Is This The Best Of Times For Writers?

Writers complain a lot. That’s a given. Over the last two years, I’ve listened to older writers — everyone over age 35 — complain that the new internet era will ruin them. Things were better for writers in the Old Days, before 1999, when — in their view — the internet ruined their writing lives.

When I ask what was better about the Old Days, they talk about higher prices for freelance writing, fewer scams preying on writers, and more opportunities for publishing books with respectable print magazines, newspapers and publishing companies. They miss having caring editors and solicitous agents.

I must have been living in an alternate universe prior to 1999.

The Bad Old Days: Writing Scams

I offer these writers the consoling thought that there were scams preying on writers in the print media era long before the internet.

Don’t they remember the self-publishing companies that wanted thousands of dollars and then did no promotion for their printed books? The print magazines that solicited articles and stories and once they received them by postal mail, never paid for them? The legitimate small publishers that did print and promote writers’ books but had so few resources for extremely expensive print, TV and radio publicity that writers received only tiny sales?

Am I the only writer who remembers the fake contests that writers sent articles and stories to — with ‘fees’ to enter the contest — and the contests disappeared?

The Not-So-Good Old Days: Copyright Violations

I also recall the copyright violations in which books and articles published  in  the print media were seized by other authors and reprinted as their own, or reprinted with the correct author’s name and no payment.

I remember books and articles that drew so heavily on other writers’ work — without attribution — that the new books and articles were basically plagiarized. Since the internet barely existed, there were few ways to trace plagiarism easily.

The Really Not Wonderful Bad Old Days: Payment Delays and Underpayments

Surely, I cannot be the only writer with vivid memories of legitimate print magazines and newspapers that delayed article payments for 3 to 6 months at a time? Big publishing companies that grossly underpaid writers and doled out tiny royalties?

Wait a minute! I admit it! Not everything has changed!

Current Era May Be The Best Of Times

Prior to 1999, very little about writers’ lives had changed for centuries. Here is a picture of an 18th century writer’s life:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Distrest_Poet

I tell my fellow writers that we are luckier than the 18th century writer or even the 1990’s writers — thanks to the internet, the number of writing venues has exploded. Writers can produce articles for websites while living almost anywhere in the world. They can find new clients much more easily than was possible in 1999 — I can’t be the only writer who remembers sending painfully slow article query letters by postal mail or waiting for land line phone calls to be returned.

And we can self-publish e-books, keeping a chunk of the profits and finding thousands of book customers on the web. I think this era will be an improvement for writers.

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Should Online Writers Groups Be International?

I run two writers groups on Linkedin.com that accept writers from every continent on earth. I have learned so much. As I have explained in an earlier post, I always envied the international writers groups in Roaring Twenties Paris, and my two groups have helped give me a sense of what it was like to talk with writers from every culture.

Some Writers Groups Exclude International Members

But I am aware that some writers groups on Linkedin.com deliberately exclude writers from outside of the US, UK, EU, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It is not mentioned in their group rules, but when a writer’s group consists mostly of Americans with a handful of other writers from Her Majesty’s Former Colonies Settled Primarily By White People — well, it doesn’t take a genius to guess that the group manager is “not approving” membership requests from writers who are not living in Certain Former Royal Colonies.

Some Americans Writers Circling The Wagons?

Many American writers are comfortable in those groups. They can complain endlessly about how writers  in India and other countries are taking away all American writing opportunities, lowering the standards of written English on the internet, all scammers, etc.

They view themselves as being able to ‘hide’ lucrative writing opportunities from ‘inferior’ writers on other continents and share them just with each other.

Writing Globalization

I’d like to suggest a different view. Writing is like other industries — globalization forces writers worldwide to compete against more writers than we did in the past. It has been a painful experience for many American writers.

But we are in a time of transition, and how this will work out, none of us know. There may be opportunities for more lucrative writing in the new era than we have ever dreamed of.

Doing the Right Thing Also The Most Lucrative Thing

I think from both a business and a moral standpoint that the smartest strategy is for writers  to reach out to each other and help each other and learn from each other.

Then, as the new writing and publishing internet era develops, we will all be armed with the latest and most up-to-date knowledge. And we will have contacts among writers all over the earth, not just in a few cities in our home countries.

I had a chance to test this theory in a meeting with a potential client recently. The client was intrigued by my knowledge of other countries and said, “well, we are looking for a writer from X country who speaks languages Y and Z fluently.” I was able to say, “I can help you find one.”

