Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interesting Times for Outdoor Writers

The other day I read a very satisfying essay in Fly Rod and Reel, Alaska: Adventures in the Trouting Life, by Troy Letherman. I don't know if this is a fundamental shift in the industry or just a nod to the fact that the current issue also includes the Traver Award essay but finding an essay in the middle of a major fly fishing magazine was surprising. And satisfying.

The sporting essay is a rare creature these days. The small dribble that emerges in the end papers of most angling and hunting magazines wouldn't keep a illiterate nourished much less those that consider themselves readers. Solid fiction and non-fiction essays seems trapped in a world of sparse opportunity and questionable commercial viability.

The written word has been changing for some time; accelerating in the past decade. Distribution was the first to change, online buying expanded access to titles. Borders and Waldenbooks were turned over so the new crop could be sown.

Then form changed, wicked fast. E-things are supplanting paper at an accelerating pace. No longer does one need to to actually publish to self publish though that's also gotten easier and cheaper, too.

This shift in medium is the big change. Even though I, like others, still appreciate the heft of a good book electronic media, including blogging, is now the game.

I came late to blogging, like I did to fly fishing, but I think I came at just the right moment. I am standing next to giants, feeling short. This community of writers is diverse in experience, style and talent but it has tremendous passion and the many unique voices make scanning the RSS feed worthwhile.

Within this medium you can separate the hobbyists and fringe elements from the folks who take craft seriously; it's about writing. The writers are not sworn to the daily post but instead to the semi-regular publishing of essay. Popular, quality writers are finding reliable audiences and readers are beginning to see a way out of the desert. But there's still a gap begging to be transformed.

It's still nearly impossible for a writer to create a bridge across the chasm separating a quality hobby from something resembling, at a minimum, part-time employment. Even the Grandmother hand knitting pot holders can find a market at a local craft fair; not so for the writer.

But that may be starting to change too.

The intersection of electronic ease of publishing and the multitude of payment systems is one such bridge.

Bruce Smithhammer started an interesting experiment with Pulp Fly. It's hard to sort out whose idea Pulp Fly was or how exactly it came together, it's a circle of modest, talented people, but Bruce is the ring leader and editor. This book contains eleven essays, mostly fiction, from various authors. Some names you'll recognize in that, "hey I think I read something by him in The Drake" sort of way. Others are new.

What's also new is that you have to pay the authors $4.95 to read it. Unlike bloggers or the ubiquitous e-zine, writers get paid.

As Bruce readily admits in his forward, this book is a latter day derivation of the pulp fiction novels of the early twentieth century. And it's genius. It is the metaphorical craft fair for pot holding writers.

Of course, now we need more editors and publishers in this new format. It will be interesting to see who takes that on but my gut tells me that if writers can get paid, they'll abandon venues that want to use their work for free and be attracted to venues where there's even a modest likelihood of payment.

I think the supply side is going to pick up steam.

Perhaps most importantly, we need readers willing to pay $5. The toughest challenge for Pulp publishers will be getting publicity and ironing out competition from "free" sources. I suppose writers will have a big hand in sorting that out though if given an economic incentive, it'll be an easy decision.

And eventually, some writers will make money the old fashioned way. A ton of very talented, perhaps even the most talented, are going to continue as hobbyists and go no further. But a few, the Hammets, Lovecrafts or Harrisons of our generation, are going to break out and be big.

And between now and then it's going to be a hell of a ride.

Who wants to start publishing house?


  1. "Unlike bloggers or the ubiquitous e-zine, writers get paid." What a thought, eh? ;) It's an issue that has to be dealt with in all of the arts. Quite prevalent in the music world, too. And while the interwebs have made it possible for writers, artists, musicians -- to create and publish and promote themselves and their work (which is great!). It has also lessened the value of it. We used to not give a second thought to a $24 hardcover. Now? $5 is asking a lot....because online, you can read similar stuff for free. Newspapers have/are going through similar times, because few people now are willing to pay for content.

