As publishers drown in oceans of manuscripts, and a declining readership prepares to bite the bullet and simply buy the Oprah or Heather recommended bestsellers for Christmas and not get stressed out over myriad choices in bookstores, and as writers pray “pick me, pick me” while they fill out their next grant form or Welfare stub, I wondered why we are in such dire straits. Once upon a time, writers were trades people (some still are) and managed to eke out a living from their words; even Dickens was paid a shilling per chapter (a formulaic 32 pages) for his serialized work. But now, “free work for the prestige of being published” is the new normal. So I tried to categorize the newer types of writer who have emerged since the days of Dickens, and thereby “disrupted” the cozy supply side of the equation. Here are but a few (Aspiring Writers: stop reading past this point if your ego is going to be hurt. And I am assuming that we all have egos, rather inflated ones, or else why would we want to achieve immortality through our writing?):
The part-timer: This wannabe is bored with his day job and needs an outlet. So he tinkers with a page or two whenever he is feeling harassed by the boss, the wife, the kids, or by his golf handicap. He may eventually churn out a book or two before he takes up another pursuit.
The retiree: We are living longer so there are lots of us in this category. The retiree is usually padded with an inflation-proof pension, but is tearing out his remaining hair to break free of his sanitized world of reality and plunge into the tumultuous world of fiction.
The genre-writer: This guy is out to make money and guards his solitary novel, a potpourri of Grisham, Le Carre, Higgins and others. He hounds publishers and agents until they run and hide. If he is still at this game ten years later, and has not hit the jackpot by then, he is likely to have self-published that novel, built a website, self-marketed himself to death, and taken up fishing.
The memoirist: This chap doesn’t want to die but knows he will, like the rest of us. Therefore, he is leaving parts of himself (the juiciest bits) plucked from jealously guarded diaries for his family and friends to savour after he is gone. These books usually make better doorstops, I’m told.
The salacious one: Solely focussed on making money without any moral restrictions to slow him down. Picks words that make people horny and drop their inhibitions, then repeats those words over and over. He keeps returning to one scene all the time: the bedroom – the book’s beginning, middle and end.
The poet: Words, words, those are the most important to this fellow. We can’t understand what the heck he is saying except that those words are powerful. He is a bit of a show-off too because the poet performs, and his reward is in the applause (or boos) of his audience.
The literary writer: This guy is by far the most inscrutable. He writes three pages a day and deletes them the next. He never intends to finish his masterpiece but plans to donate it to his estate to be published posthumously, for that increases his mystique and avoids him critical flak. He is scared of criticism, is self-delusional, and tends to suffer from depression.
The second careerist: This person took a wrong but safe turn in his twenties and became an accountant or a teacher. When faced with the “who am I?” question during his mid-life crisis, he discovered his true vocation and is now standing at the bottom of the steep literary hierarchy, awaiting his turn for recognition which may or may not come in his lifetime.
So, you see, there are many of us, of one kind or the other, flooding the supply side. I could identify myself in more than one of the above categories at one time or other. Could you? The more serious ones in my scribbling tribe would cast me aside as a traitor for having paraded us in public so candidly but it’s healthy to put pride and glory aside and laugh at ourselves occasionally.
One thing is certain: as more free and wannabe material enters the market, it is creating the case for the genuine journeyman writer to redefine himself as a creator of premium content. How he then creates this superlative material, and positions and markets himself will determine his survival in this perilous trade.