It was a real surprise to see Seth Godin use my name as an example in his recent Digital Business Super-Advice blog.
It’s not that we haven’t crossed paths: we each wrote a couple of Amazon’s original e-books, long before Kindle. We enjoyed exchanging the top two bestseller spots in a format that almost no one had ever used.
At the time, we were both at our wit's end trying to get our publishers to discover things like “email” and the “Internet.”
Since then, Seth has become a force in the world of business advice— a marketing bizwiz.Meanwhile, I've continued to skirt the mainstream— hey, feminist radical goofy sex IS a tougher sell. When I go to geek conferences, I say I'm in “erotic forensics.”
So, Seth has some advice for me on how to reincarnate my writer’s life and make a bundle.
Could he be correct? Or would I only make false steps in a doomed attempt to “sell out”?
What Godin insists is that even counter-culture iconoclasts with a healthy disregard for consumerism, Still Buy Shit. If you have a groovy little niche, you’re supposed to figure out what makes it tick. This leads to “making a living.”
Let me show you what went through my mind as I read Seth’s post:
In old school print pubs, Seth says, "I wouldn't be surprised if the freelance budget for the writers and photographers (the real reason people read a magazine) is less than 15% of the cost, perhaps a lot less…Now, we fast forward to a world, our digital media world, where the cost of delivery is zero and so we've removed 95% of the costs."
Very true. Which goes to show how inequitable the current talent-compensation model remains on the Internet.
The corporate blog overhead is minuscule compared to paper-printing. Their advertising and subscription revenues are considerable. Their profit margin is more than healthy because they don't pay writers/artists/editors professionally. They stoked people’s egos and have pushed such nonsense to the outer limits.
"What happens to the writers? Where do they get their money now?"
Big news and entertainment sites procure writers for nothing or pennies. Their editors are indentured servants. They DO pay a few people very well to investigate hard news/breaking gossip. Those people's contracts are top-secret affairs.
Every time you hear a major site say, "We don't pay our bloggers" or "We only pay $25/$50 per post"— they are not divulging their exceptions to you. In order to compete, they are having to pay SOMEBODY to break news.
Their tech staff gets paid professionally of course; they are invisible to the audience and therefore get no ego strokes, only money.
"The bad news: Conde Nast and Simon & Schuster and the other usual suspects are no longer going to pay decent wages to average writers."
That happened awhile ago.
I would ask Seth what he means by "average" here. It can't mean "average-talent," because some of the best writers in America are unable to go to the doctor, heat their homes, or pay their kids' school bills anymore. That's just the way it is. I could shock you with stories about people you imagine are living in an ivory tower reading their fan mail and eating bon-bon’s… they’re barely scraping by.
Perhaps Godin means "average-sales." Writers sales are average who don't sell in the millions, or even six-figures on a reliable basis.
The blockbusters like John Grisham and Laurel Hamilton… even they are selling SHIT compared to their old sales figures. Sarah Palin’s book, after returns, is nothing compared to what a political screwball like her could’ve sold in the old days.
Most published authors who plied their trade in pre-digital years could make a living as long as they sold in the mid-five-figures and/or produced critically-well-received work. That is no small feat, but now that isn't enough. People just aren't buying books like that anymore.
"The good news: There's a new job, but this job hasn't been filled yet. It's not stable enough for a publisher type to grab it. It's not boring enough for a bureaucrat. Instead, it's a job for someone with a writer's sensibility and awareness, but it requires entrepreneurship and organization."
This sounds promising, but keep in mind that even the most spunky entrepreneurial author is facing a battle of the clock every day. You can spend your hours writing creative original work, or you can spend your hours alligator-wrestling with your blog design, marketing initiatives, "membership" drives, etc. In your zeal, you can end up doing a frantic half-baked performance of all of it.
Not to mention, there are brilliant authors who are never going to wear 50 Caps with Aplomb. I miss their voices.
What I need is affordable business help and digital tools that give me more time to write, edit, research, rather than add more chores. I do need automation, but the Swiss Army Knife I'm looking for isn't within my reach. That's what I'm looking for.
This blog for example. There "ought" to be an easy system for a single author to make part of their blog "for-pay" without having to be a crack-coder, that provides security and ease of use. Typepad's interface doesn't offer that. Wordpress does, sort of, if you have the chops. I wish my blog was like Cook's Illustrated. But that requires a tidy little capital investment in expert help.
I could give the same sort of examples for videocasts, ebook campaigns, etc. It's more than just "thinking big" or putting in an enthusiastic effort.
I find myself worrying, "Oh, I haven't tweeted, facebooked, and "participated" enough today… or sent out my email newsletter and upgraded my feed delivery system and re-Squalled my Wordpress Paypal links and booked my retreat members to Pago-Pago and supervised my online writing class and called my Premium Coaching members and and and and and…"
This is not even a parody. This is, however. I called the author. He'd call it the gospel truth.
