SAIR is about indie authors. It’s the first time I’ve seen something that’s purely about indies, which was really cool. It was great meeting new people who do what I do – and completely understand the challenges! Here are the key take-aways from the event for me, which are relevant for any writer in South Africa.
1. You can do this thing
After meeting several authors and publishers at the event, who have been quite successful (a relative term, I admit, but we’ll explore that in more detail below) I was left thinking: Well, I really can do this. And I don’t have to do it alone anymore. There’s something about being around pros in the field that rubs off on you. Overall, I was left encouraged.
But I was also left challenged. Authors need to support each other in this country. We can’t complain that readers don’t support us as much as they actually could if we’re not even keen to support each other! A vibe around local authors starts with the authors themselves.
2. It’s not about the money
This came up again and again, but there needs to be clarity as to what this means. When people say, “Don’t get into this writing thing if you’re keen to make money,” I suspect they mean that you generally won’t make tons and tons of money. Well, making tons of money is different to making a sensible living. This isn’t mentioned often enough when this discussion comes up, even on blogs and so forth. One is generally left with the impression that anyone can make some serious cash in this business (usually you see lots of that on the Internet) or that one is going to live their life in the gutter forever (so you should only ‘write for love’). I don’t think either of these are true, generally speaking.
I’m not really about making tons of money, but I am keen to make a sensible living, and after this weekend I’m sure one can, especially after asking Rachel Morgan, (Creepy Hollow, Trouble series) an author who manages her entire writing business from end to end, how things are looking financially for her. Writing your own books for a living is a long-term career plan. It doesn’t happen over night. I’m convinced that it takes persistence and growth and a sensible goal, not a goal with shining lights and money like dust. When we have a sensible goal we can enjoy a sensible living, and have a real career in writing.
3. We’re on the cusp of something new
I enjoyed David Robbins‘ opinion on the future of publishing. Robbins is a veteran in this field, and hearing him speak of how excited he is about the opportunities writers have today with self-publishing and Kindle and the printing opportunities and social media, etc., was very encouraging. That – coupled with the success of Carlyle Labuschagne and a discussion with traditionally published (and very successful) author, Gareth Crocker (Journey from Darkness, King) – left me very amped.
4. Get on Kindle
I took my books off Amazon for a while as there was an issue with the royalties (South Africans could only get 30% royalties). I figured, after Paypal fees and FNB fees, I was really getting nothing, and it was better selling directly from my website. But David Henderson of myebook.co.za showed me where I was going wrong on the platform, and I’ve set it up and now get the proper 70 percent royalties. Stoked about that. Check out Henderson’s post: South African Authors – Should we give a damn about self-publishing on Amazon.com?
Thanks to Carlyle and the organisers. Looking forward to it being even better and bigger next year!
You might notice that I now have set up a donation / subscriber “paywall” on my blog. If you visit regularly enough, a message will pop up from time to time asking you to donate and subscribe. If you do, the messages won’t pop up again for your subscription’s time-frame.
This is a ‘donation’ paywall, meaning I’m not restricting you to any content in any way, I’m just asking you to subscribe at a cost if you want. By subscribing you will also receive a weekly Kindle periodical (delivered to your Kindle direct or to any other email you choose) that includes all my content for the week and free eBooks from time to time as they are made available, plus various other goodies when they become available.
So why have I done this?
1. I want to write more
Simply put, I want to write more on my blog, but I’m finding it hard to do that when the blog isn’t bringing in any liveable income. I started blogging in 2007 when I was still single and beginning my full-time writing career. I’m now in my 30’s with a family and have all the usual pressures that come with that. I don’t want to post only now and then, or lay it down entirely, because I know it’s been a very fruitful platform for many people. (I’ve received many emails from people who enjoy it and are encouraged through it).
I want to write more and there is, quite frankly, no support at all for Christian writers in South Africa. Publishers aren’t interested in investing in anyone who doesn’t have a large platform. Local publishers will rather distribute overseas writers – and even then, on a global scale, publishers are more keen on publishing writers with a public speaking ministry or who pastor big churches. Our local publications (magazines etc.), of which I can count on one hand, are not only unable to pay for content (and they insist on exclusive content, besides not being able to pay) but I generally don’t fit into their editorial needs. To put it bluntly, I find most of them shallow.
2. Someone has to do it
Moving from the point of payment above, writing has become a rather cheap trade these days, and this is not a good thing. This is because people believe that content should be free, in many cases, and on the other end, content has become – from a business perspective – nothing more than a way to get a good ranking on search engines. The actual content of content doesn’t matter, what matters is clicks to your website. So quality is no longer important, quantity has become important.
This is why, since I’ve put my writing business back into the market (after I quit my editorial job at Do Gaming), I’ve had a lot of potential clients offering to pay me anything from $1 to $5 per 500 words. I don’t just mean at places like Elance, but I’ve even received Facebook messages and emails from clients offering to pay those rates.
These are what we call “content mills” – they’re simply cluttering the Internet full of content, using search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques (this is about getting you a good ranking with search engines) to get you to visit their website, and as a result they can sell advertising or something else on the site. Advertising on the Internet isn’t very big business (at least, not most of the time) but it does present residual income opportunities, which is why content mills do what they do. An example of this kind of company is Demand Media, and this form of business is not sustainable for writers or for buyers. I believe its days can be numbered if writers stop working for nothing.
SEO firms are sometimes, but not always, a little better with their payment. If the SEO company is selling to bigger corporations, that is. Here they will hire you to write interviews or articles about a given topic, and often that content will go on their various partner websites, providing links to their client. (The more links you have to your website, the better ranking you get on Google.)
