Over at the Institute for the Future, Marina Gorbis has one of those idealistic, infuriating posts that draw me in and then repel me.
The title is Ain't Gonna Work on Arianna's Plantation No More, and it covers recent efforts to sue AOL-HuffPost on behalf of freelancers who wrote for the site free.
Gorbis compares the current situation to a feudal economy, calling writers "digital serfs" who survive on a pittance, while digital lords like Huffington grab all the cash.
Gorbis may be a nice lady, but she knows nothing about journalism.
The only way any writer ever made anything off any publisher was through the publisher's efforts in creating markets around their stuff. All journalism is market making. You define a place, an industry or lifestyle, you bring in content that will attract that defined audience, you bring in advertisers who want to reach that audience, and you make money. It's all a show.
Journalists prosper, I have learned, only to the extent that we internalize this process ourselves, and make ourselves into brand names who can attract an audience as defined by a publisher. But most of us don't do this, we don't want to go to the trouble. I don't, for sure, because my interests are very broad. I write here about politics, about economics, about technology, about all sorts of things. The audience I attract is all those people who care about what I think.
But in the market that doesn't count. I know that. I accept it, so I look to publishers whose audience is defined by part of what I'm interested in. Then I hire myself out to them. And I've had a good run from that.
It has always been this way, no matter what you write. As Tony Perrotet wrote just this week, successful writers build their own brands, turning themselves into products that are covered by the press, rather than just writing stories. Twain (above) did stand-up, Hemingway had pictures taken of himself with big game, Whitman had self-written reviews of his book published, and even Herodotus did a book tour. In doing this writers become publishers in a way, creating demand by highlighting a lifestyle or interest that draws in an audience, whose demand the publisher then fills.
You can be an artist who cares nothing about the market if you want. If you're lucky in that case you'll be Kafka. If you're not lucky you will go through an anonymous life to an anonymous death.
There are lots of writers who do this. They turn themselves into brands, name above the title. And when they write something that is in conflict with the brand, you'll notice, they may take a pen name. Because they don't want to confuse the market.
It's your choice. Blaming publishers for failing to respond to your obvious talent is, in the end, crazy. You're the master of your fate. Get into the marketplace and become a brand.
Or don't complain.