How will writers make a living in the future?

Printing press from 1811, photographed in Muni...
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It’s worth considering the idea that we won’t.

We are living through miraculous times. Knowledge, once a scarce resource, is being made freely and universally available to all. To understand how miraculous this is, consider the Dark Ages. For somewhere in the region of a thousand years, Europe was held in the iron grip of the church by a complete embargo on knowledge. An educated priestly elite dictated that the only true knowledge was the bible, which was written in latin which, low and behold, only they could read. that scarcity of information aloud the complete suppression of the entire European population for millennia. It’s no coincidence that as knowledge began to flow again, and then blossomed with the waves of information technology that took us from the printing press to the  internet, society became progressively more free.

It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.

In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…

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23 thoughts on “How will writers make a living in the future?”

  1. Just a quick comment: most medievalists will tell you at length about the myth of the “Dark Ages” [http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2007/01/the_pernicious_.html]. No use overstating the case or creating straw men. One of the positive ways the present is like the Middle Ages is the multiplicity of ways of knowing. Only the elite could read, but reading was only one type of literacy. There was a quest for authority and authenticity that very much mirrors our own time.

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  2. Erm… so are you arguing that the information revolution will completely sweep away capitalism? If so, I’d love to think that you’re right. However – I’m trying to wrap my head around the concept that a tsunami of information will somehow make the notion of earning a living obsolete and right now, I cannot see how that will happen.
    As for writers not able to make money by writing – does this mean that the craft of putting words on a page to create a fictional world or a tightly reasoned theory/argument will no longer be valued? In the Middle Ages, it wasn’t that there weren’t any writings or people willing to read them – they were rare and extremely expensive. People still paid to listen to other people tell gripping stories and sweep them away from the everyday and mundane.
    And right now, I doubt that books will suddenly cease to be important or necessary just because information can be presented in a different format – I have access to a wide range of films, radio and TV programmes which I enjoy, but nothing gives me more pleasure than curling up with a good book.

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    1. Erm… so are you arguing that the information revolution will completely sweep away capitalism?

      Yes, absolutely 100%. And it’s not that people won’t work, but expecting someone to turn up for an 8 hour shift at a Subway will seem as morally objectionable as indentured servitude. People are going to have a lot more free time, and some kind of creative practice like writing will be part of most peoples lives. When people get good enough their writing will get noticed. If they get really good they will still get famous, maybe even rich. But fundamentally people won’t expect to earn money from writing because they won’t need to.

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      1. I’m no medievalist, but Kate’s right to point out that the Middle Ages were in many ways a more dynamic era (especially after the Black Death reduced population, raised the value of labour and effectively broke the Feudal system) than it’s credited for: and there’s plenty of surviving writing that is neither in Latin, nor Latinate in its use of English: the power of the church always lay more in its wealth and its edicts being backed with the threat of force than its use of Latin. But my main point is that while the value of writing (or information) is declining, with at least some of the positive effects you mention alongside the more evident negative ones, the profits aren’t disappearing, but moving from content-creation to the ownership of distribution channels, which are increasingly concentrated. To that extent, while I’d like to think you’re right in the long term, evidence suggests the opposite is happening in the short and (possibly) medium terms: you’ll need the hypothetical job at Subway to support yourself while writing, even at relatively high levels of achievement, because as the value of your skills diminish, pretty much every essential you need outside the online world – living space, electricity, food, transport – is rising dramatically in cost.

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      2. Oh, it’s going to be a rocky path Wayne. A rocky path! We have to realign an interdependent economic system of 7 billion people to the information revolution we are living through. In the short term it’s going to be bloody chaos.

        But you are wrong about the concentration of distribution. Factually, more people than ever are making money from writing. It simply that it’s much MORE distributed.

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  3. The question implies it’s easy – or even normal – for writers to make a living now. Which, of course, it isn’t. While I agree with you that we’re entering chaotic times, I’d like to think the marketable trade of ‘storyteller’ – rather than generic ‘writer’ – will survive. Bards have always been able to swap stories for a crust of bread. Even in the future, they may still be able to avoid going hungry.

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  4. Maybe I’m betraying my American heritage, but… I imagine that the idea of “making a living” will persist in seeming ordinary, rather than odd, for a very long time and possibly forever. And while there is a marvelous and terrifying amount of information available with freedom and ease now, I still find myself buying books and watching movies and giving the newsstand my $2.00 for the NY Times because I value the particular skill of writers who can entertain me or inform me or make the world less confusing instead of more so. I need my gatekeepers to protect me from the flood, and I will pay for the privilege of their work. I’m almost certain that in the year 3000, if we are still lucky enough to be a surviving species on a surviving planet, people will still be doing the same.

    Unless, of course, we become some sort of utopian society, in which case we will probably be either too boring or too enlightened to need such things as stories, whether they be fictional or non.

