The Trials And Tribulations Of The Modern Day Writer

I’m not here to predict the future for you penmonkeys.

Were I to predict such a future, I would suggest that in the next 10 years, we will all be hunted down by self-aware Verbo-Bots and Publispiders, crass automatons who seek to harvest our brains for the words they contain. The Publispiders pin us to the wall while the Verbo-Bots stomp up and trepan our skulls with a whirring drill. We smell our hair and bone burning. When the hole is complete, the robot penetrates our brain-space with some surgical tubing, then milks our minds of our delicate fictions. Then, just to be an asshole, the Publispider plants its robot babies in our colons.

You can see why I’m not allowed to predict the future.

What I can do, however, is ruminate frothily on the rigors of the present, which is exactly what I’ll do now. See, things are different for the writer these days. It’s a brave new world full of great reward and buzzsaw peril — step correctly and you’ll have laurels heaped upon your head, but step poorly and you’ll find your balls cut off with a garden trowel.

Let us then examine the state of affairs for the Penmonkeys Of Today.

Write More, Word Slave

*crack of lash*

Gone are the days when the writer could focus on her novel career and put out one book every year — at least, gone are those days for writers who want to accept “writer” as the day job.

Advances are down. Per-words on freelance and short story markets have dipped. Some markets are outright gone. Takes a while to get published, too. Point being, it’s getting tougher to “earn out” as a full-time writer — or, rather, tougher for those only focusing on a single path through the jungley word-tangle.

Sure, you’ve got self-publishing (and we’ll talk about that 800-lb mecha-gorilla in the room in just one sec), but to really succeed at self-publishing it seems right now that your best bet is to paint with a shotgun: you’re not served by posting one book and walking away but posting a book or project (or product, if you can stand that word) every couple months.

This makes the writer both honeybee and Great White Shark. First, you gotta be the worker bee and dance for your dinner — you want the honey, you’d better shake that buzzer of yours, buddy. Second, in what is becoming a probably overused metaphor, sharks must swim forward or drown, and so too must the writer be ever moving onto the next thing lest he sink into a fetid morass of bankruptcy.

Actually, let’s just hybridize that and say that it makes the writer the Great White Honeyshark.

Agreed? Agreed.

(Mmm. Honeyshark. Sounds like a delicious breakfast cereal. The fin stays crunchy in milk!)

Writers must produce. And produce. And produce. ABW: “Always Be Writing.” (PICK. THAT COFFEE. UP. Coffee is for writers only.) One book a year? Psssh. No. Focus only on novels? Not likely. Writers are no longer as free to work in a single sphere of writerly existence. Get used to writing short, long, script, game, non-fiction, etc. Be many-headed. Like the hydra. (The Great White Honey-Hydra?)

Now, this is a double-headed dildo axe. It fucks cuts both ways.

On the one hand, I kinda like it. I like that the writer is a worker. It means the craftsmen, the producers, the truly capable, will survive. Do work. Live to fight another day.

On the other hand, if we assume a slippery slope (and I always do, one lubricated with Astroglide and the tears of my enemies), then we can see where the profession of “writer” is becoming more and more watered down so much so that, in a few years, it’s going to earn less respect and fewer shekels than before. And trust me, the last thing we need is less respect. Last week, a homeless guy peed on me.

The Writing Life: Now With Actual Choice!

I don’t need to expound too much on this point, but know that the last year has seen an alarmingly fast shift in terms of self-publishing. That shift has been almost uniformly positive — the rise of e-readers and the market dominance of Amazon (who, like its namesake, is now the tallest meanest warrior-queen in the room) has really changed the game. The fact that capable, talented, and serious writers are going in that direction is a telling sign. It’s no longer the realm of Pure Uncut Slush (though I assure you, that’s still in there) and is now a viable choice for writers.

Writers didn’t actually have much of a choice before, after all. Self-publishing before usually meant getting fleeced by some vanity pub. Now you’ve got real — and awesome — options.

A Septic Tide Of Zealots

Some would have you believe that this choice is a false one. And this is true on all sides of the fence. Over there, you have the Defenders of the Realm, those who carry the flag for the “legacy” publishers, who say that the only legitimate way forth is to stomp that rag-tag army of barbarians into the mud from whence they came — it’s get your book with the Big Six or suck a pipe, pal.

