Writing doesn’t pay

Tech Life

Jared Sinclair’s A Candid Look at Unread’s First Year, where he openly talks about how his (great) iOS app Unread has fared so far, how much he invested in it and how much he’s actually gained from it, has started a very interesting debate. Other developers have chimed in and offered their experience and insight. Read Nobility of Effort by David Smith: it contains an amazing list of relevant articles on the subject.

I haven’t read all of them, but from my understanding, the general takeaway is that developers put a great amount of resources (time, money, dedication) to create apps, and what they gain in return is disproportionately little. (Jason Brennan says it better: The basic gist seems to be “it’s nearly impossible to make a living off iOS apps and it’s possible but still pretty hard to do off OS X.”)

I’m not a programmer and I don’t develop apps. My products have to do with the written word — articles and fiction. I have an ebook of short stories, Minigrooves, on the iBookstore; and a compact digital magazine, Vantage Point, in Apple’s Newsstand. Both products are essentially packaged as apps, and could be considered apps for the sake of discussion. Both are available for purchase/subscription in their respective ‘App Stores’ and, like with apps, Apple keeps 30% of what I earn through the sale of the book and the magazine.

Minigrooves has been in the iBookstore for a year now. I won’t post ‘the numbers’ because it’s just not worth it. Suffice to say that, if it were my only source of income, I’d be sleeping under a bridge. If the situation seems dire for an indie Mac/iOS/Android developer, for a self-published writer and one-man operation such as I am, the situation is abysmal.

I admit my marketing efforts have been limited and a bit naïve: knowing full well what it means to be at the receiving end of marketing and advertising tactics, I haven’t had the heart to be overly aggressive in promoting my products. And I certainly haven’t the money to pay someone else (like an agent) to do the dirty PR work for me. But I feel that even if I invested more in marketing my short stories and my magazine, the result would be only very slightly less disappointing and disheartening than the current situation.

If you think that it takes quite a lot of convincing to get people to buy your (great) app, and to generally pay for software, you have no idea how hard it is to get people to buy your ebook or to subscribe to your magazine. Both of which have actually a free sample option, so that people can try before they buy. Words are way harder to market. People can listen to a 30-second preview of a song and can decide whether they like that song or not almost immediately. People can decide whether a game may interest them or not by looking at a series of screenshots and a brief video, even if the game is in beta; it usually is enough to give them an immediate ‘feel’ (How are the visuals? Is it a platformer? Is it yet another variant of the military-flavoured first person shooter? Is it a point-and-click adventure? Is it an RPG? Etc.)

But a book or a magazine have little to offer in the immediacy or instant gratification departments. Sure, one can come up with a little ad campaign, but people are (understandably) putting less and less trust in ads and slogans. Those are not enough to demonstrate the quality of what you’re offering. There’s no way around it: people have to take some time to read at least a bit of it. The first volume of Minigrooves consists of 42 stories. The free sample you can download in the iBookstore contains 3 full stories. Choosing 3 stories out of 42 to represent your product is hard, harder than choosing five screenshots of an app. Those three stories may end up involuntarily misrepresenting your book or your style. Especially with short stories so varied in tone and themes such as the 42 you’ll find in the first volume of Minigrooves. Similarly, people will largely rely on the Demo Issue of Vantage Point Magazine to decide whether they’ll subscribe to it or not. It’s a bit of a lottery.

The problem, however, presents even earlier in the process: the problem is convincing people to buy your words — literally. The sad thing is how writing online (or digitally spreading the product of one’s writing) is generally perceived today: as something that anyone and their dog can do; as something that is easy to do; as something that is not worth paying for. We have come to this, in my opinion, mostly because the Web is littered with an incredible amount of bad writing. Consequently, readers think you don’t need that much skill to be a writer and they undervalue your profession. There’s that, and there’s also the expectation that every bit of information provided digitally should be free. So, people don’t seem to have issues with purchasing physical copies of books, newspapers, magazines; but their digital counterparts? Those have to be free. As if, by the sole reason of being intangible, they should be valued less, or had less value.

Writing good stuff isn’t easy and it doesn’t come quickly[1]. Whether it’s an article, an op-ed, an essay, a short story or a novel, one needs time to do some research, then there’s the composition itself, then the editing/proofreading process, then the re-reading part and yet another stage of checking and refining. At least, this is what should happen ideally and what happens behind the scenes with everything I write. One may take a look at my humble magazine, Vantage Point and ask: why pay for a small selection of articles + a serialised novel, when all the contents on your website are free? There are different ways to answer this question.

  • You may just consider Vantage Point Magazine as a different product than this website, and therefore priced differently. Just as a musician can make available some of his/her songs as free downloads or free streams, but sell his/her new album or EP at a price.
  • You may consider Vantage Point Magazine the equivalent of a paid membership for this website. After all, I run this website alone, I pay for domain registration/renewal and hosting[2], and offer nine years’ worth of material free without a single ad to disrupt the reading experience or otherwise bullshit the reader.
  • Vantage Point includes original content that I find especially valuable (i.e. deserving a price tag): Low Fidelity, my novel in serialised form, is a huge project with a rich background. The setting for the novel isn’t just a fictitious city, but a whole world I’ve been mapping and building for a long time. But it’s not only that: on Vantage Point I may feature content never published anywhere else before and that will never be published anywhere else afterwards.
  • Creating an issue of Vantage Point takes a different time and effort than just publishing an article or a brief review on my site. I think that charging the meagre amount of roughly $1.50 per issue is fair enough, considering the work.

There is a very interesting project on Kickstarter called App: The Human Story, that I’m glad has been founded. It’s a documentary about developers and their work. I especially like this bit in the project’s description:

Just as apps have made their way to the world stage, a small community of developers has emerged as modern day artisans. Their obsession over the details of every interaction and pixel has given these unlikely leaders a voice in shaping software in a way that respects what it means to be human.

At its core, App: The Human Story is a vehicle to look at what it means to be human in a world of technology.

And this, in turn, has made me think that there should also be a similar documentary on writers and what it means to be a writer today — in this world of technology that has had an incredible impact on the written word in its transition from analogue to digital media, and the struggles self-published writers have to face on a daily basis.

I said before that, as a writer, the problem is convincing people to literally buy your words. I’ll add that, more accurately, the problem is convincing people that quality writing is worth paying for, that there’s content which is fine to provide for free, and content that’s worth a premium. The problem is making readers realise that behind an article that can be read in 5 minutes there can be hours of research; that behind a short story that can be read in 2 minutes, much more time has been spent editing and refining the narration. Considering the amount of bad writing and rubbish content thrown at readers online every day, the hardest step in this whole process is educating readers to be discerning and separate the wheat from the chaff. I don’t have definite answers on the matter, but it would be great to create some debate over this.


  • 1. I like what Jonathon Duerig replied to me on App.net: It is a lot easier to write a really bad story than it is to make a really bad computer game or app. Of course, it is harder to make a really good novel than to make a really good game.
  • 2. Granted, as you may very well imagine, these aren’t huge expenses. But when you have little money, everything’s expensive.


The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!