In yesterday’s post I made the case for my own rejection of the free/freemium content-pricing model, as well as the celebrity-first marketing model that seems to be its genetic twin. In a nutshell, the idea of giving away content in order to get people to care about me so I can monetize affection on the back end is not what I’m interested in doing. Were I the kind of writer who also wants to be a celebrity I could see the utility and appeal of that approach, but I’m not that kind of person. There’s nothing in me that wants to be on stage in a spotlight, and there never has been.
This leaves me with two choices. If conventional wisdom is right, and celebrity is a critical component of any writer’s ability to make a living, then I need to quit writing and do something else. The only alternative is the contrarian view that content in and of itself still does have some value in the marketplace. Because I tend to come by contrariness honestly, that’s the path I intend to follow.
If I’m right and conventional wisdom is wrong, then I’m effectively buying the content-first model at a discount. Later, when everybody realizes that celebrity is simply another endlessly-available, valueless commodity that they will have to root, grunt, scratch, claw and eternally fight for, I can leverage resurgent interest in non-celebrity content (formerly known as ‘entertainment’ or ‘knowledge’) and make a killing. Or something like that.
Obviously, the trendy idea that information or content has no inherent value rests on the bedrock premise of the internet as an free and open information pipeline servicing a world-wide society of hackers, spammers, pirates, griefers and anonymous cranks, as well as sundry meeker citizens. And I have no problem with that. I don’t think the internet should be regulated, or that people should be forced to give up their anonymity in order to join ongoing cultural conversations. If quality really doesn’t matter any more simply because there’s so much quantity, I can live with that.
However…it’s hard not to notice that comments about the ubiquity of internet content often dovetail with comments about the general lack of quality, value, merit, meaning or worth in that same infinite stream of words and ideas. And here I’m not talking about the difficulty of finding the good stuff. Rather, I’m saying that most of the stuff that’s out there is just plain bad not by my measure, but by anyone’s measure.
Granted, I’m verging on elitism even by making this point, so let me clarify. There is no inherent relationship between the quality of writing and the meaning or importance of something that’s written. I’ve read brilliantly-written words that were functionally psychotic, and I’ve read clunky language that was pure truth. If you as an individual want to express your feelings and ideas you will find no stronger supporter of your right to do so than me, regardless of your literary ability to do so. By the same token, if you are not a whiz at language, but your intent is noble and your aim is to wrestle with truth, or even your own personal truth, I won’t be taking points off because you aren’t a great writer.
Provided…you’re not charging me. If you are charging me, either directly or indirectly (say, through advertising on a corporate site — including corporate news and content sites), then I’m going to see you as a professional, and the bar of expectations is going to rise. Not only am I going to expect your writing to be decent, I’m going to expect you to make sense. In effect, I’m going to expect you to earn your money.
Once again, this leads back to the vexing question of how we define amateurism and professionalism. One of the things I’ve realized while wrangling with that issue, as well as the issue of pricing content, is that it’s very hard for me to see priced content as unprofessional (or amateur). I know there are various exceptions (craft goods, say, or cookies at a local bake sale), but in the main I think there is a general cultural assumption that if you put a price on your goods you are saying that you are a professional at what you do — even if you’re a flaky artist.
The obvious exception, of course, is the celebrity-first model of publishing success. Certainly Chris Anderson is a professional writer, and yet there he is giving his writing away for free. An unintended consequence of this, however, is that it seems to deepen the murk around the question of amateurism and professionalism, rather than clarify it. If I see that someone is giving their content away for free, am I looking at cutting-edge content from a savvy, forward-thinking professional, or something an amateur simply wanted to make public? (In a similar vein I’m concerned that the free-content model of celebrity-driven success encourages writers who would like to become professionals to abandon their amateur status too soon.)
Leaving aside the free/freemium content model, no matter how I come at the question I can’t shake the feeling that content that has a price put on it is professional-grade, or that it should fairly be seen as professional-grade. If you are charging money for your insights or perspectives, then those insights better be good and you better be able to back them up beyond an assertion of your First Amendment right to free speech. More to the point of this blog, if what you’re saying with the stories you want me to pay for is that you can create and sustain suspension of disbelief and move me emotionally, then you better be able to prove that, too.
In this context most content on the internet isn’t bad because it fails to meet either an objective or subjective standard of writing quality, it’s bad because it fails to do what it was intended to do. As the old joke goes, if you want to make people laugh, be funny. If you want to engage in sharp political commentary, you better be able to deliver sharp political commentary. Freaking out and ranting isn’t good enough. (Even partisan pandering is no longer good enough unless your only goal is feeding the loons.)
Stepping back from labels like amateur and professional — which I decidedly do not intend to apply to anyone other than myself — what I’m really putting forward is the idea that quality of content has something to do with pricing. I know there’s some implicit elitism in that concept, but I also think it’s important to take an internet-age look at the relationship between quality and price because it seems to differ from all of our previous reference points and assumptions.
