How do people who work creatively – writers, artists, musicians, playwrights – make a living? The question is as old as civilisation and the answer has usually involved some mix of patronage by wealthy individuals or institutions, and getting people to pay for something that is scarce – a live performance or a unique painting for example. The technologies developed over the last five hundred years, from printing to the CD, have steadily increased the opportunities for creative work to be distributed, but have also tied that work to a physical artefact. This has allowed the development of copyright and royalties – the creator of the work gets a slice every time one of these artefacts is sold. It worked for a while in a rough and ready sort of way but now we are in a new era. Pretty much anything can be digitised and if it can be digitised, it can be copied at negligible cost.
Industries are scrambling to catch up with this and publishing, in particular, is still dominated by licensing and copyright agreements which seek to restrict access to writing in various ways. However, I (and many others) do wonder if all this is simply missing the point of what it means to be a writer in a digital era. I recently came across a quote from science fiction writer and activist Cory Doctorow which expressed the point well:
“For almost every writer, the number of sales they lose because people never hear of their book is far larger than the sales they’d lose because people can get it for free online. The biggest threat we face isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”
Doctorow walks the talk, making much of his work (which I highly recommend) available for free download from his website in multiple formats, on the basis that his work will thus be read more widely, and can be monetised other ways. Besides, he wants people to read his work. There are ways for writers, musicians and artists to make a living today, but trying to do this by selling physical objects which contain copies of your work will only get harder and harder. And writing wasn’t exactly a good way of making money to start with. For every JK Rowling or EL James there are thousands of very talented writers just about making a living and for every one of them there are thousands of others who write and earn little or nothing from it. Clinging on to your copyright and restricting access to your work in the hope of making some money out of your writing one day is a mug’s game. To make money, you are much better off buying a lottery ticket – it’s a lot easier and the odds are better.
That’s the bad news for all of us who like writing, but there is good news too. It has never been easier to be a writer, and to actually find an audience for your writing. No one bothers to count the numbers of blogs out there any more, and then there are countless social media platforms, fiction sites, fan forums and all kinds of other things. Contributing to these requires an internet connection and a bit of time. If you like the idea of a book then it will cost all of £149 to publish your work as a paperback, less as an ebook. Sure, there is a lot of noise out there and it can be hard to be heard, but it is perfectly possible with care and persistence. This humble blog has been going for nearly four years and has clocked over 9,000 views. That’s a long way off the big league, but means that thousands of people have seen my work who would not have done if I kept it to myself, and hopefully some of them have found it interesting or useful.
Needless to say, I do not write this blog to make money and I explained a while ago why I decided to license my blog under Creative Commons. If anyone wants to use my work in any way, I am only too pleased to get a wider audience and would just ask that they acknowledge where it came from. I do not want to hoard my ideas and keep them to myself. I have always trusted that the more ideas I can write about, the more ideas I will have and the easier I will find it to write about them. So far, it has worked for me. F Scott Fitzgerald famously put the point this way:
“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”
So, he might have added, the more people who hear it the better. And as so often these days, I notice that all this is something my teenage kids, who have grown up in a connected world, grasp instinctively. My daughter enjoys, and sometimes contributes to, “fan fiction” sites, where people write stories in homage to their favourite writers and characters. My son builds new levels for computer games and sometimes new games on sites which give you the tools to do so. The stories and games can be copied as often as anyone wants and they do it just for fun. They know that creativity is to be shared and celebrated, not hoarded. I’m proud of them.