Maybe it’s not us who are broken. Maybe it’s the system.

by Suw on February 7, 2024

How do we survive in an industry that that has commoditised us?

Back at the beginning of 2020, in the Before Times, I finally took the decision to prioritise my writing. My husband had just started studying part time for a master’s degree and I decided that it was high time I finished off a novel that I’d started in 2014. I thought of it as a high concept ‘airport’ novel, the kind of book you’d find in WHSmith at Heathrow.

Unfortunately for me, it was about a terrible pandemic that kicks off in South Wales, is covered up by the government in the early stages thus destroying any hope of mitigation, and which ultimately wipes out 80 per cent of the population. Our plucky heroine uncovers government misdeeds and helps move the community to a local ‘ecotown’ where they can live safely, despite the loss of critical infrastructure. People die. People survive. People fall in love. The end.

Honestly, my timing couldn’t have been worse. If I’d kept up my initial momentum, I could have finished it by 2018, and perhaps might have found a home for it before it became radioactive. Finishing it, as I did in April 2021, was more an act of supreme bloodymindedness than an investment in my future writing career.

But even as I was lamenting my awful timing, I was starting to wonder if I really had left it too late to pivot my career towards writing. And those thoughts have only grown louder as the creative industries become increasingly inimical toward making any sort of a living from writing.

The publishing and TV/film industries have become so dysfunctional that it’s hard to see how the majority of writers will ever earn a respectable wage. Rebecca Jennings has a great article on Vox about the way in which creators of every stripe are expected to do their own marketing and even to have created a big following before they can snag a publishing or record deal.

for people who hope to publish a bestseller or release a hit record, it’s “building a platform” so that execs can use your existing audience to justify the costs of signing a new artist.

Author surveys show writers in the UK and US are earning less than ever, with the median income in the US below poverty level. As Jennings says:

Corporate consolidation and streaming services have depleted artists’ traditional sources of revenue and decimated cultural industries. While Big Tech sites like Spotify claim they’re “democratizing” culture, they instead demand artists engage in double the labor to make a fraction of what they would have made under the old model. That labor amounts to constant self-promotion in the form of cheap trend-following, ever-changing posting strategies, and the nagging feeling that what you are really doing with your time is marketing, not art. Under the tyranny of algorithmic media distribution, artists, authors — anyone whose work concerns itself with what it means to be human — now have to be entrepreneurs, too.

And not everyone wants to do that. I’ve been running my own business since 1998, and I don’t want to have to bring that sensibility to my writing. I don’t like doing ‘promo’ and trying to ‘build a platform’ – I just want to share my writing with people whom I hope will enjoy it. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m spending more time doing marketing than writing. And yet, this is what is in store.

It used to be that success brought fame. Now you need to be famous in order to even get a shot at success. Substack was supposed to be a way out of that double bind, but it isn’t. In her blog post, The creator economy can’t rely on Patreon, Joan Westenberg points out that Patreon and Substack are just flogging Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans theory from 2008. Westenberg says:

the numbers don’t add up. Data from Patreon and Substack suggests the average conversion rate from follower to paying fan is about 5%. This means a creator would need a total fanbase of 20,000 followers to yield 1,000 paying supporters. And building a core fanbase of 20,000 engaged followers is extremely difficult in today’s crowded creative landscape.

As shown by the sheer volume of ‘how to succeed on Substack’ posts that I see promoted on Notes, we’re all grappling with the same problem. We want to create. We want to be able to develop a liveable income from our work. But the maths just doesn’t math.

In a crowded market, the supply of content creators hoping to profit from their work directly outstrips demand. The number of YouTube channels, podcasts, Substack newsletters, and other independently produced media has exploded. The signal-to-noise ratio is utterly unhinged. Talented creators struggle to stand out and attract an audience, let alone convince fans to pay up regularly.

The creative industries, like so many others, have individualised risk and privatised profits. So even though the creative industries sector contributed £109 billion to the UK economy in 2021 – that’s 5.6 percent of the entire economy – actual creatives go largely underpaid. We have become commodities. Until we are famous, we are entirely fungible. No one likes to think that about themselves, but this is what the industry has done to us.

What do to?

I can only talk about my own decision-making process, so I’d love to hear more from you in the comments about how you’re approaching this, because I think a conversation would be really helpful for lots of people.

I spent much of last spring and early summer thinking that Substack was actually going to be the answer to my prayers, that it might provide me with a stable income, particularly after Notes launched. But growth slowed, and even stalled at times, after the initial Notes bump and I now do not expect to see anything other than very gradual growth. I don’t believe it will provide any sort of useful income in the foreseeable future. That means that I need to recontextualise Substack and find a new place for it in my mental landscape of things that I do.

I enjoy writing my newsletters, and I will continue to write them in the hope that others enjoy reading them. However, they will not figure in my financial plans, whether short-term or long-term. Any income they generate is gravy, it’s not the roast.

Furthermore, despite having only just launched Grist a few months ago, I’m rethinking that as well. The next session is tomorrow but I only have one person signed up, so I have to consider whether it should become a monthly essay instead of an online conversation.

Much of my focus is now on conserving energy so that I have enough to spend on writing and actual paying work. This is about developing a sustainable way to live which pays the bills and leaves me enough space to be creative. I don’t want to have to sacrifice my precious writing time at the altar of building a platform, even if that makes me less attractive to publishers.

Developing a stable income has been top of my list for a while now, and in order to do that, perhaps I have to let go of the dream of having an independent income via Substack and focus on developing my business instead. Maybe I need to make peace with the idea that my writing will always be my 5-9.

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