By Caitlin Kelly
It sounds so cool and sexy and 21st century, doesn’t it?
Those of us who have only published the old-fashioned way — you know, with an agent and a publisher who designs, edits and distributes physical books to bookstores — often now feel like fogies riding around in horse-drawn carriages.
Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.
At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.
The ending proved inglorious indeed, as both digital publishers crumpled beneath him like a shot horse. Ooops!
If Tony Horowitz — a writer whose best-sellers I’ve admired and envied — can’t make it work…
Writers have little wish to be the canary in the digital coal mine, so his is a cautionary tale indeed.
I attended a conference in December 2013 at the Columbia School of Journalism, a place that once launched many august careers, a building with a huge statue of Pulitzer staring down at us all.
The conference was ostensibly to discuss the future of “digital longform”, and 300 people — a mix of seasoned professionals, industry newcomers and J-students — showed up. We spent a day listening to old-school journalists with full-time staff salaries preen and digital publishers with expensive shoes and ponytails preen.
But no one dared ask the question we all wanted to hear the answer to: “What do you pay your writers?”
Because those of us who had already had a few conversations with digital publishers knew the answer.
The problem is basic: digital pay rates are, with a few rare exceptions, appallingly low, while the cost of living is rising daily. Even back in the 1980s, I was offered more money than today’s digital titans for my magazine work — and a week’s groceries didn’t cost $150.
There’s also a basic problem of speed/quality/price. Pick two!
When digital publishers pay so little, writers have to work much faster to earn a decent living. Cutting corners creates crap, but no one can lavish hours and hours on deep reporting and sourcing, no matter what lofty ambitions these digital folks cherish.
I occasionally write for Quartz, the digital arm of The Atlantic. I like my editor, but the maximum pay for a 1,000-word reported story is $500, the same pay rate as another site I’ve written for. Each story requires 3 to 4 original interviews, writing and possible revisions — while a print piece of the same length for a major publisher pays $1,000 to $2,000.
When I contacted an editor at yet another website, and was offered $300 for a reported story, I balked; and was told: “Some sites don’t even pay.”
That’s a compelling argument?
So I spend most of my time, still, seeking and pitching my story ideas to editors of print publications. Some you’ve never heard of and they don’t sound at all cool.
But their higher rates pay my bills. They’re not going away. They (usually) honor their contracts.
If I write any more books, which I hope to, I’ll also head back to that fusty 18th-century model.
Have you done any work in the digital “space?”
How did it turn out for you?
37 thoughts on “A big fat digital publishing disappointment: beware!”
Digital. It had the potential to be Tom Ford, but instead turned itself into a TJ Maxx. It’s the Walmart and McDonald’s of writing. It is…the dollar store of human thought: everything is disposable and cheap. The digital word looked at the future of information and decided that to forge full-speed ahead it had to dump a bunch of weight, so it threw out quality and sense.
I have yet to read a self-published book. I rarely make time (even if I should, and am missing some great journalism or writing out there) for digital material. The whole model annoys the shit out of me. The only people who seem to make any money are NOT the people who create its content.
Truth. What’s sad is how digital efficiency’s failings are affecting what used to be our gold-standard of print. Gawd, the volume of typos is appalling. And that’s not just the word snob in me; they really are everywhere, spreading exponentially like grains of rice on a king’s chess board.
There is great writing out there, in digital and print; and like music, you can never experience it all. But just like music, you have the rare, sweet sounds of genius that rise above a whole lot of noise. Just because everyone has a guitar doesn’t mean everyone should play.
I am all for equal opportunity, and love the variety you get when something elite is sprung open to the public, like university; but there have to be some guardians of purity somewhere, don’t there?
If we stop expecting a standard, doesn’t it cease to be art? And if it ceases to be art…
Melodramatic? Perhaps, but I can’t help believing in a reason to rise.
I agree. Then, as an old-fashioned print girl, I get scorned for being elitist. And I’m fine with it.
I go to the ballet to watch trained, seasoned dancers who have been rigorously taught and who still take class every day to improve and maintain their technique. Very few amateurs understand the skill, commitment and time that GREAT art requires. I have very little spare time. I give it to people who get that, and respect it.
Thank you! I didn’t Think I was totally crazy. Well, about this anyway.
As an independent author, e-publishing is one of the ways I’ve reached readers. I haven’t had success with it, but I haven’t had failure either. I’ve just sold a few books here and there, and I’m sure as time goes on I’ll sell a few more. Hopefully some day I’ll publish a book that really resonates with people and a lot of people will download copies. God willing, anyway.
You have to market the hell out of your work with self-publishing as no one will send your book to reviewers and even if you did many of them will not look at it. Gatekeepers (editors and agents) may annoy people but they also up the game.
