Paid Writing: The Attrition Economy

24/06/2016 07:12 | Updated 24 June 2016

Five years ago I dumped the commute, sold out of my various business interests and became a full time freelance writer. It was in many respects the worst career decision I've ever made, but at the same time, also the best. It depends on which day you ask.

Writing is the stuff of dreams. Especially fiction. Everyone has a book inside them. Everyone daydreams of penning that great novel whilst they're trapped in a meeting. Or wondering why their five grand season ticket doesn't guarantee them a seat on the 6.35 to Liverpool St. Dreaming of a career in writing is like doodling, except for people who aren't that good with a biro. It's an unconscious mental reflex, stimulated by a mixture of boredom, cramp and existential angst.

Paid writing, on the other hand, is no daydream. The money is better than daydreaming, but compared to almost every other career choice, it's lousy. That's because writing is a craft in the twilight of its own economic lifecycle. The era of digital mass communications has eviscerated the value proposition of composing and publishing words. There is still demand, but supply is so abundant it's hard to turn a buck. In the non-fiction freelance scene, making 5p a word is a decent wage, and making anything at all from fiction is a good result. Writers accept this because, for them, even being skint is better than not writing.

When I was at university, working as a nightshift "copy boy" at The Scotsman newspaper, I used to dream of making it as a headline writer at a tabloid. They got paid the big bucks. Remember "Up Yours, Delors?" You could write your own cheque with that in 1990. By the middle of the decade, the specialist headline writer was a dying breed. And we know how newspapers have suffered since. It's all about SEO these days, and the headline specialist has to write (or edit) the story too.

Journalism, especially freelance, is hard underpaid graft. I was down to 20p per word from a newspaper before I jacked it in. Good rates per word, but the hours you put into writing them, compared to paid blogging or copywriting, were a lot longer. I'd reckon the real world per-word payoff from freelance newspaper work is less than half the rate for commercial blogs or ad agency copy.

I was at an ad agency in the mid-90s, and we had a copywriting team who could name their price. The words were as important as the images. These days, clients virtually expect the words to come free with the pictures. And when did "free" become a quantity? People say "for free" but they mean "free" because "for free" is not "for grammatical". These days even ad copywriters sound like old literary luvvies. The market for word craft is at rock bottom. Or is it?

If you follow writing-themed accounts in social media you'll discover there's still a lot of buzz about writing. It's very encouraging. Inspiring, in fact, for the budding writer. But dig a little deeper and you'll discover most writing evangelists are selling writing courses or marketing tips. The writing business is still strong, even if the business of writing isn't.

Conversely, if you follow the masses of self-published indie writers, their advice is more like listening to people who've survived getting lost in the desert by drinking their own wee. Don't give up, they say. Deal with the rejection. You'll probably never get an agent or publisher, but keep going. My sister-in-law is a successful literary agent, she told me that if I wrote an 80,000 word book about a school for wizards, she could sell it in 5 minutes. But a 100,000 word manuscript of original literary fiction is her worst commercial nightmare. It's depressingly insightful.

I self-published a business book once. The week it launched I sold nine copies, which was enough to push it to #24 in Amazon's business and humour chart. For a whole day! A year later, I was ranked #62... no wait... #83,069. Kindle shifts books, sure, but self-published books? If I sell a copy I jump 20,000 places in the all-time Kindle rankings for about a week. That's how many self-published books are out there. Supply. Demand. Ouch.

There is, however, an unexpected economic upside to the supply-demand equation: attrition. Basically, so many people give writing a try and then jack it in, you're in with a shot if you keep going. Statistically speaking, provided you stay the course and drink enough of your own wee, there's still a living to be scraped from the stuff of daydreams.

And you get to be the scruffy middle-aged drifter at the village dinner party who sounds mysterious and exciting when the host asks "Do you work in commodity trading too?" and you reply "No. I'm a writer." Curiously, people who commute in suits and spend their days in meetings are jealous, too.

Just leave out the bit about being skint... and it's a win.