Writers’ Woes

The world of print is over and will be overtaken and then replaced by its digital oppressor.  This has been declared for so long – a bit like Nostradamus’ many and varied predictions for the end of the world – that we have probably ceased listening to it.  But the world of print is suffering, and in particular there exists a small but growing debate about the rewarding of writers.

One thing that the online world has done is to allow vast numbers of amateur writers to publish themselves and their meandering thoughts.  This blog, and this writer, is one example.  Such openness, so the argument runs, has led to a serious under-rewarding of professional writers.  With so much free stuff available, why pay?  The Huffington Post, a big online news affair, generates loads of its stuff by getting desperate people to write for it for free, and it is not alone.

I’m not sure I wholly agree that this should lead to the undermining of proper, good writers however.  Nick Cohen, an excellent, stimulating, readable journalist and author, has a great pop at the Oxford Literary Festival for refusing to pay its authorial speakers, in an online piece for the Spectator here.

Now let’s be clear.  I think Cohen is a superb writer.  I willingly fork out for his books and I would buy magazines for his articles without a backward glance at my ever-decreasing bank account.  But I can also access him for free.  See above.  So why would I pay?  His perfectly just argument is a little undermined by the willingness of his employer to give so much of his stuff away.

The internet grew up with a mantra that it should all be free, but of course by “all” we really only mean the unedited commentary and news part of it.  Newspapers and magazines have done themselves no favours by hawking so much of their material for free, and it is perhaps not surprising that cheese-paring literary festivals like Oxford have followed suit and tried to extract writers to speak for free whilst paying for pretty everyone else who works at the festival.

Writers should absolutely be able to charge for their appearances.  Writers with confidence in the quality and marketability of their work should vigorously protect their right to be read on payment of an appropriate sum.   It would be a decent and affirming nod to the validity of the knowledge economy if that were the case.  Meanwhile, the rather less edified grafters on widely unread blogs should also be allowed to luxuriate in the illusion that people might also read our less elevated free offerings.  See.  The market at work.