I know, so I do as much advertising as I can. I just bought a set of business cards and I’m considering on how to use Redditt and iTunes. Also, I’m taking about it here. 🙂
I was looking at writing for digital companies, but even retail pays better. I’m editing my first novel right now and am hoping to be able to get something published traditionally soon.
Thanks for weighing in. Good luck!
i have little experience with digital publishing, other than my guest column for a local paper has turned into a community blog feed connected through rss feed, as most of their local columns have.
as for books, it seems that it is becoming more prevalent from everything i see, and wonder where it is going. it sounds like a huge challenge on many levels. does it offer more freedom or a greater burden for the writer? it sounds like you have to be good at all facets of publishing and marketing in order to best make this work. i wonder how many of us are actually adept at all of the parts of this equation and also wonder how it will develop over time.
My sense of it is that self-publishing works very well for some niche writers who are able to find enormous audiences for their work, and more power to them. But the actual work of writing and revising a book is a lot — and even then traditional publishers expect a tremendous about of self-promotion and marketing.
Distribution seems to be the main stumbling block for the self-published.
Malled got a lot of press/media attention which made a significant difference to its success.
Another aspect of self-publishing is the potential damage it can do to a career or potential career. Meeting with an agent at a snack and chat after a conference, she passed on how her agency was less than pleased with one of their newly signed writers dipping into self-publishing because the sales had been so low. The concern was how reviewers were going to count these lackluster sales against future books, making her product less attractive to traditional publishers. My takeaway? That self-publishing itch calmed down. I will just keep to the regular efforts.
I don’t get the appeal. But that’s me. As I’ve blogged before, your prior book sales matter a great deal for the next deal. Newbies don’t know that — but you do!
After writing a handful of articles for some online pubs–in exchange for bylines and clips and “exposure”–I started taking people’s advice and saying no to doing any writing for free. Because I don’t have a lot of clips, it’s been difficult to convince people that I and my work are worth paying for, and I’ve published very few things since making that decision. But it feels good to get paid to do stuff, and I know that the things I’m writing are better than the stuff I was doing for no pay. Because I have a day job, I suppose I could “afford” to do more free work, but it also feels like I can “afford” not to. It seems insane to me that someone of your stature can’t get more than fifty cents a word at a place like Quartz.
On a parallel note, I agree your exchange with themodernidiot. I believe in gatekeepers, too–of quality. I know I need someone/some establishment to approve of my work. Having been found wanting for so long, I continue to revise my fiction and revise my fiction and revise my fiction, and I’m a better writer because of it, and I believe that someday that all will pay off. I could have self-published a digital copy three years ago, but looking back on what the book was like then, I’d be embarrassed to have it out in the world.
Anyway. Speaking of elite, I saw this yesterday and loved a LOT of it. Eight months old, but lough-out-loud on point in places. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115007/andrew-wylie-interview-literary-agent-makes-millions-highbrow
Thanks for weighing in — and it’s interesting to hear your reasoning.
I wish my “stature” were worth more but it’s not. I am amazed and deeply disheartened to see the bylines of other very experienced writers doing the same. You do it or you leave.
Reblogged this on a little wail and commented:
Some good insight in the comments on this piece on self-publishing. I agree, it is primarily for the nitches.
When you read the various blogs of quality such as yours, it can get confusing. I intermittently follow JA Konrath’s blog; while he is a fiction writer, he has done well with self-publishing as have many who have read his blog and heed his words. Many authors are utilizing “hybrid models” and dip into both worlds. I am not sure what to think to be honest..
I agree that it IS confusing. Horowitz is a NYT best selling author, which is why he has such street cred with other writers on this topic…
It’s a highly individual decision which path to take — if you are hoping to publish — and first-time fiction writers (esp. genre) may do much better self-publishing IF they have or can create an enormous online audience on their own. Other writers (which I have not done and occasionally considered) have done a Kickstarter or similar campaign to fund an investigative project.
Non-fiction does not seem to me a ripe avenue for self-publishing, though, and that’s my primary interest right now.
I read most of publications digitally. As an expat, I’m not going to go downtown to the train station to pick up a ridiculously expensive English version of the mags I like. Some can cost as much as 12 euro. And why should I move off my ass in the morning to go buy the International Review, when I can read it on my laptop in the comfort of my own home? I have no problem paying to subscribe to a publication online. Convenience should come at a cost.
My take away from what you have written here is that those brick and mortar, long established, publishing companies will rise to the top in the digital field. They have the money, resources, and care to make sure that writers are paid (although maybe not as well as they used to). Start ups who are coming to the field now will likely fail.
By the way, I was ecstatic the other day when a company offered me 75 pounds for my work. Baby steps. 😉
Congrats on the sale!
The problem is content, not the system of delivery. There are few journalists who can — and will for long — work for $300 a story when a print outlet (if we can find any) pays $1500 ot $3000 or more. There are only so many hours in the day and there is an opportunity cost for under-selling your skills. Poverty and debt are hardly attractive to all but the newest and most desperate.
