Hugo Award winner John Scalzi: Good writers will always make a living

by Jason Preston on August 29, 2008

I am thoroughly convinced that John Scalzi is a supergenius. He just won a Hugo award for writing his blog, Whatever, which he has been writing nonstop since 1998.

He spent the 1990’s first as a newspaper columnist, then as an editor at AOL, and finally as a freelance writer—a habit he has not yet kicked, fortunately for the rest of us.

Yesterday he was kind enough to answer my questions about the business woes of both publisher and independent writer, and where they might intersect.

Jason Preston: As an independent author, your perspective on publishing is different than most businesses. You mostly sell writing “for resale” to the consumer, like the AP sells content to newspapers.

John Scalzi: I think what you’re saying here is that there’s a distribution intermediary between me and the public, that being the publisher, and that generally speaking my writing is licensed to the intermediary, who pays me a lump sum initially and then more when/if certain sales numbers are reached.

It’s a little different from what AP does because among other things the AP generally owns the copyright of the work it distributes, whereas I generally retain my copyrights. That said, like the AP, I’m not generally producing work for the public directly; I’m producing it for another entity who then sells it to the public.

Jason: Are you worried that consumer non-buying habits will trickle through the layers and bite you, or are you confident that there are ways to make a living without charging the end user?

John: To answer your second question first, yes, I’m pretty confident that there will continue to be ways to make a living as a writer that don’t involve direct consumer sales, as long as one isn’t overly precious about it. For several years I made a very successful living as a writing/editing consultant and freelancer, working for marketing companies and also directly for corporate clients, and I only stopped doing that when the book writing took off.

If the book writing becomes less profitable, either because the distribution model collapses or (more likely) my career downslopes a bit, then I don’t really have a problem going back into other fields of writing, even if they aren’t as socially prestigious as being a full-time author (my mortgage doesn’t care how prestigious I am). Our world recently has more writing in it, not less. There will always be a need for good and competent writers.

“I’m pretty confident that there will continue to be ways to make a living as a writer that don’t involve direct consumer sales”

Now, are you asking whether it’s possible to make a living as a journalist or fiction writer without the writer charging the end user? Writers had better hope so, because we’re notoriously bad at handling distribution and collection (which is one reason middlemen exist in the first place). Mind you, fiction writers in general don’t make a living writing fiction — they usually do something else, because pay in that area is already appallingly low. It’s more of a concern for journalists.

As for consumer non-buying habits, I’m not convinced we’ve seen that consumers are not willing to buy writing that is of interest of them; we have seen that they’re less willing to buy writing they feel does not apply to their lives. Recently and on two occasions my publisher released a free eBook version of Old Man’s War, my first published novel; in the immediate aftermath both times, the sales of the book spiked upward, as did sales of other books in that series.

This is anecdotal, but it is interesting. I think what we’re seeing is that free, used judiciously, very often leads to sales. This shouldn’t come as a particular surprise, since other creative industries allow free exhibition to drive sales — a good current example is videogame makers offering “demo” versions of their games to spur sales of the full version.

So the real question here is: Why do consumers seem less inclined to pay for newspapers right now? The answer that immediately springs to mind — “because they can get it for free online” — is only half right, since as noted people do seem willing to pay for stuff they believe is relevant to them.

Jason: If so, are those solutions scalable? Could they work for newspapers? Or are we going to lose the intermediary of the “publisher” altogether?

John: Last first again: The idea that publishers or other intermediaries might go away is fairly silly, because one of the things we’re seeing online is the *rise* of such intermediaries. If you look at the list of the most popular blogs (I’m gonig by the Technorati list here), you will note (or should) that the vast majority of them are *not* independently owned/operated, they’re owned by some sort of publishing concern, which then pays the bloggers a salary/fee per entry. Nick Denton and Jason Calcanis (to name two recent builders of blog empires) are doing what Hearst, the Coxs and the McClatchys did in their time.

“Why do consumers seem less inclined to pay for newspapers right now? The answer that immediately springs to mind — “because they can get it for free online” — is only half right”

And even the sites that are independently owned/operated, if they are going economic concerns, use an intermediary for ad distribution and payment: Google AdSense is the best known of these, but there are others that are closer to a traditional publisher as well, notably Federated Media and Pajamas Media. These exist because one person doing everything is hard and/or there is always someone who figures out how to make money off other people’s work through the magic of advertising.

Are these solutions scalable and could they work for newspapers? Well, unless I’m wrong, one of the reasons newspaper chains existed was to share resources, ad allocation and ad revenue; i.e., exactly what these online publishers/ad groups are doing. The fundamental and underlying economic concept is the same; what’s different is the economic dynamic. Newspapers were built for a different economic dynamic so it makes sense they’re going to go through contortions trying to make this new dynamic work for them.

Jason: Do you think that book publishers, newspaper publishers, and magazine publishers face the same issue? In other words, is one solution enough, or will the internet necessitate three new business models instead of one?

John: I think it’s not very smart to lump books, newspapers and magazines together in this regard because they each have distinct economic models that are different from each other, and are related only to the extent that they all involve publishing words onto media. Which is to say they *already* have different general business models (or should, anyway), so the idea that one solution regarding the Internet will be enough for all of them ignore that already-established fact.

And beyond this, the idea that, say, textbook publishers and romance novel publishers should have the same Internet strategy also strains credulity, even though they are both book publishers. Every medium, genre and niche will have to approach things differently — just as they already do.

Jason: As a former journalist and editor turned hugo-winning-blogger (congrats, BTW), what advice would you give to those newsrooms struggling to grasp the “ethos” of the internet. How should a reporter who is uncomfortable with the internet dip their toes into the water? How should an editor view web content differently than print content, or should she?

“The fact others have gotten rich on “free” suggests there’s still money to be made even if it’s not directly extracted from the readers”

John: I think people overthink these things, I really do. Content does not magically change because it’s published with electrons or on wood pulp. Different media can do different things in terms of reader experience, but at the end of it all, content still matters, and if you’re dishing up a bland and boring product, you’re going to fail no matter what media you use to present it. The ethos of the Internet is the ethos of all text-based media: Tell me what I don’t already know. Inform me. Entertain me. Don’t bore me.

What’s going to kill newspapers is not the Internet or the spectre of “free” — the fact others have gotten rich on “free” suggests there’s still money to be made even if it’s not directly extracted from the readers. What’s going to kill newspapers is that they’re frequently not that interesting; the corporate blandifying process has been largely successful, one newspaper generally looks and reads like another, and readers — particularly younger ones — don’t find anything that brings them back for more.

As a result of this blandifying, I suggest that, were they magically resurrected, not only couldn’t an H.L. Mencken or a Mike Royko get a column gig in a newspaper today — imagine the editors freaking out at the thought of the irate chowderheads the two of them would poke fun at — I suggest they wouldn’t even bother; they’d put up a blog instead and live off their AdSense revenues. To be sure, vibrant columnists aren’t the do-all and be-all of a paper — they’re the frosting, not the cake. But on the other hand, people really like frosting, and it sure helps sell the whole cake.

I’d like to see newspapers debland themselves; I wonder if at this point it would be enough.

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