Being a Writer in the Early 21st Century

When I was growing up, books were precious. There wasn’t any internet, and the planet was shrinking only slowly. There were vinyl records, cassette tapes, radio and television. We went out the movies, until the late 1970s when video cassettes became available and cinemas starting reeling under the impact of stay-at-home families. Letters were posted and took days to arrive on the other side of the city, weeks before arriving on the other side of the world. The first words of French I ever learned were “par avion”, because that was printed on the little blue sticker you had to attach to the envelope that was going to be sent via “air mail”.

Television news proudly announced things like “via satellite”; overseas telephone calls had to go through an operator and cost a fortune; faxes were new and expensive and slow; libraries had little pieces of cardboard with book information laboriously typed or handwritten kept in drawers you needed to go through to find where your title was on the shelf; bookstores were everywhere and books – especially good books – were affordable, but only just.

Even when I was small, I knew I had to write books. Not big, colourful books with few large-type words and bright illustrations, I had to write books with lots of quality words like the grown-ups read (and I quietly read too). I loved books. The library was a happy place for me. What I didn’t know and couldn’t find out was the process to take something I’d hand-written on sheets of paper and transform it into the beautifully formed lettering all cleverly typeset on those cleanly trimmed pages of a bound volume. It was a mystery that stayed with me until aged about 14, when I saw a documentary that described the process.

I was in awe of authors. They took pages they’d clattered out on their typewriter to big publishing houses and eventually their toil appeared on shelves in bookshops, accompanied by large displays, book signings, printed ads in newspapers and much notoriety. I wasn’t interested in being centre of attention, I just wanted to see words I’d created in bound volumes and enjoyed by people.

I wrote. I wrote a great deal. I wrote all the time, and bided my time while I wrote, knowing that one day my words could end up in bookstores, beautifully typeset in lovely bound volumes that would be a joy to touch, to hold and to read. Despite my efforts, there were impediments. My laboriously hand-written books were thrown away by parents looking to clear space on shelves for more important things. I lost a pile of them to a flooded house one year. I gave one book away to a friend. I re-wrote what I remembered of my lost works, knowing others would never return.

Writing was what I did, but I also had a working life, which was nothing to do with writing. That working life took over, and while some writing continued, not a great deal was accomplished. After that, working life was interrupted by ill health. I stood blinking in the dust wondering what I could do now my abilities were severely limited. I wondered if maybe returning to writing was an answer.

So, I wrote again. Small bits at first, little shorts, notes, memories of old stories long gone. Then out came a novel. Then another. In the space of ten months, I had four novels, with a fifth, six and seventh started. I looked around, and realised the world was a very different place to how it was when I started writing. Bookstores were scarce, printed books more a luxury than a necessity. Cassettes and vinyl were gone, their successors also fading. Skype made international calls as cheap as bandwidth, and it didn’t really matter where in the world people were, they were all connected via the internet. Air mail had subsided because everyone was sending email that took moments, not weeks. Books had evolved, too. Now there were e-books as well as printed books, and they were cheap! Some were even free! I questioned how any author could make a living from writing if books were so cheap. Sure, the cost of manufacture had plummeted, but the margins were so small!

My problem is since asking that question, I haven’t actually found an answer. There are innumerable blogs and articles filled with wisdom and advice, but the majority of these are directed at people who are made to be book sellers, book promoters, author-branding experts and hustlers of every shade. I don’t want to be any of these things, I want to be a writer. I want to write. I don’t want to be a hustler, a shill, a salesman or anything that’s not a writer, because I am hopeless at those things and in spending time and effort doing all of that, I’m not writing. Even publishers these days ask “and what are you going to bring to the effort of selling your book?” to which I feel I want to respond “Isn’t that your job? Just let me write!”

I have to admit I’m feeling a little dispirited about the modern landscape of writing. I keep getting told “content is king”, but as a content creator, I don’t feel that for a minute. All I feel is content I create, whether it’s writing or my art, is barely considered and largely ignored because it’s not being offered for free after being trumpeted from the mountaintop.

I suppose this is the price paid for the “democratisation” of content. Any fool can publish a book these days, and judging by some of what I’ve seen out there, many often do. No longer is there that rubbish-filter of a publishing company editor. Content is no longer king. How it’s sold is king now, which only goes to reward the salesman, not the content creator.

I’ll go on writing. I like my content, and feel it has a place and role out there in the world. I’d rather not give it away, as I think it has value and merit, despite there being a growing number of people who feel that anything other than free is too expensive. There will always be those who want something for nothing. Back in the days of audio cassettes and “via satellite” announcements, many of those people were typically labelled “thieves”. These days, they’re regarded as “entitled”.

Some day I might find an answer. I certainly hope so. I’d dearly love my writing to pay my way in the world, but isn’t that the dream of writers everywhere?

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One thought on “Being a Writer in the Early 21st Century

  1. I totally hear you with the writing and then the marketing that takes away from the writing. Nowadays, even traditionally published authors need to market. It’s why Neil Gaiman and Stephen King do book tours – to sell their books. It’s just that someone else is paying for their tickets and hotel reservations. I used to fight the whole, “why do I have to promote my book when I’m a writer?” question until I realized that I never considered querying my work to trad publishers in the first place (I do join contests but I agonize over who owns copyright and for how long that I end up publishing my own books). And no one will champion your work more than you. I’ve met authors who waited for their literary agents to “pitch” their books to publishers and waited up to 5 years with no results to show for it. They were better off publishing it themselves and that’s what they’re doing now.

    It’s a steep learning curve – book promotions – butI learned a great deal from reading Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant and David Wright. That was a good starting point for me especially when they talk about your book being art while you’re writing it, and then it becomes a product when it’s done and you have to sell it. That was a huge eye-opener for me and although sometimes I still get really attached to my books and characters, I remind myself that it’s a product now and I need to get it front and center to the consumer 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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