On the other side of the fence are the self-publishing zealots, a froth-mouthed cult of author anarchists who believe that the One True Way is to publish yourself — after all, it’s easy! You’ll get rich! You have control! Damn the man! Burn the gates and their keepers! Anybody else is a chump.

Be not swayed by such false dichotomies. My advice to you is taken straight from my own approach: do both. Traditional publishing and self-publishing (sometimes called “indie” publishing, but damn does that term get people into a froth) each have their own ups and downs. Do both. One for you, one for you. Legacy publishing opens you to getting your book in stores, it gives you a path toward greater visibility and other publishing rights and awards and reviews. Self-publishing puts you in the hands of readers faster, and also lets you earn money (sometimes good money) more quickly.

Don’t let anybody tell you your brand new kick-ass choice is not a choice at all.

You smell the sweat-stink of a zealot, call him what he is and shut him down.

The Men Of Many Hats

You’re no longer going to survive as “just” a writer. Won’t happen. The responsibility falls to you to edit, to find markets, to pimp and promo your work, to know what sells and what doesn’t, to network, to do all the sexy dances. This is doubly true of the self-publisher who now takes on all the responsibilities of a micro-pub: design a cover, put the book together, hire anybody who needs to help the book come staggering to life like some rough-shod Frankenstein made only of stitched together nouns and verbs, and so forth.

As a sidenote, I like that term. “Micro-pub.” Better than indie, which carries its own debate. Better than self-published, which is a term that sounds about as dismissive and masturbatory as a term can get. (“I just ‘self-published’ my seed into this Kleenex!”) Ahh, but micro-pub! One man publishing. Like micro-brew.

Yeah. I like it.

I will hereby refer to myself as a “micro-pub.”

At least until I forget I came up with that term, which is in about — *checks watch* — ten minutes.

The Diminishing Value Of Books

Price versus value is almost like plot versus story, in my mind. The former is the hard definition — price is the cost set by seller, plot is the sequence of events set by the writer. The latter is a softer, hazier thing with ill-defined margins — value is the estimation of the product, story is the overall narrative. Price contributes to value just as plot contributes to story: the lesser a part of the greater.

As writers, we’d better get used to the fact that the value of books — novels in particular — is dropping. Part of this is driven by price: some micro-publishers and even some legacy publishers have significantly reduced the cost of books and e-books. Many haven’t — but that’s why value is not equal to price. The other part is an assumption — however correct or incorrect — that digital content is cheaper to produce than printed content. (For my opinion: hell yes it’s cheaper to produce.) It’s why you see so many folks (like me) irritated when an e-book costs the same or more than it’s print counterpart. I see that, I get sand up in my swim-trunks. My balls get gritty with rage. Overtime, a pearl of pure anger forms beneath my manly plums.

It’s why I applaud the efforts of my publisher, Angry Robot, who has their e-books offered for around five bucks a pop. That gets me to buy those books. But when I see an e-book that goes higher than eight, it better damn well be an author whose children I would bear and push out of my urethra. See, but even here, a degradation of value: last year, I didn’t feel the same way.

For the most part, I’m all for the reduction in value — and, subsequently, the reduction in price. I think books should be cheaper. I want books to be accessible. If books are precious (and as a result, expensive), then publishers win, readers lose, and by proxy, writers lose, too. Further, I want books to compete with other media. (I’m waiting for the day a Netflix-esque online “library card” hits the ‘Net — that day will awesome in the truest sense of the word.)

Of course, once again it’s not hard to see the slippery slope slick with guts and lube: go too low with our prices consistently and that value dips. I’ve said in the past (to some scorn) that the ninety-nine cent price point (for novels in particular) helps winnow down the value of books, and I still feel that’s true — that said, it’s worth mentioning first that any price point below standard publisher price has this effect and further, and second, this reduction in value is healthy (up to a point).

Ultimately, what it means for the modern writer of 2011 is: best get used to being better business people as well as better writers.

The Death And Rebirth Of The Short Story

I see the short story market as if it were Schroedinger’s Cat: both dead and alive at the same time.

On the one hand, the short story market — as in, I send in a story, you publish it — is maybe not doing so well, at least in terms of writers getting paid. I’ve seen in the last ten years what markets will pay for short stories either flatline or go down — meanwhile, the cost of living (especially for a writer without a steady day-job) has gone (duh) up. Not the ideal financial direction.

You send a story out there, you open yourself to readership and in some cases awards, but a lot of times it’s not financially sustainable to do all your short fiction like that.

