Six months ago I put up my first post on this blog. My goals at the time were pretty straightforward:
- Re-establish an internet presence for myself as a writer. I had a professional web site for years that was devoted to my interactive work. I took it down when I stepped back from interactive in the middle of the 90’s. (Blog posts and documents from that site have been added to Ditchwalk, and can be located via the Archive and Docs tabs on the main nav.)
- Investigate the (r)evolution taking place in publishing, how the self-publishing/online movement is impacting traditional publishing, and any opportunities this presents.
- Get up to speed on the new wave of social networking tools. In a few short years, online forums and e-mail groups were out, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter were in.
- Get up to speed on new tech, including e-readers, online publishing sites, self-publishing service providers, and print-on-demand (POD) technology.
- Get up to speed on issues facing writers and storytellers in this brave new world. (Google’s deal with the Authors Guild quickly caught my eye.)
- Identify opinion leaders and stress-test their opinions.
- Network with others who share any or all of these interests.
Six months later I feel good about what I’ve learned and accomplished. There’s more I want to do, and more I need to know, but today I feel as if I’m on the crest of the breaking publishing wave rather than paddling behind it.
After launching Ditchwalk and taking a look around to get my bearings, I wrote a blog post called Taking Stock. In that post I talked about many of the above issues, and described the lay of the land as I saw it. This, however, was the crux:
I’m publishing this and you’re reading it. And nobody else was necessary. This simple, demonstrable truth is the theoretical floor of any new publishing paradigm, and we’re already there.
A lot has changed in the past six months, but that quote still stands. It’s the game-changer behind all the hype, hysteria and wheezing that I’ve been (and born) witness to over the past six months. Going forward that truth will remain the foundation of Ditchwalk. I’ll still be keeping an eye on the politics of publishing, and reading all the hand-wringing and euphoric prognostications everyone likes to write, but I don’t want that to be my ongoing focus. I want storytelling to be the focus.
Marking this transition, I offer the following both as a glance in the rear-view mirror and a look down the road….
In August of 2009 every aspect of the self-publishing craze was being beaten to pieces like a pop-culture pinata. In the following six months those frenzied discussions have quietly gone away. Where before independent writers were greeted with contempt and condescension, the publishing industry is now rapidly moving to embrace self-publishing writers as both a new service market and low-wage work force. From such base economic realities are revolutions born.
The key for individual writers today is to stay focused on the inherent opportunity the internet affords, even as that opportunity is papered over with sales pitches and promises to make you a bestselling author in six short weeks sign up now! As mentioned above, the one thing that matters most — the only leverage anyone really has that didn’t exist before — is that you no longer have to navigate a labyrinth of gatekeepers in order to reach readers. If you’ve got the chops and you have something to say you can do so without asking anyone for permission.
This doesn’t mean you can make money writing. It doesn’t mean readers will show up. It doesn’t mean you’re good, or worth reading or listening to. It means nothing except that you have an opportunity you didn’t have before. What you do with this opportunity is up to you.
However. Some of the readers you reach may also be professionals in the publishing industry. People who never would have read your work or heard about you in the old days, by which I mean five years ago, or three or even one. The hordes of agents and editors who used to scour slushpiles and sift through query letters were all trained to know what the marketing departments were looking for, to the point that if your manuscript didn’t fit a market niche or pigeon hole it had little or no chance of attracting attention. Today you have a shot — faint, but still — of going over the heads of all those people and proving to someone who actually makes publishing decisions that you should be taken seriously.
If there’s one thing I didn’t really understand six months ago, it’s that there’s are multiple wars being waged against copyright law. As a writer wholly dependent on copyright law for my ability to make a living, this has come as both as surprise and a disappointment.
Generation X believes that copyright law does not apply to digital content. From their point of view a printed book can be copyrighted and protected by copyright law. The contents of that same book in digital form are assumed to be free for the taking, duplicating, distributing and even selling.
Google believes that copyright law only applies to a given work if the author of that work notifies Google in a timely manner that the work is still under copyright. If an author fails to notify Google in a timely manner that a given work is still under copyright, Google believes it has the right to scan, distribute and sell that copyrighted material for its own benefit and profit. That the Authors Guild believes this as well is beyond belief.
