Thanks to Seth Godin for mentioning this post today.
I'll have an unorthodox reply this afternoon!
I walked to my mailbox in my barrel and suspenders today.
The post office box was stuffed with fundraising letters that appealed to me in the spirit of "The Season of Giving."
I was startled— don't they know this is The Season of Freaking Out?
The Season of "OMG, WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO US"?
Maybe the donation-collectors know something I don't. I find that even as I strain to support my family, I am taking others in, packing up food for someone I know. We are not so many degrees separated. The membranes are thin right now.
Writers, musicians, filmmakers, those "artists"— we're starting to open up a little bit to each other about how bad it is. I was talking to an old musician I know… venerated.. and he said, "The fact that you called this office number and someone picked up the phone..is a miracle."
"I know," I said. "My jaw is dropped."
He, of course, imagined I was living high on the hog because he'd seen my name in the press. "I'm so glad I'm fooling you, G--," I said, "'cause I didn't get paid to do any of that."
The writer/journalist community is the one i know best— and it's a landscape most easily compared to Flint, Michigan. Our publishing world has simply gone out of business. The few publishers still operating have a new business model: Don't. Pay. Writers.
The handful of reporters who remain in a union-guild newspaper bringing home a paycheck have serious survivors' guilt.
It's interesting how the economic crisis hit book authors. Our "middle class" has been eliminated— not metaphorically, but literally. My freelance income has been cut 80% in the past couple years, and that's unremarkable.
There were thousands of us in the "writer-middle." We weren't always on the NYTimes bestseller list, but our books filled many hands. Book reading was ubiquitous, not an eccentric hobby. We supported our families with our writing as surely as others did by welding or waitressing. (Two of my former teenage occupations that started with 'W'). Many of us were, or are, influential— the kind of people you say of later, "They changed my life." Little did you know the movers and shakers were parsing food stamps.
Why are working writers so shy to blubber on the street about their undeserved fate?
Well, it's because our world is based on "looking good" and not appearing ungrateful. Every deal, every new gig, is an audition. When we're told we're being let go, or that the corporation can only pay us $50 instead of $500, there's a taint that it's not about economics— that we simply didn't "merit" the cost. If only you had been a "better" writer, you might've been paid; your labor could have been respected. You're afraid that your reputation will be diminished if word gets around…
This is the bubble that needs to be burst. When Conde Naste shutters its magazines, do you think it's because all those people didn't know how to string a sentence together? Do you imagine all those bloggers at HuffPo, Salon, Slate, Gawker, etc. are doing it because it's a darling little hobby and maybe someday they'll "rate" enough to get paid professionally? Look at the last issue of the New York Times Review of Books and try to guess how many of those authors will be able to pay the rent this month on their royalties. Now divide that by two. And divide again.
What about the big stars? They've been shocked as well. I've had household-name authors cry on the phone to me, grateful that I had a small three-figure licensing check for them. Olympians like John Grisham and Stephen King sell a fraction of what they used to— and if you read their interviews, you'll see their worried candor on the subject. They're aware their sales support a much bigger circle than their immediate family. Superstars may not be worried about their mortgages and medical bills, but their employees and philanthropic beneficiaries know the fine line they're living on. The pink slip is the new black coffin.
What about writers in academia, you may wonder? Well, those with tenure wander the crumbling halls, repeating, "No matter how bad it gets, I still have health insurance." Of course, that's before they see what the university had done to dilute their benefits.
The greater group of teachers have no job security and are paid less per hour than you'd get at McDonald's. That's not an exaggeration… I took apart my paycheck one quarter from the University of California and did the math. Thank you, Simon and Schuster, for subsidizing three years of undergraduates that went through my classrooms. I couldn't have afforded it without my then-stable royalty income.
So why do we stick with our craft? My answer is common:
I've been doing this for 30 years and "transitioning" is intimidating at this age.
I'm skilled at what I do. I seems incredible that I should stop.
Most awkwardly, I identify with what I do. It's a little late for "What Color is My Parachute?" I already jumped.
Most artists you see around you are "diversifying" as much as they can. We are self-employed dervishes. Have you thought it was cute when you saw your favorite artists offering to share their work-out tips, summer camp tutorials, frosted cupcakes?
I'm sure they all enjoy those personal interests, but their motive was economic desperation. They would've rather continued their legitimate book or recording career and made cupcakes in private.
The other thing artists are doing, like buskers, is to go direct to their fans. Buskers have the balls we all envy today. They never lived on the corporate tit.
Let me approach you with a song in my heart and tell you this: If even 1% of the people who read "Susie Bright's Journal" regularly sent a small subscription payment each month, it would allow me to fill my pen and keep going.
Could you help?
$5 a month? You can set it up right here in less than a minute.
I'm sure, if you saw me in person, you'd be like, "Susie! Let me get you a coffee! A pair of wool socks! It's on me!" And just a little bit of wool and caffeine from a larger pool of people would make all the difference.
If you could make a tiny monthly donation, or a one-time donation, it could tip the scales at this point.
I know from your letters and phone calls over the years how much good will you have. Some of you have said to yourself, "I have got to stop buying another disposable copy of People magazine and start supporting my favorite independents!" You're right— do it. Not only do you feel better, but you actually end up reading more that you like.
I also know many of you are in similar worrisome straits, marching around the house screaming, "Turn off the lights! Nothing but peanut butter from now on!" I hear you.
However, I am appealing to those of you who still have the income to purchase occasional books, albums, subscriptions, go to the movies, pay the fiddler a dram.
No one likes to come bugging their fans with their hat in hand. We want it all to be invisible to you. The less income authors see, perversely, the more tender our pride becomes. I'm much happier, more NORMAL, volunteering, chipping in, and doing pro bono-whatever than sitting on the other side of the cup.
Some skeptics may want to know if I've been imprudent. Is there a story here? Did I blow my early millions on cocaine and hookers and trips to Vegas?
Damn, I wish I had. I did make my publishers millions of dollars— but I blew my share, my thousands, on raising children. The roof repair was one hell of a kick. And there's nothing more fun than an unnecessary MRI bill. Oh, I've learned my lesson. When I get down to my last five bucks— instead of doing something sensible, I'm going to buy a bourbon.
We must fight against the dying of the light, I know. I'm one of multitudes trying to hang in there.
One way to keep our spirits high is to give back in kind. When you donate directly to my work, I like to give you the best of what I'm working on. Anyone who subscribes to my blog, I always offer a free copy of my newest book or video— I want to lavish anyone who's sticking their neck out.
So, for those of you who've benefited by my writing, been inspired or humored or informed or dazed, please think of subscribing. "I will make you happy," as they say.
And, if you're like, "No way— you don't "merit" it, Ms. Bright," then I must direct you to your bookshelf and bookmark list. What writer do you love? Do they have a blog or a way to reach them directly? Ask me!— I know practically everyone who's still standing on one leg.
Sit down and write them a letter about how their writing has affected you— and send them some coin. For those wool socks! If you think they're too rich and fat to care, write me first and I'll give you the scoop. I've had a ringside seat to the whole mess.
P.S. Some of you have asked me, "Susie, can I send you something instead of naked dollar bills that would be helpful?" Absolutely. You can drive over that cord of firewood right now. ;-)
P.S.S. I know this letter begs the question of what will happen to the Internet, media, reading, the "new business model" everyone keeps scrambling to predict. It is in difficult progress. The issue here is, who will be able to hang on by their fingernails until it's clear? I'm trying everything, and asking for your donation is one piece of the quilt— that could be its centerpiece.