TiaTalk











{Thu 23 July 2009}   Overcoming barriers to making an online living
Overcoming barriers to making an online living

My MA project is well under way. Submission date is 1st September, so I will be pretty busy with that for the next six weeks or so. After that, I intend to get back to earning again! The full time year of study has been a wonderful privilege, but I’m tired of not being able to afford things that were an easy part of my life a year ago. A lot of people have had to adjust to a leaner life due to the credit crunch rather than to study choices, but we’re in the same boat in the sense of not being able to look to an employer for income. If I want to make some money, I need to do it on my own, and I want to do it all online.

The topic of how creative writers can monetize content on the web interests all those on my course. There are several barriers to overcome if you want to make money on the web as a writer. For word count reasons, I’ve decided not to include these five main barriers in my dissertation text, preferring to concentrate on guiding writers to think about solutions, but these are what I address.

Barrier 1: Competition from free content on the web.
Anxiety about the future of print media is widespread. Authors, publishers, journalists and editors across the world are scrambling to understand the import of the global access to information and entertainment that the Internet is bringing to increasingly technologically sophisticated audiences. They are desperate to find or develop monetization models that will still pay skilled professionals. Jolyon O’Connell, in weekly news digest, The Week (30 May 2009, Issue 717, 5), summarised as follows:

The Guardian’s Ian Jack thinks the game is nearly up for professional writers. “We are in the twilight years of a certain kind of paid employment,” he writes, “the business of inking words on paper… The fact is that generations are now growing up with the idea that words should be read electronically for free – a new human right…” Because of the internet, writers may end up as poorly remunerated as they were in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare, after all, only made money because his plays had paying audiences. … It was in the 19th century, when the British middle class expanded rapidly, that writing became a potentially lucrative job, with Walter Scott sometimes earning £20,000 a year, Dickens making a fortune for Chapman & Hall and the word of God enabling William Collins to buy a country house and a steam yacht by selling 300 000 bibles a year.

But now we can all be authors, and publish ourselves on the web: it just doesn’t make money. As Jack says, the age of the gifted amateur is “surely about to return…”

Yes, but that’s not bad, is Chris Anderson’s conclusion in his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. High quality free stuff is actually good for business; you just need to think creatively about how to persuade people to pay for other high quality stuff that appears alongside it.

Barrier 2: Time constraints

Conceptualising and writing may take the same time as for print publication, but implementing and testing new media content, especially bearing in mind global audiences and different platforms, takes longer. Even presuming you are commissioned, or have a definite target market willing to pay for the product, can you charge enough to justify the time spent? Making time is an important survival skill for the online world, but even with time management and automation of processes, writers making their living in new media (and this may eventually be all writers) cannot rely exclusively on any model of income where earnings are directly related to time spent on work, because those earnings will always be capped by the number of writing or creating hours one can squeeze out of any 24-hour period. You need to sell some things that are not time-dependent.

Barrier 3: The technology
As mentioned above, technology has a time cost, but it also costs money and effort. Hardware and much software, plus time and expertise for learning, implementation and testing across multiple platforms, must be included in the writer’s time and money budgets. The learning never ends: the creative writer who wants to stay at the cutting edge needs to master the latest tools as they come out. On the other hand, posts like the Institute for The Future (IFTF)’s Hello? Most Americans not superempowered IT people (which quotes an Accenture report) and The Mobile Difference report from Pew Internet indicate that most of the potential online audience will not be familiar with the latest tools. Therefore, writers must make decisions about the use of tools depending on their intended audience. If the audience is unlikely to be familiar with a tool, then either it must be abandoned or persuasion and facilitation may be required to help them use it.

Barrier 4: Lack of vision
Despite our excitement at the possibilities unfolding before us, many of us still lack “digital imagination” (a term suggested by Chris Meade of The Institute for the Future of the Book). Publishers and writers accustomed to old print media just cannot see how it could work, financially speaking. There are too many opportunities and we feel overwhelmed by them; we feel we will never master the necessary e-literacy; our concerns about privacy and over-exposure hamper our experimentation. We do not yet have enough case studies comparing online and offline working for us to be clear about which approaches will be both effective and financially lucrative. The only alternative is to look at what others are doing, make some educated guesses and try out various models for ourselves.

Barrier 5: Lack of business nous
Despite the digital medium, in most respects online business is like any other business. Even if none of the other barriers apply to you, a lack of business sense, of the ability to market and sell a product at the right price while keeping an eye on the bottom line, and to keep customers coming back for more and referring others, might scupper your chances of success.

In the mean time, the antidote is to understand that while the media change, the same principles apply online as offline. Writers care more about getting their story out to people, than which form of print they use … why not extend this attitude to the screen? When considering the form your writing takes, why not think of it as choosing packaging for your ideas that is appropriate to the medium? Why not assume that social media provide new ways of doing the same networking done at cocktail parties? To win friends and influence people (and to sell your work to gatekeepers, peers, sponsors, and customers) you still need to convey genuine interest in others. You can stay human while using different media.



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