Choosing a career online vs. print

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In an interview with the Guardian, author Cory Doctorow talks about why he gives away all his books for free online:

I give away all of my books. [The publisher] Tim O'Reilly once said that the problem for artists isn't piracy – it's obscurity. I think that's true. A lot of people have commented: "You can't eat page views, so how does being well-known help you earn a living as a writer?" It's true; however, it's very hard to monetise fame, but impossible to monetise obscurity. It doesn't really matter how great your work is; if no one's ever heard of it, you'll never make any money from it. That's not to say that if everyone's heard of it, you'll make a fortune, but it is a necessary precursor that your work be well-known to earn you a living.

Doctorow got his wish. He is well-known—on the internet at least. The fact that he isn't more well-known in larger literary circles may be because he writes in the genre ghetto of science fiction, but he has made a career entirely on the internet and I'm certain he's satisfied with that. The question is how soon this will become the normal career trajectory for a writer and not be seen as a geeky aberration.

Where should an aspiring writer focus his energy today? Are print publications still the gold standard, or will more take Doctorow's path and work only online? The journalist may not have a choice in a few years, but there will always be a thriving, if small, community of literary magazines that cater to creative work. So what's the best outlet?

I started writing online. I read all of my news, opinion, and long-form journalism online. With the exception of books and literary journals (which I treat as books, simply because of the form factor), if it's not online it may as well not exist. And maybe my peer group is self-selecting, but every creative person I know operates the same way. Yet when I attend writing conferences and seminars, publishing online is still seen as a compromise, a choice to be made only when you've exhausted your options for print.

When I finish writing something, my first instinct is to post it somewhere online for the very reasons Doctorow mentioned. How else will anyone see it? I'm grateful for each opportunity to publish my work in print, but each time I did, my contributor's copy arrived in the mail with a telling clunk. That's the last I would ever hear about it. When I post things online the people who matter to me, the friends and family in my Twitter and Facebook circles, read it and comment and pass it around. It's always more rewarding.

So why go to trouble of navigating the gatekeepers of the print world? Because retweets and likes and warm internet fuzzies don't earn beer money. Even an online evangelist like Doctorow is giving away his books online in hopes of selling more of the print version. And with gatekeepers lie editorial selectivity and prestige. Posting to your own blog will never carry the same ring as saying you were published in the New Yorker. But this choice depends on what kind of validation the writer needs. For many, the online option may be enough.