Can you afford a monoculture career?

by Suw on April 13, 2011

Last night there was an interesting discussion on Twitter between Cory Doctorow, David Hewson, Nick Harkaway, Baldur Bjarnason and, towards the end, me, about whether or not it’s reasonable to expect fiction writers to have to do something else as well as writing in order to keep the lights on. (The as-full-as-I-can-manage collection of Tweets is after the break.)

The discussion was prompted by a blog post of David Hewson’s, Why I don’t take career advice from Cory Doctorow, in which he basically says “A publishing model that works for Cory Doctorow will never work for me”. This was in response to comments on a previous post of Hewson’s in which he got understandably cross about people digitising is work and then selling it despite not being licensed to. Some commenters pointed at Cory’s model as one to adopt as it is predicated on sharing (although not the unlicensed sale of Cory’s work, I’d add).

I understand why David, and other authors, get angry about people taking their work without permission, and especially when those people then profit from it. Such behaviour pushes some fundamental buttons concerned with fairness that are rooted deep in our monkeybrain. Many animals, like monkeys and dogs, have a built-in sense of fairness which kicks in when they see a peer getting more than they do. So it’s entirely rational for humans to get cross when they see others acting unfairly.

The problem is that stopping people from acting unfairly on the internet is incredibly hard. Yes, you can notice-and-takedown, but in all honesty, you’re playing an infinite game of whack-a-mole which may well end up costing you more in time and effort than you’re actually losing in sales. And there’s no guarantee that you actually are losing sales at all; the evidence is not at all conclusive.

So let’s put that bit to bed and focus on the discussion that sprang from those beginnings: Should an author expect to require more than one income stream?

The nub of David’s argument appeared to be that the majority of professional authors are not able to do anything but write in order to earn a living, and that Cory is an exception. But in pretty much every conversation I have ever had with publishing professionals, they tell me that it is incredibly difficult to earn all of your income just from writing, even if you are a professional with a publishing deal. It’s the same across all creative endeavours. Graphs of income show a small spike of very successful people, and then a very, very long tail of people who get a bit of money, but have to supplement it with income from somewhere else.

This is not new. I doubt it has ever not been the case. When I worked in the music industry, I saw plenty of musicians who had the goal of living solely off their music, but I met very, very few who actually did. Lots of them had a day job and the majority would never be able to afford to drop that day job. For the small number that did, their income from music was not enough to see them financially secure for the rest of their lives, so they were destined to return to a day job as soon as their music career ended.

It’s the same in writing. In photography. In art. In all the creative fields: Most people simply will not earn enough from their creativity to live.

But things have changed, and changed dramatically. For a long time, creative types would have to work outside of their field to make ends meet, as waitresses or brickies or office workers. The internet brings with it an opportunity to make money from things that are related to your writing. Instead of holding down a 9 to 5 job whilst working on your latest project, you can get a bit of money in from talks, a bit from journalism, maybe even a bit from merchandise. You can boost your income whilst at the same time also building your brand and increasing people’s awareness of your work.

Yet both David and Nick made the point that Cory, who really is the poster boy for new and innovative publishing strategies, is in some way different. Not everyone, they say, can do what he does.

This rather reminds me of when I went to Australia as an 18 year old. “Aren’t you lucky?” everyone would say, much to my annoyance. I was not lucky. I worked hard for a couple of summers to save up enough to pay for my flights, got a work permit, and then got jobs in Australia to bankroll my trip. You could argue that I had indeed been lucky to have family in Australia, but although my trip would have been different in nature and possibly shorter, I would have found a way to go even without family to stay with. I made a decision about what I wanted and I worked until I got it.

Cory is not lucky. He has not just suddenly materialised out of the ether with a bunch of books and some weirdo business model. He has worked hard for his success, developing his writing, speaking and fanbase over many years.

This casting of Cory as somehow different, weird or lucky is fundamentally the same as people telling me I was lucky to go to Australia. By casting me as “other” in some way, people could abdicate responsibility for their own experiences. Because I was “lucky” and they were not, they could not be responsible for the fact that they hadn’t gone to Australia, because it was out of their hands, down to fate or karma or an accident of birth.