I impressed a potential client. For a writer that is money in the bank.

Internet Has Not Killed Book Reviews

For years, the major print newspapers and magazines have been reducing or ending their book review sections. I have seen laments everywhere in the traditional print industry about this, blaming the internet for allegedly encouraging a culture of non-readers.

I had to read many dirges by traditionalist print writers about the imminent demise of good books because there would soon be no book reviews.

Book Review Sites Increasing In Number

Popular online magazine “Slate” now has a book review section. I believe more online news and commentary sites will do this.  Websites dedicated entirely to book reviews are appearing all over the internet. In addition, sites like amazon.com encourage readers to post reviews.

Book Reviews Previously Restricted, Elitist

Far from being ignored, the internet has brought far more opportunities for books to be reviewed than they had in the past.

In the “old days,” say in 1990, if you couldn’t get your book reviewed in the Washington Post or the New York Times or some other large print newspaper or magazine, or in a famous literary magazine, your chances to sell many copies were minimal.

Print media reviewers could promote or destroy a book with one widely-read review. A famous book or movie reviewer had enormous and sometimes abusive powers, and was greatly feared by writers and other creative people.

Internet Has Increased The Number Of Book Reviewers

In the internet era, a book can garner many reviews and has a better chance of survival. An author can promote his or her book in numerous special interest niche websites that share views or common passions with the author’s book.

To quote the old Carly Simon song, “Anticipation,” “these are the good old days.”

Writers Groups: It Was Gonna Be Like Roaring Twenties Paris

As a teenager, a twentysomething and even into my thirties, I always sought a way to meet with many good writers from all over the world.

Roaring Twenties Paris

During those years, I read memoirs and biographies about writers and artists who were part of the international writers and artists gatherings in Paris between 1920 and 1939. I envied them. Not only did they support each other’s work, but they learned business and marketing tactics from each other.

I don’t want to overly-romanticize those groups — they had their dark sides of professional competitiveness, jealousy and romantic rivalries — but to me they showed that writers and artists do better when they receive friendly mutual support.

Personal Experiences

But my experiences with other writers in my youth during a stay in New York City and long-term residence in Washington, DC tended to be more like Emily Listfield’s 1988 novel, “It Was Gonna Be Like Paris,” in which a bewildered twentysomething artist is set adrift in the dangerous New York City of that era, filled with crime, trash and drugs, and ends up in a circle of artists and writers with very serious personal problems.

Some of the writers groups I met in that era resembled the bitterly competitive and treacherous 1920s Parisian art world of Ellis Avery’s 2012 novel about painter Tamara de Lempicka and her model/lover, Rafaela, “The Last Nude.”

Avoiding Other Writers

I did encounter writers groups in New York City and Washington, DC who had more temperate personal habits, friendly manners and who did stick to business, but many of them seemed enfolded in tight little cliques focused on competing against each other in ways that I realized were cruel and damaging.

Their “writer dog eat writer dog” outlook started infecting my own views of other writers. I became guarded and mistrustful of other writers and artists.

After a while, I started avoiding writers and artists. I gave up my dream of socializing, sharing and support.

Two Linkedin Writers Groups

Within the last two years, I have started two Linkedin.com writers groups.

I had participated in several Linkedin writers groups and been disappointed by the high levels of snark and cruelty in a few of these groups.

Other Linkedin writers groups were composed of nice people, but unfocused — writers mostly posted about what they personally needed and wanted, but seldom or never offered to help other writers.

I wondered if it was possible to facilitate a different type of writers group — one where writers stayed focused on finding writing markets and producing work, but where writers might also be polite to each other and offer helpful advice. It seemed ridiculously Utopian, but I set up two writers groups with rules requiring courtesy from all group members and encouraging them to help each other.

Never Any End To Paris

I was amazed by the response. Both groups have grown rapidly. Writers have said that they find the groups nourishing. I’ve only had to remove three or four people from the groups for rudeness or violating other group rules.

The writers in these two groups live all over the globe. Despite cultural and language barriers, they’ve been very helpful to each other in finding work, providing emotional support during difficult times and coming up with innovative solutions to each other’s problems.

