Two Editors Talk About Why Writers Write—or Don’t Write

By Jack Limpert

What started as a post about writers writing or not writing turned into a back and forth with another longtime editor. It began with this from me:
I had lunch this week with two very successful writers. Both have done lots of newspaper, magazine, and book writing, made good money, got lots of awards and praise, and now live comfortably. They do a lot of reading and like to talk about books or articles they might write. But neither has written much of anything for five years.

I edited newspapers and a magazine for 45 years, connecting with thousands of writers and working closely with hundreds of them. I always thought most writers liked to write–it was the life they had chosen.

Sure, I knew the exchange of money was part of the deal, but I still thought that most writers always would write, that it would make them emotionally and intellectually satisfied to write something they were proud of. It can’t just be the money.

Maybe both my lunch companions had become conditioned to a magazine or book editor saying,  “Yes, we’ll publish that,” and then they’d  go to work. If there’s no guarantee what you write will get published, if no magazine or book editor is willing to ask for it and pay for it, then I guess I understand what they’re feeling and thinking.
At this point, I sent what I had written to another editor, one who lately has worked on e-books, saying:

I’m not sure where  I’m going with this but thought I’d raise the question of e-books and whether one day there will be a market for writers like my lunch companions to do 15,000 to 75,000 words on a good subject and get paid a decent amount and get enough readers to make it worthwhile. Can e-books evolve to be a good marketplace for writers, providing opportunities to write something longer than a 6,000 word magazine piece and shorter than a 125,000 word book?
Here’s his reply:

A digital market has blossomed out there for short books or long magazine articles—that’s the world of Kindle Singles and Byliner, among others. By many accounts, that market is growing, bolstered now by smartphones. There are two major problems:

1) Marketing. Unless you get anointed by, say, the editor of Kindle Singles and your book gets selected to be featured, it’s hard to break through the vast sea of the Internet and get the attention that leads to sales. Every now and then someone does break through (far more common in fiction than non-fiction), but it’s rare. And at Kindle Singles, even if you do get anointed, it’s become harder to get much attention. Today the Kindle Singles best-seller list is dominated by brand-name thriller writers and an unknown comes up against stories by Baldacci, Koontz, Evanovich, etc., a wall that’s almost impossible to break through.

2) Advances are rare. Hardly anyone is willing to write non-fiction without an advance, and relatively few e-book publishers will pay enough even to cover expenses. Without an advance, you are making a bet that the cost (in dollars and time) of reporting and writing the book will be paid back in sales. It’s a bet with very bad odds as things stand now. The equation is slightly different with fiction, since the expense there is primarily in time. But I can understand why someone—particularly someone with a track record—would not be willing to put in two, three, or six months on a project with no certainty of a payoff.

In short, good non-fiction is expensive to produce, and we still haven’t found a reliable way to connect revenue to to the effort.
My e-mail back:

Very helpful, thanks. Pretty amazing how the Internet has opened so many possibilities for writers and now maybe there are too many of them willing to work for too little money. And, as you say, there isn’t any economic model that sufficiently rewards writers  for coming up with good non-fiction for the web.

My economic model in magazines was putting together a 200-page monthly with at least 100 pages of ads. Without the ad revenue, and with so much free stuff available on the web, it’s hard to come up with the model for a digital site that could pay writers enough for writing good e-stories or  e-books.

If it can’t work on a commercial basis, then maybe some universities or foundations would support a digital site that would pay for good reporting and good writing.  I guess that’s sort of the Texas Tribune non-profit model—a rich guy came up with a million dollars and hired Evan Smith and they raised more money and are doing good journalism.
His answer:

I have a hard time imagining that the rich guy model will work long-term. It was a wonderful thing that the Soviet empire collapsed and took Communism with it, but the unfettered marketplace is a harsh master.
Wrapping up, I’d point out that there are a lot of rich guys out there and some like to be in journalism. Michael Bloomberg made a lot of money providing financial numbers for Wall Street and then went into journalism and politics. Mort Zuckerman made his money in commercial real estate and found journalists more interesting  to talk with than real estate developers. David Bradley made a lot of money providing best-practices information to corporations and then went into journalism. The Allbritton family made its money in funeral homes, S&Ls, and television and now has made Politico possible. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos just bought the Washington Post. Savvy stock trader John Henry just bought the Boston Globe. Investor Warren Buffett is buying newspapers if they’re not too big. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is paying for Glenn Greenwald’s new site.

For editors and writers, the rich guy economic model is likely to have some ticking time bombs but working for a rich corporation like Gannett—the Wall Street economic model—wasn’t always so easy.

As for my two lunch companions, both great reporters and writers, they’re waiting for an editor to call.






Speak Your Mind