By casting Cory as “other” we can absolve ourselves of the responsibility to examine his business model in detail and learn new things that we could do to add to our own income. By saying that it’s about personality and secondary skills, we can avoid having to learn how to do things that perhaps we feel a bit iffy about.

The truth is that anyone can learn to speak in public. It might help if you’re naturally outgoing, but it’s not impossible for shier people to learn how to conquer their nerves, how to structure a talk, how to read an audience. I am certainly not the world’s most gregarious person, but I have learnt over the last six years or so how to stand up and speak in front of large crowds and not completely suck at it. We can all develop the skills we need to explore additional income streams. (And for some things, like the design skills that I wish I had but don’t, we can hire them in.)

Now, I know that it’s not just the author that has an impact on how successful these additional income streams are, but also their audience. I’ve heard over and again that SF is different, that Cory’s tactics wouldn’t work in Crime, for example, or Romance. Certainly some crime writers I know say that crime readers are a lot less focused on the author and a lot less interested in hearing the author speak or in signings etc. I think what that indicates to me is that there’s a need for market development – a whole post in and of itself – rather than that it’s fundamentally impossible for Crime or Romance readers to respond to a strategy like Cory’s.

If you are in the position to be creative and earn enough to live purely from your own creativity, you are in a privileged position. But it can only be a good thing that there are now alternatives to working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, alternatives that also serve to actually boost your creative career’s chances by bolstering your profile.

I sometimes think people confuse what is possible with what they want, or don’t want. One may not wish to become a public speaker, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to do so. One may not wish to have to supplement one’s income by writing columns or giving talks, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to do so. And equally, one may not wish to do some hardcore market dev work in order to make your secondary incomes viable, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to do so. Equally, just because something is possible does not mean it is also easy. But then, nothing worthwhile is easy.

UPDATE: John Scalzi has written a great blog post, Multiple Revenue Streams, Revisited, where he discusses the wisdom of not relying on just one source of income. Well worth a read!

UPDATE 2: David Hewson has written another blog post to more fully explore his thoughts on the matter: Don’t give up the day job (until the time is right).

UPDATE3: James Marckaw joins in and imagines a few revenue streams for romance and crime writers. As he says, “Just because someone hasn’t done it yet [in romance or crime], and I don’t stipulate that they haven’t, doesn’t mean that they couldn’t.”

(After the jump: lots of Tweets! There are more on Keepstream, so for the full picture, do click through.)

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

David Hewson April 13, 2011 at 2:26 pm

For a long time I was a columnist on the Sunday Times and wrote novels too. Then the novels did well enough so I could focus on them – and they got better for that. I do talk in public a fair bit and I’d like to think I’m good at it, getting invitations from Melbourne to Victoria, teaching at writing schools.

But Cory Doctorow’s belief that most writers can find decent income this way is based on his experience, which is his alone. He says above that he’s been offered up to $10K to appear at events. I’ve done very big literary festivals and I can tell you the going rate, if there’s a rate at all, is closer to $250. And for that you have days of travel and often other expenses to deal with.

Readers in other areas of fiction aren’t so interested in author personality cults because they are somehow under-developed in marketing terms. They’re just more interested in the books than the people who write them which is, in my view, how it should be.

If someone needs a secondary living outside writing to earn their keep – and you’re right a lot of people are in that position – they’re going to be a lot better off trying to earn money doing what they did before they started writing than positioning themselves as a speaker for hire about writing. There aren’t a lot of paid spots going for gurus out there, and those that do exist are taken.

