FROM ONE WRITER TO ANOTHER

by Tom Ehrich

“There are only 200 writers in America who earn their living from writing,” said my brother-in-law, an excellent writer from a New Hampshire family of excellent writers.

He himself was a college professor. So are many writers. Others work for newspapers and magazines, law firms, hospitals, churches and not-for-profits. Only a few writers, like Danielle Steel and John Grisham, have big enough audiences to give up their day jobs, as it were.

I don’t think my brother-in-law had actually counted the number of self-supporting writers. But he had grasped a reality, namely, that the many people, like myself, who think themselves writers shouldn’t expect to live large or independently of other paychecks. Independent authors (that is, not those who write for an enterprise as, say, technical writers) have seen their income fall by 28% since 2000 to a level that is about two-thirds of the minimum needed for subsistence.

The odds are even worse now that Internet blogging has arrived. At virtually no expense, a writer with something to say can launch a blog and grow it to several thousand readers, far more than would ever pay, say, $15 to $30 to buy a print book.

I am not complaining. I am celebrating. Even though this reality complicates my desire to earn a living from writing, I celebrate the earnest desire of people to claim their voices, to speak into a busy world and, perhaps, to make a difference in that world by their words.

Writing is open to everyone, not just to those who "buy the ink," as they used to say. Many use the opportunity poorly or with malicious intent. But the door is open, and society is the better for it.

I am not counting social media mavens in this celebration of writers. It’s too easy to throw out a few words on Facebook, link to a video and pretend to be deep. Plus the anonymity of social media make honest and free expression difficult to sustain. Too much snark and bullying.

But I do count blogging, e-letters, e-books and other digital media, as well as self-publishing. Writing is no longer limited to print volumes put out by professional publishers, who pay their authors a small fraction of the revenue for the ego satisfaction of seeing their names in print. Aspiring writers can get their words before us on their own terms now, not necessarily highly remunerative terms, but certainly their own.

Blogging is an inconsistent art form, of course. I read two dozen blogs a day, and some of them are dreadful. Most are worth exactly what I paid. But a few are as good as anything appearing in vaunted magazines and bookstores. I think digital writing will improve as writers figure out what works – concise, clear, focused, honest – and give up on flowery language and self-indulgent spewing. Being able to master the mechanics of digital media isn’t the same as having something to say.

And having something to say isn't the same as working at the craft of saying it. To a writer, it's a Darwinian jungle out there. Lots of writers put words into the public eye. But only a few are good writers, only a few are worth reading. Over time, excellence will prevail. That's good news for the public and for writers who know how. It's bad news for those who think they are entitled to an audience even though they haven't done the work to earn it.

Still, for all the quality gaps, many more people have something worthwhile to say than we might have known. The phenomenon of "mommy bloggers," for example, has given voice to at-home moms who might otherwise have considered themselves invisible. Some of the best writing I see comes from this venue.

I also read a lot of blogs about church life, politics and technology. Some are affiliated with large enterprises, but many are just folks who have solid information, strong opinions, and a deft hand at the keyboard.

This will be what rescues our democracy. Big Money tries to control the airwaves. Large donors and large media try to control advertising, access to the public eye, campaign spending and candidate selection. But they don't win. Maybe they can control broadcast media and print media, but the Internet is wild and wooly democracy. Anyone can have voice. No wonder freedom-haters try to shut down the web. When citizens insist on being heard, political charlatans and bullies can’t just spew lies and hatred and call it an election. They can't just unleash propaganda and call it truth.

When I decided to focus my work entirely on writing, I had to make some decisions. Get out of Manhattan, for one. Cost of housing is too high. Another: offer a combination of writings for free and writings for a fee. Be nimble, and work at marketing. Most important: work at it. Make sure my quality is the highest I can offer. In the Darwinian jungle of modern writing, "good enough" isn't good enough. Take extra time to get the words just right.

I say to all writers, take heart. Work hard. Keep your day job. Live free. Add your voice to the mix.