    Good post, Steve. And thanks for getting my brain working this morning.

    1. I think you're going to get a decent buck for the novel/essay collection/"real" book. But I do think the door has reopened to something more modest, edited, yet fresh. I really buy into Bruce's idea. It's just that it's no longer a dime for that book, now it's $4.95.

  2. I'm thinking much along the same lines as Erin. It will be interesting to see where things shake out. Sadly, I believe that the combination of the preponderance of readers who are unwilling to read anything with real depth, who are quite happy with the 140 character Twitter limit, and the ability of ANYONE to “publish” free material on the intertubes does not bode well for the craftsmen. They will have an audience, yes, but it might be niche and financially unsustainable. Very, very sad.

    1. My hope is that something edited with craft will have an audience. That said, not all writers will find an audience. It's still going to come back to a combination of finding the audience for your craft, the audience finding you, and then networking the heck out of limited success so beget a higher trajectory for one's writing. I think the harsh reality is not all good writers are commercially viable and not all commercially viable writers will be "discovered". That said, venues like Pulp Fly are an interesting way to at least begin the journey of discovery.

    2. Great post Mike. I agree with the great number of people unwilling to read anything in depth which leaves the writer struggling to see the forest through the trees. I remember the day when it was easy to find your favorite writer, mine being John Gierach, on the bookshelf at your local book store. Those books are still there I suppose but I have found myself at my desk searching for content that works the mind like the Big Two-Hearted River or The Old Man and the Sea or just post like this that has obviously stirred something inside me for me to take the time to type this post. I pray that the trees will be thinned soon for those that truly love to write and for those who love to read. I dream of once again spending a Sunday afternoon in a warm book store sipping coffee and perusing their books even if it is from a computer. Thanks

  3. I have been on the musicians side as well as the writers side of things and I agree with my esteemed colleagues. Used book stores used to be the big issue, however now we are seeing the value of a body of work lessened to the point that it is cheaper to download a book from Amazon than it is to go to McDonalds for lunch. This, and the quick "140 character Twitter limit", spell difficult times for those who wish to have a career in the craft. Having said that...if Erin is published, I would gladly pay the 40 bucks plus for a hardcover copy...autographed of course. Great post Steve.

    1. Thanks Marc. You and others have brought up an interesting point: Are there any readers anymore or have they all be Xboxed, Twittered, and blog ranted out of existence?

    2. Oh, and I'll take one of those Erin Block books too (though I'm buying it at a used bookstore).

      I kid. I kid. Jeez......

    3. Ha! ;) of my hypothetical books ending up in a used bookstore, covered in pencil and underlines and notes in the margins. Would be one of the highest compliments I could receive. Coffee stain on the cover would be a cherry on top.

  4. Interesting post. First, it is possible for bloggers to get paid, though not much -- especially considering the time investment required.

    For the three years I sank scads of time in it, I made more from the Trout Underground than I would have on royalties from a fly fishing essay book (assuming I could have gotten an essay book published, which is a stretch).

    This is not necessarily a good sign.

    And yes, online ad rates have fallen since then.

    The fly fishing market is not sizable and I'd suggest -- starting in the 80s -- only a very small handful of writers have earned more than pizza money. Article payments in the "big three" magazines don't appear to have gone up for decades.

    And typical sales figures (and royalty payments) for anything but "how to" and "where to" fly fishing books are dismal.

    With that in mind, not making much money online doesn't seem quite so bad.

    In larger markets, successful bloggers are routinely snapped up to write for larger online venues (and blogs are bought, both by media outlets and organizations who want an immediate online presence).

    That it hasn't happened in fly fishing (to my knowledge) suggests we live in a luxury hobby market. Writers looking to make a living should be prepared for a low ROI, or look to other, bigger markets.


    1. I'm so glad that Tom chimed in. He's been wrestling with this issue for some time now over on his excellent blog, The Writer's Underground, companion to his equally excellent Trout Underground.

