On his Web site, former direct marketer Seth Godin gives his bona fides as "a writer, a speaker" -- and most embarrassingly, "an agent of change,” then says he "has written thirteen books.... every one ... a bestseller." Finally, he celebrates that an airline magazine called him "America's Greatest Marketer." One of my more wiseass -- but very well-read -- friends says that each of Godin's bestsellers is simply a repackaging of the same theme. Me, I don't judge.
In an interview earlier this week in response to a question about the viability of authors making money in this day and age, Mr. Godin said: "Who said you have a right to cash money from writing? I gave hundreds of speeches before I got paid to write one. I’ve written more than 4,000 blog posts for free. Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage. The future is going to be filled with amateurs, and the truly talented and persistent will make a great living. But the days of journeyman writers who make a good living by the word -- over."
In the comments section, someone responded: "I disagree with Godin about the lack of need for writers to be paid. That’s easy to say when you’ve sold hundreds of thousands of books, but if you are researching a topic for a narrative work and also feeding a family, you need income! The business model of publishing is broken and sky-high advances should be a thing of the past; however, publishers still seem to want to place bets on A-List celebrity names who don’t, in fact, have much to say and it’s a pity that those seven-figure sums aren’t divvied out to more worthy projects."
I think Mr. Godin's point is that thanks to the Internet, the publishing industry (books, magazines, etc.) is changing so rapidly that authors have to find their own audiences and monetize them directly through piece-sales or micro subscriptions -- and that the days of publishers as packagers and proxy marketers for authors are rapidly ending.
Somewhere in this discussion things like "quality" and "trustworthiness" and "balanced" should have been mentioned. Because in addition to their prose, that is what writers have been paid for over the years. And that is what is most at risk in a world where publishers are removed as gatekeepers. It’s true that in fiction and entertainment, quality is in the eye of the beholder. What else can explain Bret Easton Ellis books and Jack Black or David Spade movies? But without training or experience, it is almost impossible for writers to create journalism that can be reliably thought to resemble "the truth."
Without getting into a debate about the reality or fantasy of objective truth (and the occasional failure of the Great Eastern Establishment Press to produce it), we have entered a world where all of us turn too often to the Internet for information. Knowing that Google returns results aimed to reinforce your wants, desires and current worldview, rather than challenging them, should scare the hell out of us. "Personalization" on new sites does essentially the same thing under the guise of "giving the customer what he wants." So instead of turning a page and being snagged by a story that challenges you to think and consider, you get "news" that convinces you how right-on your perspective is, no matter how off-kilter.
I think that editors -- especially of nonfiction, education and journalism -- are essential to our intellectual lives. And most of them grew up as paid writers. Who will be our editors if writers can't earn a living, except by pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to produce income?