writing and the Net
October 9, 2007 9:10 PM   Subscribe

Is the net good for writers? "Now the web — and its democratizing impact — has spread for over a decade. Over a billion people can deliver their text to a very broad public. But what does it mean for writers and writing? What does it mean for those who specialize in writing well?"
posted by dhruva (39 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The other day I was looking on the net for someone to write short articles for me...200-500 words on a specific group of topics. And I found people willing to write (and apparently having some moderate skill at it) for $0.01USD per word.

Seems ridiculously low, but if someone is quick and gets the job done and they are in a country where the wages are quite low...it could help someone make a decent living.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:33 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

$0.01USD per word

So that's 100 words for a penny, 10,000 words for a dollar? Given the average novel length of about 100,000 words, that's what, 10 bucks per book?

Fuck me, I'm not going to be giving up the day job any time soon, am I?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:38 PM on October 9, 2007

That's a fairly bizarre group of writers to survey. I'd be more interested in the opinions of folks who write for general-interest periodicals or, dare I say it, publish books actually seen in bookstores.
posted by words1 at 9:39 PM on October 9, 2007

p.s. -- penny a word, eh? You do realize that you're running a vanity press, don't you?
posted by words1 at 9:41 PM on October 9, 2007

"What does it mean for those who specialize in writing well?"

I reckon the same thing it means for those who take photographs well, or who make music well. Whatever that is. Seems that a decade is still too short a timespan to evaluate what it means.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:41 PM on October 9, 2007

It's been a boon for people like tehloki who specialize in favoriting.
posted by Poolio at 9:43 PM on October 9, 2007

0.01 per word
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:45 PM on October 9, 2007

stavros, you might wanna re-read that. I didn't say 0.01 cents per word.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:46 PM on October 9, 2007

You're right, sorry.

Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:51 PM on October 9, 2007

stavros, I've never seen anyone get math so spectacularly wrong.

$0.01/word = $1 per 100 words = $100 for a 100,000 novel

However, if it was 0.01 cents per word as you seemed to try to be calculating, it would be 1c per 100 words and $1 for a novel.

So you're ... um... yeah. Math.
posted by blacklite at 9:52 PM on October 9, 2007

Still, acknowledging that I'm an idiot and was off by a factor of 1000, that's (assuming the airplane glue speedball's wearing off) $1000 for novel-length, right? Still kind of ouchie.

I recently learned that I've got a word count of about 660,000 words here over the last 6 years. Cough it up, Matt!

stavros, I've never seen anyone get math so spectacularly wrong.

You know the funny thing? I got my Bachelor's degree in Mathematics way back when, and a top-scoring one at that! We all have days like this, right? Right?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:57 PM on October 9, 2007

Funny how people equate a low paying job in a poor country with a decent living.
posted by Brian B. at 9:59 PM on October 9, 2007

Chillibreeze in Bangalore does just that. Farm it out to a stable of Indian writers. And one cent a word is Rupees 4 a word, so a blog post of 100 words is Rupees 400 - about half what big blogs in NYC pay per post which is $20 a post. Heard that was the rate for gawker media as well.
posted by infini at 9:59 PM on October 9, 2007

“I can say with some authority that the freelance writer is going the way of the Quagga. Well, at least one species of freelance writer: the public intellectual who writes for a well-educated, culturally literate reader whose historical memory doesn't begin with Dawson's Landing.”

Boo hoo. I think I've heard this one before. Where was it? Oh, yes, in Plato. About another new technology: writing. Nothing worse than the “conceit of wisdom” to generally screw things up, right?

What he ignores–at least at times; he seems to pick it back up later–is that “culturally literate” readers haven't gone anywhere. They're still around. It's just that a whole lot more people are reading now. In many cases, people who just a few years ago probably got all their news and entertainment from non-print media or from talking to friends, are now participating online.

Some print media has decided to chase this new market. (And why not? Many of them were slowly dying anyway.) Others, like The New Yorker, are actually concentrating harder than ever before on the ultra-literate market, and lengthening articles to differentiate themselves from the mass-market world.

As usual with change, those who can't adapt get left behind. But I don't think it's right to characterize this change as a devolution, convenient and satisfying though it may feel (not to mention how consistent it is with past members of the intellectual establishment when faced with change).

A lot of Sirius' piece seems to consist of ”well, there goes the neighborhood” sniffing, reeking of elitism and stuffiness. It's not a flattering odor.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:04 PM on October 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Oh, wait, now I am getting things spectacularly wrong, sigh, yes, $1000 for a novel.

Metafilter: yes, we are all on glue, why do you ask
posted by blacklite at 10:05 PM on October 9, 2007

A mainstream magazine will generally pay about a $1 or $1.50 a word for a run-of-the-mill well-written article.