      Thanks Tom! Excellent points, all.

    2. Yeah, whatever you do, the model has to be far broader than fly angling alone. Even creeping under the "outdoor" umbrella may not be enough though that likely gives you enough market opportunity to have a go.

      The tough spot is one's market is comprised of the intersection between fly anglers (a tiny population) and readers (a relatively larger population). Still it's a subset of fly anglers. S-M-A-L-L

      I guess I have to start writing "how tos".

      Look for my future article where I explore the how to of losing and retrieving the sole of one's wading boot on the silted banks of a Steelhead stream.

    3. Dude, you lost your sole/soul on a steelhead stream long ago.

    4. If you find it, let it know I still care, it's just that those damn Steelhead pull so hard.

  5. I love this post, largely because, as one who writes and fishes, it's a dilemma I've faced my entire career, first as a journalist (where getting paid wasn't a problem, but getting paid anything meaningful was) and now as a blogger. The future is what we, as writers, make of it, and if we're to expect to be paid, perhaps the first step is to stop writing for free... but then ... we write out of love and passion, and we seek an audience first, and a paycheck second.

    I started my blog in 2008. I just cashed my first significant check from the work on my blog. I'd hate to have to figure out my hourly wage... it would depress me immensely.

    I wish I had the solution... the good news is, we know what the challenges are, and there are folks out there with the time and desire to tackle them. The question remains--do we want to help address them, or, as you said, will be just keep plugging along and offering our products to the masses for free?

    1. we know what the challenges are... do we want to help address them, or, as you said, will we just keep plugging along and offering our products to the masses for free?

      Couldn't agree more. But if the good ones choose to hold back, to wait for well deserved compensation, I fear that the rest will just fill the gap and the readers will be the losers - and probably not even know it. Lose-lose.

      I don't know the answer. I damn sure wish I did.

    2. I believe that part of the answer, or certainly part of the problem, is that we - the readers - have become big sissies. We are not challenged by what we read anymore (we can't be - it's only 140 characters!) and have therefore lost, or are in the process of losing, the wherewithal to disagree; to express opinion. Social media has quickly created a vast network of "friends" who are largely agreeable and who cast dissent as the baddy (to counter this my friends and I take pleasure in burning bad writing on the camp fire. It's a sort of therapy). To critique writing has become a necessarily private affair. But it is privately obvious that much of what is written in blogs or elsewhere is pigswill. Hell, the writing often doesn't get past first base: middle school grammar. And low, it came to pass that we should all let it be because everyone deserves the right to try and be good. Well, that's great, provided you realize some day that you're not, and move on. But the Internet has deluded us - we're all writers now. And now we have a bazillion crap writers who think they can write (and who, not inconsequentially, are stimulating a whole new generation of mediocrity. Yippee!) Even those who write reasonable well have fallen into the trap of thinking they're really good at it - all because they can. We must take them seriously because they're writing in public, and again, no constructive criticism allowed - no-one gets wiser. The sooner the readers start expressing a preference and voting with their feet (or their keyboards), the sooner we'll begin to sort the wheat from the seriously swollen mound of blogspot chaff. Then perhaps a few talented writers might expect to earn a dime while the rest of us happily fiddle. And then I'll have some good shit to read, which will make being broke a degree more tolerable.

    3. Jonny,

      I think everything you say is true, but you seem to suggest that there are plenty of folks out there reading bad writing, recognizing that it's bad, but just not saying so. I'm not sure that many recognize bad writing when they see it (or produce it). I regularly ask my students to look at two passages, and tell me a) which one is better, and b) why, and even in those rare cases when they have an opinion about "a" (and it's the correct one), they often cannot articulate why they think so.

      I think - and it sounds to me like perhaps I'm saying the same thing, or very near the same thing that you are - that one difference in the "blogosphere" is that we can interact, either in person literally, or at least on-line, with the writers we read. This "personal touch" is, I think, one of the reasons there's simply too much ass kissing. You could argue that it's made us more polite, whereas true literary critics have historically been anything but, but I think this is part of the problem.