Where the short story is gaining life, however, is in the self-publishing arena. Collections and individual shorts for sale seem to be gaining traction, and that’s pretty great. This is where that dollar price point maybe has more traction.  A buck for a short story is a price I’ll pay and a value I like.

(Again, the advice of “do both” rings true here — take some stories to market, take others to Amazon.)

Lawrence Block has a number of short stories out there for a dollar, and they’re all worth it. So too with the short fiction of Tobias Buckell. Know others? Tell us about ’em.

My God, It’s Full Of Distractions

Sad fact: one of the perils of modern life is that we are deeply distracted. We are bombarded by options. And that’s true of readers as it is of writers. That means as writers are are in danger from distractions on two fronts: on the first front, our audience has an unholy host of entertainment avenues, and so we’re competing less with other writers and more with Every Goddamn Cat Video On The Internet. It also means that our own time can easily be flushed down the ol’ terlet if we spend our time, ohhh, say, watching Goddamn Cat Videos instead of writing.

I’ve also seen comments that suggest that self-publishing has not generated a Tsunami of Crap and that quality work floats. Which is a poo-poo stinky-faced lie. Self-publishing has generated a lot of crap just as it has generated a lot of awesome work, and I assure you that, having downloaded a number of self-published titles, I’ve seen a lot of shit work do well and a lot of brilliant work do poorly. You’re naive if you think that quality is a magical unicorn who will carry your wonderful work aloft in a saddle made of adorable, squirming human babies. Shit floats, folks. The trick is, this is true outside self-publishing, too. Again, you’re competing with Snooki’s book. You’re competing with Goddamn Cat Videos. You’re competing with this blog that you’re reading right now, which is a sure sign that poop is woefully buoyant.


Your Turn

As always, everything I say here is just the opinion of one penmonkey ook-ooking into the grave abyss that is the Internet. I’m only half-convinced of my own opinions on any given day, so I’m always happy to hear dissenting ones. Further, feel free to jump in with your own opinions on The State Of The Union as it relates to writers. What new opportunities and new dangers await in 2011?

* * *

If you dig on the apeshit crazy-face no-holds-barred profanity-soaked writing advice found here at terribleminds, then you may want to take a wee bitty gander-peek at: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY, which is available now! Buy for Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), Nook, or PDF.

36 responses to “The Trials And Tribulations Of The Modern Day Writer”

  1. Your words are wise, Wendig.

    But talk about distractions… Just thinking about this subject distracts the hell out of me. I’m in the middle of editing my novel right now, then comes the scary part, which used not to scare me because I thought I had a good idea what the hoops I had to jump through to get published were. Now… Well… It’s all so intimidating.

    I’ve always just imagined myself going the traditional route through an agent… I hope it’s not a pipe dream to think it’s still possible to achieve my goals that way. Any indepth advice you could give there would be awesome.

  2. I’m going bi-directional myself. As for writing, not my personal life, I have a book proposal in one file and a book cover and edit in the other. It took me 3 years to write my 1st book, so power dumping books every two months just isn’t possible. However, I’ve got a kids book in the works and a middle grade story in synopsis mode.

    I do believe the stronger, better writers will prevail, but they can’t be shy about self-publicity and marketing. Even traditional publishers won’t market your work; you’ve got to do it your damn self. That is the ungainly truth.

  3. My brain saw that last paragraph as “gravy abyss.” Which is where I hope to die by falling into at 90 after running from a jealous husband.

  4. Your posts always leave the rancid taste of reality in my mouth (better than some flavors I’ve swirled around on my tongue, but still … not delicious). Can’t a guy be free to dream a little?

    • @Garner:

      That rancid taste is good for you. Mediciney.

      Actually, out of all seriousness, I don’t think this post is all bad news. In fact, I think a lot of it is good news. The ability to self-publish without feeling like a schmuck? WIN. The resurgence of the short story? WIN. Even the decreasing value of books has — at least, for the moment — a pretty big plus-side.

      — c.

  5. A question: What about short stories already out there? Be they part of an anthology published by someone else or experiments produced by the writer, some already have short works floating around in one form or another. Is it worth it to push those works onto the Amazon e-store? Some might see the value in having those works in an e-reader format, while others might scoff and say “Feh! I can get this stuff for *free* elsewhere.”

    • The thing with short fiction is, you want to check to see what you signed up for when you published them (if with another publisher) — you should, after a period of time, find the rights reverted to you.

      At that point, yeah, absolutely, get ’em up there.

