Writers in the digital age

By Jeff Bagdigian

It is my sincere hope that one day I will be able to support myself on my writing alone, being my own boss and all that. Will it happen? I have absolutely no idea, but it does make me think about the future of the written word.

Hannah Cohen/Collegian
Hannah Cohen/Collegian

The old ways and methods of publishing are changing each day as the aged foundations erode and the traditions of the digital age solidify. The era of monthly subscriptions to magazines and newspapers may soon be over, and the physical book is more and more becoming a novelty for the nostalgic. All of these changes will force the writer to adapt to the new environment of the published word.

The Internet has made the process  of communicating between writer and audience far easier than it has ever been before, but this new ease brings with it a chorus of others who also wish to speak. How can a writer in the present day hope to make a living on the merits of his words in an age where people expect free content?

The Internet is an unparalleled medium for an individual to reach an audience. It takes no effort whatsoever to start a personal blog, and it only takes a moderate amount of effort to create a personal website; all of this is very beneficial for a writer for it gives them independence. They can write about whatever topics they want and immediately publish a post. The content is immediately visible to an audience. If taking only a cursory glance at the situation, it appears ideal in every conceivable way for there is now an ease of communication that cannot be rivaled.

This ease of communication is in itself a huge obstacle for a writer. The process of starting a blog or starting a website is so simple that anybody can do it, and today, nearly everyone does. The Internet is a cacophony of voices – a chorus so loud that it is nearly impossible to distinguish one voice from all the others. There will be people blogging or reporting about what you choose to talk about. Websites with cat pictures, photoblogs, blogs where people review their favorite books, all of these clog websites like Blogspot, Tumblr, and WordPress. Search engines will be cluttered and your voice will invariably be drowned by the sheer number of others speaking. That is a depressing thought for anyone who wishes to write.

But the problems don’t end there. It’s easy to get your voice out there; the real trick is getting paid to do it. The Internet is huge, and the vast majority of the content out there is free.

I am a college student, I love free stuff, and you know what? So does everybody else in the world. YouTube, TED, Google Video, Blogger, Hulu, each one of these websites offers oodles of free and interesting content, and granted, there are some websites like Hulu that offer better content to those who are willing to pay for it, but for the most part, it’s all free. Newspapers and magazines offer most, if not all of their content on their respective websites. Why would you subscribe to a newspaper if you could get the same content online for free?

People want free content and will be estranged if they are forced to pay for it. A writer with a blog or website may want to have his audience subscribe to his content for some sort of fee, but the only thing he or she will accomplish will be to alienate their audience. These people will feel that they can find the same ideas elsewhere, free of charge.

And what of the physical book? I have aspirations of eventually writing a novel or book of my own some day, but I am unsure how this would come about. For the sake of argument, let us assume I succeed in becoming an online entity, that I have a noticeable presence apart from the other voices of the Internet. Will it be worth it to publish my writing as a physical product?

Amazon’s Kindle, and Barnes and Noble’s Nook take the cake in terms of eReaders. Both devices are elegant and wireless, and some models have their own web browsers. The memory of each device can hold thousands of books, and the wireless capabilities have it so you don’t even need to go to a bookstore to obtain more books. For me, the only advantage of buying a physical book is that I feel I connect with the book more than if I were reading off of a computer screen, but I’m sure I could get used to any method of reading. The future is the eBook.

I do have hope for the eBook. I feel a young writer could definitely break into that market. The author Sam Harris states in his personal blog that traditional publishers don’t make enough money off of short works of fiction or otherwise to justify publishing them as an individual physical book. The eBook doesn’t have this disadvantage. An eBook can be any length and can be priced accordingly. The eBook can make the process of self-publishing a legitimate means in which to earn money.

Overall, the hurdles a writer, especially a young writer, must overcome in order to succeed in the field are great. If one wishes to support themselves on their writing alone, they will need to distinguish themselves from the millions of other voices on the Internet and figure out some way to make money despite the fact that the majority of people online will only be interested in content they won’t have to pay for. The challenges are many, but my advice would be to get out there and add your voice to the multitudes anyway. You definitely won’t succeed if you don’t at least try.

Jeff Bagdigian is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]