Magazines and newspapers seem to be doing just fine. Just because they aren't printed on paper as much as before shouldn't make a difference. If you write good copy, you can get paid for it. (Especially if you meet deadlines.)
posted by Camofrog at 10:10 PM on October 9, 2007

yes, we are all on glue, why do you ask

I'm not on glue. But I am painfully aware of my glaring shortcomings in the area of mathematics, so I never leap into the fray when the discussion turns toward such fathomless mysteries as addition and multiplication.

But, what the hell, pass that tube over this way, man. I could use a sniff.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:15 PM on October 9, 2007

I write for the alt-weeklies and get about fifty cents per word, give or take (I'm paid by the article). I have a weekly column that happens every week without me pitching, which is what makes it worthwhile. If I had to deal with pitching and rejection for everything I do, it would drive me nuts.

The Internet makes it worse, sure. But, boo-hoo, poor me. Beats making french fries.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:23 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm with Kadin2048. This isn't going to drive out or submerge good writers. I think of the Internet as nothing more than the printing press redux: now more people can get access to the literate (or, in this case, those who use the Internet regularly) public - that doesn't mean that all the stuff that goes up will be equally regards. Catching and holding the attention of the reader is more difficult than publishing a screed, in any format.
posted by Anduruna at 10:28 PM on October 9, 2007

"A mainstream magazine will generally pay about a $1 or $1.50 a word for a run-of-the-mill well-written article.

Magazines and newspapers seem to be doing just fine. Just because they aren't printed on paper as much as before shouldn't make a difference. If you write good copy, you can get paid for it. (Especially if you meet deadlines.)"

Yeah, $1 per word. But I have a hard time finding places that want anything above 500 words at a pop.

And I find more and more places that would let me write about what I wanted to write about, only not pay me.

Which I why I have a day job.
posted by klangklangston at 10:33 PM on October 9, 2007

For what it's worth, I have been and continue to be paid quite well to translate and write copy for Tier-One clients, and, if it weren't for the Internets, I would never have got this work.

At the same time, there is not one chance in hell that I would go back to freelancing. It just seems so strange to me - why write for free or for next to nothing? I suppose short stories and novels are a little different, but I would rather make every effort to squeeze as much money out of my time as possible. Baby needs new shoes, etc.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:36 PM on October 9, 2007

Is the net good for readers? Hell, yeah.

Is it good for writers? Well, define 'good'.

Semi-seriously, though, this is something that interests me. I don't know about 'specializing in writing well' -- I don't specialize in much, and writing is something I do without too much attention to whether I'm doing it 'well'.

But I've always been a reader and a writer, and like so many who have gotten some praise for the way they use words, have always dreamed being able to do it for money as well as love. Or for fame, or the opportunity to snort coke off the smooth firm bottoms of young women. You know, the usual.

The one thing I've never been able to do, though, somehow, was go chasing the cashmoney writing gigs -- submit pieces, chase editors, self-market, all of that. I haven't got a clue where to begin, and even if I did, I don't know if I could force myself to do it.

A friend of mine here in Korea quit his dayjob a couple of years ago to pursue writing fulltime. He's doing quite well, but he spends 80% of his work-related time not writing, but chasing gigs. And when he does write, he's writing short, dry pieces on the Korean outdoors (or whatever else the editors he works with want him to write). I don't think I'd enjoy that much, even if the money were good enough to soothe the sting.

I've naively hoped, I guess, that I'd just get discovered and showered with fame and (haha) riches. I know, idiotic, right? But that's the way I've always found regular ol' jobs over the decades -- meeting someone, making friends, and hey presto! I'm gainfully employed, usually doing something I really enjoy. Maybe I hoped the same thing would happen with spraying eau de wonderchicken all over the internets.

But after 6 or 7 years of writing in public (more than half a million words here, apparently, and at least that much at my website), well, even though I've gotten lots of very kind words from people (even 'famous' ones) for whom I have great respect, I haven't made a goddamn cent from it, and am no closer to that sophomoric dream of Writerhood I've been holding close to my heart all these years. One offer for inclusion in an anthology that never happened, and yeah, some referral money for webhosting, but nothing tangible for the actual writing.

And you know, that's just fine, I guess. I'm going to keep stringing the words together, about whatever catches my attention, and continue to be gratified that there are people out there that derive some pleasure from the way I do it. I'd be so very happy to be able to make some kind of reasonably steady income from it, but I know exactly how rare that is, even today.

One thing that I've become increasingly aware of as more and more people write themselves into existence on the web is that my small skills are nowhere near as exceptional as I once thought they were. It's humbling. Everybody has stories, and far more people than I would ever have thought when I was an arrogant young snot are capable of telling those stories in memorable ways.