The publishing industry believes that copyright provisions in contracts that were negotiated prior to the invention of the internet nevertheless obligate authors to cede control of their copyrights in perpetuity now that publishers no longer have to bear costs associated with stocking actual copies of actual printed books in actual warehouses. Publishers are now also demanding that authors signing new contracts accept language that includes all possible inventions of all possible technologies in all possible locations and dimensions throughout this or any other known, unknown or parallel universe, so as to lock up future control of copyrights in perpetuity.
As a writer, your only reason for being after you write something is to guard and control every aspect of how your copyrighted material is used and exploited. This is your job, because if you get this wrong you have no job. You can always write more stuff. You cannot make money on the stuff you write if you do not control what happens to your copyrights. If there is or ever was any valid reason for signing with an agent or a literary attorney this is it.
When you enter any commercial content market you are playing with sharks who chew up artists all day long, and I do not want them to chew on you. Learn what there is to learn, ask for help, think twice, and for god’s sake get over the idea that a book deal is inherently a good thing. Every deal is only as good as the details, and that includes language covering your legal rights to the material you created. Musicians have been getting screwed out of their own songs and performances for years, and if that’s not already common in the book business it’s about to be. Every publisher is going to be looking to lock up titles forever, and that’s almost always not going to be in your best interest.
If you’re a writer and you don’t know your business inside and out, you’re at serious, serious risk. Don’t expect anyone to take care of you, including people who are supposed to take care of you. Be your own boss and kick your own ass. Because it’s better than having someone else do it for you.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been around a while, or maybe it’s because I’m more interested in content than I am in content-delivery systems. Whatever the reason, I find myself almost embarrassed by the degree to which people are openly lusting for and fantasizing about electronic gadgets. I’m all for cool machinery, but watching people become completely hysterical over something like the iPad strike me as less a shared cultural experience or pop-culture happening than a cry for help.
If you’re a writer, and by writer here I mean a storyteller, tech is going to solve exactly none of your problems. Whatever 100% of your craft knowledge and individual gifts represents, the part that you can offload onto a machine is easily less than one percent. Yes, you can type and word process and edit and print and send files and even publish now, all from your desk, but none of that has anything to do with the words you link together or the meaning those words convey.
The first great technological boon to writing in my lifetime was the personal computer. The second was the rise of the internet as a distribution medium and publishing platform. While both of these things made a lot of people very rich, sold a lot of units and services, and came to dominate our culture in ways that are still evolving, neither of them has ever helped me craft a line of dialogue. And never will.
Twitter is interesting. It’s inherently insubstantial but also satisfyingly immediate. After six months I tend to think of it as a great ongoing water-cooler conversation that I can drop in on any time — even if I have nothing I want to contribute at the moment — and yet I regularly come across news and views that are interesting and informative.
There’s been a good deal of trash talk about how Twitter has killed blogging, but that’s what you get with a new hot trend: a lot of in-the-moment idiocy. Blogging has neither died nor been negatively impacted by Twitter, or texting, or Facebook, or anything else you can think of. If anything, all these short-form, short-attention-span posting formats have cleared the blogging space of the OMG! bloggers, who had little or no interest in posting anything of substance.
As to utility I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Twitter. First, I do actually feel that I’ve been able to get to know people through their twits, and through exchanges we’ve had in the stream. Along with the endless flow of trite sayings and marketing slogans, people do post interesting links and sharp comments that not only inform but give some insight into who they are.
Second, as a broadcasting medium for blog posts that I write on this site, I’ve found Twitter to be a good way of getting the word out. Some posts are retweeted by others, some get only a few looks, but in general Twitter does as good a job helping me reach out as anything else I might think of doing. Far from killing the blog, Twitter has, for me, made it much easier to be a blogger.
As to who you should follow, I think the only useful answer is to follow people who interest you. If your goal on Twitter is simply running up numbers then you should follow lots of people no matter who they are, in the hope that they’ll follow you back. As for me, I follow people who seem interesting or who post information that I’m interested in. I don’t expect anyone to follow me back, ever. Periodically I’ll be moved to un-follow someone, but that’s rare, and usually only happens for one of three reasons:
- Low signal to noise ratio. Fifty tweets posted in an hour and a half that contain nothing of interest — whether links or original thoughts — is more than I want to wade through.
