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Welcome - The International Writers Magazine - March Editorial 2011
Guest Editorial by Sam Hawksmoor

Who Ate Your Digital Lunch?
Sam Hawksmoor


Making a living as a musician in a digital world has become incredibly hard.  No fat cat record companies left to fund your crazy lifestyle whilst you take a year to pen a few songs.  Either you are young and pretty and an instant hit on YouTube with the tune you composed in your bedroom, or you’re showcasing for nothing at every event you can think off to get noticed.  If you are 30+ and just getting started you might want to rethink this – urgently.

The Music Revolution began when everyone got used to downloading and sharing for ‘free’;  iTunes grabbed a large slice of the legal pie and yes of course some musicians make a great living now.  Most, I guess, don’t.

That same revolution is happening right now in publishing.  Whether News Media or Fiction, thanks to Kindle and Google everyone is getting used to reading books that are either free or dirt cheap.  You can read quality newspapers like the Daily Telegraph or The Guardian for free everyday on your computer or iPad.  I used to say to my students that if you want a job on a newspaper at least make the effort to read one.  Same deal with fiction – read a book if you want to write one or work in publishing. (You'd be surprised at the resistance to this idea).  That is probably no longer good advice.

For the record The Guardian newspaper lost £43.8 million pounds in 2011. Supported by the trust that owns it, it carries on making losses.  One used to read it for the big fat jobs pages in the Media Section.  That’s now just one page.  All the jobs moved on-line.  Not that many real jobs are actually advertised at all now.  Probably all hiding somewhere on Linkedin.

Many readers now pay to read The Times digitally, (I still read it in print for £1 a time) but even so, it too is losing money.  The Independent has never made any money.  Redtops, like The Sun, make money.  But the whole of News Corp is in the sin bin because of all the bribes it made to cops and others to hack insider celebrity gossip and one wonders if news in print has a future at all. 

The same goes for publishing.  There is a figure out there in the USA that the average published novel by a mainstream publisher sells around 10,000 copies.  (source Steve Laube Agency). Of course many writers sell hundreds of thousands, but occasionally there is a disaster and it sells less than a thousand, hence an ‘average’ is reached. The average for self-publishing I believe is around 300 copies (about the limit of people you know). There are always exceptions to the rule and you might read of million sellers on Kindle or Lulu, but this is extremely rare! But is it a career option anymore?  I ask because just as the reality of making a living from writing, either as a journalist or novelist, is rapidly diminishing in the digital age, the amount of courses in either creative writing or journalism at Universities are mushrooming.  I’d say by all means study but don’t ‘expect’ to make a living from it.

A case in point: I know a magazine published monthly by a group that publishes hundreds of titles every month.  They have say 10 one or two page features with lots of pictures and some fillers.  The maximum they pay is $80 for a feature, most times the writers get nothing but a by-line and are supposed to be ‘grateful’ for the exposure.  If they spend $900 a month on content, sell 10,000 copies at $5.00 each, you can see why the company directors are able to give themselves huge bonuses for mugging all those sucker writers.  Multiply this business model over 100 titles (for just this one company) and you can see that writers are a: not respected, b: considered fools.  The magazines make money for now and are rapidly migrating to digital versions.  The writers never get paid twice however.
(*Just to note that no one gets paid on Hackwriters either, but then again they never charge or make a penny from advertising.  Nor do they have a moat to fill with sparkling champagne.)

Right now I am very fortunate to have a new book out with Hodder.  They have done a fantastic job on it.  It looks great, has a nice feel to it and yes it’s available as an e-book but you’d miss the blue edged paper.  Of course the next generation won’t miss the paper at all and will think it odd that anyone ever read anything on dead trees.  Grow a forest, cut it down, pulp it, fashion it into a book, read it in a few hours, toss it aside.  Hugely wasteful.  Digital is better for the planet and millions already think it entirely normal (if they read newspapers or books at all).  My four-year niece reads everything on an iPad and shows me her ‘collection’ of books she treasures as much as I loved my print ones.

Some people think that future consumers of media matter (note I didn’t say readers), won’t interact with text the way we do now.  They may even think it odd that you read at all and let the book read to them in the voice of their choice whilst they do more important things on social media.  Linear reading, chapter by chapter, might seem absurd.  They may expect the book to compute alternate endings for them or dash off a character profile and story of a minor character.  Who knows?  The software will happily oblige in real time no doubt.

