Spend much time online, and you’re sure to find at least a few people telling you that reading and writing on the internet is like nothing you’ve ever done. They’ll tell you that readers don’t, well, read on the internet. Instead they skim and look for lists with bullet points. Oh, and pictures. They love pictures. And they like to click links and hate to sit down and really think about something. Further your “copy”–they rarely call it content, and seem afraid of the word writing–should respond to this reality.
I find this notion both disappointing and, well, wrong. I read many long things on the internet. I usually read The Economist online–where it’s free–and the online-only magazines of Salon and Slate. Since they’ve taken down their “paywall” I regularly read articles–even really long ones–from the New York Times online. Steve Pavlina has made his name–and his money–by writing unconventionally long “articles” on his blog. And though I will readily admit that I’m not the average web surfer, I don’t think I’m truly exceptional.
Since Norman Mailer died, I’ve been mildly vexed by the question of what makes a writer. Why was that man a “writer”? Why isn’t every Tom, Dick, and Harry who puts pen to paper (or keystroke to word processor) one? And what if every Tom, Dick, and Harry have blogs?
In my brief experience, people who get paid to “write” are not necessarily better at thinking or living than anyone else. They’re not really better than people who “blog” for money, or people who “blog” for free, or for that matter “write” for free. Yet somehow we’re constantly reminded that the “blogosphere” is different from the published world and different from the “mainstream media.”
What I keep returning to is that what made Norman Mailer a writer is that someone decided to pay him for his words. Maybe that man or woman thought that they could get more money for pages with Mailer’s word on them than they could get for pages with nothing on them.
That seems to be the fundamental calculus of all books, though no one says it. Every publisher’s existential question is simply this: will we make more selling wood pulp with this author’s word on it or without? To publish a book, a publisher makes a bet that yes, they will get more. If a publisher regularly guesses correctly, they’ll become successful. If they’re regularly wrong, they’ll go out of business. It’s as simple as that.
Perhaps, then, the difference between “bloggers” and published “writers” is that bloggers are performing their own calculus, where in print the decision is made by others. This distinction is also, I suppose, why there’s such a stigma about self-published books. Bloggers and the self-published both live under the presumption–right or wrong–that they had to publish it themselves because it was so bad no one else would.
But if the massive number of political memoirs that seem to be released this and every year, prove nothing else, it’s that people who get published are hardly always good writers. Certainly they get published for their resume and not their writing ability, but were that same content online would anything change? Beyond profit-margins, the likely answer is no.
I don’t have an easy conclusion to tack onto the end of this discussion and make it feel concluded. And though a publisher would be wise to refuse to pay for such a meandering and conclusion-less “think piece,” I can get away with it. After all, I’m just a blogger.