Previously, content was priced according to a closed system of distribution and publication. Industry gatekeepers effectively decided who got to create the content in the marketplace because they controlled the means of distribution. Paradoxically, this tended to devalue the relationship between price and quality, precisely because competition was limited. A bad or weak content creator backed by millions of dollars in marketing muscle would still sell better than someone outside that system.
The internet clearly changed all that. For example, because the quality of political punditry on the web is pretty much on par with the quality of political punditry coming from the paid outlets, those paid outlets are hurting. But that doesn’t mean that quality is meaningless. What it means is that the crap that people used to be able to charge for is now meaningless, and I can’t really see any downside to that. Simply put, the free marketplace of ideas is putting price pressure on weak content, as it should.
Now, if you follow this logical road long enough you end up at the zany idea that people who are better at something should be paid more than people who are worse. And in the old days that actually used to be the case. The master carpenter was paid more than the apprentice. In today’s celebrity-dominated culture, however, the good-looking TV carpenter is paid the most, while a symmetrically-challenged, off-camera carpenter does the cutting and nailing behind the scenes. (For the exception that proves the rule, seeNorm Abram. Speaking of which, who else takes the time to talk about shop safety in every single program? Answer: nobody — because pretty TV people don’t care what you lop off.)
Am I saying I’m a master carpenter? No, and I’m never going to claim that status. I’ve know master musicians and master potters and master martial artists, and they all tend to view their level of skill the same way. Whatever they know, they know there’s still a lot to learn, and that’s how I feel about my own work. (The best comment I ever heard on this subject came from this man, who said that no matter what level of competence you attain your focus should be on daily improvement. I agree.)
What I will say about my own work as a writer and storyteller is that I aspire to being able to deliver the goods. It’s quite possible I actually stink, or that I’m kind’a-sort’a okay but woefully out of touch with the times. Without making a direct comparison between myself and Vincent Van Gogh, it’s always worth remembering that among the man’s many troubles was finding buyers for his paintings. Paintings which are now almost universally recognized as not simply priceless in the marketplace, but pure as art.
I can’t worry about any of that. I can’t control outside factors, I can’t be anything other than who I am, and I can only aspire to do the best I can with whatever gifts I might have and whatever determination I might be able to muster. So that’s what I intend to do. Write as well as I can. If I do that, and if I hit what I’m aiming at, I hope to be able to sell my products in the marketplace of ideas. Maybe I won’t be able to, but that’s what I’m going to try.
As to the question of pricing my own goods, which, as noted yesterday, I intend to do, I think that putting a price to content on the internet is a declaration of professionalism. Granted, there’s some wriggle room here — if you price your goods substantially below market norms you are probably signaling apprentice status, or something similar — but I think the basic idea holds. Putting a market-standard price on your goods signals your intent to compete on a professional basis with others in that market.
My work product — the things I make, whether those are stories I write or collaborative for-hire projects — is like anyone else’s work product. It’s how I make my living. And I’m not willing to price my work at zero. I’m not saying others don’t have good reason to do that, or that the celebrity-first model can’t work. I’m just saying that I took a long look at it, and it doesn’t work for me.
What about the free content I put up on this site, like this very blog post? Well, that issue was raised in the comments to yesterday’s thread, and I want to take a moment to expand on my response. I’ll grant that what I’m doing on Ditchwalk seems to demonstrate much of the celebrity-first model. The problem I have with this observation is that it doesn’t so much prove the validity of that model as prove the banality of it. Anyone who hopes to sell anything needs a presence. Maybe it’s a targeted presence, maybe it’s a wide presence, but there needs to be some way to get the message out about the products you sell or the services you provide, or you’re never going to have any customers.
As a writer, this is my second foray into blogging and maintaining a professional web site. My first effort also validated many of the celebrity-first marketing bullet points, but did so before those bullet points were codified. (A pretty neat trick, no?)
Where I draw a distinction is that I’m not trying to get you to believe in me. I’m not a seer, or a guru, or a guy looking to translate any of that into a paycheck. I’m a mechanic most days and an artist on good days. If I’m trying to establish anything on this blog it’s credibility, not celebrity. I’m not saying stuff in the hope that a large, vocal, and cash-rich community will buy into my world view. I’m trying to make arguments about issues that help illuminate the way forward for writers who may be starting out, or who may be trying to transition to the web.
If I’m advocating for anything it’s for the rights of writers (and musicians, etc.), who are too often the scapegoats, whipping persons and indentured servants of the content industries. I’m trying to say that craft matters beyond any marketing weasel’s ability to package crap and sell it to people who are already up to their necks in crap.
I’m trying to tell new writers that they need to avoid being exploited (or becoming deluded) while they learn their craft, because there’s a hell of a lot of it to learn. And none of it comes from becoming a celebrity.
— Mark Barrett