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… 😉


If You Lived Here

Paul Raven @ 01-07-2011

Just in case you’re at a loss for something to do in my absence (yeah, right), here’s an idea – go tell the folk at Underland Press about your favourite fictional worlds so that Jeff VanderMeer can write a book about ’em. From my inbox:

The project, authored and edited by Jeff VanderMeer, is called If You Lived Here: The Top 30 All Time Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Worlds. It’s a compendium, of sorts, but also a travel guide to places like Dune, Ring World, Middle Earth, Lankhmar… and beyond. We’ve all lived in these places – in imagination if not in fact – and we’re all united by our common experiences of them. We wanted to collect the worlds together in one place as both a walk down memory lane and a place to start new dreams.

We’re reaching out to readers, writers, and booksellers to ask for nominations of worlds to include. We’ve set up a web form at www.ifyoulivedherebook.com, which takes the nominations and asks respondents to describe what they love about the world.

You heard ’em – so trundle over there and put in your two cents, why don’t ya?


My Grandfather’s Skeleton

Paul Raven @ 22-06-2011

It’s been half a year since I had to stop buying fiction to publish here, and it still nags at me every time I come to check the site for comments or write a new post. I’m very conscious that Futurismic filled a rather unique niche in the sf ecosystem; strictly near-future, almost Mundane science fiction stories still seem pretty rare elsewhere, and I was proud to be giving a place to interesting writers, new or old.

Still, I have hope that a change in my employment patterns over the next six months will allow me enough spare cash to start publishing new stories once again… though I have no idea how I’ll find the time to manage the slush pile alongside everything else I’ll be doing. In the meantime, though, I can at least link out to the sort of thing I migth have published, had I been in a position to do so… things like “My Grandfather’s Skeleton” by Kiyash Monsef, which he emailed me a link to not long ago. It’s simple, poignant and not too long, and I think you should go and read it. Here’s the animated ‘cover art’ for it, and the first few passages:

Grandpa was missing.

Sometime in the night, he’d gotten up, unhooked himself from a variety of instruments and medicated drips, and walked out of the hospital, and no one knew why, and no one knew where he was.

Dad and Mom, after getting the phone call at three in the morning, told me I should just go to school as usual and let them handle it. That morning, while my parents gave a description to a pair of police officers, I rode my bike to school, half expecting to see Grandpa sitting by the side of the road somewhere in a hospital gown.

I kept my phone on all morning, but there was no news. Grandpa Lucas had disappeared, and with his heart already feeble, each passing moment made it more and more likely that we would not see him alive again. It was impossible to pay any attention in class, and at noon I gave up and rode home.

Go finish it. Go on.


Nanolaw with Daughter: a parable of a litigatory future

Paul Raven @ 01-06-2011

Via the indispensable TechDirt, here’s a short fictional excursion into the near future by Paul “Ftrain” Ford. If you’ve ever wondered whereabouts the rising tide of petty litigations – copyright breach buckshot, nebulous class-action suits, mass-target John Doe patent infringements, libel tourism, the list goes on – might beach us, Ford paints an all-too-believable picture of today’s tomorrow.

On a Sunday morning before her soccer practice, not long after my daughter’s tenth birthday, she and I sat down on the couch with our tablets and I taught her to respond to lawsuits on her own. I told her to read the first message.

“It says it’s in French,” she said. “Do I translate?”

“Does it have a purple flag on it?”

“No,” she said.

“You don’t actually have to worry about it unless it has a purple flag.”

She hesitated. “Can I read it?” she asked.

“If you want to read it go ahead.”

She switched the screen from French to English and read out the results: “’Notice from the Democratic Republic of Congo related to the actions of King Leopold II.’”

This was what I’d been avoiding. So much evil in the world and why did she need to know about all of it, at once? But for months she’d asked—begged—to answer her own suits. I’d told her to wait, to stop trying to grow up so fast, you’ll have your whole lifetime to get sued. Until finally she said: “When I’m ten? I can do it when I’m ten?” And I’d said, “sure, after you’re ten.” Somehow that had seemed far off. I had willed it to be far off.

“Honey,” I explained, “you’ll get a lot of those kinds. What happened is, a long time ago, the country Belgium took over this country Congo and killed a lot of people and made everyone slaves. The people who are descendants of those slaves, their government gave them the right to ask other people for damages.”

“I didn’t do anything. I thought you had to do something.”

Where do you start? Litigation-flow tariff policy? Post-colonial genocide reparations microsuits? Is there a book somewhere, Telling Your Daughter About Nanolaw?

“You know,” I asked, “how you have to be careful about giving away information?”

She did. We talk about that almost every day.

Go read it all; won’t take you ten minutes.


Interactive Storytelling

Brenda Cooper @ 04-05-2011

Last month I wrote about talks. This month I’m back on content, looking into interactive books. We have usable tablet PCs and e-readers scattered across almost every household (we have four!), but most of the fiction that I read on them is exactly like the fiction I read in a book. I want more. Continue reading “Interactive Storytelling”


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