How will writers make a living in the future?

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2011

That’s Damien G Walter’s question:

It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.

In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…

I can see where Walter is going here, but the flaw in his logic is easy enough to spot… even more so now that I’ve underlined it, I hope. (*ahem*) I can think of loads of people who still make a living from talking and reading: lecturers, lawyers, performance poets and actors, to name but a few.

And as such I suspect that there will still be people making a living from writing for as long as we still have alphabets to write with. While I can imagine a post-text future for humanity, I think it’s a very long way off from now, and until the day when we all communicate in hyperdense ideoplasts that can compress entire schools of thought into a small yet intricate 4-dimensional shape, people who make widgets are still going to need to hire people with the skill to explain to potential customers why their widgets are (supposedly) better than all the other widgets available.

I’m being a little disingenuous here, of course, as Walter is more specifically thinking about the demise of the writer of fictions rather than the churners-out of ad copy. [The difference between most ad copy and ‘proper’ fiction is left as an exercise of the reader’s cynicism.] But as much as the novel or short story forms we know today may become impossible to monetise in a fully-digital cultural sphere, I still hold that the human desire for story will not vanish until the human itself vanishes… and even then, our posthuman descendents will probably want to tell tales about their simian meatbag forebears in order to understand (or mythologise, or both) themselves, and their place and purpose in the universe.

Walter’s distress – like that of many other writers, my own included – is understandable, but it is also rooted in the very limiting conception of story being something that is printed on thin sheets of compressed and dried wood pulp… which rather overlooks cinema, television, machinima and computer games as storyable media, not to mention the spoken word form that he mentions, and the media we still have yet to discover, invent or adopt. That said, my callously future-focussed big-picture attitude here probably isn’t very comforting for folk trying to pay the rent with the one skill they’ve honed over a lifelong career, and I wish there was a magic wand I could wave that would sort that particular problem out.

But it’s equally disingenuous to wring hands over the Sad and Inevitable Fate of Story: to be led, limping, out to the barn like Old Yeller. That’s a little like lamenting the demise of the buggy whip while completely overlooking the opportunities opening up for whip-makers to redeploy their leatherworking skills on luxurious car interiors… storytelling ain’t going nowhere soon. While there are still people with the drive to tell stories, there’ll be new ways of making the talent pay. Mark my words.

Looking a little less deeply into the future of fiction, however, here’s a piece from The Guardian‘s Robert McCrum in which he looks at the way publishing houses are finally getting to grips with the digital age… and not so much in terms of new technologies or platforms, but in terms of the sort of books they’re printing. The internet and social media may have their faults, but there’s no denying they’ve made it easier to find out what your audience wants… or at least what it thinks it wants, which – as the saying goes – is close enough for government work, though the government don’t seem very keen on using it. Naturally enough, McCrum arrives in closing at the same question as Walter above, but with notably less angst – how’s the economics gonna work out?

I don’t have the answer, more’s the pity, or I’d be raking in big bucks from publishers as a futures consultant (in which capacity, I might add, I am most certainly available for hire at this moment in time – all enquiries and downpayments to the usual address, KTHXBAI). But it’s certainly an important question, and – if you ask me – one best addressed with positivity.

Although, of course, End Times storm clouds on the horizon do make for a more dramatic hook for a story… 😉

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5 Responses to “How will writers make a living in the future?”

  1. Robert Koslover says:

    Isn’t the most likely answer rather obvious? Writers will continue to make a living the exact same way that most of them do now, i.e., by spending their days at their regular (non-writing) jobs and then writing in their “spare time” on weekends and evenings. 🙂

  2. Damien says:

    Just a small intervention to say that I am not wringng my hands about these changes. I’m very happy about them! I think it’s much more important that we develop free and universal access to knowledge than that a few gatekeepers continue making a livng from knowledge as a limited resource. In a society that achieves that, the very concept of ‘making a living’ will be different, so Robert Koslover is only half right.

  3. evil_rocks says:

    Build personal brands with writing, get paid to speak. Fighting scarcity-obsoleting economics will just make your smarter customers *facepalm* and bail.

  4. AnthonyA says:

    When it comes down to it, fiction writers are really storytellers. They’ll just move into new & old ways to tell their stories. Performance fees for telling a story in a small theater, busking, or writing the background and story for the video game, “Portal 18 – The End of All Portals”.

  5. Chad says:

    Sadly, Mr. Walter demonstrates that he doesn’t have much room for rational thought, as there are still plenty of priests, preachers, etc. who make a living talking. In many cases these people make far better livings than they ever did in the Dark Ages.