I never thought I would be doing this.
Back in 2006 when my daughter was born, the blogging phenomenon was already going strong. And I definitely thought I had a handle on it, that I understood what it was about even if it seemed not to make sense for me personally. I was a professional writer, after all. Why would I want to give my work away for nothing when I had labored for years to get to a point where I could get paid for it? For people who weren’t professional writers, the chance to be able to put their words and thoughts out there publicly on the internet, to have a platform (to use the kidnapped word now attached to that idea), was exciting.
What I didn’t understand at the time was how being able to “self-publish” was part of a larger societal and cultural transformation that would lead to a different conception of what it means to be a professional writer or a professional anything for that matter. I didn’t immediately recognize how large segments of us were being baited and switched out of formerly paying occupations by the new “Free” business model of the digital age that called writing “content” and writers “providers.” Or that unpaid internships would become the economic model for a whole generation of new college graduates who would have to work for free in order to later (they hoped!) secure paying jobs. Or that musicians, who once went on tour to promote and sell their records, would have to give away their music for nothing to create demand for live performances for which they could still, if they were lucky, get paid.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against apprenticeship and paying dues. When I was starting out as a young aspiring writer, my primary goal was to get published and read. Getting paid was the lagniappe, the something extra, for doing the thing I loved. At the same time, when a short story I wrote in college won an award that came with a cash prize, my joy was amplified by a vision of the next rung: I might just conceivably, just possibly, be able to do this thing I loved professionally. And when I actually did start getting paid consistently for writing, it was a wonderful and empowering feeling. I took pride in my achievement. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t write anything for which getting paid remained anything more than a pipe dream. I spent six years working on a novel that never got published. That was as pure a labor of love and compulsion as anything I’ve ever done. But I was also able to support myself during that time by doing journalism for magazines like Sports Illustrated and Esquire and Playboy. I considered myself lucky to be able to make a living doing something I was good at and enjoyed.
The first book I wrote that did find a publisher was done “on spec,” that is to say without a contract or the promise of remuneration, only with the hope that if it was good enough, someone would want to pay me to publish it. When it became the object of a bidding war amongst four publishers, I thought I had truly arrived. My next three books were all contracted for in advance. After two decades of hard work, it seemed I had established a firm place in the world of words, I had earned my bones. I had achieved the status that Fred Exley in his wonderful book A Fan’s Notes finally sees his hero Frank Gifford achieve, in which his toughest critic finally relents and says, “Dat guy is a pro.”
I was a pro.
Now, apparently, I’m not. The landscape has shifted. It’s not something that happened overnight, even if it feels that way. It’s a bit like climate change. The signs have been there for years. But nobody really wants to believe. For me, willful disbelief has been mixed with the distraction of fatherhood. At the same time I published my last book some nine years ago now, my wife gave birth to our daughter. So I lost a couple of years to parenting an infant, my balance thrown off by the mindblow of first fatherhood at the age of 51. I was not unaware that the publishing industry was in flux. But Ebooks were in their infancy, and the sense that something apocalyptic was going on didn’t fully register.
Now there is no doubt. Newspapers, magazines, traditional book publishers are all hurting. Professional writers, at least most of the ones I know, are scrambling to stay afloat. The ones who are managing best are either sufficiently high-profile to have weathered the changes, or are writing tons and tons of stuff for little or no money and raising their profiles so that the beleaguered publishing houses will feel confident enough that they have a “selling platform” that can justify an advance that will not hurt the dwindling bottom line. The average advance, by the way, except for blockbuster writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, has been steadily decreasing.
In his book Free: the Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson describes what is happening to journalists and the field of journalism in the digital age, although it might also be applied to the field of writing in general:
“There may be more of them, not fewer, as the ability to participate in journalism extends beyond the credentialed halls of traditional media. But they may be paid far less, and for many it won’t be a full time job at all. Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer. If so, leveraging the Free—paying people to get other people to write for non-monetary rewards—may not be the enemy of professional journalists. Instead, it may be their salvation.”
Whatever shape the Thing I Used to Be Able to Do For a Living ultimately winds up taking, this much is safe to say: the ground has shifted, and figuring a way forward from here, a way to stay relevant and not turn into a casualty has become the greatest challenge of my life. As Chris Anderson predicted, paid writing work has been much harder to come by, so I have recently been using my writing and editing skills to help other writers with their work. I even started a website, nybookdoctor.com, to promote my services as an editor and coach.
The late fifties (I actually just turned 60) are an awkward age to be making major transitions in the best of circumstances. In my case, blessed and burdened with the responsibility of providing what I hope will be a good life for my young daughter, the task is more daunting, the stakes are higher. So even as I undertake this, it is not without conflicted feelings, the sense that it might not be the best use of my remaining time. Not only is there no guarantee that the time and energy I devote to this will come back to me in compensatory ways, there is a very high likelihood that it won’t. But then the best writing I have ever done has always come without the expectation of reward. And maybe, despite my resistance to that idea, that is a good thing. What I know is that I plan to write in this space about whatever moves me, amuses me, pisses me off, makes me sad, makes me happy. Politics, sports, poker, family, aging, books, movies, basically anything and everything that gives my life whatever meaning it has. “Life has to be given a meaning,” wrote Henry Miller, “because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.”
As Jackie Gleason liked to say when opening his show, “And awaaay we go!”