Newsletter 4 October 2023: Content to make content; starving artists; Banned Books Week; fake agencies

British Museum, London (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Newsletter Week 12: Delving into the “content” debate, the record spread of book banning, plus 3 people to follow, 3 books to read, and plugging yourself in.

The difference between creative work and “content”

There is none.

OK. Put down the pitchforks, people. You and I work in the content industry, whether we admit it or not. And that includes all authors.

Right now the word “content” is getting a bad name. This is from a New York Times article on the topic by critic Jason Bailey:

[W]hen news broke on Sunday night that the monthslong Writers Guild of America strike was coming to an endVariety, the industry bible, gave this term its most skin-crawling deployment to date, noting that the W.G.A. strike had taken “a heavy toll across the content industry.”

“No, absolutely not,” tweeted the TV writer and comedian Mike Drucker. “We’re not calling it ‘the content industry’ now, you psychopaths.”

In fact, Variety itself had run, just a few days earlier, a pointed rebuke to the term from no less an authority than the Oscar-winning actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson. “To hear people talk about ‘content’ makes me feel like the stuffing inside a sofa cushion,” she said at the Royal Television Society conference in Britain last week.

“It’s just a rude word for creative people,” she added. “I know there are students in the audience: You don’t want to hear your stories described as ‘content’ or your acting or your producing described as ‘content.’ That’s just like coffee grounds in the sink or something.”

Here’s how Jeff Jarvis puts it in his excellent book The Gutenberg Parenthesis:

Media think they are in the business of manufacturing the product they call content. Media companies now appoint “chief content officers” instead of editors. Writers are judged by quotas: how much content they produce, how many clicks and likes and minutes of attention their written widgets attract, and how many people open their wallet to become a subscriber, to buy content from behind paywalls. . . . Content is a a passive word, as is audience, for those who consume it. Content is a commodity. How it is no longer scarce. It is abundant, unlimited. Thus, it has lost its value.


Actually it’s pretty simple. When you are creating art — nonfiction art, novels, TikTok videos, podcasts, whatever — you don’t think of it as “content.” It is art. You are a creator. This is a sacred calling. You are there to inform, to entertain, to educate, to titillate, to soothe: to create some sort of a change in the reader. I create nonfiction essays. I create narratives. I create helpful instructions. I take pride in these things. Of course I don’t think of them as undifferentiated “content.”

But let’s be clear: art, content, entertainment, news, and so on have a role to play in the economy. They sell subscriptions to newspapers. They host ads. They persuade people to pay streaming services. They attract people to a website, whereupon the readers or viewers develop a positive inclination to interact with the place that posted it. That last is content marketing, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of (nor do we need to rename it). It is content doing work. All art does work. Much of it does work that makes money in some way. The industry in which the product built by creative people does its work needs a way to refer to that creative work, as a mass. So they call it “content.”

There is nothing wrong with creating content. And there is nothing wrong with thinking of it as art when you create it.

Most of the people who create art get paid diddly for it. (See the item on the average author’s compensation later in this newsletter.) There are an excess of creators and a dearth of paying jobs for artists. That’s why, as Jarvis points out, content is a commodity. That’s why the Hollywood writers needed to go on strike to make sure they weren’t starved out.

And that’s why it is imperative that you, creator of art/content, must strive to create something better, cooler, more interesting, more innovative, more useful, more groundbreaking, more artful than the masses of workaday content creators from which you’d like to be elevated.

If you can get a job or make a living creating content, you are special. Cherish your spot in the content industry. And keep getting better. And maybe, eventually, you’ll get so good you can turn your nose up and say, “I don’t create content, I create something amazing.”

It may be amazing. But the industry that is helping pay you to create it is still the content industry. It’s a good thing it exists, too. We can and should work to make that industry better, but when we are done, content will still be content.

News for authors and others who think

According to an Author’s Guild survey (paywalled link), in 2022, the median author made $2,000 from books and $5,000 if you also include writing-related income. Authors Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger said this “paints a sobering picture of the financial realities authors face today.” The same survey also found that the top 10% of authors had median book income of $275,000. For business authors, these stats are just noise. We make money from ideas; books are just the way we get the idea out there.

The American Library Association published book banning data in a release for Banned Book Week. Censors attempted to block 2,571 unique titles in 2022, a 38% increase, and most of those were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community or by and about Black people, indigenous people, and people of color. Nearly half of the challenges were in public libraries, not school libraries. The most-challenged book was Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe.

Writer Beware explains how fake literary agencies are scamming authors out of money. If an agent contacts you and asks for money first, run away. The best agent is one recommended by a fellow author — and they’re more likely to represent you if another author makes the connection.

Three people to follow

Rohit Bhargava, bestselling author, publisher at Ideapress, trend curator, and one of the cleverest thinkers in the book business.

Megan Burns, customer experience strategist, speaker, and philosopher of change in organizations.

Carolyn Monaco, who choreographs your author move into the spotlight.

Three books to read

Pageboy: A Memoir by Elliot Page (Flatiron Books, 2023). Frank memoir of the trans actor’s journey. Number 1 New York Times bestseller and a frequently banned book.

Atlas of the Invisible: Maps & Graphics That Will Change How You See The World by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti (W. W. Norton, 2021). Look, I freakin’ love weird maps. This book is my idea of a good time.

Phasers on Stun! How the Making (and Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World by Ryan Britt (Plume, 2022). Just trashy fun for 341 pages.

Plug yourself in

I help nonfiction authors. Idea, titles, editing, ghostwriting, coaching. Isn’t it time you got serious about your book? Check it out, then contact me.

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