      I have no problem publicly stating that I think James Prosek writes crap, but I can't bring myself to say the same of some of the blogs I've stumbled upon. It just feels "mean".

    4. I had a Prosek book once. Darned if I can find it.

      It might come across as mean, but isn't that a measure of the mass ass kissing party? Some of the best writing (as you know) used to be found in the response or debate that followed an article. I am arguing that we haven't become more polite: we've become more insipid, accepting of drivel, and certainly more boring.

      I agree that some people might not recognize bad writing (though you wonder where the fuck they've been). But, praise be, I do suspect there's another large chunk of people who do and would, given less kissy-bum conditions, engage in spirited (real) critique. And I'm not talking high academics here. A basic grasp of Her Majesty's English would be fine.

    5. English & TJ: Nicely put.

      I think folks do vote with their feet. There are several blogs I used to read but I got tired of six hundred word paragraphs and.... overuse of elipses - and perhaps en dashes as well. These were people who had something to say they just didn't know how to say it.

      Equally there are folks out there who have nothing to say but say it well.

      There are a handful that are artists. Some are quirky artists and some more traditional but they definitely have a voice and a talent for expressing it. I agree there is some fawning out there and I hope that bona fide critique happens in private. That could be the call to action in all of this. When was the last time you wrote to a write and gave that honest critique. One reads of great writers corresponding with each other. Maybe a little more of that is needs; just not with yellowed paper but instead via email.

  6. Very interesting post, Steve. First off, thanks for recognizing the purpose of Pulp Fly, for which I am proud that my contribution is part.

    Addressing mainstream media, I have made a career out of writing and editing for a "service" magazine, and the reason it works is that's what people want to pay for. The New Yorker used to be famous for having the best writing in the world and the worst business plan; I don't know if still loses major dollars anymore but the joke was it existed by the grace of SI Newhouse.

    That said, with the rapid-fire development of free enthusiast content on the internet and social media--which allows many to speak directly to their audience and eliminate the middleman--is forcing many formulaic magazines to change their game. It's not enough to have lists--the content has to be enlightening and entertaining in different ways. I wonder if the article you refer to is in direct response to that or in direct response to the cult followings of The Drake and now Fly Fish Journal.

    As a writer, the mainstream standard since I have been in the business has been $1 per word. It hasn't gone up, it's been static like that since the early 1990s, probably before. And in many outlets, good luck getting anywhere close to that. (The New Yorker I think used to pay $2, or even give out $100,000 contracts to writers like William Finnegan, but again...)

    As for how-to, I think in many ways that is some of the hardest stuff to do well and fresh, and takes real skill to pull off without sounding rote. Kirk Deeter to me is the best how-to writer in the business. (He's a great writer, period, but his "Jazz: column on midcurrent to me is an excellent example of crafting an essay around instruction.)

    But, and I see this in the industry beyond fly fishing into many types of enthusiast media--from cars to sailboats to surfing--as the transition has gone down and editorial brands have become more focused-grouped and winnowed down to some bare essence, many have been forced to choose between "either" and "or"--someone decided you can be a service magazine or a journal but you can't be both. That's why Outside and Men's Journal--who once published Krakauer and Jim Harrison--have become watered down to GQ with a dash of granola.

    The beauty of blogging and the thing that still draws me to it even though I'm down to about 10 readers and lose money paying for my url, is that there are no rules. Do what you want, say what you want, write what you want. You're under no obligation to make it anything other than the expression of the ideas you have running through your head.

    Hey, most great writers rarely get paid in their lifetime. I just read a story about an aging Kerouac living with his mom not far from where I'm typing this, and going to the local pub and bumming beers. (Murphy's in Northport.)

    Anyway, thanks for the post and making me think about things other than the service piece I'm editing.

