Becoming a writer in the digital age

I used to include in the programme of the Blue Metropolis festival an event – sometimes two or even three events, for they always attracted a good crowd – called Becoming a Writer (which continues with this year’s event featuring Daniel Allan Cox, Doug Harris, and Kathleen Winter). 

I invited writers who had recently published a first book, or one who had recently made a splash. On stage, in front of a rapt audience, they talked about how they began to write, how they finished a book, how they got published.

That last bit is what interested audiences the most, the reason being that some untold percentage of festival-goers were aspiring writers with a manuscript or two tucked away in a bottom drawer at home.

One of the great mysteries of life as an aspiring writer always used to be how it was possible to get a publisher to say, “Yes, I will publish your book.” Until very recently, a writer wasn’t really a writer until and unless a publisher said – or more likely wrote – those magic words. So aspiring writers would sit at the feet of the published writers on stage, hoping for insights that would help them cross the threshold -- and transform them into professional writers.

Things have changed. Today, as essayist Adam Gopnik said here in Montreal at a talk entitled “Why Write Now?” at Concordia University on March 4, “there is no such thing as a bottom drawer anymore.” Like most truths, this is an exaggeration. Some of us still print up our manuscripts. Most writers have written work that has not seen the light of day.

It’s easy today to put every word you write online, though. I don’t have to wait for an editor to decide he likes my piece before I post it. I could publish my next book myself if I choose to do so. How well I would do at that depends on a number of factors, one of which is the market I could create for my book. Which is all the more reason for a writer to have a website. This week, New York publishing guru Mike Shatzkin said that the publishers who will succeed in this digital age will be those who can establish direct contact with their public. That includes writers who choose to publish their own work.

There are still plenty of gatekeepers around, but they don’t have the godlike powers they once had. Publishers, magazine editors, and literary agents still make their selection of what they will accept and promote, festival directors still have decision-making power over invitations, and there are still reviewers in influential publications. Not that many, though, not any more. And the publications themselves are a lot less influential than they once were, in part because there are so many more places to publish reviews today than ever before.

What is possible today – and was not possible until recently – is that writers can now do it all themselves. There used to be a stigma attached to self-publishing, back in the days when most of the writers who paid to publish their own work had been turned down by professional publishing houses. That is no longer the case. It used to be difficult, or at least expensive, for self-published writers to market and distribute their work. That is no longer the case. It used to be that self-published titles were rarely reviewed. That, too, has changed. Just a couple of weeks ago author Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 publishing deal, figuring he would do better for himself if he published his new work himself.

Some writers will choose not to self-publish. They may prefer not to spend the time it takes to edit, publish, market and sell their own work. But if they do wish to self-publish, it is now possible to do so without losing face and without losing money. That’s the game changer.

How exactly does it change the game? And what is a writer to do? These are some of the questions we are asking ourselves these days, even as the ground continues to shift under our feet. 

Linda Leith

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