Why writing is a buyers market, and why that sucks

It seems to me that the main hurdle writers face is that it’s a buyer’s market.

1197094932257185876johnny_automatic_books_svg_medThe chief characteristic of a buyer’s market is that producers are not valued by those who buy their products. But wait, I hear you say, what about J K Rowling? Or Stephenie Meyer? Dan Brown?

I’m not talking about occasional authors who become household names. I’m talking about the everyday author, journalist, writer  who sells to buyers (media and publishers) that are flooded with people who write.

It’s how the agency system got traction. The advent of self-publishing  (‘indie publishing’) hasn’t changed the calculation because the avenues are choked with output, much of it dross. Discovery is a real hurdle – and that has the same end result. It’s a buyers’ marker – the commodity is ‘being found’. And it’s hard; as a friend of mine observed recently, even ‘free’ doesn’t cut it. People won’t give away their time, and why should they amidst the sea of possibilities demanding their attention?

My own experience has been with the ‘trad’ model, which always was a buyers market and where attitudes always were hard-nosed. And as it bends and sways under the impact of the internet, that’s got worse. It’s been very bad of late when it comes to freelance journalism to newspapers and magazines – which I’ve basically given up for this reason, in favour of writing books. Aside from rates dropping to the point where they don’t cover expenses, there’s the way contributors are treated. For instance:

♦ Being commissioned to write a piece, fulfilling my part in good faith, then being told ‘we don’t want it now’ – and not being paid. This happened more than once, with different papers. When I suggested this was a breach of good faith, I got an answer. ‘Tough’.

♦ Being told that if I invoiced with the submission (standard business practise), they wouldn’t use me again.

♦ Not being paid because they’d got the amount to invoice wrong, spending more time than the amount was worth sorting out their mistake; and then being dumped from their stable of freelancers as my reward.

♦ Pitching a piece to a newspaper, being told they wouldn’t use it, then seeing the piece written to my pitch by a staff journalist. When I protested at the plagiarism, I was told ‘tough’.

♦ Selling a piece on a one-shot basis and discovering it had been nationally syndicated, without payment of syndication fees. This was unlicensed use of my intellectual property. The answer I got was – well, you guessed it, ‘tough’.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.
My Adler Gabrielle 25 –  writing tool of choice…until computers arrived.

Not how I do business, In fact, I make a point of doing what I say – call me idealistic, but I believe in one’s word being one’s bond, and I live by that principle. I expect those I deal with to do the same, and that is the standard against which I measure their values. Trust is an earned commodity. People who break it have a hard time earning it back.

But it’s the nature of writing. If a brick-maker was treated with contempt every time they tried to sell a brick they’d soon stop making bricks and do something worthwhile.

Writers don’t. Writers keep writing. And those to whom they sell their writing know it.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


24 thoughts on “Why writing is a buyers market, and why that sucks

    1. It’s not a complete list – and is why I’ve given up on freelance journalism. I got tired of discovering, post-fact, I was dealing with people for whom integrity was an empty word, to my cost and loss. The funny thing is, none of the above represent the worst betrayal of trust I’ve had in the business. But one can only soldier on…and the experience has convinced me, more than ever, that ‘my word is my bond’ is a correct and proper value to live by.

        1. I think it’s pretty usual, actually…(alas, and alack…) – but I feel disinclined to compromise my own standards in order to engage it. I might test the waters in a while and see if things have improved.

  1. It’s despicable that any organisation would treat someone that works for them this way, but then you see corporations do this to contract and temp workers as well. It’s interesting that you chose today to post this with Ann Crispin who spent so much time to protect fiction writers against exploitation having passed away earlier today (yesterday for you).

    As for your last statement, what else can we do but to keep writing. Luckily we’re doing it for the joy we get from it and not the money (I can say this as I have never made a single cent from writing 😉 )

    1. It’s pretty standard corporate behaviour, for sure. And yes, soldiering on is the only way ahead…not least because writers usually write not because they can, but because they must…

  2. This is a topic of great disgust in my mind, and am hitting the like button only to show my agreement. But then again, it isn’t just writing… look closely at an knowledge-based profession and you’ll find the majority of workers within it are paid a meagre sum for their work. Creators of intellectual property are society’s most targeted group for thievery, and our culture seems to accept this as normal and tolerable.

    1. Thanks! Yes – what I didn’t list here are the times my intellectual property has been appropriated by others, to their gain, without permission. I take copyright pretty seriously and act on it when I discover infringements. The difficulty is getting anything out of the thief – there was one occasion where a journalist took one of my books and used content, word for word, as if his own. I tackled it, but all I got out of him was an offer to take me out to lunch. I declined; it was insulting. Another time a government agency took a chapter from one of my books and produced what amounted to a derived work on their website, complete with phrases, photo selection, interpretation and even use of my chapter title as subtitles. I tackled the manager and was ignored. I didn’t pursue it further; one hesitates to engage an ethical void.

      1. I was thinking on this for the past few hours and wanted to come back and say thanks for candidly sharing these experiences. I was an undergrad when a doctoral student lay claim to some of my work, not only stealing from me but denying proper credit to the academics who had mentored me through the development of the ideas. On the harder days this looms up in my mind and leaves me asking ‘why bother?’ Your post reminds me of the importance of keeping on with it, regardless. Perhaps I should add that the student had a tenure track appointment but since left academics (and there were more than a few rumours), so I guess everything (good or bad) catches up with a person if he/she sticks with doing it long enough.