As to the question of book theft…. yes it is impossible to stop. The thieves will never change their tack. But most book buyers are decent and honest and will provided they understand the damage they do, not only to authors but also potentially to their own bank accounts, by sneaking off and taking out dodgy subscriptions with torrent sites in countries that thumb their nose at copyright law. We turn our backs on the colossal level of digital piracy out there at our peril. Unlike musicians authors can’t sell tee shirts to make on the slack or, unless you’re someone in Cory Doctorow’s position, make much on the road either

Foz Meadows April 13, 2011 at 2:34 pm

An interesting post, but I think you’ve missed something crucial when it comes to talking about Doctorow. It’s not that he’s lucky, or that other writers view him as lucky – it’s that the second string to his fiddle, so to speak, is a whole other professional skillset, and one which happens to correlate directly to his stance on the ebooks/piracy/digital issue. Trying to compare Doctorow’s knowledge of and evident passion for technology, coding and the internet to a dayjob like laying bricks or waiting tables is fundamentally flawed. For one thing, his skills in that area constitute a professional career in their own right, one in which he holds considerable status and celebrity as a maverick icon for reasons separate from his writing career, as distinct from something one does merely to pay the bills, and for which any number of equally dispassionate, unfamous people could be qualified. For another, those skills are not easy to come by, such that not just anyone could pick them up with ease, even if they had the inclination to do so; and this is relevant because those insider skills, when combined with his writing career, are exactly what make Doctorow so formidable.

So, yes: other people can do what he does, and certainly whether they succeed or not will have nothing to do with luck. But being Cory Doctorow on the internet, with all the credibility and awe that entails, is not something everyone else – or perhaps even anyone else – could do, no matter how hard they worked or how similar to his their philosophies were. It’d be like some other genre-spanning, multi-blogging, game-changing writer coming along and trying to be Neil Gaiman. Sure, they could act like it, and doubtless they’d reap some benefits. But they wouldn’t be Neil Gaiman. Like it or not, there’s a fame/name/branding/culture issue at work here, too.

Plus, as is alluded to in Hewson’s article, there’s significant crossover between Doctorow’s readership and those who follow his technology posts. Which obviously helps.

Baldur Bjarnason April 13, 2011 at 3:00 pm

I absolutely agree with you. One example I’m familiar with is my father. For a large part of his career he ran workshops, taught both in junior colleges and universities, and worked on conferences, all in addition to his consultancy work.

He kept some of his side-projects going when he was hired to a lucrative position, but most of them fell by the wayside as there was a limit to the flexibility he was allowed by his main job.

The problem came, of course, a few years ago, just before the crash, when he was made redundant and had nothing to fall back on. He’s recovered now, but his life would have been a lot easier had he kept teaching the occasional workshop or university course, if not just for the contacts.

But I am also reminded of his speciality, because that is relevant here: Workplace and Management Psychology.

One of the core truths in workplace psychology today is that incentives work and are toxic because they work. They skew behaviour to a massive degree and once an incentive is tied in with a specific task, that task and all of the skills related to it will end up over-emphasised.

To put it crudely: What gets paid the most, gets done the most, and what gets done the most, will get done the best.

The smaller a share of a creative professional’s income comes from writing, the more likely it will be that writing will be the weakest of that professional’s output.

Almost anybody can learn how to teach and present, I know that from personal experience, but writing as a sideline isn’t nearly as likely to result in good work as writing as a primary activity.

(That’s not to say that it can’t be really good, just that it isn’t as likely.)

I’m not saying this to counter anything you say (diversification is a key aspect of survival in today’s economy), just that we can use this to make certain predictions about how certain segments of the book industry is going to go.

Namely:

The book genres that cannot provide writers with their primary income will either become dominated by the work of amateurs and dilettantes (like poetry) or by fluff pieces by professional speakers/teachers/consultants.

That said, after watching the experiences of my parents, grandparents and hearing about the experiences of my great-grandparents, I’m well aware that a mono-culture career is a precarious position to be in. But, if you want to be really good at something you have to spend most of your time doing it, which in turn means that the majority of your income has to come from that activity for it to be sustainable.

Patricia April 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm

I’m a reader rather than a writer. But what I observe is that, while many writers can successfully do complementary work, the current niches for it are small. Most readers will read the work of many more writers than they’re interested in hearing speak, and would only be interested in listening to the top ones for a particular type of talk. Even Cory Doctorow’s model is self-obsolescing — a lot of people (myself included) support his ideas, and would pay to see him specifically, and in some way are more likely to buy his books because we like that they’re also available for free. Does this work only because it’s rare? Would he (and others acting likewise) still have this support if his approach were commonplace?

