Recently we’ve been looking at why writers get paid so little and how they themselves are largely responsible for keeping in motion the accepted career model which results in them getting rewarded so rarely. But it’s a difficult message to swallow because the marketplace is so alive with people violating basic principles of economics that it seems as though the norm is something quite different from what actually works. The wood cannot be seen for the trees, as it were.
This is important: if you want to have a writing career which (eventually) pays you money, it’s vital to know something about how marketplaces work and what you might be doing to shoot yourself in your writing foot in the absence of such knowledge.
So let’s take a look at some of the basics of economics.
In any economic system, value is determined by relative scarcity. Where something is perceived to be scarce (like diamonds or gold, the examples normally used) its commercial value is considered to be high in direct proportion; conversely, where something is perceived to exist in abundance (like air) its commercial value is set as quite low — it’s difficult to charge people money for air, when they are surrounded by it.
That’s why professional sportspeople or television presenters are often paid so highly — their talents are considered to be rare. Street cleaners, on the other hand, are paid less because it is considered that their job could be done by just about anyone — the ability to clean a street is perceived to be abundant.
Note how this is all to do with perceptions. This doesn’t mean that a television presenter is intrinsically worth more than a street cleaner — just that how they are both paid is determined by how abundant their talents are considered to be by the general population. Segments within that population disagree with the overall consensus, of course — but the ‘marketplace’ is, by definition, that generalised entity which operates on common denominators.
Astute readers will have already made the leap from these examples to that of the writer, sitting in his or her bedroom, typing out stories. Largely because the practice of writing fiction is perceived to be such a simple thing — ‘writers just sit and scribble stuff’, thinks the world at large — then writers are perceived to be ‘a dime a dozen’. When you have a marketplace open to self-publishing in ways that previous generations would never have dreamed of, resulting in millions of stories flooding all the places that readers look for their next piece of entertainment, that perceived value becomes less than a dime: the vast majority of writers — even those who manage to get published — can only find avenues for their work if they accept zero pay.
Scarcity creates value and writers are not perceived to be scarce.
So what can an individual writer do about this?
Well, luckily the thing that curses writers to be paid so little is the thing that opens the door to a way out of the trap: perceptions.
The simplicity of this is that, to increase the value of your particular brand of storytelling, you have to make it appear to be more scarce in the eyes of your target audience.
Scarcity brings value; enforcing absence produces greater need.
Emptiness moves us.
Example? Let’s say that you write romantic comedies. Let’s also say that you have been spending the last year chasing everything that moves in the field of submissions for romantic comedies, wasting hour after hour and getting paid nothing even in those rare cases where your work was accepted.
Instead, try a different approach:
1. Take a closer look at what makes your work unique. Is it that fact that you have a command of a particular historical setting? Or are your characters especially well fleshed-out or humorous? Or is your dialogue the thing that sparkles in your stories? Or something else, or some subtle combination? Nail this down — it’s important.
2. What exactly is it about your work which means that a particular kind of reader will especially enjoy it? Who are those particular readers? Are they the general mass of ‘readers of romantic comedies’ that you have had a vague notion of ever since you began writing? Or is there a smaller niche audience within that grouping for which your stories would have an especial appeal? Like fans of P. G. Wodehouse, or admirers of Richard Curtis’s romantic comedy films, for example?
3. What could you do to highlight, magnify, expand upon, develop all the unique elements that you have isolated? This means both within your stories and outside of them. In marketing terms, could the covers, the blurbs, the query letters and everything associated with your works somehow intensify those things which make you and your work stand out from the crowd? That means not only the crowd of writers generally, but that sub-set of writers who focus on romantic comedy as a genre.
Can you see what you’re doing here? You’re making exactly what you do as a writer comparatively more scarce. Instead of being one of those generic ‘writers’, you are narrowing the field down — firstly to ‘romantic comedy’ as a genre, then to that particular kind of romantic comedy which is your specialty, and then — if you can zoom down even further — to that very distinct brand of romantic comedy which is penned by you alone.
Once you hit that ‘penned by you alone’ band, you have opened the door to greater wealth as a writer. By definition, if it’s penned only by you, it’s scarcer; and scarcer things can demand higher prices.
In practical terms, this will take a little time on two counts: you will need to figure out exactly what it is that makes your storytelling special and strengthen that in every piece of fiction you write; and you will need time to find that precise audience for that narrow band of stories. But that’s time well spent — much better than wasting time chasing a more general audience and not getting any recognition at all in commercial terms.
Plus, it can be intensely enjoyable. Journeying right into the heart of your own work is like exploring a goldmine that you own, or finding a treasure trove under your house, or realising that the old paintings in your attic are worth a fortune. No one else owns these things: the fact that your storytelling is so exclusive to you is both inescapable and inescapably glorious. And the deeper you go, the more valuable you get.