When writers started cottoning onto the Internet there was a lot of opportunity – companies needed our skills to create websites and blog for them, and publications needed to up the amount of content they could publish. But the need for quantity has now gone too far. Many businesses will just hire cheap overseas writers because they actually don’t know what good content looks like (and what good content can do) and frankly don’t care, because the numbers are what’s important. Writers and journalists are increasingly under pressure to sustain themselves through churnalism and hack writing. When you’re young and starting out, you can do that under the banner of “you’ve got to start somewhere.” But it’s not a sustainable career and when you get to my age, you can’t do that anymore.
As a writer I need to make a stand that I hope other writers will follow suite. Indeed, since thinking about this and doing research, I’ve found many bloggers are starting to institute hard paywalls on their sites. Andrew Sullivan is one such blogger. (I don’t follow Sullivan, I’m just pointing it out.) In July, he had over 27,000 subscribers, which means many people aren’t convinced that writers should do what they do with no real compensation.
3. Good writing has never been free
The Internet has made many things free and we all generally feel that it should be free. When the New York Times began experimenting with paywalls, many criticised their reasons for doing so. The reality is, all that journalism comes at a cost and you either sacrifice quality and move into churnalism (just basically publishing press releases), or you downgrade your whole operation, or you ask people to pay.
Paying for good writing has never been a contentious issue before. I know people like Martin Luther and John Wesley handed out free tracts for the Gospel in their day (blogging in the old days, essentially) but that would all be sponsored by some or other benefactor(s). Insisting that publications and writers constantly give out what they do for free is certainly a kind of abuse. I think that this needs to change and writers need to start saying, “Guys, this is honestly abusive.”
I don’t pirate music or movies for the same reason that I think we should all begin to pay for more on the Internet. I don’t mean to say I think anyone is deliberately abusing others (except in the case of those who try and circumvent paywalls at websites – that’s abuse no matter how you look at it). But I do think that if this culture is not challenged then abuses will continue.
4. I don’t want to advertise
Advertising ruins a website, creates noise, and takes time to get right. Sure, I can put up Google Adwords and that is easy enough (I’ve done this before) and then you have to be subjected to Madame Crystal offering you a free tarot reading every time you visit. Otherwise, I can approach local advertisers and I’ll be forced to often put up adverts of events / books etc. that I would never recommend. Plus, finding advertisers and keeping them happy (with stats reporting etc.) takes time – time I want to give to writing.
The future of publishing
Recently, Jeff Bezos (who owns Amazon.com) bought The Washington Post and this says, to me, that he has something up his sleeve when it comes to the Kindle as a news device. He has mentioned in several places that people will pay for “packaged” content. I think he’s right. As the Internet becomes more noisy and the distribution platforms increase even more (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest… the list continues) I find myself wanting to simplify my content consumption. I’m picking just a few platforms I like and picking mediums that take me away from distractions, like my Kindle. Websites with thousands of comments, adverts everywhere, and other news items begging for me to click them is starting to take needed hours from my day and, quite frankly, tiring me out. I want to read informative news and opinion on my Kindle more and more, because at least here there are less distractions. (I like the Kindle over a newspaper because I don’t have to struggle with all that folding!)
That’s why I’m offering a weekly delivery of my blog posts on Kindle.
It’s also why I’m starting a new project
All the above is why I’m starting a new project where I want to create opportunities for bloggers – particularly local bloggers – as best as I can. I’ll be releasing details of this soon, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think of all the above. So drop a comment or two below.
Recently, I interviewed a business owner in America who does pretty much what I do – ghostwriting, copywriting, journalism, SEO and so on. She was surprised to hear I was from South Africa and I was equally surprised to hear her mention that she had several great clients from South Africa. It made me wonder, why did those clients not look for a freelance writer in South Africa? Why did they choose an overseas service provider instead?
She’s very good at what she does and those clients have made a great choice by hiring her. But I couldn’t somehow feel that the reason why they didn’t hire someone locally is because they couldn’t actually find them. Or, at least, they couldn’t find someone who actually knew what they were doing.
Then I thought about my own business. Most of my freelance writing clients, at the moment, are from the U.S. These clients are in the media and communications industries, and I wonder if I’m sometimes writing for clients of theirs who are actually based in South Africa! It seems strange for the work to go out of the country only to come back in, but this is very possible.
This has made me think about the way South Africans use the Internet and, even more, how ineffectively businesses are using it. One of my U.S. clients are an SEO content company who have an SEO strategy for clients that really, really works. As a result, they’ve got some pretty big clients! Sitting in meetings with them over Skype I’ve realised that the difference between how the U.S. makes the Internet work for business compared to South Africa is huge!
As a result, even when you do a Google search on google.co.za, you often find overseas businesses popping up first (unless you search for a business or individual’s name). I don’t know how much google.co.za is supposed to find local business, but it certainly does present more local results than google.com. The only time you really get a completely local result, however, is if you tell it to only search for pages in South Africa – but most people don’t know how to do this.
I’ve often looked for writing jobs on the Internet at South African sites but there’s not much to choose from. A site like Gumtree occasionally has work but it always leads to a dead end – you email the client through the system but only get silence in return. As a result, freelance writing in South Africa is more about competing with overseas writers than local writers. That’s the global market, but I think there’s lots of South African talent who can really help South African companies with their Internet presence; or truly help South African individuals with writing their book. We’re just more about networking the old fashioned way than the new way, perhaps.