I realized the other day that while I wasn’t able to time-travel to the bars and cafes filled with writers and artists in Roaring Twenties Paris — and I have not yet found its equivalent in my own era — in a strange way, my two Linkedin writers groups have partially fulfilled that dream. Every day I ‘talk’ with writers from all over the globe and most of us behave in a friendly and supportive manner.

In his memoir of Paris in that era, “A Moveable Feast,” Ernest Hemingway said, “There was never any end to Paris.” Perhaps he was right.

When Writers Go Over To The Dark Side

I’ve recently had some reflections on what happens when writers go over to what the “Star Wars” movies called “The Dark Side.” One example is treating other writers poorly in writers groups.

Mean Girls and Dark Lords

Some writers groups are wonderfully supportive and provide helpful suggestions for improvement; other writers gatherings create an atmosphere that can best be described as “The Mean Girls and Boys Writers Group.” The atmosphere is a lot like the cliques shown in the movie “Mean Girls.”

I don’t think being disrespectful to other writers motivates them to improve their work. Criticisms that are delivered with “snark” create doubts in my mind about the validity of the criticisms.

Some of the snark goes into realms that I would compare to the evil empire of Sauron in the “Lord of the Rings” — the exercise of cruelty simply for the sake of subduing others by giving them pain.

Mentoring Or Killing Off Rivals?

About a decade ago, I used to visit an online forum for newbie self-publishing writers that was mentored by a famous writer in a particular genre. The Famous Writer — let’s call this person “FW” — wasn’t officially running the group, but was given special deference during visits to it and listened to with profound respect.

Unfortunately, FW didn’t seem interested in mentoring writers who self-published in FW’s genre. FW seemed interested in shutting down all self-publishing attempts within FW’s field. I never saw FW utter a single positive word to any member of the forum.

Instead, FW, with the help of the experienced writers in that genre who were allegedly monitoring the forum, informed each newbie self-publisher that self-publishing was the road to ruin, and any writer who self-published would never obtain a respectable book contract from a mainstream publisher.

FW claimed to be protecting the newbie writers from unscrupulous vanity presses, but FW also seemed opposed to every other form of self-publishing.

Fear of Competition and Innovation

Ten years later, FW’s comments seem ridiculous — self-publishing, from ebooks on Kindle to Smashwords — is downright fashionable.

Sadly, a decade ago, when various forms of internet self-publishing were in their infancy, FW’s comments were taken seriously by many newbie writers in that forum, who meekly submitted to FW’s tongue lashings.

I finally concluded that FW’s real goal was to prevent other writers in FW’s genre from developing. FW had undergone a long struggle to become famous and influential in a niche field with few mainstream print publishers, where print opportunities were slowly vanishing as publishing companies shed imprints in this genre.

FW’s tactic of sending newbie writers to face massive rejections by the tiny number of mainstream print publishers with imprints in this genre would likely kill off the aspiring writers’ careers.

I later realized that FW was motivated by more than fear of competition. FW had built up a solid career within the mainstream print media. If newbie writers began exploring different self-publishing venues outside of that world, such as those that were taking root on the internet, FW might be forced to compete in a new, unfamiliar publishing arena.

FW did not want to enter the new internet publishing era.

The Light Side: More Professional and More Lucrative

In retrospect, FW missed a big opportunity. If FW had cultivated the newbie writers and steered them to reputable self-publishing options, FW would have built up a loyal following that would have been invaluable for promoting FW’s work in the current social media era.

FW could have pioneered new internet publishing options in a specialized genre in dire need of more publishing outlets.

FW could have made extra income by becoming a coach, mentor and advisor to thousands of newbie writers in FW’s field who greatly respected and admired FW’s work and position in the genre.

As some of the writers FW aided became good writers in that genre, FW would have been asked to do “Forwards” and “Prefaces” for their books. Innumerable other financial opportunities would have opened up for FW.

Fellow writers, let’s not become Support Staff on the Death Star, falsely believing that that there is not enough work for all of us, and we must shoot down other writers in order to survive.

Let’s recognize that kindness not only aligns us with the “Light Side” — it is more lucrative and ultimately better for our positions within our profession.

Freelance Writers in an Era of Digital and Social Media ‘Overwhelm’

Are you an overwhelmed freelance writer in the digital era? Baffled by the flood of advice on how to be a successful online writer pouring into your email inbox? Feel like much of the incoming information reads something like this:  “You Must Learn New Technology X! and New Social Media Y!  Write for Online Writing Market Z! Or You’ll Never Sell an Article or Book in this Town Again! You’ll Starve If You Don’t Follow Our Advice! And Our Advice Changes Every Month!”

