What does it take to become a writer today? Very little, compared to the past: a working computer and a Net connection are enough.
The years from the 1990s to present times have seen a massive shift in the nature of writing: this is now a democratic practice, open to all in perhaps the first era in which anyone can be a writer and find an audience. The most interesting shifts aren’t happening in the publishing industry, but parallel to it.
The publishing industry’s battles in the last decade have been fierce — e-book pricing wars, the disappearance of the “midlist” author, the fears that Amazon or Google’s publishing programmes will kill conventional publishers. These and similar issues have dominated the debate. But it’s the growth of online storytelling communities like Wattpad, Storify and Cowbird that might offer a perspective on the future of publishing.
Wattpad has between seven million and eight million unique visitors a month; popular writers might have anything from 1,872 to 242,000+ reads, with several crossing the one-million mark. The average page length is short — most stories seem to come in between 10 and 50 pages, though there is room for the occasional 140-page or even 200-page work. The Holy Grail for Wattpad writers seems to be landing the mainstream publishing contract — but many writers also seem to be happy with the chance to build a community with fellow writers and fans.
Cowbird and Storify have a different approach: both sites allow users a variety of ways to tell their stories, through photos, videos and tweets. Cowbird makes it easy to either maintain an online journal, with words and pictures usually carrying equal weight, or create one-off stories — most aren’t longer than a page or two. But where both sites have scored is in the ability to create crowdsourced stories — Cowbird’s Occupy series, for instance, which brings together many people’s views of the worldwide protests, or Storify’s Arab Spring pages, which create a space that’s parallel to, but different from, mainstream journalism.
Wattpad’s successes should be of interest to Indians: the quality and content of many of its most popular titles are similar to that of many recent Indian market successes, from Ravinder Singh’s I Too Had a Love Story to Neeraj Chibba’s Zero Percentile: Missed IIT Kissed Russia. The point about these books isn’t that they’re poorly written or even that there is now a large and thriving market for this kind of writing — one Indian publication called this the victory of “illiterature”. But as with Wattpad’s books, this phenomenon is only another indicator that writing has changed from being a highly specialised craft to being a mass enterprise.
This tradition, new and emerging, is in direct opposition to, say, Paul Auster’s approach to writing. Auster still does his first drafts the old-fashioned way, by fountain pen. “You feel that the words are coming out of the body and then you dig the words into the page,” he told The Paris Review in a 2003 interview. The final draft was typed, on an Olympia machine. It was a tedious, laborious process, but Auster saw a value to it. “The typewriter forces me to start all over again once I’m finished,” he explained. “…It’s amazing how many errors your fingers will find that your eyes never noticed. Repetitions, awkward constructions, choppy rhythms. It never fails.” In the Auster Guild, the craft of writing is the whole point, an aim in itself. The use of tools that made it more difficult to write at the speed of thought and that forced the writer to slow down, such as the pen or the typewriter, was one way of respecting the craft and the reader’s time.
The Wattpad generation of writers might wonder why Auster bothered to look for the errors in the first place, or why craft matters at all. The impulse that drives many writers today is the impulse to be heard, which is different from the impulse to tell a really good story. Both have their place; Auster belongs to a tradition of writing that honours the importance of craft, but self-published authors such as the extremely successful Amanda Hocking would say that their connection with their audience is far more important. Self-published author Francis Tapon even crowdsourced the editing of his book, offering drafts of his manuscript free to dozens of what he called “Beta Readers”.
But finding an audience is not the same thing as getting paid, and one of the wisest perspectives on this subject comes from the very popular blogger and author Seth Godin. “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,” Godin said in a recent interview. “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.”
Anyone can be a writer. Getting paid for it will remain, as always, a challenge.
The author is at twitter.com/nilanjanaroy