Franzen, Social Media and the ‘Career’ Writer
October 8, 2013 | 12:06 pm
By Joanna Cabot
Last week, Teleread posted a write-up on a story making the rounds about novelist Jonathan Franzen. Franzen was complaining about the growing push toward authors participating in, or outright handling directly, their own publicity and social media. From the article:
“Franzen claimed on BBC Radio 4′s Today program that young American writers were feeling ‘absolutely coerced into this constant self-promotion’ by agents who insisted that they spend their time upping their Twitter follower count rather than developing their craft. Franzen also complained that the same young writers were missing out on lost opportunities to earn freelance bucks as social media steals away those formerly lucrative niches, and that the book trade was facing ‘really the demolition of the brick and mortar book business by Amazon.’”
The comments our readers posted on this article were thoughtful, reflective and respectful and I enjoyed reading them a lot. Yes, it IS true that the landscape has changed for authors. They do have to perform tasks that once might have been done by someone else, and no longer can a reclusive author with no self-promotion skills turn out a masterpiece and expect it to get noticed. Authors who are in this to have a job do have to multitask more than they used to. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing or a good thing; it simply IS.
But I do think that what often gets lost in these discussions is the differentiation between writing as a hobby and writing as a career. The reality is, writing as a career does require these skills now, for better or worse. Does it mean you can’t ‘be a writer’ if you don’t have them? Of course not. What you can do is grow your writing career as a sideline first. Focus on ‘just the writing’ and hone your skills, outsource the social media stuff to a freelancer once you can afford to, and keep plugging away at your day job until you have enough money to quit. Some people might never reach that stage. They might be happy to just keep it a side project. Personally, I fall into this category. I do get paid for most of my writing, but not enough to live on. I know what I would have to do to get it to that point, and I am simply not interested. I would rather focus on my areas of strength, and let whatever money be a bonus, not a livelihood.
I know others who have made different decisions. My cousin is a professional musician. He is now at a point where he plays and tours most of the time, but it wasn’t always that way. When he first started out, he did a lot more teaching, both at schools and in private lessons. Over time, as he got more of a profile, honed his skills, and promoted himself more effectively, the ratio of teaching gigs versus playing gigs shifted. He didn’t just wake up and say ‘now, I am a pro musician’ and so be it. And he did not wake up one morning with all the skills he needed, either. He developed those skills over time.
I don’t know of any career that allows its true professionals the luxury of doing only the parts they like. As a teacher, I spend more time than I might prefer on the playground, supervising in the lunchroom, helping kids in the bathroom and doing other non-teaching tasks. It’s part of the job. The Beloved, an IT man whose passion is graphics work, has to balance his preferred job tasks with a host of less-preferred ones, some of which get sent to his phone for him to look at during personal time. Job tasks get refined, redefined, reallocated and shuffled around all the time. That’s part of having a career.
Yes, there is more a writer has to do these days—IF they want to be a professional and have it be their bread and butter. But there are also more options now. You don’t have to go through a publisher anymore. You have the option to do the work yourself, but reap the profit yourself too. If all a person wants to do is write, they can begin as a hobbyist and see where it takes them. But if someone truly wants to earn a living and have it be a career, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect those people to treat it like any other career. Careers are multifaceted. They have skills you may excel at naturally and skills you may have to learn on the job or through training. They have tasks you enjoy, and tasks you enjoy less, but still have to make time for. They have that training period where you make little money and pay your dues, and then—if you are any good—the growth period where things get better. Writing, as a hobby, may be about just writing what you want. But writing as a true career, is not a special snowflake that is exempt from all the rules of business.