If you are a freelance writer suffering from digital and social media ‘overwhelm,’ you have lots of company. I manage two writers groups on Linkedin.com and participate in several other Linkedin writers groups.

Many writers and editors in those groups have been ejected from financially comfy journalism nests in the print media within the last five years and abruptly transported into a frightening new online writing future where they believe that they will have to fight for pennies per word for the rest of their lives.

In their laments they resemble the protagonists in science fiction stories who accidentally stumble into one of those ever-popular “gaps in the space-time continuum,” are abruptly transported hundreds of years into the future and find themselves lamentably ill-equipped to survive in the year 2315.

Here are some thoughts about how to survive and prosper in the new era, gleaned from listening to many writers who are slowly coming to grips with writing online and managing multiple social media outlets.

1. You don’t have to sign up for every single new online writing market, digital technology or social media program. Honest. It will do you more harm than good by exhausting you and splitting your attention among too many new learning curves.

2. Don’t be an early adopter of new technology and social media. Be a little skeptical. Let other writers try out new niches and ideas, and ask them about their experiences. Twitter, for example, is widely and deservedly praised, but it is used by only a tiny minority, according to Business Insider.

3. Find out which new digital writing markets and social media have worked for writers in your specialties. Rather than indiscriminately latching onto every new fad, ask other writers and editors which Great New Things work to make money in your fields. Publicity is not enough – are they getting actual article assignments and book sales out of their new Google+ circle?

4. Try selling to a different online writing market every few weeks. Learn one online social media program and make it work for you before acquiring another one.  If you want to make money writing in a blog, read books and websites about how to make money blogging, research other writers’ blogs and then set up your blog. Take one step at a time.

5. If an online writing market or social media program is not working for you, drop it.  For example, Facebook works great for some writers and drives other writers crazy. There is no law saying that you have to sign up for it.

6. You can write for both print media markets and the new online markets.  Many writers appear to believe that there is an “either/or” choice that they must make, and have split into warring camps of traditionalist print writers and online or digital content writers. Remember, money for writing is money, no matter how you earn it.

7. Don’t let anyone make you ashamed of your choices. If you are now writing for content mills at lower rates than you were paid by the print media, ignore the catcalls of some traditionalist writers, who feel that you are lowering their payments and ruining the writing profession by accepting less money. You have to pay for your groceries, not them. Eventually, you’ll learn how to milk online writing markets in the same way you learned to get higher-paying print media payments, through careful study of your markets.

8. Review the examples of writers who have “made it” writing for the new online writing markets. These writers are not shy. They offer blogs, ebooks, webinars, and email newsletters. Take advantage of the wealth of material in a selective manner.  Whose advice resonates with your particular writing career? Subscribe to those writers’ blogs and buy their ebooks.

9. You cannot be everything to everyone. The writers who advise adopting massive amounts of new digital technology and social media programs are like the statues of multi-armed Hindu gods. They sell their services by becoming experts in everything new. You only need to find a few ways of selling your services.

10. Be patient with your panic, but don’t let it rule you.  Of course you are nostalgic for the days when you had a clear pathway. You bought a copy of “Writer’s Markets,” subscribed to “Writer’s Digest,” you sent editors your typed query letters, and, ideally, you got a steady flow of writing assignments. Remember waiting for editors’ replies by postal mail?

Now you turn to online writing venues, many of which have been in existence less than 15 minutes, and all the rules have changed. Some online writing markets want your resume and writing clips, and others simply add you to a stable of writers and let you compete against them. Payment methods vary from cash per article sent to you through Paypal to “pay per view” formulas more complicated than calculus equations.

Many online writing markets have the lifespan of a firefly. Some are legitimate, while others are scams with a captial “S.” At the same time, ancient and respected print media outlets are closing their doors in droves.

This era can be scary for writers, but if you are patient, you’ll figure out how to get the maximum amount of money from the new online writing markets, just as you figured out how to extract money from the old print media markets.

You weren’t born knowing how to succeed in writing for the print media. You acquired your skills through a long process of studying writing techniques and writing markets. Treat your transition to online writing in the same way.

(Note:  A somewhat different version of this article was originally published by T.W. Anderson’s blog,  Complete Writing Solutions.  Many thanks to T.W. Anderson for a chance to publish my original version.)