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    1. I’m an optimist, so I think we’ll find the future is more utopian than most people expect. I do think stories will change…there will be less demand for stpries that distract from life and more for stories that are a lense to look at life through.

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  5. Damien you’ve completely over egged the “Dark Ages” aspect. It wasn’t as bad as you imply. In fact many medieval historians would take you to task over your assertions.

    I quote:

    … that scarcity of information aloud (sic) the complete suppression of the entire European population for millennia …

    This is simply not true. What measures are using for this? During the so-called Dark Ages you actually have a flowering of the arts and it wasn’t even economically stagnant. In tax terms even peasants were better off than we are now. While it’s true that the vast majority didn’t read, it’s not like they didn’t have access to entertainment or learning of a different sort. And people weren’t suppressed – not in the way you imply.

    It’s also quite eurocentric.

    So suggesting that we are living in a renaissance period – which is what I take you to mean – is wide of the mark. The effects of internet on culture, entertainment and wider society are still unclear and futurology is at best a guess.

    The thing is, I think your central question is worth asking – how will creative people make money on the future? That’s the interesting thing. I’m 50/50 that it’s going to be possible. If we look at how entertainment matures then we see that it takes time for the necessary structures to evolve. There’s a general pattern. At first there’s a explosion of innovation, then people step in and start to extract money from it and then it matures as general practises become established. I think we’re still in the first part and it’s hard to predict how things will change as we move into the middle period.

    It would also be unwise to discount those who point out that we’re not any freer as a result of the of the Internet. Can you quantify how you feel freer now or how you will be more free later?

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    1. Ha! You aren’t really trying to claim that medieval peasants had it better are you? If so, thats a very good example of how we are able to ignore all the amazing things humans have done in our history in favour of focusing on the bad stuff.

      Violence is a good example of that. There seems to be a modern meme that society is becoming more violent. Are people frakking crazy! We are living in an era so blissfully peaceful that the low levels of violence we still have stand out like a sore thumb and people obsess over them. Is there lots still to do? Sure, but let’s at least recognise how far we have come.

      Part of that work is continuing to make as much knowledge available to as many people as possible. Lets celebrate how quickly we’re achieving that, rather than obsessing about how the current gatekeepers of that knowledge can make a living once the gates have been kicked open.

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      1. “You aren’t really trying to claim that medieval peasants had it better are you? ”

        No. And please don’t misquote me again.

        I asked you what measure you were using and provided an example where it is arguable that peasants had it better. That measure take no account of small things like access to health care or education but is a valid indicator that “things were better back then”.

        The future is just a different place but there will still be humans in it.

        “There seems to be a modern meme that society is becoming more violent. Are people frakking crazy!”

        No. I never said that. Or even hinted at it. Here in the “decadent west” we’re still fighting wars and people are dying. There’s still crime and people still don’t get access to the medical care they should. But I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s better now than it used to be – even though a lot people think that’s not true. That’s because they’re been taught to think that things are worse now. It’s actually fascinating topic and not wholly germane to this discussion.

        “Part of that work is continuing to make as much knowledge available to as many people as possible. Lets celebrate how quickly we’re achieving that, rather than obsessing about how the current gatekeepers of that knowledge can make a living once the gates have been kicked open.”

        Even if that means we return to happy amateurism? I have experience of amateurism and know a fair bit about the history of the subject and if the slogan of the future is “It’s going to be bright – it’s going to be for dilettantes!”, then it’s a future I can do without.

        You are also missing a point I hinted at. We may kick down the current gates but I will happily predict that new gates will get created. “Why is that?” I hear you ask.

        Well there are a lot of reasons but as something matures (let’s stick to creative arts) you find it accrues a certain amount of crud. Some of this is for very good reasons. But at the same time people will game the system, some people will get reap the rewards (whatever they may be) but others will get disenfranchised and that crud will reappear. Eventually one way of doing things will change (or go away) but another will come along.

        Which is a long way of saying there’s nothing new under the sun or perhaps… same shit different day.

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  6. You’re both right and wrong about the numbers of writers making a living: there are more ways to leverage paid work out of writing than there were in (say) the days of George Orwell, F Scott Fitzgerald and Kurt Vonnegut, but the writing itself earns much less than it did in relation to actual living costs in their day. In other words, many of us who call ourselves ‘writers’ only earn tiny proportions of our incomes from actually writing: we teach, do admin, editing, perform, generally for far lower sums than those who specialise in those activities and aren’t writers. A kind of unspoken patronage system is now the norm, with media outlets, universities and funding bodies filling in the gaps between earnings from writing and living costs – and all of those options are currently under threat. So you’re right that systems will need to develop outside the money system in the future, but whether that happens has nothing much to do with the internet or how free information is – it’s about old-fashioned politics, organisation and activism. I’d like to think those extra-monetary systems of exchange will emerge (especially when the necessity for an organised mass default on global debt is forced into being, when the next crash comes in the absence of new regulation after 2008) but in the meantime the options are narrowing rather than opening up for most people. As far as distribution goes, the numbers of channels have multiplied, certainly, but all are dependent on a relatively small number of big corporate entities with access to large markets: that is, iTunes, Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc. There are a few shoots that might grow and give cause for optimism in the longer term, but right now the division between commercially viable and subsidised sectors is becoming more rather than less entrenched.