        1. I’ve found, more often than not, that academics lose moral compass, frequently without realising it. Something to do with the nature of academia and the way those in it validate their sense of self-worth via status in academic terms, including by scale of publications list, I suspect. There are reasons why I won’t work in that field (though I’m qualified).

  3. You’re a Heinlein fan, Matthew, as I recall; remember what he said about makers, fakers and takers?

    It’s almost as if people who create things out of thin air — like writers, mathematicians, artists, etc. — are second class citizens. There’s an inherent lack (!) of respect — well, contempt — with which people like that are viewed; the attitude is almost “you deserve to be a slave.”

    I find it ironically amusing that you had your copyright violated by a governmental entity. What would a different branch of that same government say if you didn’t pay your taxes? But isn’t law-breaking law-breaking, regardless of who does it? Or is it just that some pigs really are more equal than others?

    Part of the problem, at least, is from the outside it looks so easy. I just sit at my keyboard/typewriter and the words come out, right? Well…ANYONE can do that! I’m not so special. And somehow the invitation to give it a try is ignored as if never said.

    Sorry. This is a subject that seems to touch my bitter bone.

    Good post, Matthew. I’m glad you’re still soldiering on.

    1. Thanks. Yeah, I get bitter sometimes about this…have to be careful not to let such moods grow. And Heinlein was wise in so many ways! I agree, there’s no respect for creative people; it’s viewed as something disposable, something without value – a commodity that can be appropriated or mis-used by others. Nobody realises just how hard it is, and how much real work, has to go into making good writing – or, for that matter, good creative anything.

      The government plagiarism issue was particularly irksome. The particular manager involved, who was one of my lecturers as an undergrad, way back when, always treated me with supercilious contempt – he cultivated in-crowds and I was never one of his chosen ‘special people’, so I wasn’t surprised to be disregarded this time. But it’s not right, and I may well have to deal with it.

  4. But you know, it seems to me I at least partly missed the point. It really does suck that writing is a buyer’s market. When the tribal storyteller sat down in front of the fire on a winter’s night … or the storyteller in the marketplace paused at a cliffhanger, waiting for the clink of a coin in his bowl … do you suppose they had this sort of problem?

    1. I’m sure they did, the market-place storytellers definitely. It’s got bigger with populations, and with the structures that have been built around it. Structures that are symbolic, I suppose, of humanity’s endless ability to intellectualise things.

  5. Lots of great insight here, Matthew. Artists of all kinds are sorely undervalued. I also think that valuing our work and abilities can help, however — turning down freebie or low-paying article assignments once we reach a certain level of experience, for example. I’ve learned to embrace clients (mags, etc.) who treat writers well, working harder for those who (IMO) deserve it.

    1. Sounds like a good approach – it’s how I worked too. The problem lately has been that a lot of the experienced editors and journos have gone, along with a lot of good freelancers; and New Zealand’s media is a tiny, tiny field – it’s basically a duopoly. For a while I justified it on the basis that ‘well, I’m giving away time, but it’s getting my name out there’. However, these days, if I’m going to give away my time, I’d rather do it on this blog (which has a more international readership than my newspaper features), or on a project that I enjoy. I’m not alone, either,

      Unfortunately the effect has been that, while the experienced writers have (rightly) felt they should not devalue the profession by accepting low rates, there are enough up-and-comers who feel that they can, with the result that – with a few exceptions – the quality of journalism and the quality of editorial commentary, what we might call the ‘wisdom’ of it, has dropped. With results, for instance, that when a paper tried to interview me a few years back about one of my books, I actually had to coach the reporter – obviously the office cub – with some useful questions that any good journo would ask of an author..

  6. A great and very insightful post, especially for someone like me who often wonders if it’s worth trying to freelance write at all in that way. I like that you stick to your ideals, I definitely think that’s important no matter what. I know if and when I do try to publish any of my writing, I will go down the traditional line as well, no matter how hard it is. But, that’s a fair way down the track for now…

    1. Thanks. I think freelancing still has a chance in places with a bigger and more diverse market than New Zealand. It’s still a lot of work – and likely to be constant hustle. I never relied on it; and really, books are the better way to go in general. But as I mentioned in a comment above, maybe I’ll test the waters again at some stage and see if it’s improved.

        1. I’ll keep you posted. It’s a funny business; half the issue is falling revenues coupled with a surge to the web, but I think once it’s shaken down into the internet more fully and got a paying business model set up it might be worth another go.

  7. I’m new to the writing world, having published only one book. I have dozens started in my computer, but I’m too slow to get them finished quickly. I have always loved to write and tell stories. The publishers of my first book printed it in 9 font. I was quickly disillusioned by the publishing world. My excitement and pride disappeared when I looked at those pages. How can I promote a book like this? I persevered and am nearly finished with my 2nd book, 4 years later!. I changed up and now writing Christian books, plan to find a “real” publisher.
    What makes me keep going? I enjoy writing; I like my characters and their surprises; it gives me something to do with my “spare” time now that I’m retired. Enough people out there are going to like my writing style and my stories to make it worthwhile to continue.

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