David Hewson April 13, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Interesting comments all. I’d just add this, prompted by Baldur. Have you noticed how rarely the word ‘book’ comes into these conversations? It’s always about money and margins and markets. Not the very thing that matters – the literature we produce for readers.

I walked away from a very lucrative weekly column on the Sunday Times to focus solely on writing books. I wanted them to be better and I knew that I had to take a risk to see if I could manage that.

Fortunately so far it’s paid off, both creatively and financially, so I never missed that Sunday Times salary. If I’d played safe and stayed on those dual incomes I doubt I’d be where I am as a writer today. Writing is a precarious business for most of us. A few outliers like Doctorow may beat the odds but they’re the exception and not a template for the profession as a whole.

Suw April 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm

@David: Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

Whilst Cory does seem to do well out of speaking and such, that’s simply a reflection of the fact that there’s a power curve to income graphs and he’s further up the curve for this type of income than most other people. That still doesn’t make him special in any way, nor does it mean that other people can’t achieve the same.

And yes, for many authors the easiest thing for them is to continue with whatever work they were doing before, but again, that doesn’t mean that they can’t develop the skills like public speaking along the way. Then, when the opportunity to exploit those skills comes up, they are in a position to do so. This doesn’t mean that they pitch themselves as a writing guru, but that they develop their own abilities and potentially their own subject matter. A crime writer, for example, might become well versed in forensics or ballistics or pathology and thus be in a position to give talks about how to portray such things realistically in fiction.

I’m not saying, and I don’t think Cory is saying, that everyone should becomes a writing guru, but that they have an opportunity to talk about issues that are related to their writing. That opportunity is open to everyone, but clearly not everyone will be successful at it, just the same as not everyone is successful at writing. Doesn’t make the opportunity any less there.

I also agree that right now, it’s harder for authors than, say, musicians to make money with a 360 strategy that include merch, tours, etc., but again, I think some of that is just market dev that authors have yet to do. It’s incredibly low risk for authors (or their publishers) to put things like t-shirts up for sale via sites like spreadshirt or cafepress, so why not? The investment is in the design and a bit of promo, and if it works, fantastic! If it doesn’t, well, surely it was worth trying?

Maybe it’s truer to say not that authors can’t, but that authors aren’t.

@Foz: The fact that Cory has a secondary skillset that is so well developed and a status within the tech community that is born as much of his work with the EFF and ORG (where I worked with him) as his writing is a contributing factor, but in many ways it’s by the by. I’m not saying anyone should try to repeat Cory’s career in every detail, but that he’s done a lot that other can learn from.

Anyone who already has a complimentary skill set will have an easier time of it. Let’s face it, if your primary skill is bricklaying, you’re not likely to become an author. If your primary skill is writing and you just happen to be working as a bricklayer, then you clearly have the capacity to develop secondary skills that will help you both earn more money and boost your profile.

Again, this isn’t the kind of stuff that comes overnight, but then, neither did Cory’s career. He has certainly benefited from having that knowledge, but again, it doesn’t mean that he is somehow fundamentally different from the rest of us. Other authors don’t need to replicate his knowledge set, they need to recognise their own knowledge and how it fits in with a broader set of income streams. And if they don’t have anything, start working on it. Now.

I’m not saying that anyone else can or should try to *be* Cory. Or Neil. That really is a straw man. Authors can find their own way, but there are possibilities and opportunities now that didn’t exist even a few years ago for authors to supplement their income via related secondary activities.

@Baldur: Yes, it’s always a good idea to have something to fall back on in case things go awry. But I’ll have to have a think about the rest of your comment. The more you write the better (hopefully) you get at it, but I’m not sure that the choice is that stark.

@Patricia: I think the current markets for complementary activities are underdeveloped for authors. A lot of people aren’t used to the idea that they might be able to go out and hear their favourite author speak or buy some sort of merchandise. I think that can change and, indeed, see no logical reason why I shouldn’t.

