, okay, I got snippy with her pointing out: …if, in fact, you graduated less than three years ago without a journalism degree, I would really question whether that counts as having "done time." I also noted that the info sheet she sent me says: An Austin-based VC is funding [the] new venture. I asked her to clarify which the Austin Post is—non-profit, as she suggested, or VC endeavor, as the memo suggested. She responded: As for Austin Post, it is both: a VC-backed non-profit project. Which to my ears sounds like a capitalist endeavor for its producers and editor and, sigh, a totally non-profit project for any writers foolish enough to hop on board. Okay, enough bellyaching. Who do you want me to write a blog post about, people? And how much are you willing to pay me?

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  • Nina Weber

    Yeeeees, thank you for sharing!
    You state things so clearly that I can really nod too, also in Europe/Germany, and coming from a different background (how-to books as writer and editor).

    It is maybe dumb but until this point, I did not realize that my current writing drama might be anything than just a series of bad luck.
    I am sitting here stunned from your post, thinking that my instincts as a paid writer (which have been set to "panic and desperation mode" for a few months) have been right.

    By now, the "Wikipedia-effect", as it was called here, has reached other parts of the book business, especially how-to books.
    An editor of sports and fitness titles told me off the record that their sales crumbled in a matter of a year. And not because anything changed at the house. The books were a better quality at the same price with bigger names as the authors and more media attention.
    The readers/buyers just moved from books to internet and to DVDs. The numbers this publisher lost never arrived at any other how-to-publisher.

    We are all pondering what it means and what we can do - for our jobs as editors and writers, for our "homes", the publishing houses.

    I have still not given up hope. I cannot imagine that people will be happy for long years to come with the overall (!) quality of what they find on the net. It will be like software maybe, where you can choose to use some freeware, but if you want it to work faultlessly, look pretty and be offered support, you have to pay a little or a lot of money, depending on who you go to.

    As an experienced editor and writer, a lot of what I see on the net makes my toenails roll up (as we say in German).
    It is free, yes. But at worst it is badly written, full of typos, unstructured, repetitive, smuggling in endorsements or one-sided views.
    (Content-heavy websites on the net are no different to what you get onto your desk as nonfiction editor in a publishing house. But you only accept for publication a small part of that. And then you hand the author and his/her text to an editor to polish the text together till it shines.
    And it is very much visible on the net and in self-published books that the instance of the publishing house is missing in many cases. Sometimes even just a second person saying: "huh? What did you mean exactly? That is not clear." - the most basic support an editor offers.)

    The same and worse are some of the ebooks that I bought in the last months. My first ever buying of ebooks that did not come from publishing houses, on blogging and e-marketing, from some "heavy-weights" in the scene.
    The looks of those books! (Plus the typos and missing structure, repetitions ...)
    It makes your eyes water and boggle. You wonder if they never bought a "real" nonfiction book, never looked at the careful layouting and typesetting.
    If I went that way, I would take money and hire someone else to look over my text (although I am an editor, but we grow blind to our own mistakes). And I would hire a professional to set my book. It is not as expensive as people maybe think. The typesetters and graphic designers also feel the crisis acutely.

    I guess most of those "internet"-writers who never had the experience of working with a publishing house think they are good enough as they are. They would never consider hiring a professional to help with the texts or the ebook, out of their own pockets.
    But I dearly hope that after a time people will be fed-up with meandering or faulty instructions, guessing over "here" instead of "hear", etc. And that then a good writer could make a living again, being appreciated, and that the professionals who so far made their living in the publishing industry will cater towards the authors/content-providers directly.
    Yes, I also still believe in the easter bunny ...