Commodity Writing Doesn’t Attract Readers

Today I turned down work from a publisher who wanted to pay me far less than a living wage for a piece of writing that is important. It’s training material for a future generation of college and graduate school students, who presumably will benefit society by virtue of their well-educated minds.

To the publisher, I just said “no”. But to the world at large, I want to say “What kind of plantation do you think you’re running here?”

I have long understood that writers, particularly freelancers, are often perceived as “migrant workers of the mind”. Publishers welcome them at certain times onto their lands. They ask them to apply their time and their skills and their energies to accomplishing certain tasks for the publisher. If they are good at their work, they do all this speedily, to a certain level of quality. Then they take their money and move on. Most of the enduring value they have created with their time and energy remains with the publisher. If they can’t work, by and large writers can’t earn — except for certain writers who manage to copyright materials that have long-term attraction and value to the reading public.  

Even so, until the 1990’s, it was possible for tens of thousands of people to earn decent livings as writers. Many publishers sought to pay as little as possible for writers’ services, of course, but enough publishers did place a high enough value on good writing that the overall wage level stayed viable. Then the economics began to change, and thousands upon thousands of writers saw their wages diminish, or their permanent positions disappear. Publishers saw their revenues shrink, and responded by cutting writers’ wages and positions even more.

With the advent of the World Wide Web, writers got to sell their services to publishers all over the world. But they were also forced to compete with writers from all over the world, and the practical result — for a host of reasons — was to drive down the prevailing wages for most writing jobs to slave wages. Publishers began to demand that writers bid for the right to work on jobs, and publishers made clear they would accept only the lowest offers. At the same time, publishers began to cater to “short attention span” readers. The number of words that publishers would pay for to “cover” a topic shrank from several thousand to several hundred — all priced at the lowest available rate.

Not surprisingly, the downward spiral has continued.

With very few exceptions, we have now reached a situation where writers simply aren’t offered enough money to pay for good quality work. There’s not enough money in the “writing business” to justify getting advanced degrees or specialized training. There’s not enough money to pay writers to do any significant research into what they are asked to write, or to take the time to craft elegant phrases or even to proofread and polish their prose.

The wages offered writers today are so pathetically small that no one with above average brains or talent can reasonably be expected to choose writing as a career. More and more often the people who “write” for “pay” are part-timers, dashing off pieces frantically between other activities that are more important or offer more satisfaction.

That’s why so much of the “writing” on the Web today is so simple, so boring, so repetitive, so superficial, and often so wrong.

And the result of that kind of writing is another set of forces that contribute to the dumbing-down of our culture. Written material that does not offer much in the way of deeper thoughts, non-obvious facts, subtler trains of reasoning, and more elegant phraseologies inevitably does a bad job of educating, enlightening, or enlivening the minds of those who read it. And the consequences of that will be dire.

Publishers are happy at today’s prospect of paying a penny a word, or less, for the material they need to separate the advertisements on their pages. But readers (whom publishers prefer to think of as “consumers”) do not come to publishers’ pages for the ads. They come for the content. Weaker content exerts a weaker pull on consumers, who will come less often and spend less on publishers’ pages, who will then want to further cut back on the wages they pay writers, who will then withdraw even farther into other activities — leaving the field of “writing” to people who lack the abilities, talents, knowledge, and work ethic to earn higher wages, no matter what industry they enter.

Henry Ford understood that he had to pay a living wage to his workers in order to stimulate the economy enough to create demand for his automobiles. Farmers understand that they have to provide a “doorstep feeding” for barnyard cats to keep them in the area and healthy enough to kill the farmers’ rodents.  

I’m waiting for publishers to understand that good writing is the engine that makes publications — including websites — successful. Low-wage writing simply does not attract and hold enough of the attention of enough readers (consumers) to break out of the pack. It’s a commodity, and while it certainly deserves only commodity wages, it also provides only commodity attraction and commodity power to out-perform the competition.

Publishers who have the strategic vision to understand that better writing brings better audiences and generates better revenues will skim the cream of online revenues, and leave what remains to the crowd. All that’s missing is a suitable mechanism to make it easy for readers (consumers) to find the good writing and share it with their friends. When that arrives — and it will — the plantation field will no longer be quite so level, and commodity writing will be relegated to commodity topics.

Your thoughts on this?


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