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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

The Economics of Writing Online

“Failures in Self-Publishing” just went up on The Digital Reader, so now feels like a good time to post an elaboration on how to actually make money by writing online. (Scroll to the bottom for the other reason I’m putting this up now.)

As a person with many opinions but only moderate hustle, I’ve ended up writing for free a lot. Not just writing for free, but being published for free. I’m okay with that — I have a day job. I also understand supply and demand: personal essays aren’t scarce, so they’re not particularly remunerative. When I have been paid, the check was usually a pittance that amounted to minimum wage (and that’s before self-employment taxes!). I resented this when I was freelancing professionally, but now that I do it as a hobby, I shrug and tell myself, “This is what the market dictates.”

Price, after all — especially average price — is a number synthesized from the desires of the various players in a commercial endeavor. Customers want to pay less and merchants want to charge more. They agree somewhere in the middle, depending on which side has more leverage. Who is willing to walk away? Who is anxious to make a deal? If customers have many other merchants to choose from, the price is low. If merchants face a deluge of eager buyers, the price is high (*cough* iPhone 6s *cough*).

It’s not a new observation that this problem plagues digital media. Readers can easily jump from website to website without sacrificing anything. Publishers, on the other hand, need as many eyeballs as possible and therefore must be flashy and attractive, as well as careful not to alienate their audiences. Most website-owners are stuck in this game, straining to make a couple of advertising cents per reader. You can’t convince people to pay money for a subscription unless you offer unique, high-quality content, which is extremely hard to produce.

Writers have the same relationship to publishers that publishers do to readers — there are plenty of other fish in the sea, so unless you offer something very compelling that can’t be obtained elsewhere, you’re probably shit outta luck. Don’t get me wrong — there is money to be made in writing to entertain a general audience, but not enough for the amount of people who are trying to make a living at it. Incumbent media outlets and winning internet-age startups like Vox Media have flooded this territory.

There are several ways to deal with the evident economics of writing online. One is to be a typical professional from nine to five — in fact, being a smart and prolific blogger will get you a better job and a better salary than you would earn otherwise. It will also bring you surprising opportunities — I landed a copy-writing gig via Twitter recently. Good writing demonstrates key communication and analytical abilities, which are important to every kind of skilled labor. Does having a day job mean that you can’t devote most of your time and intellectual energy to writing? Yes. Such is reality. The other options are to 1) work for peanuts and write thousands of words per day or 2) develop expertise in a particular niche where there is a market for quality.

In closing, I would like to note that I owe a majority of the ideas in this piece to Ben Thompson of Stratechery. I highly recommend his blog and newsletter.

Additional note: I originally wrote this in late September and it was published on Samantha Bielefeld’s blog. I asked her to take it down because of this drama. Summaries of the situation can be found on Building Twenty and Analog Senses. I resent being duped and exploited, and I don’t want my name associated with someone who is essentially a fraudster. If you want to explore the whole brouhaha, you can read everything I’ve said about SB on Twitter (scroll down to September 25th and read upward) as an introduction.

Typical Writerly Ennui

Edit: Martin Weigert already said everything I was trying to say in his recent article “Write less while saying more”.

Illustration for Green Mansions by Keith Henderson circa 1930; via Thomas Shahan.
Illustration for Green Mansions by Keith Henderson circa 1930; via Thomas Shahan.
merman illustration
Merperson by Viola Renate.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post just for the sake of writing something. Now I feel weird about it. The itch to type and hit “Publish” was present and strong, but I didn’t have any intellectual substance to offer the world. (By which I mean you, my few and treasured readers.) If only I had the self-control to refrain from distributing useless thoughts. Even better would be the ability to conjure up worthwhile sentences at any time, on demand.

I used to think a good writer could make any subject interesting whenever they were called upon to do so. Now that idea seems naive — no person can competently tackle every topic, especially without doing research or interviews. You can’t just spout off and have it be instantly fascinating. Maybe there are rare savants who possess this ability, but I suspect it’s uncommon.

"Anita" - Keith Henderson Illustration for The Purple Land c.1930
Anita by Keith Henderson, for The Purple Land circa 1930; via Thomas Shahan.

I just finished reading The Old Man and the Sea and I resent Hemingway for being such a superb prose stylist. He constructs his statements very simply — never afraid to reuse a noun or a verb if he deems it right — and the result is highly impactful. I get the sense that Hemingway didn’t produce material just for the sake of expression. Maybe he grew out of the tendency, or disciplined it away. Maybe I can too?

Frustration & Resolution & More Frustration

I am victorious! I right-clicked on stuff and selected “Inspect element” and edited some CSS that I understand only in the most rudimentary way. At the end I had successfully reformatted the header/title of this website. I am more pleased with myself than is reasonable.

happy jumping basset hound
Me = perky basset hound. Photo by patchattack.

In other news, full-time work is exhausting. There are definite upsides, like being on a team, learning about a cool business — and let’s not forget making money. The downside is lacking adequate energy or time for my own creative projects. I’m definitely still figuring that out.

For instance, I’ve been tweaking an essay for Small Answers since… April? I just don’t have the wherewithal to follow through with substantive revisions. That’s not a good feeling. Similarly, I half-wrote something about labor for this blog that has not progressed the way I want it to. Blah. Hashtag grownup problems?

Mitigating Writer’s Block

Here’s the thing about writer’s block:

First you look at your email inbox. You read all the newsletters and junk. Open a bunch of new tabs. Skim the top two paragraphs of each article and save most of them to Instapaper. Try not to think about the sheer volume of “content” that you process and how you feel about parsing the deluge. Would it be better to slowly peruse just a couple of very important and thoughtful features? Maybe. But keep avoiding that discussion with yourself.

writer's block
Artwork by Drew Coffman.

Here’s the thing about writer’s block: You CAN fix it — by waiting or writing. Those are the only ways.

You cannot fix it by watching The Good Wife, or walking the dog, or endlessly scrolling back to the top of Twitter. But you’ll do those things anyway.

You can’t fix it by going to therapy, but you did that too. Maybe it’ll help shift the stuckness behind the scenes (the scenes taking place in your brain).

One way to wait is to make the phone calls you need to make. Send out some emails. Tally up invoices.

One way to write is to type up a blog post about having writer’s block. See what I did there?

writer's block, tapping a pencil
Photo by Rennett Stowe.

Self-Referencing To Build Meaning Instead Of SEO

points on a map, linked together
Photo by Cali4beach.

Ben Thompson’s tech analysis is recursive, which is one of the various reasons to appreciate what he does. Practically speaking, I mean that Thompson constantly references his past work, linking to previous pieces in every new one. He builds new arguments from old ones, or rather extends his past assertions, instead of constructing each article entirely from scratch. Smart approach, whether it’s conscious or not.

information linked together
Illustration by Elco van Staveren.

Thompson’s recursive writing provides a sense of timeline, grounding each new post in a fuller body of work. This gives the reader a sense of ever-mounting value, and provides an intellectual narrative as Thompson’s own positions evolve.

So much of the content on the internet feels random, contextless. Often, standalone pieces don’t actually manage to stand alone. Thompson defies this trend, and convinces drive-by readers to become dedicated subscribers, by tying everything he publishes to everything else he’s published.

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