      Hell, IRREGULAR CREATURES features short fiction you can find here on the site. And I’ve paid a mortgage with that collection, now.

      — c.

  6. I always thought a short story at .99 is an interesting idea. I hated the idea of a book at that price. …Now you’re giving me all sorts of ideas.

    I also plan on doing both. And I think you’re right, producing quality products at a monthly basis does seem like the way to go.

    This post has got the gears in my brain turning. I like it.

    • @Amber:

      I actually had a little bit about the $0.99 price point in the post, but felt it distracting, so I cut it.

      But here was the gist of that comment, and it comes out of my sales numbers.

      In the first month of sales of my short story collection (IRREGULAR CREATURES, $2.99), I made ~$600. In the first month of sales for my book about writing (CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY, $4.99), I made ~$1000. If I priced both of those at $0.99, it would’ve necessitated I sell 2000 copies of the short story collection and over 3300 copies of the writing book. Not impossible, but certainly harder to sustain. And riskier — because if I don’t sell that much, uh-oh.

      I think that price point has some value, predominantly as a loss leader. You’re attracting readers with the honey-pot (because you are the Great White Honeyshark), and then once they’re there, you ensnare them with your tentacles and eat their hearts show them how awesome you are and they buy your other books which cost more. I’ve seen several writers publish everything at that price point, though, which I’m not sure is all that tenable. Then again, maybe they’re earning big; I don’t have access to their numbers. I am merely squawking into the void and my math may be broken. Again, like with anything here, moderation is key: you can price some things low, some things not so low, and see if a balance can be struck.

      Further, that $0.99 price point works for smaller releases (collections, short fiction).

      My suspicion is that novels will bounce back from that price point the same way we’re seeing apps do that. (In fact, just read an article about how people are now willing to spend more money on apps again, after a long free-fall in the perceived “value” of software-as-app.)

      Just a guess.

      See also: PUBLISPIDERS.

      — c.

  7. @Chuck

    Thanks for the added info! ….I sort of need to make an extra $500 a month and I know, I know, you can’t just put a book up and expect that sort of income without some practice, effort and time. But knowing that’s what you made first month gives me a whole lot of hope that I don’t have to take a second job that isn’t writing.

    I have a question though. Until what length should a short story be at $0.99?

  8. Chuck, have you seen Books Free ( It’s totally *not* free, bur it is an online subscription book lending service similar to Netflix for books. It uses media mail so it isn’t fast and it’s a terrible value if you have access to a good library you can get in the habit of using, but useful for people like me who really prefer to manage a queue online. It’s broadened the selection of books I read and introduced me to new authors because I’m willing to try almost any book if you don’t make me buy it. And I have ended up buying some of the books I borrowed because I’m a book geek and those new favorites just needed to be in my library.

  9. You’re competing with Goddamn Cat Videos. You’re competing with this blog that you’re reading right now, which is a sure sign that poop is woefully buoyant.

    I’d say it’s more like the cream rises to the top, but who am I to argue another’s self-image? 🙂

    (of course, if you were cream you’d be fending off more cats than mere interweb memes)

    Great post like always. 😀

  10. I was planning on self-publishing a type of novella that ties in with my current WIP. That way I will have something to list on my query letters when I start shopping my novel, plus my self-pubbed work will get my name out there more.

    It’s good to know that self-publishing isn’t the curse word (in my opinion) that it used to be several years ago.

    • @Chad:

      A small point — I don’t know how well you’ll be served by talking about a self-published novella with an agent. Some agents are savvy to that, many will not be. I’d still let your MS be its own sign of promise — that is, unless your novella does epic sales, at which point, yes, it’s worth mentioning.


      – -c.

  11. The problem with Indie is that it already means something else. That’s all. It confuses people, and the market, since independent publishing already means a form of small press. Micropublishing *also* already has a term that is used in the business- it means small-small presses who only do print runs of 200-300 or so.

    The catch is not using a term that’s already in existence, and since the publishing market has been around since Gutenberg, good luck with that.

    But what’s wrong with self publishing? I don’t see anything wrong with that, and it’s what you’re doing, in a way. I mean, if you’re concerned about respectability, why even bring it up? Why say how it was published? Just say it’s available on X and Y and leave it be. If you’re really going to ignore the zealots on either side, stay out of the debate entirely and just publish. Publish professionally, publish by yourself, just publish.

