On Writers, Professional and Otherwise

By Alan Caruba

One thing the invention of the personal computer and the Internet has done has turned millions of people into writers. Millions of blogs exist so that people can express and share their views on every subject on earth. Forums provide further opportunity to share one’s thoughts, if only to comment on others’.

I do not consider the 140-word limit on Twittering to be writing. That’s more like a Post-It Note, but in contrast to that there has been an explosion of self-published books. I know about this firsthand because I have been a book reviewer for fifty years and, for the past decade, have seen far too many poorly written, but self-published books.

Over the course of those fifty years I have been a professional writer in one capacity or another. After getting out of the U.S. Army, one of my first jobs was as a reporter for a New Jersey weekly. That led swiftly to becoming its editor because there was no one else around to do the job! From there I progressed to a reporter on a daily newspaper and, from there, a series of jobs, all of which required writing and editing skills.

In the early 1970’s I joined the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Journalists and Authors (formerly the Society of Magazine Writers), the National Science Writers Association, and was a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle. I cite these affiliations because it meant that most of my friends were drawn from a relatively small community of writers for newspapers, magazines, and of books.

I rubbed elbows with the nation’s leading magazine writers and authors, and had occasion to meet and chat with literary giants like James Michener, playwright Tennessee Williams, and others. For the most part, though, my fellow writers were more akin to blue collar working stiffs, turning out magazine articles to pay the rent or writing books that barely sold enough copies to justify the small advances they received.

At one point, some writer’s organization underwrote a survey of what authors earned from their books and the average turned out to be something in the range of $5,000. You could earn more pumping gas or even mowing lawns given the months of labor involved.

In September the Wall Street Journal ran a page one story, “Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books” by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. In essence, he found that authors are getting smaller advances against the sales of their books these days and their take on an e-book is pitiful. A hardcover book sold at $28.00 will yield $14.00 for the publisher and $4.20 for the author. The same book in an electronic edition will sell for $12.99, putting $9.00 in the publisher’s pocket and a mere $2.27 for the author.

Writing for magazines is not much better. Time was a professional writer could expect $1 a word for an article as the minimum standard and often much more if one had some measure of fame. A random look at what some of the top professional writers are earning these days suggests they are lucky to be paid at that minimum level. Pay levels vary depending on the publication, but it is no secret that both newspapers and magazines are suffering losses of advertising and other income, further reducing or eliminating any payment.

Long ago I got into the public relations profession and that afforded me the opportunity to see my writing in various media, usually in the form of a news release or a feature article. As news and opinion websites proliferated on the Internet I began to contribute to them and, in 2007, I started my own blog where my posts on anything that interests me are provided to websites and other blogs at no cost.

For many of my writer friends, it is writing of the kind that lacks any fame, glamour or excitement that pays the bills. Many earn a living editing the work of other writers. There are medical conference reports or scripts for business conference moderators that pay well. Some pick up a fee as speakers or, better still, as speech writers. Many teach—usually at the college and university level.

I cannot tell you the many times I have ghost-written commentaries for people too famous and too busy to write their own.

For the vast legion of amateur writers my advice is to find something more productive to do. The world is not waiting for your memoir or autobiography. Unless you have spent years developing expertise in some area of life and work, either demand to be paid for it or refuse to give it away for free.

As the economy continues to head south, writing for a living has generally preceded the decline. For publications of all descriptions, the plethora of free material has proved a godsend.

Literally for centuries writing has always has always been a very difficult way to make a living. You know only about those authors who actually found an audience and market while the countless others sank beneath the waves of exploitation and indifference. Many famous writers famously died broke. And drunk.

The song, “Mothers don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys” applies equally to the writing profession. And it’s good advice.

The Moral Lib­eral Fea­tured Writer, Alan Caruba, writes a daily post at http://factsnotfantasy.blogspot.com. An author, busi­ness and sci­ence writer, he is the founder of The National Anx­i­ety Center. Copyright 2010 © Alan Caruba