Monday, April 18, 2011

So That's What We're Calling It Now

A few writers have been getting into a tangle about how writers should generate income in this new fluid world of publishing. It started with a quasi-gentlemanly spat between David Hewson and Cory Doctorow. Hewson launched with this blog post to which Doctorow took to Twitter here to respond. Others chimed in--most defending Doctorow. I have to admit, the conversations and comments first baffled me, occasionally irritated me and finally just saddened me when I realized what the conversation was really about: most writers get paid crap.

Hewson and Doctorow discussing what path to success works best is a bit like Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga arguing over the way to run a music career. One cultivated his audience over time. The other made a nice big splash. They both ended up behind desks with enough to live off their writing. Lost in their discussion is that both their positions beg the question of publishing success: "I am successful because I am successful." That's not a luxury 90% of writers can argue from.

Let me address this whole "multi-stream income" issue. It sounds hip and sexy and new. It speaks to innovation and bold ventures. It's none of those things. It is, quite frankly, a tarted-up way of saying you freelance or have a day job and write on the side. That's it. Nothing new. It's new economy jargon applied to the same old realities.

Some will say I’m missing the point of the discussion, that juggling multiple jobs is a necessity if you want to write. But, I would posit that isn’t the real point. The point is writing isn’t a live-on career for most people--not because they don't want it to be, but because it simply doesn't pay enough. It hasn’t since its inception as a career choice and all this “multi-stream” talk is not about a writing career at all. It’s about paying the bills any way you can. If, in fact, you have to work other jobs and those other jobs make up more than half your income, you do not have a writing career. You have a vocation that occasionally pays you some money to redo your kitchen.

Calling it "multi-stream income" may sound sophisticated, but I can't help but feel it's snake-oil talk. You're not struggling to make ends meet because you work in an exploitative industry that doesn't value its main source of material--you're multi-streaming your income! Please, spare me the smoke and mirrors.


  1. As a professional musician who barely pays his bills for the same reason, you're preaching to the (but still quite attentive) choir. Maybe some day both of us will be lucky enough to join that 10% you refer to above.

  2. It seems like the self-publishing phenomena might be one path to writers getting the money they deserve, but there are so many open questions about it, I can't really be sure. The most critical part, of course, is how the hell to attract readers to even look at (much less buy) your book (or music, or art, etc).

    It seems like the infrastructure is there, in part. We just need some kind of marketing tool. And no, I don't mean Bob in marketing.