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Books: Currency of the Professional Writer


The essence of knowledge sharing in a democratized, long-tail, Web 2.0 world is that common people can seamlessly transition between being an author and a member of the audience. Persons with any background, qualifications, and interests can easily set up a blog or other online publishing platform and release their views to the world in minutes. Self-publishing, and indeed self-marketing, has never been easier.

But what is a blog post really worth?

Even if you write for a niche audience – and let’s face it, most everyone does – it’s common to want to increase the size of your niche. Perhaps you start as a medical reporter, but you want to be a more general science, technology, medicine, and space journalist. Or your website initially features blog posts about your children, but your goal is to create a parenting information portal. Whatever the details, it’s usually better to have more readers, all other things being equal.

Participation in traditional mainstream media can definitely bring traffic to your blog. But when was the last time you saw a blogger, however good, on Today, or Live With Regis and Kelly, or Late Night with David Letterman, or Meet the Press, or The O’Reilly Factor, or Real Time with Bill Maher, or Oprah? Basically, never.

Do you know which writers you do see on those shows? People who wrote books. Yup, they’re the author of a book, and they’re hawking it. Then the next day they’ll get on a plane and do a book signing in San Francisco, or Portland, or Kansas City. No one goes on Meet the Press or O’Reilly and hawks their latest blog post, or even their latest Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair article. Have you ever seen a blog signing? Even someone has well known as Christopher Hitchens goes on a show as the author of – now in paperback – God is Not Great, and not as the writer of the post he did in Slate last week – no matter how good that post is.

(About the best exception to this I can think of is a model signing the cover of a magazine she’s in. So, if you’re a beautiful swimsuit model and you’re reading this, please don’t be offended, and thank you for your support.)

Yes, to some extent book publishers are ‘in bed with’ television and radio producers. And sure, this pattern is changing somewhat. You occasionally see someone only famous for online writing get their spotlight on television. But are they ever asked back, or do they just get 15 minutes every 15 years? People who author books get fast-tracked for bigger mass media engagements that yield positive feedback for whatever else they do – run a small business, work at a think tank, or even…blog. And this is the true distinction between ‘writers’ and ‘authors’ – authors have books.

While in the disintermediated Web 2.0-powered publishing world it has become more and more difficult to determine who the ‘elite’ writers are (quality, not popularity), the same isn’t true of authors. Elite authors have book contracts with known publishers. If they’re super-elite, authors have multi-book contracts, their books are featured in brick-and-mortar stores and Amazon alike, and they get paid to read their own words in front of a live audience. Has anyone ever paid a writer to read their latest blog post out loud in front of an audience??

No one’s immune. Major online entities like Gary Vaynerchuk and Peter Shankman give keynote addresses at conference, and often get paid for it. Guess what? They’ve authored books. Same with many other similar people. Conversely, I can also think of some well-known Web 2.0 personalities who run blogs but haven’t authored books outlining their thoughts about some topic in depth. Interestingly, I can’t remember seeing them on television, either. (And the notion that they don’t want to be on television is bullshit – everyone wants to be on television.)

So I posit that authoring books is the measure of the writing elite, they are the sign that you’ve made it, they are the calling card of the true stars in a sea of words.

True, you can self-publish books with greater ease than ever before. This process has been interesting and controversial for years. But what was the last self-published book that you bought for $29.95? Who was the last self-published author you remember on Oprah’s infamous Book Club? The fact of the matter is that the cream tends to rise to the top, and great authors will eventually get a major publishing deal. There are good reasons to self-publish a book you’ve written, but fame isn’t one of them.

And let’s not even discuss the even greater disparity between online music and video stars on YouTube and other sites, and actual rock stars and movie legends. Yes, free flowing audio and video serves a purpose in society, but when we’ve forgotten most of the winners from American Idol, what’s the chance you’re going to convert a YouTube channel into something bigger?

So, viewing writing through this lense, I’m not too concerned about the cult of the amateur ruining the profession. Everyone will continue to give their slant on the truth, sites like Wikipedia will continue to weight opinions from ‘experts’ and amateurs equally, and newspapers and other media will continue to lose share. But don’t fret – we’ll still know who the best writers are. They’ve authored a book.

See more opinion pieces like this in my upcoming column at True/Slant.

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