    1. Glad I could help with the distraction. :)

      Kirk is a star. He makes a very hard thing look easy in so many ways. And he's a good guy to bullshit with over a beer after a day on the water. Not a bad combination by any measure.

      Thanks for the insight on how the market works.

  7. The timing of this post is as interesting to me as the subject, since I am finally getting around to thinking about what I'm going to do a)this winter and b)when I can no longer work the way I've been working for the last 30 years.

    My blog is for fun but I try to be serious about my writing and think most of my posts are pretty good. I like to think maybe it's leading up to something, but with 227 views on its biggest day ever, it has absolutely no value if dollar signs are the measure. I'd like to have more readers but I don't spend time on SEO and I don't engage in the networking that the internet requires so I have been considering doing something long-format with one of the on-demand services. Some offer both paper and e-book options.

    Maybe that's the way things are going. I just wish everyone would make up their minds. I think Amazon offers on-demand publishing with the option to have your own imprint. An on-demand publishing house would be interesting, with a good editor to curate it.

    I don't want to hijack the thread but I'd like to know what anyone else thinks/knows about on-demand, besides the death of book stores.

    1. That's an area where I have no experience. Perhaps someone else will chime in. Thanks for stopping by, Ken.

    2. I have no experience of on-demand outside the academic world, but with that talent of yours, you should definitely find some way to make your work better known.

      also, there should be way more fishporn on The View. ^_^

      I'll buy your book, though.

  8. Steve. I agree with you completely. But then you knew that.

    We look forward to your first article!

  9. Nothing I do in this world that is meaningful or special, is given the disrespect of being validated by money, fame or any of the other trappings of the sick soul.. I will always work for wages in the currency of personal satisfaction.. Im not sure writers like Lee Wulff and Jack O'Connor ever made a measurable amount of money off of writing, but they certainly planted the first step in the soil of my mind and soul that have taken me every where I have ever been and I love and admire those two men.. whom I have never met, but have been on fly out trout trips and rocky mountain elk hunts with... Legends, so myself, I would settle for Legend,...... and they can keep the money. It is a shame that truely great writers like e.m.b cannot easily make a living as outdoor writers in the fly fishing field, that leaves no hope for me- Great post

    1. Thanks for the comments. Yeah, Erin is okay if you like that sorta thing. :) Give it a bit. I think it's early days in her career.

  10. How does one write a "How to" article?

    I can't seem to figure it out on my own, and I can't seem to find anything in print that explains how to do it.

    1. Maybe it's not your thing. Perhaps correspondence or fiction are the thing for you.

      I look forward to your first letter. Or book.

    2. I just set you up for a "slam dunk", and you dropped the ball. A "how to" article on how to write "how to" articles. It's genius, man!

      Anyway, it's still yours. Once you write it, I'll read it. Then I'll write a proper "How to" article.

    3. I apologize for not swinging at an obvious lob straight over the plate. It is pure genius and I am sorry I didn't point that out. You've always been one of my favorite commenters and this one is clearly one of your best... I would say more - in prose that is commensurate with the situation - but I can't find my thesaurus. Perhaps it's with Jonny's book.

  11. Incredible piece!

    The fact that we have become a society for the quick and easy has not bode well for the craftsman. I'm not sure what I could add the conversation that will add any insight, but if there is a market for such work, the craftsman will be heard...just maybe not paid.

    I hope that the people that truly deserve to see their work recognized will.

    1. Thx Sanders. Yeah, I'm optimistic that most true craftsman will earn their place. Time will tell.

  12. I'd never purchased an ebook, never even owned an e-reader for my computer, until Pulp Fly came out. Because of the blogs of several of the contributors I made the effort and (gladly) parted with the cash. What this says about outdoor writing or publishing in general I don't know, but it does support the idea that if you put your work out there and it's good enough and you make it commercially available, someone will buy it.

    Like Pete said, the best part about blogs isn't that you'll make a ton of money. It's that in blogs you have a great arena for people who like to play with words and ideas, and no one's going to send you a rejection letter or suggest that you edit your post this way or that. It's yours, do what you want. You get to play by your own rules, and there are precious few places like that left in the world.