- Insufficient boundary management. If you make no distinction between what you put in a tweet and what you tell your psychotherapist, at some point I’m going to take the Too-Much-Information! off ramp.
- Being a fraud. If what you want is for people to buy into your facade, at some point you’re going to screw up and actually reveal who you are. At that point I get to revisit my decision to follow you.
Having said all that, I find Twitter more useful and informative than I thought I would. Whether I originally set the bar too low, or whether Twitter really is worth the time, is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
I don’t know if I’m changing course or simply evolving, but this is what I hope to do over the next six months:
- Focus on craft. The number of people currently expressing an interest in writing — in writing! — is amazing to me. For all that television has dumbed-down our culture, and it has, in horrible ways, the internet seems to be smarting it up again. Sure, most keyboard presses are dedicated to blather — including what happened on TV five seconds ago — but the number of people who are interested in learning to use language and craft to write on subjects of interest to them is almost certainly at an all-time high. (I don’t believe there was ever a time when the majority of people in the U.S. used a keyboard to communicate, or even had a keyboard in their house. Now they do.)
Because I know something about writing, about storytelling, and about how each writer must come to terms not only with craft but with who they are as a writer, I want to sharpen my focus on those issues. If you find my perspective of help to you, please spread the word about this site. I’d also like to become more involved with online communities of writers, and to join the conversations those communities are having. If you know of a good site or group, please let me know.
- Advocate for writers. If I’ve been disappointed by anything over the past six months it’s the way in which writers are almost universally treated like an exploitable resource. If you want to be a writer then the first thing you need to know is that Google, Amazon, the Authors Guild and the big publishing houses are demonstrably not your friends. They are not helping you, they are not on your side, they are not in your corner, and they only care about you to the extent that they can make money off you.
None of which should come as a surprise. As they say in mafia movies: it’s business. Sometimes you gotta kill a few writers to make yourself rich. Which means, again, that writers need to remember they are responsible for themselves. Learn the business side of the business. Get legal representation if and when you need it — by which I mean someone who has a fiduciary responsibility to make sure you get the best deal. (If you don’t know what that means, that’s the first thing you need to know.)
- Write. I’ve got a lot of words up on this site, but no fiction on display. That’s going to change with my online publication of a collection of short stories — first on Smashwords, then wherever else it makes sense.
On my desk I have a list of scripts, stories and books I want to write, so I’m going to get started on those projects. I also want to try my hand at short-form writing (what we used to call a sketch back in the day), and I’d like to develop more reciprocal trusted-reader relationships. In short, less talking and more walking.
It’s a lot, but it’s time to set the bar a little higher.
One of the decisions I made before launching this site was that I would wait a while before hanging out a shingle. I didn’t want every word I wrote to be perceived as part of a sales pitch, and I didn’t want readers to feel as if my real agenda was trying to add to my client base.
It’s now time to put Ditchwalk in gear and use it not only to talk about issues, but to find projects and jobs that are the life blood of any freelance writer. To the extent that this may change how people perceive me or what I write on this site, I hope the record I established over the past six months will temper any concerns.
When I first started working as a freelance writer in Hollywood, writing spec screenplays, I was the only person I knew who didn’t have a regular job — except of course for my acting friends. I don’t know any other existence as an adult. This is what I have been doing my whole life. What I do know is that it is hard. Working without a net is frightening, and it’s not for everyone. There are certainly days when I imagine myself as a junior partner in an accounting firm, with a healthy 401K, a nice house, and the kind of bland, day-to-day grind that promises no surprises.
But that’s not me. I’m a creative person. I do my homework, however, and whether I’m working in film or fiction or interactive I do my best to be a professional. If I’m proud of anything it’s that almost every client who’s hired me once has hired me again, because I think that says something not only about my contribution as a writer but my ability work with others, meet deadlines and respond positively to unforeseen events.
To anyone who stopped by over the last six months, thank you for reading and commenting and making me feel welcome. I hope to continue what I’ve started and to make good on the goals I set out above, and I hope some of what I’m doing helps you.
— Mark Barrett