I spend a lot more time now these days seeking print markets — trade/consumer, doesn’t matter to me — and focus very little attention on digital. It just isn’t sufficiently profitable most of the time.
It seems the economy of supply and demand being applied to the creative industries. Since jobs are plentiful in the creative industries since it’s the power it takes each of us to create that allows us to succeed, those who are paying feel it, feel they could devalue and water down the prices, since it seems the art through the aid of computers has become so easy a caveman could do it. But it’s not really. There are still systems to learn and exploit, time to be spent, and wisdom to be gained. It’s a shame in all the industries the watering down of wages that it’s not as valued. I feel the fact that you would recieve more in print, shows prints acknowledgment that you are already aware of the systems in place around it, and it’s one that is disappearing from those only focusing on the digital age. I am a photographer, and I’ve relied heavily on digital means, however I take time to focus on the old film worlds, and trying to learn more about it’s relation to print resources (why is ppi important in the print arena and other questions )…..I really enjoyed this article, and it reminds me the maddening struggle to get a decent pay in any industry seems to be a battle that only the wise survive!
Thanks for weighing in — it’s interesting (depressing) to see what technology has done to craft. My husband is a photo editor and photographer and is finding many people think snapping their wedding photos (!?) on friends’ cellphones is their best (read less costly) option.
You had me at expensive shoes and ponytails. Ugh. I am hoping the pendulum will swing back, as a new generation realizes that reading on a screen and reading in a physical medium are two totally different experiences. And I think it’s up to us to teach them that. Some “old” things are worth keeping . . . and that includes an actual attention span.
I am no fan of ponytails — and really sick of the fawning over these new models who just never seen to have any money for content while yammering on about quality and their devotion (?!) to promoting writers and talent. Funny thing, I pay for my gas and groceries with the exact same currency they do.
You and I, as journos, have some skin in this game. I have to say I will be glad to hang it up and not have to worry about it at some point anymore. I love writing but am tired of chasing people and trying to “explain” my value.
It’s right across the creative industries online, because someone will always undertake to do more for less, creating what is all too often a race to the bottom. Many of us are never offered money, only ‘exposure’ and as the saying goes… you can die of exposure. Ask for money and the audience is likely to slap you down and tell you that you should be making art for love and not dirtying your hands with nasty commerce. Or, by extension, dirtying your insides with food… leading to things like patreon.com which may turn out to be a good idea. There’s an issue of value, and how people value original work, which I think underpins all of the other money issues, online and off.
Thanks for commenting…even if it’s grim!
I was having this convo yesterday as well. It’s our job — not to create art or writing — but (?!) to persuade people of its value. Gah.
Basically we have to save our society from itself, infuse it with new values, create new ways of working.. and then the rest of it will all fall neatly into place. and we have to do that whilst paying the bills. No pressure 🙂
One third of Americans are now self-employed — yet 90% of the “business” coverage I read keeps focused on corporate jobs. Nor has public policy kept up with fundamental changes in the workplace like this.
Thank goodness I’m not a writer… I feel for those struggling… And you didn’t even touch on those self-publishing… I’ve bought a couple of those books and let me tell you, they are not writers…
Yet, some are. There’s the rub…
In thirty years of writing professionally, less than 0.001 percent of what I’ve earned has been via online commission. And that was back in the 1990s when the web was new and the people doing it were setting up paying ventures. Today? One of the common business models for using freelancers revolves around ‘free’, with payment to the author being the ‘exposure’. And the self-pub model via Amazon is, as far as I can tell, as much lottery as anything else – the problem is discovery, and even the good stuff gets buried in the morass.
Despite the upheavals and struggles of the trad industry, that’s still where the bulk of the money is. Less of it than before, but still materially more than via the web.
The two arguments that work for me to do web work are: 1) quick work, few to no revisions; 2) large, new audiences with chance of being picked up on social media. A big check that takes six months to achieve vs. a smaller one I can earn in a few hours? Cashflow!
Reblogged this on lonnietalouise and commented:
very good article,with some good information.Please read.
I too tried digital publishing, writing for online sites. I got paid a pittance of “up to” $15.00 USD for quite scholarly articles on health matters. (I am a former Lab Scientist, and have a Master’s in Health Science, as well as an BA in English & Journalism).
It wasn’t that which made me quit though, I finally quit when they continued to correct my quite correct English to some US version which irritated me. I ran into the same problem with another overseas company which hired me for my English Language ability, then argued over usage. So few people actually speak, write or understand good English now that nouns become verbs, and “archaic language” is changed such that Strove becomes Strived; and gestured is replaced by motioned, ( as in – “he motioned to her to sit in the chair”) which just sounds awful to my “ear”.
Few digital sites pay properly…sorry this was such a nightmare!