Whether Cory’s model of giving his stuff away has obsolescence built in, well, we’ll have to see. All that free music on the radio didn’t kill the music industry (its pains are, imho, self-inflicted), and TV didn’t kill cinema (ditto on the self-inflicted wounds for the film industry, though). Certainly I don’t think that his talks are well attended because his business model and his philosophy of free is rare – they are well attended because he’s a great speaker who is interesting, eloquent and often thought provoking.

I’m afraid I really still don’t see how Cory is some sort of magical exception who has no relevance to ‘normal’ authors. I think every author has to decide for themselves what they want to do, but to me it’s self-evident that the opportunities now are immense for those who want to do things like speak, sell merch, have events, etc. And someone will come up who does all of this stuff as well as Cory does it. The numbers make it inevitable.

@david: Given that he discussion is about secondary income sources, i’m not surprised that the word ‘book’ hasn’t cropped up too much. I don’t think that means that we don’t care about books. Hell, I’m about to hand-bind 90 novellas, which I think should indicate how much I love both the physical object and the words that go in them.

But I think that actually, you’re the exception, not Cory. It’s really great that you can focus solely on writing books and I have a lot of pro author friends who would love your level of success. But when it comes to earning additional money a) through doing something unrelated or b) through doing something that might also boost my writing career, I’ll take b) every time.

Foz Meadows April 13, 2011 at 5:27 pm

@Suw – I agree that Doctorow isn’t fundamentally different from the rest of us; I just meant that, because he’s an icon in his own right, it’s perhaps harder to determine how much that status feeds into his other successes. Obviously he worked hard to *become* an icon – that’s something other people can potentially duplicate – but to my mind, there’s something atavistic about being an icon, a sort of embodiment that might well lead people to invoke his name and ethos in arguments as though just dropping his name was a checkmate. For instance: the first time I ever heard about Cory Doctorow was when I started reading through the archives of xkcd comics, in which he occasionally appears, depicted as a red-caped superhero guarding the internet from an airship – that was before I knew about BoingBoing, and before I knew about him as an author. And while that might not be the most usual way to learn about a person, the fact that it’s possible – that the idea of Cory Doctorow has infiltrated part of mainstream geek culture as a sort of meta-meme – puts his achievements into a different category. The qualities which lead that to happen aren’t specific to him; they can be duplicated, as evidenced by the fact that other people have entered and continue to enter into popular culture as more than just themselves. But at the same time, it doesn’t seem quite fair to say that everyone, potentially, could achieve that same thing, or that there’s no reason for his celebrity other than hard work. Particularly in geek culture, there’s a sentimentality associated with its adoptive lares and penates, and while it might not be rationally applied – unpredictable, even – when the hivemind fixates on something, then it would seem naive to argue that this doesn’t confer an advantage in other areas.

David Hewson April 13, 2011 at 6:07 pm

I’m not an exception at all. Most of the writers I find myself on platforms with at festivals are full-time authors. There is one important omission from this argument that needs to be mentioned. That is how much potential income writers are simply abandoning if they go the Doctorow route.

In the case of a UK author choosing to self pub to ebook this breaks down as…

No Public Lending Right since you won’t be in libraries. With ALCS, PLR and European fees combined that could come to somewhere close to £9000 or more if you max out on lendings.

No audio rights since you won’t have an agent selling audio and big audio companies won’t go for self pub work. Audio is big business and growing. My books now fetch as much in first audio rights as they first did as books when I started out 17 years ago.

No agent pushing you into translation — again a very important market for a UK-based writers (US-based ones often ignore this on the grounds their home market is so large).

No agent pushing you for radio, TV or movie deals, which are always longshots but they do happen (I sold 11 books for TV this year after selling nothing for ages).

If I take out this year’s TV deal since it’s a one-off that still amounts to maybe 30% of my earnings which would simply disappear under the Doctorow model. At £200 an appearance fee for talking that would require a lot of events to make up the difference.

