2014年2月20日星期四

The Economics of Reading and Writing in this Day and Age

I have been reading much discussion surrounding young artists and writers about how to earn a living with their craft. As Keith Gessen put it, “There are four ways to survive as a writer in the US in 2006: the university; journalism; odd jobs; and independent wealth” in an early piece titled Money. On writers with odd jobs such as copy-editing, he commented, “You have no social position outside the artistic community; you have limited funds; you call yourself a writer but your name does not appear anywhere in print.” Gessen is similarly critical of journalism, in which writers risk falling into bad magazines that “vulgarize your ideas and literally spray your pages with cologne.”
Hannah Horvath in Girls Season 2 Episode 6 gives in to the pressure and takes a faux-journalist position at GQ mag. She appears utterly shocked that fellow advertorial content writers for once published in more established literary venues. She briefly considers quitting the GQ gig because she still wanted to produce real writing. "I'm just realizing how easy it is to get seduced by the perks and the money and the free snacks, and then suddenly I wake up in 10 years and I'm not a writer anymore," she exclaims, but does not actually leave. Stephen Elliot of the Daily Rumpus also writes about balancing financial concerns with art-related ambitions. Specifically how he stitches his finance together in the Newsletter and the trials of his last Kickstarter funding venture for Happy Baby.
“Someone asked me yesterday, or a couple of days ago, how do I get by. And I answered that I was all small time. I was responsible for this online magazine I created, and I'd written some books, though it had been awhile. I made a movie I didn't get paid for and another movie is being made out of one of my books that I would be paid for but wouldn't ever see. I said I was looking forward to being interviewed and asked what I thought of the movie so I could say, I don't know, I've never seen it, but I hear it's good. I told her I taught classes on occasion. You see, just a little bit here, a little bit there. Occasionally I would airbandb my place. Little things, stitched together. But I wouldn't call it a quilt.” 
Articles from the new n+1 collection MFA v. NYC also talk about the rise of fellowships and how it affects writers. A more personal example: I recently heard from a China-based American freelance journalist in his 30s was not only willing to ask his parents for money when he visited the East Coast, but also looked forward to financial support in the five-figure range. They would to see their grandchildren, he reasoned, and would thus pay up for the sake of the grandchildren. Times are dire for journalists and writers. 

I guiltily finished reading George Packer’s New Yorker article Cheap Words, because I rely on Amazon for books with increasingly low retail prices that affects the quality of new and upcoming writing. Packer makes the case that Amazon’s predatory bargaining strategy pressured publishing houses to give Amazon nearly fifty percent of a book’s list price, while only twenty-five percent goes to “for editorial counsel, production costs, publicity, paying the author, and whatever profit might be left over.” Similarly, Amazon’s algorithm mass approach and has decreased the distribution venues for serious fiction and nonfiction work. Even back in 2006, Keith Gessen bemoans that publishers meet potential writers “armed with Nielsen BookScan” to match a book with their short-term sales and popularity. Gessen writes, “The very precision of the numbers numbs the publishers into a false sense of their finality. They cannot imagine a book good enough to have its sales in the future.” He would probably agree with Packer that this short-term approach reduces the number of potential “mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring.” I pondered on my loyalty to Amazon and my ethics of consumption. Then I realized, since I write for some publications for free, I am also a victim of this digitization trend, the karmic repercussions of buying Amazon distributed books balances out. Packer also finds it amusing that the harshest critics of Amazon in the publishing world still use the service. 
The discussion about free content also looms large in the blogosphere. Publications such as The Atlantic and Though Catalog expect writers to contribute for free, which is an issue I wish George Packer delved into more. He briefly mentioned that some e-book writers only make 500 dollars a year, but not on how online writing affects the publishers’ economics. Hannah Horvath also dabbled in the e-book publishing industry briefly, until her editor fell through... When staff writers of magazine institutions openly discuss the issue of writing for free, almost no one mention any form of unionization or collective action. As Packer and MFA v. NYC points out, no writer is ever just a writer anymore. They are celebrities, professors, or other affiliates of academia. Even if the freelancers considered forming a union, they would not be able to exercise forms of strikes such as stopping production. You are “doing what you love,” a classist term called out by a Jacobin article as a privileged upper middle-class terminology. Or, the more common argument is that when you write, you can promote your brand or your own cause. As a result, self-promotion and self-expression is blurred with art, opinion is blurred with factual articles. 
 On the consuming end of the spectrum, Packer does not seem confident about the future of reading for leisure, citing the rise of addictive iPad apps. Packer argues vaguely for some kind of public good and think that people ideally should read for their own betterment. But he focuses only on the individual consumer aspect and does not touch on the situation of library (though he does mention that librarians are a dying species). N+1’s excellent two-part piece Lion’s Winter (1) & (2) on New York Public Library laments the digitization of library resources. Board members of NYPL believe that they are democratizing reading, an effort also championed by publishers in favor of Amazon’s way of distribution. NYPL board members argues in the populist vein that they can increase studying space for regular readers by reducing obscure books. But the author Charles Petersen shows that the individual researcher cannot find many physical resources since databases of scanned, “obscure” books of NYPL are now only accessible to enrolled students and academics with institutions. In this case, while public libraries are not profit-seeking like Amazon, they also have to bend to efficiency measurements, such as organizing with data that rank which physical books are most popular and should be kept on shelves. 
The Amazon effect investigated by George Packer and others share the same theme with the public library changes. As Jeff Bezos said, “Amazon is not happening to bookselling. The future is happening to bookselling.” Bezos would definitely think that the future is also happening to (public) library management. I would recommend reading the two articles in succession. But that reading sequence could also leave the reader quite depressed about the future of letters and arts. Maybe Hannah Horvath has the better chance of finding her dignity as a writer in the end; Keith Gessen and Stephen Elliot certainly have kept on writing and making art.

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