"What happens when the people with great ideas start organizing for themselves, start leading online tribes, start creating micro products and seminars and interactions that people are actually willing to pay for? It's possible that someone like (nsfw) writer Susie Bright [could do it]...”
Sorry, I have to fly off on a tangent here. Or maybe not such a tangent.
Nancy Pelosi quips that health insurers consider "being a woman" as a disqualifying pre-existing condition.
The same is true for women bloggers. If we discuss the normal life cycle of female existence, our content is labeled "NSFW."
We can't menstruate, have babies, get pregnant, have an abortion, nurse, go through menopause, or have a single sexual opinion without being labeled “NSFW.” It's a bogus, unmandated censorship nanny-wall and I, for one, HAVE HAD IT.
Nothing in my blog is more revealing than what you could see in Vanity Fair. The New York Times can write about pedophilia scares, publish nude artwork, and cover the abortion debate without having their site banned. I want the same respect.
"[Susie Bright] is never again going to make a good living just writing…"
I would correct Seth by saying that I don't make my living by "writing" in the same fashion as I did a decade ago, but writing is still the core of my career. It is still the core of his.
I podcast, produce e-books, make movies, teach classes, solicit blog donations. I consult and edit and speak and wiggle my way in and out of a few dozen tutu's. But it all flows from writing something down. I used to publish with a few huge institutions, who paid well. Now I'm spread more thinly, with widely-varying compensation.
My biggest income still comes from writing something so good it succeeds on its own merits, even financially.
"Instead, she could make a great living coordinating, organizing, introducing and leading a thousand or ten thousand true fans."
I see myself in a clingy red silk dress, waving a serpent-twined revolutionary flag as I mount the hill, my bandolier strapped across my bosom. Adelita lives!
"Each of them will gladly pay for the privilege, because the connections and insights and benefits she brings are worth it."
You hear that? "Gladly." When you subscribe to my blog, there's an extra little spring to your step. Butterflies and hot babes hover close to you.
This is the crux of Seth's vision for me.
I know my insights are meaningful, because I get intimate feedback all the time. But most of my readers have never directly supported my income before; it wouldn't occur to them. They aren't accustomed to treating authors like busking musicians. They already feel like they pay through the nose for everything. I empathize.
For me to tempt them into supporting my work directly, I can't rely on busking. I need a system. I get uptight at most of the "offers" I receive in the mail from other hustling artists. They offer trinkets, an avalanche of spam, and very little personal contact. My reaction: UGH. I don't want my readers and colleagues to feel that way about me.
But I bend the stick too much in the opposite direction. I stay up at night worrying that I didn't answer each fan's email completely enough. I believe, in my utopian heart, that EVERYONE should have a great writing mentor for free. I try to learn Wordpress in a day and collapse in tears. I don't coordinate the whole enchilada with state-of-the-art efficiency. My treasure trove is sitting on Kindle and no one knows about it. I need help.
"She didn't wake up this morning thinking of herself as a coach or a tour leader or a concierge or a leader, but that's the niche available to her."
Oh, I have. And many other occupations as well. I was schooled by unrelenting pinko-cadre members to strap on my stupid every day.
But after climbing on every piece of playground equipment, I still come back to this: a mutual and equitable collaboration between business partners is preferable to one beleaguered artist doing everything themselves, or enduring the slave-labor camps of most blog empires.
I want a third door.
"The Grateful Dead spent thirty years without a record label that understood them, thirty years being their own boss, leading their own tribe, connecting people who wanted to be there instead of shilling for their tiny share of record sales."
The critical words are: 30 YEARS. Thirty years of touring. And being great. It does pay off. Since I have also been touring and making original word-music for thirty years, I am indeed interested in following their footsteps. I'm just not quite as popular...
"If you want to write the fortunes for the cookies that don't exist any more, you may need to make your own organization, lead your own tribe and hire yourself."
Done, done, and done.
What an artist in my position needs is affordable, accessible technical and marketing support, along with business acumen to organize the value of an enormous backlist of material and resources. —More business acumen than I already have— I already teach others.
It's hard to know what to do first, second, and third— how to release an idea, fulfill it, extend it, evergreen it. Most web-support-folk are reaching out to newbies or to the institutionally endowed. They aren't oriented to long-time authors and journalists who’ve been running small offices for decades. Yes, we're in the minority. But we are motivated.
Most of Seth's fans are relatively new to publishing… either novices, or with less than one book or a handful of articles published. They’re just like most of the writers who seek my advice.
No matter how much my clients implore me to skip the “content” and guide them to sales-contract gold, I find that in 90% of the cases, the new writer’s challenge is to be original, be brilliant, work on their craft, develop their writing and editing eye. In other words, become irresistable.
All the marketing stuff is useless if you don't have a world-shaking, beautifully-written message. Harsh but true. Blow people's minds first. All else flows from that.
Maybe that’s the problem with my “sales program.” I have something to say, I say it, and I don’t have a hydra-headed program for how to exploit it. I wake up in the morning and say, “Oh man, I can’t wait to write about —*THIS*— today!”