Suw April 13, 2011 at 7:09 pm

@Foz: I think Cory’s position affects the scale of his success and the fine details of his tactics, but not whether or no someone else could adopt his general strategy and have good results.

You’re right that he does have almost totemic status now, but that skews discussions both ways: there are people who venerate him and those who dismiss him out of hand, and neither group think for themselves about what he does, how he does it, and how others could learn from it.

@David: I think you misunderstand Cory’s position. He’s published by Tor and he has an agent, so he’s a real proper author (unlike me). Going the Doctorow route doesn’t mean forgoing the PLR payments, sale of audio or translation rights, or radio/TV/movie deals. It means that you are also doing additional stuff, like talks, columns, etc. which boost your income and potentially also your profile.

Now obviously there’s a physical limit to how much one person can actually do in the paltry 24 hours we’re given each day, but with the way that publishing is going, the size of some of the advances kicking about, authors are wise to develop talents other than just writing. Indeed, I think John Scalzi has put it very well indeed: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2011/04/13/multiple-revenue-streams-revisited/

Tim Gasper April 13, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Awesome use of Keepstream collections! Give me a shout if you have any ideas or feedback, would love to hear all about it. I’m tim (at) keepstream (dot) com. Cheers!

David Hewson April 13, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I don’t misunderstand his position at all. I just challenge anyone else to get in that position. He isn’t in audio in uk libraries btw. And aren’t those examples above alternative income streams?

phayes April 13, 2011 at 8:21 pm

“But we are in different markets. [...] I think SF is a world of its own.” –david_hewson

“I think every author has to decide for themselves what they want to do, but to me it’s self-evident that the opportunities now are immense for those who want to do things like speak, sell merch, have events, etc. And someone will come up who does all of this stuff as well as Cory does it.“ ­–Suw

Cory Doctorow is a bit of an exception, and I think even within SF there is a ‘market spectrum’, so I wonder if it would be useful to consider a different example? Personally, I’d be dubious that an author such as Bill DeSmedt ( http://www.singularitythebook.com/ ) actually has the same ex-ante opportunities as a Scott Sigler ( http://www.scottsigler.com/ ).

Sumana Harihareswara April 13, 2011 at 8:22 pm

“I sometimes think people confuse what is possible with what they want, or don’t want. One may not wish to become a public speaker, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to do so. One may not wish to have to supplement one’s income by writing columns or giving talks, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to do so. And equally, one may not wish to do some hardcore market dev work in order to make your secondary incomes viable, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to do so. Equally, just because something is possible does not mean it is also easy. But then, nothing worthwhile is easy.”

Quoted for utter truth. YES.

And this is why consciousness-raising work is so important. Until a person gets the idea that a goal is achievable, or has it suggested to them, they can’t start working towards it. So “here’s how I did this” blog posts, giving talks at schools, and other such communication does the valuable service of widening others’ sense of the possible. We are all guidance counselors.

Suw April 13, 2011 at 8:32 pm

@Tim: Thanks! Kevin introduced Keepstream just this morning. Nice tool!

@David: But in the comment above, you’re talking about self-publishers and the income they miss out on, but self-publishing isn’t what we’re talking about here. Cory has a publisher and an agent, so I’m not quite sure why the list of what self-publishers don’t get is relevant.

@Phayes: Eyup! Well, as I’ve said above, Cory’s position may affect the scale of his success, but doesn’t mean that the model isn’t suitable for anyone else. I don’t know of Bill DeSmedt or Scott Sigler, so can’t really compare.

@Sumana: Absolutely. It really is about the art of the possible!

David Hewson April 13, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Sorry but I can only say this one last time. Cory Doctorow’s position is unique. He was the first to do what he did and I bet he’ll be the last.

Try going to a decent literary agent in the UK and saying, ‘I want to give away my books in all mainstream markets but have you sell them into the minor ones.’

You will see the door in record time.

joel182 April 13, 2011 at 10:02 pm

@David Hewson
I think you might benefit from forgetting about Cory Doctorow – this blog post quite clearly isn’t about Cory Doctorow. None of this is about Cory Doctorow at all.