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    1. I appreciate where you’re coming from Wayne, but you’re looking at it from a very narrow perspective, specifically from the perspective of the UK, crica 2011 in the midst of a recession. Take a step back from that persepctive and what you are really talking about isn’t a narrowing of opportunity, but a vast increase in opportunity that is democritising the writing field, but at the cost of people who might previously have benefited. So, for professional journalists, yes, these changes are very bad. But for the tens of thousands of specialist bloggers replacing those journalists it’s a very good thing. Change creates winners and losers, but the number of winners from the impact of the internet is much greater than the number of losers.

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  7. The other point is that the online world – the internet, and the devices to access it – are not exempt from traditional resource constraints. Unless there are major changes in the pipeline that will wean the industry driving all this from its dependence on oil, minerals like coltan and other very traditional kinds of scarce resource, the internet itself has little chance of surviving very far into the future. Because the dirt in the engines of the www isn’t as immediately evident to users as that of a 4×4 doesn’t mean its infrastructure isn’t based on similarly exhaustible and volatile foundations. Obviously, there are ways around this – more robust devices built to last rather than be replaced regularly, combined with solar or other kinds of renewable power – but not much seems to be happening on this front, given that the big profits are currently being made from constant upgrades and novelties. This missing sense of the basic foundations of the digital world is perhaps the biggest omission from a lot of optimistic thinking on the subject…

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    1. Yes, of course, it is possible that CIVILISATION AS WE KNOW IT IS DOOMED! When the doom finally arrives, you’re welcome to say ‘I told you so.’ Until then I’m going to assume a brighter future and work towards it.

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  8. No, not being pessimistic – just trying to stress that optimism isn’t enough. Cyber-optimism is a bit like the sixties idea that the mere fact of young people taking control from the older generation, or the feminist idea that the mere fact of more women in power would by itself change everything. These are both good things in themselves, as is the freeing of information, but he basic facts of power and economics have to be changed, fundamentally, and none of those thing was (or is) enough in itself, and there’s a real danger of losing sight of that if optimism takes over. The specialist bloggers you cite are not especially representative, socially or as an economic group, and in the main can afford to do what they do without relying on incomes. For most of us that’s not an option now and won’t be without political changes that go way beyond the internet.

    Far from being doomed, civilisation as we know it has the capacity to continue for a very long time without changing very much at all: all I’m really saying is that the internet itself is a single tool in a much bigger box, but is neither here nor there in as far as the bigger changes you’re talking about go. The changes you’re talking about do need to happen – but then, they also did after the Industrial Revolution, and the English Civil War, and while it’s a complex system, with many gains and losses, the fundamentals of how power operates haven’t shifted as much as we’d like to think. I’m optimistic to the degree that things are complicated and people will find a way, but optimism and pessimism seem equally unrealistic, really. We’ll have neither utopia nor dystopia – just the usual glorious, flawed, ingenious and messy human world, hopefully with some significant improvements on the current one, but who knows?

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    1. Optimistic or pessimistic, you’re factually wrong about the financial background of bloggers. I don’t actually know of any who can ‘afford to do what they want without relying on incomes.’ But I do know of many who make SOME of their income from blogging. But they don’t make it as bloggers per se…they make it as leaders in their niche, and part of their leadership is done through their blog and social network. I’d really recommend reading Tribes by Seth Godin for a more detailed look at all this than I can recount in this comment.

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      1. I meant not that bloggers are rich, but that they’ll usually have other sources of income – as noted earlier, by way of those ‘informal systems of patronage’ and second jobs in academia, schools, publishing, factories, call centres, Subway branches etc: yes, I’ve earned a few bits from it myself, but I don’t think that’s the norm, and it’s typically an insecure and low level source of income even when it does pay. But my more general objection to too much cyber-optimism is the way it mirrors the kind of thing Charles Leadbeater and his ilk were touting in the 90s about the freedom brought to us all by new flexible working patterns and the like…yes, we’re personally empowered by escaping lifelong work with companies, but that can all too quickly become an argument re-deployed (Leadbeater became a key Blair advisor, think-tanker and corporate consultant) to sell flexible working across the board, with consequences we’re now all to aware of in terms of diminished terms and conditions, job security and the rest far beyond the creative, high-tech and freelance sectors where the argument – when it did hold a grain of truth – actually applied. “They make it as leaders in their niche…” rings too much of faith in free markets in that all-too familiar “if you’re any good, you’ll sell” sense to inspire much faith…Do you see what I’m getting at? Not that the aspiration is wrong, or that these things might be tools to achieve something better – but that we forget the context in which these things happen at our own risk.

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