The trouble is we are consumed by the digital world we have created.  The incessant ding of another email or text message on your iPhone.  The constant updating of Facebook, the maintenance of your virtual social life dominates everything.  Just as well I guess, it might distract you from the reality of not having a job, or at least a job that has any meaning or validity.  As newspaper die and we migrate to aggregate news produced by bloggers – we might lose integrity, honesty, belief in the veracity of what we read.  Yes blogging is good, democratic, liberating even, essential in places like Syria where people are being slaughtered daily by the Government, but often unpoliced with dubious agendas and sponsors. There are many unrestrained voices out there, unmediated by legal niceties.  (Something that News Corp is finding out to its cost I think). I like the way RT uses bloggers to agument their news broadcasts for example but sometimes the views of those it airs are prejudiced and would be unacceptable on the BBC for example.

This means that if you want to be a journalist now you have to be self-employed, tied into Facebook or Google to get the ads to produce the income.  Say something China doesn’t like and your living might be snuffed out overnight (forever).  Fiction writers may need sponsors because advances will almost certainly disappear except for 'celebrity' authors.   Clearly I hope people order my book and it is very visible in many stores, so that's good. How does one become 'visible' in the digital age without a main street presence? A good cover of course, but is it really just down to being on Facebook? If we delete bookshops entirely from the equation will people still browse and experiment. It's what we all do now. Pick up a book, read the back blurb, put it down, try another. Digitally this is possible but is it the same experience and does it translate into sales. I usually come out of a bookshop with something, I don't necessarily buy when looking on-line as something else usually distracts me or it is too confusing. To be honest I prefer the coffee shop/bookshop exerience than looking on line but this may well be an 'age' issue. (But yes buy my book now damnit, even if you only need a doorstop). 

Luckily I never deluded any of my students that they’d get rich studying creative writing. (Although one crime writer, Quentin Bates has certainly done well since his MA classes are over and well deserving of it too, check out his Icelandic thriller Frozen Out and his new book Cold Comfort).

Which brings me to would I recommend anyone to study creative writing for a UK degree at £9000 a year?  No. Would I recommend you do an MA in Creative Writing?  Depends upon the staff teaching it I think and the price. There are some terrible self-centred lecturers out there who really do not care whether you will succeed or fail. Plus avoid the University or College that bills star writers on the course who almost never show up and will certainly never read your manuscript! On the whole, joining a really active writing group with a strong predilection to critique and reviewing published fiction in all genres would be better use of your time.  That, and joining groups such as SCBWI if you write for kids, as I do. 

I know people puzzle that I am not on Facebook or Twitter and it must be hard to fathom.  ‘Sam you’ll sell so many more books if you were on it,’ but then again, Facebook would own all the words I write, all the images I post, you can make enemies faster than friends and Face can trawl all your contacts and well ... let’s just say I don’t like what they do.  I was happy to hear there is new software that will erase the bits on Facebook you no longer like.  But how do you know they haven’t buried it elsewhere? *On strict orders I have actually put together a Facebook page, but even I can't find it again.. Ha! What a rebel.
The Digital world will swallow most of the professions, as I have discussed elsewhere in Hackwriters.  The reality is the creative classes are in danger, not from a lack of imagination or creativity, but actually generating an income from it.  Copyright seems so passé now, but without it we are 'just dust in the wind' (to use a copyrighted song). And if you can't earn a living then where will your pension come from? How will you get a mortgage? Dr Johnson would understand the situation. 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money'. If you are starting out now as a writer get a business plan first, you are going to need it.

Is there anyway to future proof your choice of profession?  I’d say no.  I notice that people rarely use cameras now.  They spray a scene with their phone and call it photography.  Nokia is about to release a phone with 41 megapixels.  That will be interesting (perhaps) and make Canon and Nikon look up. People used to hire photographers to do brochures, etc. Now you get a reasonable picture with your phone. Used to be photographers made a living out of weddings, but that too must be endangered. Ask everyone who was there to post their pics on line or YouTube and you build an aggregate of the best and have a digital portfoilio of your conuptial bliss in 24 hours. You can probably think of ten other professions on the danger list.

What this tells us is that the future will mean you will have several careers.  In future you will need constant upgrades and it will be very easy to get plateaued and hit some kind of digital glass ceiling.

The future might be dismantling our past and shipping it over to China or Vietnam.  Whatever it will be – it will be utterly different to now and all the things you think will happen.  Exciting or terrifying – you already bought the ticket, now enjoy the ride.

© Sam Hawksmoor March 2012
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© Sam Hawksmoor March 2012

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