The Write Stuff (part i)

I am officially a writer. Two things prove this.

The first is that I have, on my refrigerator, a PROFESSIONAL DISCOUNT ORDER FORM from Writer’s Digest Professional Services Division. The second is that I don’t subscribe.

Because Writer’s Digest is a wannabe magazine. They have to be. They have to have a fundamental base of wannabes (at the time Robert Heinlein gave his famous speech to the graduating class at Annapolis in the early ’70s, about 50% of the adult population of the USA wanted to be professional writers. In it, he lays out Heinlein’s Five Rules*), or else they don’t have a demographic large enough to support the magazine. The actual number of full time writers is very small, and the number of sometimes compensated and “on the side” writers is larger but still miniscule in the larger economy.

[*Heinlein’s 5 Rules:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must never rewrite except to editorial order.
4. You must put your work on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until it sells.]

Writers Digest has to write about the writer’s life as those who want to be writers believe it to be. Since I read my first copy in 1975, loaned from my writing professor, until I saw a copy in a waiting room recently, it hasn’t fundamentally changed. But from the point of view of the writer, “7 Tips to Punch Up your Dialogue” doesn’t mean spit to me. I need professional information, not fabulist fiction about writing fiction. That I save for my dentist’s office.

Now a part of that is making a living, or at least earning something. Today, the Willamette Writers Conference begins in Portland. I was going to go. Really I was. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

These have been tough times for writers. Used to be that you sent in your manuscript, a “slush pile” reader read it and usually rejected it. A few made it to a higher editor who still might reject it. When you became a known quantity, you had access to the editors directly, and your career was in good shape. We saw what happened to Mrs. Muir in that movie about the ghost.

Of course, like with “Uncle Neddie” (George Sanders), nothing in writing was what it appeared to be. Publishers have always been a little fly-by-night. And, because writing attracts so many whose vanity makes it easy for publishers to lower the prices, everyone gets paid slave wages.

When I started writing for the magazines of the Knight group (Players, Adam, Adam Film World, Choice, Vertex, Knight, etc. etc.) the rates hadn’t gone up from the mid-60s when Harlan Ellison could survive on a couple of articles and/or short stories a month to the late 70s, when two pieces wouldn’t pay more than about half of a month’s rent.

That was true throughout the magazine industry. Writers hadn’t fundamentally gotten a raise in decades. In fact, much like the “War On Terror” (where every time Osama misbehaves, WE get punished), every time that paper prices shot out of sight (which was continual), the publishers came up with NEW ways to NOT pay writers. First, payment on acceptance became payment 30 days after we send out our letter of acceptance. Then it became payment on publication, which finally turned into payment on the 30th day of the month that it says publication happened on the cover.

Except that for some weird reason that I’ve yet to learn, magazines always come out a month early. The Christmas issue comes out the first or second week of November. So, the December issue came out on November 7th, and the publisher got all of his money by December 7th (when the January issue came out), and the writer gets paid for the piece on December 31st. He doesn’t actually see the check for the December issue that’s now been off the stands for more than a month until the first week of January or so.

The publisher has made his money off the writer’s work, gotten a month’s INTEREST on that money, and then pays the writer. Killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Because, weirdly, we don’t value writing. We don’t value words. The cheap paperback may cost $6.95 now instead of 75 cents. But the writer probably didn’t get PAID much more than the writer who wrote the 75-center back in the “golden age of paperbacks” in the mid-70s.

OK. Worse, with the advent of the internet and the movement away from paper print, the industry started laying off reporters. And reporters (except for sports reporters) are writers, too. I had not known the following shocking fact until recently … perhaps because I am stupid, but perhaps because it was hard for the media to “pick up” the story because of the “insider baseball” aspect and the conflicts-of-interest involved.

NPR’s Michael Goldfarb (not to be confused with THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s Michael Goldfarb, who may yet succeed in having Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp fragged in Iraq) blogged:

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Why Iran Doesn’t Fear America & Why America Should Fear Its newspapers being Destroyed

Listen closely to these two commentaries:

Iran goes nuclear and the Bush Administration rattles its saber. Given the debacle in Iraq, is anyone, particularly the Iranian government afraid of them?


3000 American journalists lost their jobs last year, and analysts say this year could see just as many reporter and editor positions disappear. Journalism is being shut down … can democracy survive?

posted by Michael Goldfarb in London at 8:30 AM 0 comments

Clark Kent Fired

It’s gotten worse since. From Reuters:

Planned media job cuts up 88 pct in 2006
Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007, 12:29 pm ET
By Joanne Morrison and Michele Gershberg

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The number of planned job cuts in the U.S. media sector surged 88 percent last year and that trend will likely continue as readers shift from print to online services, a study on Thursday showed.

For all of last year, the media industry announced 17,809 job cuts, up sizably from the 9,453 cuts announced the prior year, according to the job outplacement tracking firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

That was the biggest tally of announced layoffs for the industry since 2001, when the collapse was under way.

The trend is expected to continue this year …

That’s also the secretaries, research assistants, fact checkers, editors and others not counted as “journalists” but indispensible to the process nevertheless. It’s been a rotten time in the print media for the past several years, and my peers, who started out in the post-orgasmic flush of Woodward & Bernstein having brought down a presidency (at least that was how the movie sold it) are now facing a premature retirement with zero prospects for future employment or retraining (they’re too old).

I worked in Orange County, California in the lat 80s, and it was the same with draftsmen. The people who had drawn the schematics, the blueprints, the plans for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, were now doing pasteup for proposals for the space station — a project that would be designed using CAD (computer assisted drafting) that had put these expert technical draftsmen out of work, men and women. In Whittier, California in 1987, I worked in a shop that typeset supermarket flyers (English and Spanish. The Spanish word for grapes is “uvas” which would make a great crowd-chanting-in-square “Evita” scene: UVAS! UVAS!) and pasting up “Wonder Bread $1.37” and “potatoes 18 cents/lb.” were the same draftspeople. From Command modules to cantelopes, they had fallen a long way.

It is what happened in the First Industrial Revolution, as weavers were put out of work by factories. The French peasants threw their wooden shoes into the machinery in a futile attempt to stop the machines, giving us the term “sabotage,” from their shoes, “sabots.”

Now it is hitting the writing trade. Soon, perhaps, we will have machines that crank out all our books. Paris Hilton has had a bestseller. It can’t be far off.

And, with those cheering thoughts in mind, we return to me, who is a writer according to a writer’s magazine that I refuse to subscribe to, and my almost attendance at the Willamette Valley Writers Conference.


Tomorrow: The Senses Shattering Conclusion With A Special Surprise Ending! No one will be admitted to the blog in the last 10 minutes!!

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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2 Responses to The Write Stuff (part i)

  1. Hart, a brilliant and much-needed post. The analogy to Industrialism is also interesting, because as we’ve moved away from it into the post-industrial “Information age”, the publishing industry is basically throwing their shoes into the binderies in an effort to stave off irrelevancy. I think that’s why the “celebrity memoir” has become such a “best seller” today, and why books by Paris Hilton or famous athletes or actors or celebrities hit the stands with regular frequency, while literary fiction dies a slow death, and poetry for the most part is relegated to small little journals that only MFA creative writing grad students will ever read (by force, of course) or contribute to.

    What else sells? Genre fiction and memoir (the more lurid and disgusting, the better…were you a drunk, in therapy, who was molested by your priest as a child? If not, we’re passing on your script).

    I think the ‘net and blogging in particular has changed the dynamic quite a bit, but perhaps we’re missing a larger truth, and that is: people are stupid and getting dumber all the time. It’s ironic that the internet was supposed to make people “smarter” by putting all this “information” out there, but I think what passes for intelligence on the internet involves pictures of people and their posses drunk and a lot of “OMG!URSOKEWL!LMAO!” bullshit.

    Was Postman right? Are we literally “amusing ourselves to death”?

    Perhaps we don’t read literary fiction and vaunt “famous writers” like Hemingway, Kerouac, et al because people are just too stupid to get it (or care). You are precisely correct: we don’t lionize or vaunt writers anymore because today everyone is a writer and the internet and blogging has certainly made everyone “published”, hasn’t it?

    It’s sad to watch the publishing “industry” (and it is an industry) go the way of the weavers, but I would argue that’s what the “celebrity memoir” and general crap that passes for published novels today is…a shoe thrown into 21st century technology…an attempt to stave off the inevitable.

  2. Your comments are most welcome, and appreciated, Todd. I agree, except for the issue of the “celebrity memoir,” which is more an attempt to create writerless books: only the name matters in marketing, ergo, anyone famous can “write” a “book,” whereas the entire middle tier of authors (those who DIDN’T make the bestseller lists, but sell respectably, and have a following, good catalog sales, etc.) have been exiled to the Siberia of self-publishing and e-books in a world where neither are reviewed, and are dismissed out of hand as “vanity” because the (60%+ foreign owned) major publishers are too busy looking for ghost-writers who can “create” more celeb memoirs. More in today’s Part ii.