Writing and the attention economy

As a writer you are asking for the most valuable commodity your readers have. Time. Each of us gets a finite portion. No sum of money can buy us any more. And the demands on it are ever greater.

The novel evolved at a period in history when the constituency of its readers had much more time to waste. Karl Marx would dub them the ‘bourgeoisie’, the section of society who owned the means of production, so profited vastly from industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The middle and upper classes had time on their hands and little to do with it. The novel became one of the most popular ways of being idle.

“many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited”

The bourgeoisie no longer exists in quite the same way, and it and the proletariat both have innumerable ways of occupying whatever free time is left from work. Yes, there are dozens of forms of entertainment. Films, music, games, sports. But there are also more and more ways for people to invest their time in improving themselves. Is your book really going to compete with the vast range of information available to me for free on Wikipedia? Or the infinite social networks accessible through Facebook and Twitter?

Information of all kinds is becoming a post-scarce resource. While the time it takes to absorb information becomes scarcer and scarcer. And yet many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited. Writing two novels, four novellas and ten short stories a year is great productivity. But completely counter-productive in an attention economy. Because if I read one story by you and it’s any less than excellent, I’m very unlikely to read another. Your first novel is very important to you, but as a commodity in the attention economy its almost certainly worth less than the value of my time to read it. Which is why the vast majority of material written and published every day on the internet disappears without a trace.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As a writer working in the attention economy you should take Pascal’s remark as the first rule of your professional life. Take the time to write a short letter to the world. Churning out fiction can give you the comforting illusion of progress. No doubt you’ll find one market or other to publish it. But think about the writing you really love and value enough to come back to again and again. How long do the best authors take to create their work? Why should you aim to be anything less than the best?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

16 thoughts on “Writing and the attention economy

  1. I think you’re right, which is why I wonder why the only marketing strategy anyone seems to use for ebooks is price: free or reduced to 99p or whatever.

    I will likely die with books I wanted to read unread (and others un-reread) so the true cost of a book is its opportunity cost: the other books I could have read in the time it took me to read this one. Reducing the monetary price doesn’t really incentivise me at all…


    1. The pricing strategy is two edged. Yes, it’s pulling down the value of books. But individually it is the right move for debut authors. Most readers simply aren’t going to pay 8.99 for a writer they’ve never heard of. The main list price of ebooks seems to be holding solid though.


  2. The Novel and the Novelette.—More and more in recent years, the novel has tended to shorten to the novelette. A stricter sense of art has led to the exclusion of digressive and discursive passages; and the hurry and preoccupation of contemporary readers has militated against the leisurely and rambling habit of the authors of an earlier time. The lesson of excision and condensation has been taught by writers as different in tone as Mérimée, Turgénieff, and Stevenson. “The three-volume novel is extinct,” as Mr. Kipling stated in the motto prefixed to the poem called “The Three-Decker,” in which, with a commingling of satire and sentiment, he chanted its requiem. It was nearly always, in the matter of structure, a slovenly form; and there is therefore little cause for regret that the novelette seems destined to supplant it. For the novelette accomplishes the same purpose as the novel, with necessarily a more intensive emphasis of art, and with a tax considerably less upon the time and attention of the reader.


  3. Hallelujah! Well said, Damien. Thank goodness you posted this. I’m constantly urging writers to take their time and produce the best work they can. You might be able to rush out a revision if a book doesn’t work, but you can’t undo a reader’s bad experience. Much better to spend an extra six months – or a few years – to get it right.
    I also think the strategy of offering books free or at throwaway prices will fade this year. What writers need to do is generate curiosity. Everyone’s Kindles are stuffed with free books that won’t get read because they weren’t actively chosen, they were grabbed just because. But if a reader chooses a book because they were genuinely interested in it, they’re more likely to get round to it. And how is that curiosity created? By a good reputation.


  4. I spent four years writing my debut novel and would never expect anyone to pay for a rushed job. I wince when I hear of writers who produce several books a year. How can you put any kind of quality writing and editing together, in the form of several tens of thousands of words, in that space of time? Thanks for a great post.


  5. “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”

    Nice piece.

    I recently had to edit a short story down to 1,200 words, cutting out around 400. What an exercise and how much time it took me. I ended up with something which got published, but I would say it took me much longer to edit what I initially thought was the final version to the 1,200 words version than it took me to write the story in the first place.

    (Incidentally, I’m sorry I don’t have enough time to go over that last paragraph to make it more intelligible)


  6. I certainly agree that writers should try to take their time and write the very best they can, Fifty Shades of Whatever notwithstanding. The problem is, writing well involves not just a long apprenticeship, but a painstaking process, and what you find good in your work one year becomes sloppy, hackneyed, shallow etc. a few years down the line. Personally, I am plenty willing to give someone a second or even third try if I like some aspect of their early work, even if it’s seriously flawed.

    (By the way, a sum of money can certainly buy us more time. I spent 18 years in Zimbabwe, where life expectancy is now around 50.)

    And is time really becoming scarcer? Maybe – or maybe only if we let it. Have you seen Rusbridger’s Guardian piece on mastering Chopin’s Ballad? I think he, obviously a busy man, is right that it’s about priorities.


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