I find myself asking why do I write? more often these days. I’ve been at this for the better part of a lifetime, so why now? The short answer is because the game has changed so completely since I was a freshly minted poet out of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop.
What’s changed? Basically everything other than writing. Here are my top seven things that are changing:
What’s changing for writers? No gates
Even if the gatekeepers haven’t quite gotten the word, anyone who wants to can cost-effectively publish a professional-looking volume, provided they’re willing to learn the basics of self-publishing and hire competent freelance talent as needed.
What’s changing for writers? A more level playing field
Marketing is the name of the game, and most big publishers are just not that good at it anymore. The reasons include:
What’s changing for writers? The loss of critical influence
Literary critics in particular do not enjoy the influence over book marketing they once did. Reviews and ads in prestigious newspapers or journals are no guarantee of sales. Literary critics have eroded much of their credibility, and, even with book clubs, their influence is now trumped by word-0f-mouth. Rightly or wrongly, literary critics are less likely to be viewed as offering independent, informed critical opinion and, more likely, as the shills of big publishers. Similarly, the university, the literary canon and academic scholarship holds far less sway over what gets read and discussed.
What’s changing for writers? The loss of publishers’ marketing power
Books now compete for attention with a diversity of media unimaginable a decade ago. And the biggest of the publishers are not, for the most part, known for being anything but big. Their imprints no longer carry the same prestige and authority with consumers they once did. Only the exceptional, smaller imprint is actually known for something. For example, Lonely Planet is well-respected among travelers for providing reliable, useful information for those with more adventurous inclinations. What is Random House known for?
What’s changing for writers? The internet
Everyone with a computer has universal access to a global marketplace. For example, my work at aSiteAboutSomething receives on average four thousand visits a month from up to 68 countries. POD and eBooks are rapidly making global distribution a reality for anyone who can learn to brand and market him or her self by building a viable platform. The opportunity is there for almost anyone who really wants access.
What’s changing for writers? The artist as marketer
At one time, you might have imagined some wise, kind-hearted publisher or promoter who would recognize your talent and shepherd your career for you. In all likelihood—not happening. If you want in to this game, you’re the brand, and you’re going to have to learn how to market yourself and what you do—the one exception being if you create art with a mass-market appeal. Again, that’s not most of us.
What’s changing for writers? No clear path(s)
For most artists, this is the time of DIY (do it yourself) marketing. Writers and artists have always had to promote themselves, but not to extent necessary today. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to follow. Websites, blogs, YouTube, social media, readings, performances, newspapers, journals, contests, radio, TV, etc.—absolutely everything is potentially part of the mix. It’s pretty much up to you to figure it out—with the usual your results may vary caveat. Beyond developing your craft, there’s a lot of other stuff to learn and to try out. It has simply never been less clear how to go about building an audience for your work.
Which brings me back to the question of why we write—especially when it’s all such a “blooming confusion?” Fame and fortune are, at best, improbable outcomes of the artist’s life, and that’s always been true. This pursuit of something true, useful and beautiful is, however, seductive and oddly satisfying. And, despite all the changes welcome or not, because I have to. How about you?