Last night at USC, I attended a panel discussion, “The Best of Times: Writing in the Age of the Internet,” moderated by author Gina Nahai (Caspian Rain). The students in USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program, having honed their craft and about to graduate, wanted to know is there a job out there for them? Could they make a living writing?
Panelist Tom Lutz, director of the MFA creative writing program at UC Riverside, basically said that freelance writing, which once was a staple for newly minted writers, pays one-tenth of what it used to. “Where writers once earned a dollar, even two dollars a word, they now get about eleven cents.” That’s because people expect to get things for free or very little cost on the Internet. News on the internet is mostly free, so news organizations can’t pay a lot.
James Rainey, another panelist and a media columnist for the Los Angeles Times, said newspapers, trying to adapt to the Internet, “have tried ways to monetize the internet. I love that word, monetize. The New York Times is about to try making people pay for their news on the internet, and they might succeed.” However, right now pay is low.
Zuade Kaufman, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who now is cofounder and editor at Truthdig.com, says that she and cofounder Robert Scheer first looked into buying a small Santa Monica newspaper for their political insight, “but the numbers just didn’t add up.” So they started their online daily, which turns out to get far more circulation than a small Los Angeles newspaper would have had—and they get people from around the world reading it.
“We pay our writers,” she said. Of course, they can’t pay at rates that newspapers once did, but they pay more than, say, The Huffington Post, which gets most of their writing for free because they tell new writers that the exposure they get on The Huffington Post will get them jobs elsewhere.
“I’m tired of that,” said Rainey. “I keep getting asked to write for free in that it will help me, that it will get me exposure, and I feel overexposed.” Not only is there that, but today’s writers have to market themselves so much. He said he shares an office at the Times with Steve Lopez, best known now for his book The Soloist and the movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., and, “You’d think he’d have to do nothing, that the marketing takes care of itself,” but no, he’s having to blog and write free articles and all sorts of things.
A young woman in the audience, recently graduated from the program, said she didn’t go to school to be a marketer. “It’s like you have to have an MBA and then dress up in different costumes each day to market your book. Can’t writers just write?”
Panelist Otis Chandler, founder and CEO of Goodreads.com, said that a revolution is going on in publishing, and things are just not done the way they used to be. He said, “Goodreads exists to fill the gap between readers and publishers. Goodreads gets people who are excited about reading.” He also explained that author members who are part of Goodreads can have fan pages, and that Goodreads makes a good launching platform for a new book because it goes right to an author’s fans.
I made a big star in my notes to investigate that more. While I’m a member of Goodreads, I’ve never really explored it. A few writers have “friended” me on the site, including Tom Lutz and Janet Fitch, so I love looking at their reviews of books they have just read, but mostly I get notices of books that people just bought or hope to read, which hasn’t interested me. As the evening went on, I realized how powerful a force Goodreads could be for authors (more on that in a moment.)
Johanna Blakley, another panelist and deputy director of the Norman Lear Center, a think tank that studies the convergence on entertainment, commerce, and society, spoke up on the issue of monetizing. “How do you monetize good will?” she asked. She said that the internet was particularly valuable for writers who had important things to say and that one’s passion does not necessarily translate to money in clear ways.
Lutz said that the book market has never been clear in how it works—that advertisements for a book may or may not get noticed, that being on the front pages of the New York Times Book Review may or may not help. “My own book, which had been on the front page, went on to sell only three thousand copies.”
Nahai said that her years in the business has shown that word-of-mouth has been what has made her books sell. The trick is to get people reading and talking about a book. The promotion she's done hasn't made her feel like a salesman but "Writing is what I do, it's years of my life. I like talking about it."
Audience member Robert Scheer, cofounder of Truthdig.com and representative of the left on the syndicated political radio show Left, Right, and Center, spoke up and built on what Blakley and Nahai had pointed out. “I think writers should be writing only out of passion. You will not be ignored if you have something to say. For someone who has something to say, I’ve found there’s never been a better time.”
The event as a whole left me realizing that the challenge for today’s writer is “How do you market what you’re writing?” My passion is in fiction, and when I realized that my experience as a senior editor for a publisher in the early eighties had showed me the steps in how to publish a book, I created my own company, White Whisker Books, and published my first collection of short fiction, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea.
I’ve had a lot of success with that book for it being short stories, including a review in the Los Angeles Times and a listing in Entertainment Weekly as one of five top independently published books.
At the end of the panel session, I wanted to know more about how Goodreads could help authors. I made a beeline for Otis Chandler and asked, “What are two are three things you can tell authors to do on Goodreads to help market what they’re writing? He happily gave me the following advice.
1) “Do a giveaway of your book on Goodreads. Give away five to ten copies of your printed book. You’ll have to pay the postage, so that adds to the cost, but if you give away at least five copies, you’re likely to get at least 500 requests. You’ve now got at least 500 people interested in your book.”
2) “Advertise your book or even a future book on Goodreads. It’s $100 for an ad, and you can use the ads as a way to explore interest in a title by how many clicks you get. Try out different titles and see how they work.” I made a note to myself to click on “Advertising” to explore the options on Goodreads.
3) “Comment on other people’s books. You’re joining a part of a reading community that way, and your own books may then get comments and interest.”
4) “Create your profile with your photo on Goodreads.”
5) “Friend people on Goodreads. Build a base of people interested in what you read and write.”
6) “Join a Goodreads book club.”
7) “Add your library on Goodreads.” I asked what’s the point? Clicking on book covers, as fast as it is, takes time. “Think about what you do when you go to people’s homes,” he said. “You are likely to look at their bookshelf. What they read says a lot about them, and that curiosity works to your advantage on Goodreads. Anyone can click on your library.” I mentioned that it seemed so public, and he said that younger people are not so concerned with privacy matters. Besides, he said, if reading was a passion, why not share that passion on Goodreads? It didn’t mean I have to put up every book I had—just the ones I wanted to mention.
8) “If you blog, Goodreads has a way to connect to your blog, so you’ll have more exposure.” I said my blog is on Red Room—will that connect? He said yes, and he said he found Red Room an interesting place. He admired how big it had grown on fewer resources than he had.
Thus ended the night, with hope and with specific things I could try.
I also was able to chat with Robert Scheer, gushing, I suppose, my love for Left, Right and Center. I asked him that if Tony Blankley, on the right, was against Obama’s healthcare plan, and he, Scheer, on the left was against it, then how will we ever get healthcare? He said he’s changed his mind. He’s for Obama’s plan in hopes that it’s a place to start—but that’s a subject for another blog.
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