Sunday, March 30, 2014

The future of writing

The revolution that was alphabetic writing is still resonating through human culture and society more than three thousand years after the Phoenecians invented it, and the Greeks improved upon it. It has given every religion on earth its sacred texts, and preserved them -- even as disagreements over how such books were to be interpreted has led to sectarian wars in which hundreds of thousands of people have died. It has given every civilization its laws, every language its literature, and every people their history.

Along the way, there have been revolutions within this revolution: the invention of paper in China in 200 BC, of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1430's, the publication of the first newspapers in the 1600's, and Ottmar Mergenthaler's invention of the Linotype in 1884. But the electronic revolution, unlike these others, has not only to improved the speed and efficiency with which the written word can be distributed, but may change the very nature of writing itself.

It hasn't always been possible to earn a living by writing. In the early days, being a writer required a wealthy patron; Chaucer had John of Gaunt, and Spencer had the Earl of Leicester. Books remained expensive, but the writer's share in their sale was small, and pirated editions common. The Statute of Anne in 1710 established copyright in England, but it was at least another century before anyone could actually sustain life on book royalties alone. What was missing was a mass audience of literate people, and people who could afford to buy or rent books. Public education eventually brought such an audience into being, and public libraries and book-lending services such as Mudie's (the "Netflix of Victorian Literature") made reading an affordable habit.

One of the most notable was Charles Dickens, whose books -- sold originally in serial installments -- made him a wealthy man, although in his later years he also made a good deal of his income from public readings. We all know the rags-to-riches tale of J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books made her the wealthiest woman in the United Kingdom, with riches far exceeding those of the Queen (who's actually running a bit low on cash). And yet Rowling's rise came before the arrival of e-books as a force to be reckoned with, and whether this new format will help or harm writers is still uncertain.

One thing electronic publication has already done, though, is to make writers of us all; indeed there may be more writers of certain kinds of material than there are people interested in reading it. Like the "I'm DJ'ing" segment of Portlandia, where everyone is DJ'ing, we are entering into a world where anyone who wants to can be an "author" via self-publishing services such as Smashwords, Author Solutions, At the same time, for many authors whose books are brought out via traditional publishers, it's getting harder to make a living; for every Anne Rice and Stephen King there are hundreds of novelists who struggle to make ends meet, and can't quit their day job.

It's a strange moment -- half opportunity, half cosmic joke: now that anyone can get their writing "out there," there's too much out there to sort through, and becoming "known" is more difficult than ever.


  1. I like to think of myself as a writer, but not singularly. By that I mean I am also a barista, a singer, a student, and a writer. Although it would be nice to grow up and write to work and work to write, it has never been my sole drive to become a novelist in the professional world. I like how I don't have all my eggs in one basket. Yet, with all of the new means of media and formatting for putting your stuff "out there", I have found myself unable to pinpoint exactly what/who/where I want to go about doing such! Will journalism still be a thing when I am out of college? Should I start fabricating my own series of blog posts to become something more? I love online writing, and money has never been my first priority, but will it get me anywhere in the real world? I try to tell myself that it will all work out eventually but it is troublesome when it is so easy to "publish" nowadays.

  2. I love writing. However, I do not like to write for fun about just anything, which is why I struggle to blog. Writing for me is something I would like to persue using in my career. I specifically like writing legislation. I love researching and writing papers. I hate to admit that I do not use online sources to publish my writing. I think that is just me as a person. I would rather do assignments for school than dedicate the very little free time I have to blogging. Not to offend those who do en joy it, I am merely just a different person. As far as online access to writing, my favorite source is the New York Times and I am lucky enough to have access on my ipad, phone, and computer. I would not change that at all.

  3. I'm more of a reader than writer, but I wanted to become a stronger writer because I feel like I have a couple of good stories to tell. I do however feel like the future for writers will be a little more underpaid,because e-books are so cheap. But hopefully it turns around.

  4. I used to be very into writing, but then slowly became more into reading other people's work. I guess I like how by reading one gets a chance to look into the way someone else thinks for once.

  5. I feel I am somewhere in the middle of being a writer and being a reader. I cannot read my own creative writing but I love writing it. Sometimes I also love reading other people's work more than writing my own. I feel they work hand in hand for me. I wish it was easier as a writer to be recognized and published, but unfortunately it's getting even harder to do so with all of the self-publishing and whatnot. Even if all publishing goes electronic, I'd rather my work be in a book form. It's one thing to see someone's writing, another to feel it.