Digital Writing on the Wall


The world seems to be changing.  Everyone, of course, feels this, especially as they get older.  But, it seems more than that.  The models of business, creativity, communication and, really, just of life seem to be undergoing an upheaval that is disorientating in its pace and complexity.

The norms of the society that I spent so long learning to understand are now upside down. What was the right thing to do in the past is no longer necessarily the correct choice. Fashions are no longer followed: every style is simultaneously available and assimilated.  New technologies have made how we read, how we watch and how we speak a movable and ever more abbreviated feast.  We tweet and share our thoughts with a thousand friends on facebook; we download and upload and follow and all the while we are still somehow expected to be human.

How are we to live in this cacophony of information?    How are we to survive this? How is creativity and culture and humanity to survive this? And, how are those who create for a living expected to survive when everything is free, or seemingly free?

Well, step back and take a breath.  What has really changed and what will its impact be on the existing models of how we work and create and live?

Creativity produces content, whether that be prose fiction, poetry, non-fiction, music, artworks or anything else you can imagine as an output.  Creators make a living by selling their creations.  In the past, this has been to major sponsors and patrons— historically archbishops and popes were a great gig if you could get them.  More recently the buyers have been the general public who bought your books, paintings, or CDs. If you were regarded as good at what you did and were popular, there would be a market for your work. And, you made a living.

Now, the model is changing.  There is a growing expectation from your public that your creations, whatever they be, are there for the taking and they should be free.  Your readers, listeners and viewers are used to accessing the Internet and taking whatever they desire.  The Internet has made what, in other more traditional circumstances, would be theft an acceptable practice.  Of course, this can only happen as increasingly your content will be available digitally, either because you or your publisher placed it there or because it has been pirated and placed there against your wishes.  But, if your readers expect your creations for free, how do you pay your mortgage?


1. Elaborately protect your creations so they must be purchased.

2. Accept that free and open access is the way forward and find another income model from your work.

3. Become a plumber.

Retraining as a central heating engineer is probably not an option, especially if your primary motivation is to be creative.  Of course, there is art in the bending of copper pipes, but not probably the art you had imagined. The first option is also not open to most individuals.  Few have the personal know-how to elaborately encrypt their work, but everyone has access to services that will do this for them. The most common is the Kindle platform for written work.  It is relatively easy to convert a digital file into one that can be uploaded on to Kindle.  There, it will be placed on the shelves of the largest online bookshop and be made available in a secure fashion for sale.  Many established publishers and independent self-publishing authors are now availing themselves of this service.

But, what of the middle option—finding a new model?  In the music industry, this is what has happened.  Singers and musicians now make most of their income from performing live as opposed to selling recordings of their work, although one undoubtedly helps the other.  The challenge is how such a model could be applied to writers.  The majority of poets have never made a living from book sales— real or electronic.  They have a long tradition of performance and use such events to promote and sell their printed work as well as earning performance fees.  The novelist or non-fiction author has a tougher time though.  You can’t perform a book.  You can read excerpts, but it doesn’t really have the same potential as singing your song or reading your poem.  Ultimately, the book needs to be read in its entirety for the creative pact between author and reader to be fulfilled. If the book is available for free, or if the expectation is that it should be free, how does an author eat?  We talk of this as if it’s a new problem—as if, in the past, authors just wrote and published and lived off the royalties.  Well, the simple truth is that it is not like that now and it never was.  Sure, there have always been the exceptions— the JK Rowlings and Stephen Kings who inspire the unpublished to put pen to paper, for how hard can it be, they ask themselves, to write a book? And, when you sell a few million copies and the film rights are snapped up, that’ll be the mortgage sorted, won’t it?  Well, think of successful authors in the past and you will find a catalogue of day jobs that will surprise you: Charlotte Bronte was a Governess, Franz Kafka an Insurance Officer, Henry Fielding a Magistrate and William Faulkner, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, no less, was a Postmaster.  Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde toured the lecture circuits promoting their work and themselves.  Writing no matter how great, has always been something we have had to fit around a life, and it rarely paid the bills on its own.

Unless writers have other sources of income it is unlikely that they will be able to write and pay the rent at the same time.  So the very modern challenge of the digital age turns out not to be so modern after all.  Most of us have to accept that our writing will only be part of our lives.  A lucky few—very few—may have the luxury of a full-time writing career, but before we spiral downwards out of control into an embittered state of envy, imagine for a moment what full time writing might be like.  A solitary, indeed completely solitary, profession, with limited inputs and huge expectations of quality outputs.  So you wrote your novel part-time over two years while you were working as a teacher, or a nurse or a postmaster. Does that mean if you gave up the day-job you would be able to produce ten novels in the same period?  Perhaps the day-job is a distraction, but a necessary one.  Few of us can sustain a constant writing stream— I certainly can’t —and having other things to do, that I must do to pay the bills, is actually a very necessary evil.  I need the time between writing to think, to interact and to gather material.  The very stuff of life that goes on around me when I’m working: the snatches of conversation, the office gossip, the feedback from students, the comedy and tragedy and sheer silliness of life.  All of this is grist to my mill, and the literary flour I produce is the better for it.

I often dream of sitting in my space where I write and being able to work there all day, every day.  Then, I realise this is no dream at all.  The energy and excitement I derive from writing is in part because I cannot do it all day.  It is my special time, and to make it my routine would be to rob it of much that makes it special.

So, where does this leave us? As a writer, I need to embrace the digital age.  It has, after all, given me more control over my own publishing than any of my forebears have enjoyed.  I can make my work available to countless millions of potential readers at the touch of a few buttons.  I have an outlet for my work as never before, but the other side of the coin is that much of this publishing will be into a void where content is free.  I may be read, I may be appreciated, but I may not be paid.  I cannot necessarily make any money while this is happening.  However, rather than bemoaning this fact I should remind myself that it has never been easy or even possible for most writers to make a living.  We have always needed other jobs, and perhaps that’s a good thing.  I am happy when I write, and I need to content myself with my part-time career, for as Shaw said, ‘A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.’

© Allan Gaw, 2013

And, if you feel like buying something on Kindle…

My books available on kindle:

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