Monday, January 18, 2010

Writing: Why Bother?

"There are three difficulties in authorship: to write anything worth publishing, to find honest men to publish it, and to find sensible men to read it."
~ Charles Caleb Colton
Divinipotent Daily would like to say "thank you" to Katherine Rosman for her January 15 Wall Street Journal article, "The Death of the Slush Pile." The article confirms what most writers have strongly suspected for the past few years: While it has always been somewhat pointless to become a writer, today it is worse. It is hopeless.

Some perspective: A long time ago, in the heart of the recession of 1973-75, the publisher of the rock & roll magazine I was editing ran out of money. In those days, to qualify for unemployment you had to appear at your local unemployment office every two weeks to prove you had been searching for work. The process began with an in-person interview where a stern-faced bureaucrat asked about your skills and tried to match you with openings. When my turn came, I explained that I was a writer and editor; the interviewer stared at me for a moment and then said, "You don't need to come back." In other words, there were no jobs and there was no point in going through the job-hunting motions.

"I've been willing to go for years without publishing. That's been my career."
~ Marguerite Young

In 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 44,170 Americans were working as writers and authors. Approximately the same number were laboring as technical writers. And 110,010 underpaid souls were editing the work.

Given the combined effects of the recession and the ongoing decimation of newspaper and magazine publishing, many of those employed in 2008 are without work in 2010.

When writers and editors lose their jobs, there is a tendency to say, "I'll just freelance" until the next job comes along. That's music to the ears of Demand Studios, Suite 101 and other digital content providers. These companies get rich supplying articles by the bucketful to hungry Internet publishers while paying their writers pennies per word. It's a pernicious system that devalues the worth of all writers and floods the marketplace with inadequately researched, hastily written, poorly crafted work. 

"Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo."
~ Don Marquis

Katherine Rosman's Wall Street Journal article focuses on a more traditional aspect of publishing: slush piles — the fabled heaps of manuscripts that arrive unbidden from unknown writers. Years ago, publishers and agents hired interns to skim through the piles to find a random gem. Today, virtually no major publishing houses even accept unsolicited manuscripts. Submissions must come through a known agent, and agents, too, are overwhelmed. As Ms. Rosman recounts, Stephenie Meyer, best-selling author of the Twilight series, was only discovered because an intern didn't understand the policies of Writers House, the agency that now represents her.

"Writers are the lunatic fringe of publishing."
~ Judith Rossner
Here is my advice for anyone who is thinking about becoming a professional writer. If you have a family to support, this is not the career for you. If you believe you'll make it because you're a very good writer, reconsider; bookstores are filled with very good writers — most of them working as salespeople. If you're looking for fame and fortune, you are extremely likely to be disappointed; even if you get published, you will almost certainly remain unknown.

There is only one good reason to become a writer, and that is because you simply can't help yourself. If you're doing it for love, then throw yourself into it heart and soul. Otherwise, get yourself a practical job in accounting or pharmaceutical sales — something with a steady income and a real future.

The paintings above, The Poor Poet and The Bookworm, are by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885), a German painter and poet.


  1. Depressing but accurate, oh Divinipotent one. As for practical jobs, accountants will always be in demand, but pharmaceutical sales positions are being cut by the thousands and are likely to be much diminished in compensation and prospects in years to come.

  2. Rob, I bow to your expertise. But why are pharma companies cutting staff? It's hard to imagine they need the money.

  3. My son is a maintenance man at a local school. He always has more work than time, and his job will only go away if the school folds. Luckily, before becoming a teacher and writer, I learned how to cook, paint, and do light handiwork. When all else fails, fix stuff. On my free time, though, I will continue to write.

  4. Tom, these days I think we're all a living little like Wallace Stevens - insurance man by day, writer at night. Having more than one source of income is almost mandatory. Still, some lucky people will always break through. And hooray for them.