That said, any of you editors that are looking or gainfully employed writers out there that have too much on your plate, well, you know where to find me.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:49 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm finding the newspaper market for my stuff is tightening as the classifieds are drying up. And this movement is occurring in one direction only.

P/T Fairfax employee
posted by Wolof at 10:54 PM on October 9, 2007

Just my four cents.
posted by pracowity at 11:32 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Only glanced at the Sirius thing, but I have a few ideas on this:

1) It's not like literary writers--even very good ones--make much anyway. Yes, you can get an occasional piece in The New York Times Magazine or GQ, but very rarely--and most writers never do. The better quarterlies (VQR, Paris Review, Granta) pay pretty well (but all differently), but after that it goes downhill quickly... downhill to "two free copies" kind of downhill.

2) The entire industry--especially magazines--is totally upside down w/r/t to writing talent. The overall percentage of the budget at a place like Esquire or GQ or The New York Times Magazine that goes to the writers is miniscule. The Web is going to change that. It may not mean the writers will make more--but everyone else will, starting with the newspapers. I actually think that in a few years you will see a lot more group blogs that will be able to pay their writers the same as the better literary quarterlies, pay more often, and without the burden of running offices, hiring interns, etcetera.

3) I actually think the ubiquity of the Web is going to be a net gain for writers of talent. Especially ones who can sustain that talent over a period of many years: it's never been easier to build an audience, interact with it, and expand it rapidly than it is now. You know how many people read a given print issue of The Paris Review or Virginia Quarterly Review? Fewer than read MetaFilter, I'd guess, in about an hour. Doesn't Cory Doctorow give away his novels for free on the 'Net--but still sell plenty of them as books anyway? If you can get enough people interested in the expression and the ideas, there will be a large enough sub-set who will want to own the artifact. And it's not like, you know, the NY publishing world knocks it out of the park at selling the artifact: the average book sells something like 2000 copies. And of all the books published, only something like 5% ever get reviewed. Well, for the 95% of the people who never got reviewed, but can now go after specialized blogs (or: build a blog audience themselves), the Web is great.

4) You're already seeing (whether conscious or no, I have no idea) great responses to the pressure of the Web from the quarterlies: have you looked at McSweeney's, GQ, Granta (and they've always been great), or The Paris Review? They're gorgeous. You want to own them as objects d'art as well as for the writing inside. Between their reputations, their fantastic editorial sensibilities, and their strong design sense these quarterlies are going to be around--and going strong--for a long time.

5) In short: it's a tumultuous, but I think great time to be a writer and reader. And yes: I am a published writer with a book and by-lines in most of the publications referenced in this comment. After several years of bitching and moaning about it, I recently started a blog--and I'm loving it. I won't give up magazines or books--but the blog (especially the group blog/blogazine/whatever) is the way of the future.
posted by minnesotaj at 11:41 PM on October 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

"but everyone else will," is missing "make less..."
posted by minnesotaj at 11:48 PM on October 9, 2007

You all realise that you're being paid $0.00 per word for contributing "articles" to this website right?
posted by seanyboy at 12:11 AM on October 10, 2007

I protest by writing a bunch of shit.
posted by stavrogin at 12:15 AM on October 10, 2007

You all realise that you're being paid $0.00 per word for contributing "articles" to this website right?

I understand people are now paying to write for this site.
posted by pracowity at 1:49 AM on October 10, 2007

I understand people are now paying to write for this site.

Indeed! And if I were any good at math I'd figure out roughly how many words I've posted to this site, then figure out how my 5 dollars breaks down per word. But I've got glue to sniff.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:56 AM on October 10, 2007

This article wasn't so good, but the link in its sidebar to the five druggiest high school sitcom scenes was pure magic.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:04 AM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm a young'un who'd have never been published at all without my blogging, networking, and commenting. And that's just about how it should be, in a subjective medium like writing. Who the hell is anyone to say what's good? If you think it's good, you want to see more of it, and you're willing to pay for it, then congratulations, you live in an era where you have never been more enabled. I ain't pitching shit. Publishers stumble onto me, and I sometimes find them. This is the closest to the sheer egoism that writing is that the world has ever been. Booyah.
posted by saysthis at 5:43 AM on October 10, 2007

When you are a good writer, you sell the rights to your book for movie making purposes and then write for Hell A magazine.
posted by clearly at 6:20 AM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

What does it mean for those who specialize in writing well?

It means that their potential audience is multiplied by a very large factor.

Many people here (and in the article) confuse the question of "What does it mean for those who specialize in writing well?" vs. "What does it mean for those who want to earn a living writing?

