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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Publishing's New Slavers - Writers Are Revolting!

Writer's are revolting and tightwad publishers would heartily agree!  The romantic characterization of writers in film and television is pretty much a figment of delirious, underfed writers' imaginations. The truth is that, unless they are smart, freelancers can wind up little more than underpaid drudges. At Christmas time, the image of poor old Bob Cratchit springs to mind.

The Internet arrived on the scene to great fanfare in the late 80s/early 90s.
It was going to change the world they said.  And by gum, it has!  Fortunes have been made. New business, marketing and communications tools have networked ordinary raggedy folk to potentially everybody else in the world (except perhaps Communist China where they really don't want their people knowing what's going on in the rest of the world). Industries have been rattled. Traditional publishing in particular is trying to figure out how to survive survive in a world in which writers can publish their own books and take all the royalties for themselves. The music industry is facing a similar threat from indie artists who record their songs in their living rooms with relatively inexpensive equipment and computer software for their PCs.

I'm personally trying to figure out how to self-publish and market my own stuff. Traditional publishing is fast becoming an inbred, risk-averse cloister. Independent self-publishing is actually fairly simple and inexpensive compared to what it once was. The learning curve isn't all that steep even, but there are forces out there arrayed against us indie freelancers that make it difficult to survive long enough as a writer to finish that first blockbuster book and make it a success. The economy has been part of it as the tides of the 8 year economic downturn seems bent on forcing us back to our old jobs as Walmart greeters.

If people worry about illegal immigrants and foreign workers taking their jobs, they should try my line of work. Freelancing is now international. Writers used to earn their wings in the pulp magazine industry writing stories for a paltry penny a word and eating a lot of spam and oatmeal. This was back in the 20s, 30s and 40s when Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Dashiel Hammett earned a living writing stories for cranky editors at 2 cents a word. They considered themselves lucky to make that much. The worked hard and fast and learned their craft. It doesn't work quite like that anymore.

The pulp publishers are back once more exploiting writers!  Outfits like Demand Studio, eLance, Upwork and other "content" publishers are exploiting writers like crazy. Their writing clients post jobs for $4.75 and hour and demand "premium" writers and they have no shame about offering writers less than minimum wage. I had a guy offer me .003 cents a word today.  No, I didn't add an extra "0". That's three tenths of a cent per word. I've seen them offer .001 cent a word. A pulp fiction publisher during the Great Depression would have been ashamed to offer that rate of pay to its writers. But then, they didn't have access to the Pakistani, Filipino, Nigerian and Malaysian writing pools like today's slave-owner/publishers do today.

These shady operators can get away with paying semi-literate writers sub-sub-minimum wages to fill up pages that people will never read anyway because with the Internet being international, they can get away with it.
  It's a way for a foreign client selling in the states via the World Wide Web to beat minimum wage laws. These publishing jobbers have found a niche market, put up exciting sounding titles and then filled the web pages and links with flashy pictures, cheap copy, some titillation and a few outright lies to get people to click on the pages. It's called click-bait and it manages to make money delivering shoddy products. Then the page owners can bill advertisers for the clicks and pageviews and keep a steady stream of pennies coming into their coffers. They make their living wasting people's time pretty much.

A liberal friend of mine says we writers should unionize. That won't work though. Most of us became free-lancers because that way nobody could take our money and tell us what to do. I do agree that we need to organize and thanks to the free market we already are beginning to do so.  Bands of talented writers are even now banding together into writer's groups or guilds of writers and pooling their talents with editors, graphic designers, artists and other writers to provide clients with a reliable source of copywriting and to do a better job of publishing their own work. I think it's a really promising way to go for the future. Just need a little capital.

With the rise of the Internet we already begun to cast off the chains of the traditional publishing gatekeepers who used to send back our manuscripts time and time again
. As recently as the turn of the millennium, a brilliant writer like J.K. Rowling was turned down by publishers and told to keep her day job, because, they told her, "No kid would read a thick book like that."

Who knows how many brilliant books and novels have been lost because some prissy New York editor didn't like a manuscript that came across her desk? It almost happened to many successful novels like Rowlings' "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (12 rejections), or "A Wrinkle in Time" (26 rejections), "The Diary of Anne Frank" (15 times), "Gone With the Wind" (38 rejections), and Stephen King's "Carrie" (30 times).  Traditional publishers complain that the market is saturated and killing the book industry. And they are right. There are a lot of poor quality novels out there. There are also a lot of really good novels and books out there as well.

Nowadays you can publish your own work and Amazon will sell it for you. Bookstores are dying on the vine as a direct result of traditional publishing's increasingly flawed business model. Traditional publishers will argue that only they can properly market a book. The problem with that is that for the last 3 decades, traditional publishers have demanded more and more that first time writers do their own marketing and offered relatively little support for them, focusing instead on the big payback authors like Tom Clancy, whose own book "The Hunt for Red October" was rejected by 12 publishers before tiny publishing house The Naval Institute Press to a chance on him. Now that first edition sells for over $500 if you can find a copy. The publisher kept reprinting as fast as they could till they finally sold the rights to Random House because they couldn't keep up with demand.

A traditional publisher considers a book that sold 10 or 20,000 copies to be a failure and the author might pull down a return of a couple of thousand if he's lucky. He won't sell another book to that publisher, however. That was my experience with my only traditionally published novel. I didn't market my book for them very well due to some personal issues that were going on at the time which took all my efforts. I only made a few hundred dollars for almost a year's work trying to get the book published. And they approached me.

For an indie author, however, selling 10 or 20,000 copies of a book might be quite a haul since he's not sharing the profits with a big publisher who isn't really helping him all that much anyway. If I am selling an eBook on Amazon, for instance, I make 70% of the retail in some cases.  If I were selling an eBook for $2 and sold as few as 2000 copies, my gross profit on the book could be $2800 dollars. If I put out the book in a month, which is actually doable, I could live on that. That's a whole lot more than 5 to 15% of total sales. Not only that, but I would still own the rights to my book and it would never be out-of-print if I didn't want it to be. If I want to reprint them or to hook up with a print-on-demand publisher, I can make my book available forever. That way if someone ten years down the road discovers my book series and wants to read more, they can always get a copy and don't have to rely on used bookstores.

It's a changing world for writers and artists out there, but beware; there are still creepy Scroogey types out there who would chain you to a desk and limit you to one piece of coal per day.

© 2016 by Tom King

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