    The market for outdoor writing isn't all that huge, and the market for outdoor literature is even smaller. The odds of the average guy who reads F&S ever buying a book written by one of the bloggers we admire are pretty low. The odds of that same guy ever switching from Budweiser to that really good microbrew from Vermont or Montana are about the same. But the guys crafting that microbrew aren't doing it to outsell Budweiser.

    1. Yeah, my version of microbrew is crafted for personal consumption as I expect yours is as well. The fact that a small circle also enjoy it is just a bonus.

  13. Mark,

    "and no one's going to send you a rejection letter or suggest that you edit your post this way or that. "

    That's a double-edged sword, I think. I read a lot of blog posts that could have been served well by some heavy-handed editing. In fact, I read only a very small number of blogs these days because too many of them seemed to lack any editing at all, which is remarkable since you'd think at the very least the author would edit his or her own work.

    1. No question, T.J. Some blogs are downright painful to read due to pathetic attempts at grammar and punctuation. I'll visit these blogs a second time to make certain the author wasn't having a bad day, but 0 for 2 and I'm through. From a writer's standpoint, however, it's sheer bliss.

    2. We all edit. We do it by not reading.

      Anyone has the opportunity to write but not to be read.

    3. That's boycotting, not editing. And I'm not at all convinced that there's a direct correlation between the quality of writing and the number of readers a given blog has.

      I'm not suggesting that blog posts should be required to be edited prior to posting by some external editor first. I understand the idea of a "free market" blogosphere, and support it, but I don't think there's any evidence that it leads to greater quality.

      What I'm lamenting is the basic lack of simple proofreading by the writers themselves.

    4. I am in complete agreement with T.J. If we are indeed to call writing a "craft" (which I do believe it is), it is then the writer's themselves lack of pride in it that's at fault. I have heard some say that it doesn't matter that they can't spell or use the English language correctly. Grammatical syntax can go to hell -- Self expression/journaling/whathaveyou, THAT is what matters. There's a long list of authors who have broken grammatical rules, and in the end it makes the language, the scene, the whatever they're trying to convey....stronger. However, they know they are "breaking" rules and they do it purposefully. That's the rub of it -- you have to know the rules to break them. And the reason, I think, that most don't "edit" is that they don't know how to. They don't know what is correct and they don't bother learning. Which is troublesome.

      I will also say that this precise issue is why people don't take blogging and much of self-publishing as seriously as traditional publishing. Precisely because it doesn't go through the vetting process. And so if we would help ourselves, harshly editing our own work, viewing each time we press that "post" button as if we were submitting a story to a magazine or publisher --- I think then, bloggers will start being taken much more seriously and in many ways become a driving force in the writing and publishing world. But first, we have to prove ourselves. And that means editing.

    5. "That's boycotting, not editing. And I'm not at all convinced that there's a direct correlation between the quality of writing and the number of readers a given blog has."

      It is boycotting, but that's how the free market works. If you produce a product and I don't like it, I don't buy, or read as the case may be. I agree that there are plenty of good writers that are still not know to us. That's the interesting part of this whole game, finding folks who's reading you enjoy.

      "And the reason, I think, that most don't "edit" is that they don't know how to. They don't know what is correct and they don't bother learning."

      About as close to the truth as we're likely to get though there are still some blogs that I'll read because the story actually transcends the "skill". Just don't torment me with seven-hundred word paragraphs.

      "I agre kompletly"

      There are two ee's in agree. Self edit my eye....

    6. "And I'm not at all convinced that there's a direct correlation between the quality of writing and the number of readers a given blog has."

      There's a massive body of evidence suggesting the contrary

      "That's boycotting, not editing."

      That's very true. But Steve's right, there's no point in crusading to better the average post quality in the blogosphere. A comment may be a cheap way to do some good, but you never know how it will be received.