The other day I was listening to a podcast, in which a trio of (indie) writers was talking enthusiastically about the “online writer community”.
The specific topic of the podcast was “What does community (the writing community) mean to you?”
Cue cringe and eye-rolls.
There are actually numerous online writers’ communities: in open venues like KBoards, and in various closed and open Facebook groups.
I have logins to a few of them, but I almost never post in any of them, and I avoid even reading them nowadays.
I suppose I’m not very enthusiastic about “the online writing community”.
I don’t wish other writers any ill, mind you. But nor do I take the view that every writer is my natural bosom buddy, confidant, and comrade-in-arms. I have an active dislike, moreover, of large Internet forums that consist solely of writers.
Let me explain.
I mostly don’t hang around with other writers in real life.
Within my personal (real world) circle, there are perhaps three or four people who have expressed a serious interest in writing fiction. But these are people who happen to be my friends, anyway—and they would be my friends if they were plumbers, stockbrokers, or dog trainers.
Once in a while, these individuals will initiate a discussion with me about writing, and I’ll gladly participate in these discussions. But mostly I don’t talk about writing with them.
I wouldn’t say that I prefer outsider status; but I have always preferred to be an insider with an asterisk.
I’m not unique in this preference. When I was in college (in the Cincinnati area) I had a professor who hailed from the Lone Star State. He had a distinct Texas drawl, and he even wore the occasional bolo tie. In an interview for the campus newspaper, he stated, “It’s more fun to be a Texan in the Midwest than it is to be a Texan in Texas.”
Similarly, it’s more fun to be the lone writer in a group of corporate cubicle dwellers or factory workers than it is to be just one more writer amid a big group of writers. At least for me.
“The writing community” or the “indie writing community” is a myth, anyway.
For the most part, writers (especially indie writers) are solo entrepreneurs who don’t rely on others. Yes, there is some coauthoring going on out there (more on that shortly); but most books are the products of one person, one voice, with editors, proofreaders, and cover artists brought in as independent contractors.
A lot of people are in denial about this. There is one indie author community that has adopted the cringeworthy catchphrase, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.
That might be true on the Atlantic seaboard at high tide. Artistic fields of endeavor, however, are characterized by tournament economies, in which a small group of players take a disproportionate amount of the rewards. The market for commercial fiction—just like the market for music, film, and visual art—is saturated. There is always more supply than demand.
So a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. A rising tide makes it harder to find customers (readers).
Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, in which all authors compete for a fixed dollar amount each month via page reads, has only made publishing more of a zero-sum game. The recent Amazon practice of populating every available corner of screen space with ads (as opposed to organic search engine recommendations) has exacerbated the dog-eat-dog nature of things. Authors are not only competing for readers, they’re also locked in a bidding war for Amazon PPC ads.
This doesn’t mean that there are no areas where the interests of all writers intersect. While we’re on the subject of Amazon: The world’s largest retailer does have a tendency to change policies without much warning; and it can be beneficial for writers to talk about that in a big online space. But those needs can be met with a message board or two. No “community” needed.
Large writing communities invariably involve some writer’s schemes to make money from his fellow writers.
Before I tell you what I’m talking about here, let me tell you what I’m not talking about.
Every writer with an Internet connection will eventually talk about writing online. (That’s kind of what I’m doing now, right?)
So you blog about writing. Maybe that brings you some extra Web traffic. (Writers also like to read other writers’ blog posts about writing, after all.)
Since writers are also readers (of fiction), that may mean an additional book sale or two along the way. Back in 2002, I found John Scalzi’s website after one of his blog posts about writing came up in a Google search. I later bought his novel, Old Man’s War.
But that is long-tail, get-rich-slow kind of stuff.
Likewise, there are some writers who have published books about plotting, marketing, or other aspects of commercial writing.
Once again, nothing wrong there.
Some writers, however, have discovered that there is a much better way to cash in on the informational needs of other writers. Why sell a $4.99 ebook, when you can record a few presentations, and then sell a video course for $99, $299, or even $999?
Still other writers, meanwhile, have begun hosting live events, usually in expensive venues like Las Vegas or London. These are professional affairs that mimic what many of us are familiar with from our corporate experiences.
Almost none of these events and courses are outright scams consisting of pure snake oil. There is real information being sold here. But the information is being packaged and sold at an unnecessarily high price.
There is nothing in any of these expensive online courses or live events that couldn’t be easily delivered via an ebook, a free YouTube video or two (which can earn Google Adsense fees for the creator), or even a free website (which can also make money for the creator, via advertising and affiliate commissions).
I’m an unrepentant capitalist. Caveat emptor, and all that. But let’s not kid ourselves about what’s going on here. There is an entire economy now of writers-turned-professional-writer-gurus.
As I hopefully have made clear, I see nothing wrong with a writer compiling and selling a how-to writing book, or making money from an informational website. It’s the $500 to $1,000 courses that raise my hackles.
It’s very clear that some writers are now making more money selling expensive courses to other writers than they are making by selling books to readers.
This is no big surprise—since aspiring artists are always a hungry market.
And it isn’t exactly unethical. But I’m not sure it’s an entirely good thing, either.
The content mills
And then there are the writers who have formed their own content mills. This usually means subcontracting other writers to write in their “universes”.
One of these writers recently stated in a YouTube video that he plans to publish 250 books in 2020.
Four to five books per week, more or less.
Once again, this isn’t a scam. But why would anyone want to write by committee, or as part of someone else’s organization? I would go back to a normal job before I would become a writer for another writer’s content mill—not unless that content mill provides health insurance, a 401K, and a fixed salary, that is.
Online writing communities encourage sameness.
I’m not against writing to market. The opposite of writing to market is the kind of navel-gazing, highly personalized story that has so long characterized the literary fiction space. But writing to market, like all basically good things, can be taken to an unhealthy extreme.
Every time I pop onto KBoards (I try to avoid the place, but sometimes I slip), I see at least one post from some get-rich-quick aspirant who is generically asking which genres are “hot” at the moment.
This is usually answered with a list of ultra-niche genres that no one had heard of a mere decade ago, but which have become literary clichés since the advent of Kindle publishing: “billionaire romance”, “academy romance”, “LitRPG”, etc.
Some of these genres have now become so oversaturated that the only way to move the books is to essentially give them away, often in $0.99 box sets that include ten or twenty individual full-length novels.
Perhaps taking their cue from the content mills, some writers have decided that the best path for success is to find a “hot” genre, and then stamp out fictional widgets to toss into that big vat, in the hopes of making a quick buck in the churn.
Yet again: There is nothing explicitly dishonest going on here, but I want no part of any of this.
Most writers are petty, egotistical, easily offended people.
And yes—I’m talking about myself here, too.
One of the worst things about KBoards is that conversations there about seemingly innocuous topics often spiral into snark and acrimony. Writers love to play games of one-upmanship. And since most writers have at least some verbal facility, they are usually skilled at making subtle digs and backhanded compliments.
I believe that writers function best when their less sociable traits are moderated by the company of non-artists. Nothing will set a persnickety, hypersensitive writer straight like an afternoon with a landscaping crew, or a morning with a dozen accountants. But if you throw a bunch of writers together, they will reinforce each others’ worst instincts, and find a hundred piddling things to squabble about.
* * *
So much for me and online writers’ communities. I can only hope that the above doesn’t make me seem antisocial. But it probably does make me seem antisocial. Oh, well.
Should you ever meet me in person, I believe you’ll find me to be friendly enough. But if we’re meeting for the first time and you happen to be a writer (or an aspiring writer), you might do us both a favor, and keep that information to yourself. Tell me that you’re a landscaper or an accountant instead.