That's a big difference. For writers, the Internet is fantastic, if only for research, practice, and learning (reading other writers). For professional writers, the effect of the Internet on the market for freelance writers is still too early to tell.

There's certainly money right now for freelance Web writers, but as whoever mentioned Gawker and newspapers noted, prices are coming down. If Internet advertising implodes again (which I think it will) ... the freeware/amateur army wil only grow stronger.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:04 AM on October 10, 2007

Writers shouldn't be paid that much in the first place. It's fundamentally unskilled, unproductive and dishonest work. Writers are the marketers for advertisers and most writing serves no other purpose than to trick readers into looking at advertisements. Advertisers should and will take advantage of the web to drastically squeeze salaries until writers are making as much as your average McDonald's employee.

I actually think that in a few years you will see a lot more group blogs that will be able to pay their writers the same as the better literary quarterlies, pay more often, and without the burden of running offices, hiring interns, etcetera.

This would be a positive development since the building and maintenance of an audience is much more difficult than putting words down on a page. If writers band together and transition from the word factory business to the audience business then we might begin to see some interesting media rather than the cookie cutter nonsense that dominates magazines and newspapers today. This need not even follow the stupid 'pay per word' and other up front payment models that reward timeliness and penalize risk. Potentially even a community site like Mefi could be productized if somebody were willing to take the time to mine out the best, package it up, and charge a nominal convenience fee.
posted by nixerman at 10:08 AM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Isn't this just the Pixel-stained Technopeasant argument all over again? (There's a good debate with the author here. (scroll allllll the way to the bottom - it's the last entry) He raises some good points.)
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:40 AM on October 10, 2007

Actually, this Asimov's piece is a better overview (and makes better sense) of the Pixel-stained Technopeasant issue.
posted by minnesotaj at 12:19 PM on October 10, 2007

“reeking of elitism and stuffiness. It's not a flattering odor.”

I’m by no means a writer, but I do read a lot. It is getting harder and harder to find decent modern stuff to read. Not that it isn’t out there. Not that there isn’t more of it. But given the cacophony of voices and the simulacra of “good” work - a state of affairs akin to the Dick story Second Variety (and the film Screamers) where you can’t tell at all a book by it’s cover.
And of course the demand for less literate, less eruidite material is increasing such that it’s becoming more of a legitimate taste for lack of subtext or reference and symbolism (Brawndo’s got electrolytes), just the single plane of action.
I talked to someone the other day about Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea.” He said “It sucked” I mentioned that it won the nobel prize for literature.
Of course, that didn’t matter and I asked what was it about the book he didn’t like. Too long, and you don’t know what’s going on and he didn’t finish it anyway.
I’m not arguing the merits of the book. I liked it, but if I didn’t I could probably say why.
I think for the most part matters of taste and simplicity - lately - overwhelm matters of structure and more recognizable literacy by economic design.
You can shill more crap if something is more straightforward and shorter. It’s even better if you can make people like it that way (bad money drives good money out of circulation).
Now I read everything from Chaucer to comic books. I’m not an elitist, but I am literate and I can tell you why I prefer Neil Gaiman and Peter David to (say) Dan Way as opposed to saying Gaiman rox and Way sux ballz!
At some point I expect all that to level off again though. As it did with literature and everything else. You’ll have your pulp section, your dime novel area of the net, Mack Bolan, Mickey Spillane, say, and it will be recognizable and you’ll have other areas.
Which I think right now is the problem. You get this “hey, look, Shakespeare.” Oh, really? Ok, what.. “PORNO! PORNO! PORNO! PORNO! PORNO!!” Ack!
At some point the outward symbols will re-formalize, for whatever reason, and you’ll be able to dodge the crap as easily as recognizing spam from the poor grammar or overused tag (Hey, buddy!) of the subject line.

But right now it’s sort of what Cervantes went thru. Everyone and their buddy had a Don Quixote tale and most of them sucked but people wanted to read them because they were Don Quixote and associated that with Cervantes’ writing. And people were more than willing to pass around the knock offs. Which isn’t want people - people who liked reading - wanted to read, really.

So lately I’m reading classics (and old comics). The Red and the Black is pretty good.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:20 PM on October 10, 2007

Actually, this Asimov's piece is a better overview (and makes better sense) of the Pixel-stained Technopeasant issue.

Well, the reason I linked to that debate is that Howard Hendrix goes into a lot more detail and raises more questions than what I've seen in print from him re the issue. I was initially pro-Technopeasant and still am, but he raises questions concerning the shift to free/virtually free writing that really need to be addressed in a serious way by the Technopeasants. Worth listening to if you want to hear both sides.
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:43 AM on October 11, 2007

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