Saturday 12 August 2023

Does writing have a value?


There is a problem with writing. Prior to the Internet you could either write for a newspaper or you could write books that required a publisher and were sold in bookshops. People paid to read newspapers or magazines and they paid to buy books. For this reason, the people who wrote earned a reasonable living from their writing. But this also meant that it was relatively difficult to be a writer. You had to get a job with a newspaper, or you had to find a publisher. There were relatively few people writing and only certain opinions were published.

The Internet is the equivalent of the invention of the printing press only much quicker. If Gutenberg started printing in 1440 the Internet is the equivalent of 1470. We’ve only just begun, but everything has already changed.

I haven’t written or received a personal letter for at least twenty years. The only post I receive is either bills, junk mail or Amazon parcels. So long as I get my parcels the post office can cease to exist, and I wouldn’t notice. Send the bills electronically.

I haven’t bought a physical newspaper for at least ten years and the only books I have bought are second hand out of print titles that are unavailable electronically. I read books and articles on a kindle or online.

I haven’t borrowed a book from a public library in decades nor from any other type of library either. If a book is neither a bestseller nor on a reading list the chances of it being borrowed are tiny.

The model that has existed for millennia of storing books so they can be consulted and borrowed has been destroyed. The words liber and βιβλιοθήκη (bibliothēkē) might as well be written in dead languages.

Yet there has never been so much writing and most of it is poor quality.

Newspapers can no longer rely on selling print copies. So, it is necessary to find a way to make money on the Internet. You can rely on advertising like the Daily Mail. You can have a paywall like the Times or Telegraph, or you can ask for donations like the Guardian.

But this is our problem. There are more free sites on the Internet than I can read. There are more free books than I could read in a lifetime. I can get all the basic news from the BBC website (paid for by a tax on TVs) for free. Why pay?

The Internet has created a reluctance on the part of readers to pay writers, because while previously it was necessary to buy a newspaper or go to a bookshop, now it is not.

No problem say the readers I get what I like to read for free. Why click on the ads, why pay to go past the paywall why donate?

But if you don’t pay writers, you end up first with poor writing and then you end up with AI pretending to be a writer.

I read quite a lot of journalism, but most of it is second rate. I recently read a piece by a well-known journalist who told me that his media studies type degree had been a great experience and had got him into writing, but unfortunately, he didn’t make nearly as much as his friends who could buy houses or go on regular foreign holidays.

But why read the opinions of someone who had such second rate results at school that he had to go to a second rate university to study a second rate course? Why be a writer at all if it is means you can’t buy a house or go on regular foreign holidays? It would be more sensible to be a hairdresser or a plumber. They can.

It is not enough for a journalist to be able to write well, he has to have the intellect to have opinions that are worth reading. But this is rare indeed in newspapers now. People with intellect naturally choose to do a different job, which allows them to buy houses and go on foreign holidays.

This leaves people like me. I don’t write for a living. I write as a hobby. I have another job.

Anyone can do what I do. You need a website. You need a computer. But building an audience on your own is slow, frustrating and hard work.

If you have one hundred followers on Twitter and a few friends on Facebook, you may as well be talking to yourself. When I started if one hundred people read an article I was pleased. 

But there's no satisfaction in it. Being unread is like sending your manuscript to the publisher and having it continually rejected. 

But getting to 46,000 followers on Twitter took years and then you never know if some Twitter algorithm stops people seeing your post.

Then it starts to interfere with real life. I go for years without a problem. Sure, I get attacked online, but that’s easy to deal with. Block early, block often. But then someone complains. I keep writing just as freely as always, because I assume I still live in a free society. But perhaps I don’t. Certain opinions are not allowed. Certain details may not be mentioned. And all this for maybe sixty pounds a month.

My main satisfaction is getting readers. I don’t do this to make money as it is about the stupidest way of trying to make money you could think of.

But for a variety of reasons, I have decided to try to find a way to make a little more from my writing.

During the pandemic I was getting huge numbers of readers and that made a real difference. Readers equals clicks. But there are much fewer clicks now. Everyone has an adblocker. If we skip all the ads on ITV, we will need another TV licence.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t pay Twitter for a blue tick or I’m shadow banned. Maybe Pro UK people think they can go to sleep again now that the SNP is in decline.  

I sometimes go to sleep too. It might be for a month. It might be for six months. Once you get out of the habit of writing, you don’t really miss it. Until you do. 

So, if ads don’t work, we are left with paywalls or donations. You can go down the paywall route with sites like Substack, but my goal is to get as many readers as possible, so I’m not going to do that. Which leaves donations.

I have added donation buttons on the right side and at the bottom of each article. It is with some reluctance. I would far rather you read without donating than feel that you ought. But a pound here a fiver there would be nice. It would make a difference.

Human society evolved because we traded one skill (catching fish) for another (shoeing horses) and moved on from barter to money. If you don’t value a skill like writing, then it will become as obsolete as the blacksmith.

I am approaching my seven millionth reader. If this were Victorian times, I would not only be rich I would be famous. But why write if you earn less than picking oakum? The Internet enabled me to find an audience I would never have found otherwise, but if we are unwilling to pay anything for what we read, don’t be surprised if quite soon there is no good writing left except in old dusty books that no one borrows and no one reads.