    And sadly, the ebook revolution is far from finished. Traditional retail stores still bring in the biggest bucks.

    • The thing about “indie” is, no matter how many panties are rightfully in a wad over it, it’s a term long been claimed by a kind of punk DIY aesthetic.

      I don’t actually think self-publishing is a dirty word, honestly, but it comes with baggage for many.

      — c.

  12. Sorry man, but that’s music you’re talking about, not publishing. Publishing it’s always meant for people like Soft Skull, Monkeybrain books, that sort of thing. Shoestring productions doing it by the seat of their pants. Indie bookstores are small bookstores, etc, the phrase means something *else* in publishing, has meant that for decades man, decades!

    People taking the term to mean something else is just confusing. I can’t say indie bookstore when I talk about small epub bookstores like Small Beer anymore because people think I’m talking about a place where people publish themselves.

    Also? I’ll buy indie as a term when we have more punk rock books. Most indie books are basically trying to hop in on a craze and get rich. We’re not seeing edgy, outside of the mainstream stuff as much as when you say indie music. Indie musicians aren’t trying to be HUGELY RICH OMG. They’re expressing themselves in a way they think they can’t elsewhere. I’m not saying everyone is like that, but the loudest ones are. The ones everyone links to, the ones coining the phrase indie, the ones promoting and selling and trying cheap tricks to get into the Amazon Kindle top 100 best seller list.

    People froth at the mouth from the word indie because actual indie publishers publish books outside of the mainstream, publish weird, crazy books that no one else dares publish, and they market it, and they try to get it out there.

    So excuse the frothing, but our underground was already here

    • @Paul —

      I understand what you’re trying to say and I don’t disagree, but if enough people use “indie” as their nomenclature, it really doesn’t matter one lick what the previous definition happened to include. I’m not saying it’s right or good — I’m also not saying it’s wrong or bad. It’s just the way language and terminology evolves. Enough people claim the word, then that word either has its meaning diluted or takes on another definition.

      And to be clear, music doesn’t own the “indie” brand. Or “punk.” I’ve seen it in game design, game publishing, film, and now in the overall publishing realm.

      All that being said, I do think we need to see braver, weirder books try to get published. But braver and weirder with quality, too — not just talentless fecal smears rebranded as poetry.

      — c.

  13. i agree the market is changing, Tim Ferriss and Ramit Sethi on Blogging Techniques and Self-Publishing vs. Big Publishers
    How Authors Really Make Money: The Rebirth of Seth Godin and Death of Traditional Publishing

    both tell about the same thing you do, and tim also points out that while self pub is good traditional publishing allows you to create a brand name because you have a team building that name.

    as for which is better? in my opinion neither self pub allows more freedom with less cost (if you know what your doing). while traditional publishing is more pricey BUT you get a team of people to build your name.

    im looking to do both right now im thinking self publish to see how people respond to my work (in the form of short stories?) then as my rep grows because people like, i can point out to a TP look here i have this many people following my work.

    that should give me cred to get published, so i figure if i need to get published in 3 months, i should write at lest one short story a week but im new to this so it all experimental to me.

    Well before i get to far off subject that my take on a sort of how too


  14. Sorry I’m seemingly slow to comment, I’ve been writing.

    Press Releases
    Editing manuscripts
    Editing Articles
    Writing Articles
    Taking Photos
    and writing Fiction…

    I am The Great White Honey-Hydra

    As a Detroit Native, where the will of The Big Three used to law of the land, I don’t believe The Big Six will live to a better legacy. Like the auto-manufacturers found out — stick to what your good at and crank that product out! Balance baby, balance.

    Getting ready to look into self-publishing options, but am looking for a road map. Got any advice there?

  15. In many ways, the publishing industry is now undergoing the same sort of paradigm shift (yup, I just said that *without* grimacing ironically or employing scare-quotes) that hit the recording industry less than a decade ago. And as happened there, the flood of new voices is going to wash up both diamonds and duck turds. Unfortunately, as Chuck pointed out, sometimes duck turds just seem to sell better. It ain’t fair, but it sure is true.

    The short story issue is one I discussed with some friends just a few weeks ago. I’m extremely excited about the opportunities opening up in this market. I love reading and writing short stories — it’s the “single” of the writing world, and I’ve got the attention span of a brain-damaged gnat, so bring it on, baby, bring it ON!

    Another great post, by the way. I’m sharing this one with my readers on Fuhbook.


    Johannes Bez

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: