James Joyner links to a YouTube video of the great writer Harlan Ellison (whom I started reading almost fifty years ago) complaining about how amateurs are tough on his business. James observes:
Ellison is an all-time great and he’s been getting paid to write — and been famous — since before I was born. So, his, um, output is worth worth than most. But the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of people out there who are willing to do all kinds of writing without getting paid. Most op-eds you see in the major papers are published free or for an insultingly nominal fee. Most blogs don’t generate enough to pay for operating expenses.
I won’t link to the video here. Go on over to OTB to take a look at it.
Mr. Ellison’s remarks highlight the perversity of our publishing system, not just for books but for music, movies, and all similar works. There are lots of people who’d like to write (and, maybe, even get paid to do so). There are fewer who can write well. There are even fewer who write what publishers want to publish.
That is our system. Writers don’t get paid for writing, not even for writing well, and not, necessarily, for writing what will sell but for writing what publishers want to publish.
The highest paid and most famous motion picture directors aren’t the best. They’re those who are making what motion picture distributors want to distribute and the same is true of popular musicians: the rich and famous are those who are doing what the music publishers want to publish. It’s marketing not hard work or ability, although all three are nice.
Here’s the dirty little secret: our system is one that transfers risk from publishers to authors and, while the publishers continue to reap enormous benefits from that system, most authors don’t benefit at all from it.
One of my regular commenters here and someone I’ve met and consider at least a friend-in-the-making is a successful, published author. Very successful, I might say. He is also a person of enormous self-honesty and I’d be surprised if he didn’t agree with the claim that his great skill isn’t in writing but in writing what publishers want to publish and, possibly, what the readers in his target audience want to read. Also, like me, in marrying well but that’s another subject.
In my uninformed opinion writing what readers want to read is very much secondary. There is a large enough total marketplace nowadays that a publisher worth his salt should be able to identify a market from which money can be made and sell into it. Or create it. BTW, that’s why so many products are targeted at adolescents. They’re easier to influence.
And being a great writer is scarcely important at all. To believe otherwise is to believe that Stephen King is a greater writer than Shakespeare, Dickens, or Tolstoy. King is a competent writer, a good writer, but in a century his works will be all but forgotten while Boz’s go merrily on their way. Success and greatness aren’t the same thing.