Suw April 13, 2011 at 10:13 pm

@David: Cory giving away his books under CC is irrelevant to the matter at hand. This discussion is about whether or not professional authors should expect to have to maintain multiple revenue streams. And whether it’s better to have income streams that are related to your primary profession, writing, rather than something that doesn’t support your main career. We could as easily be talking about John Scalzi, who recently said:

“My income profile has changed significantly over the years; it’s only been in the last couple of years that the majority of my income has come from books. Prior to that the largest chunk of my writing income came from corporate consulting work and writing non-fiction and journalism. The change has happened primarily because a) I now have a body of work that remains in print and generates royalties and b) I now generally get paid more per book.”

http://whatever.scalzi.com/2011/04/06/revenue-streams-2010/

@Joel: Quite. It seems Cory’s a bit like Voldemort — the mere mention of his name immediately sends some people into a flat tail spin. This isn’t a dissection of everything Cory does and how much of it is applicable to other writers. It’s just a nod in his direction that says ‘Cory’s doing some stuff we could all learn from’.

Frank April 14, 2011 at 10:01 pm

To exaggerate just a bit, imagine if Oprah Winfrey were to publish a novel; that novel would almost certainly be profitable for her, but few novelists would take career advice from her. Does this mean Oprah’s success is a result of luck? No. She has worked extraordinarily hard to get where she is. But her situation means that certain strategies will have a favorable cost/benefit ratio for her, when those same strategies would not for other authors.

Cory Doctorow is the most visible blogger for one of the most popular blogs in existence; industry analysts estimate that BoingBoing annually generates a seven-figure income in advertising revenue. Strategies that work for him won’t necessarily work for other authors.

Jon H April 14, 2011 at 10:02 pm

“Whilst Cory does seem to do well out of speaking and such, that’s simply a reflection of the fact that there’s a power curve to income graphs and he’s further up the curve for this type of income than most other people. ”

I think it’s more to do with where he speaks. Because of his focus on intellectual property, Cory is more likely to speak at technology-industry events, perhaps also legal industry events, where I expect the money is much better. Perhaps he talks to law schools and business schools, which also probably have more money than literature departments, and are probably less likely to look askance at a science fiction author.

Which is to say, his “topic” lends itself to good speaking income. It’s seen as being highly relevant today and for the foreseeable future. Businesses and lawyers are trying to figure out how to deal with the internet. Cory has opinions that bear on that, which people will pay to hear.

Someone who writes fantasy novels, with a background in Classics, is unlikely to find such well-heeled audiences, because fantasy novels and Classics aren’t seen as being relevant. Someone who writes science fiction, even with a background in physics, is unlikely to get the same kind of speaking fees unless their professional background or fiction relates to a current topic in the news.

Cory’s like Lady Gaga. Other performers can try wearing a meat dress, but it probably won’t work.

Suw April 20, 2011 at 9:33 pm

@Frank: “Get famous first” is an awesome strategy for a novelist. That not every aspiring novelist can be as famous as Oprah doesn’t mean that her basic principles couldn’t be applied by others, on a lesser scale. For example, any aspiring novelist should try to become known by as many people as possible, perhaps by writing a blog, finding a niche subject to become expert in and speaking about it in public, etc. They won’t reach the same size audience as Oprah, but they will do better when their book is published for having an audience than having no audience.

Really, you’re confusing strategy with scale. Cory and Oprah operate on a different scale to me or you, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. It certainly shouldn’t mean that we write off their tactics without fully examining them first.

@Jon: Cory has expertise in an area that’s obliquely related to his fiction, and he happens to have expertise that’s in demand. But again, it’s about scale, not whether the basic idea is valid or not. The fact that you can come up with an example where the author would find it harder than Cory doesn’t mean that his basic strategy is flawed.

This whole discussion reminds me of transactional analysis and, specifically, the ‘Why don’t you/Yes but’ game: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transactional_analysis#Why_Don.27t_You.2FYes_But

Frankly, I’m more interested in figuring out ways that I can make my writing pay than in finding excuses why something won’t work.

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