Essay: Kim Wilkinson the hustle

Do the Hustle: Writing in a Post-Digital Publishing World

This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.

Just when you think we have finally killed off the idea that writers need to retire Coleridge-style to a lonely farmhouse on the moors to get anything done, another writer notes on their acknowledgements page how the work would ‘never have been written’ without the generosity of this or that writers retreat, giving them a break from the world to do their work. But this must be an exaggeration. As much as I love writing retreats, the reality of writing a book is that the work is not done in a two-week uninterrupted block in the mountains: it is done around other paid work and domestic life, daily or weekly, iteratively, over long stretches of time. Writers who publish also grapple with deadlines, editorial direction, and the affordances and limitations of their economic status in the industry. These things impact creative practice. Far from being separable from the social and the material, writing is always inflected by these twin forces.

In terms of socio-material influences, we writers seem especially reluctant to talk about the commercial demands on our work and how they shape creative choices. Pierre Bourdieu’s impact on our understanding of the literary field is powerful: art can either be for its own sake, or the sake of the market, with the former valued more highly than the latter. But Bernard Lahire shows us that writers do not exist wholly inside the field of literary production, unless they are the rare few who make their living entirely through their writing. Bourdieu’s model is, according to Lahire, conceived around the idea of a writer ‘who has the economic resources needed to maintain a purely disinterested relationship to his art’. Given what we know about writers’ incomes in Australia, it is likely most writers do not fit this description. If we write for an audience, most of the time we have to make our peace with the tension between the demands of art and the demands of commerce.

Claire Squires writes that ‘the central tension of the publishing industry’ is between art and commerce, and this is something that writers continue to grapple with, both privately and publicly. In an essay in The Lifted Brow, Antonia Hayes writes of her desire for people to know ‘I did not engineer my novel to make money’, and that it is ‘only by a coincidence of taste that I wrote the kind of book that appeals to people who buy a lot of books’. This tension between art versus commerce produces certain pressures that leave their mark on creative work. As Lene Tanggaard tells us in her research on the socio-materiality of creativity, ‘it is contact with or resistance’ to the material circumstances writers work with, ‘that causes new ideas to arise. Creativity is fundamentally relational’.

The tension is sharpened when the usual ways of doing things within publishing’s commercial operations are radically changing, leaving the industry uncertain and risk averse. For most of this century, disruption in publishing has been ongoing on several fronts. An increasing corporatisation of publishing and the concentration of ownership into fewer hands characterised the latter quarter of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first. In 2013, the ‘Big Six’ publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon and Schuster) became the ‘Big Five’ with the merger of Penguin and Random House. The following year, Newscorp’s HarperCollins acquired the romance publisher Harlequin, increasing its size and international reach.

The early twenty-first century has also seen the rise of a series of blockbuster books that leverage the technologies of media convergence and its associated digital sociality: the best-known example of this kind of convergent book franchise is the Harry Potter series.This series, and others like it, model a new kind of adaptation: rather than a written text on one side and a televisual text on the other, they proliferate across many media – toys, tourism, clothing, colouring books, digital marketing assets, and a range of fan-driven activities such as fan fiction, fan art, peer-to-peer commerce, wikis, and so on, which can be identified and leveraged to intensify market share. As multinational conglomerates, accustomed to higher profit margins than typical in publishing, dominate the sector, there has been a polarisation of the literary marketplace, with an emphasis on bestsellers. In Australia, BookScan – a data provider for the publishing industry that produces highly accurate sales figures monthly – tracks 515,000 International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN). The top 5000 of those make up 50 per cent of the sales by value, which leaves over half a million books making up the other 50%. Midlist writers and low-selling writers are given fewer marketing resources or are cut from lists all together resulting in fewer economically sustainable career paths for writers.

While making a liveable income as a writer has long been challenging, incomes in this new paradigm of publishing have become increasingly unpredictable, ushering in the era of the ‘hustle’. Many formerly financially comfortable writers have been forced to adopt portfolio careers, diversify into other genres, or take employment across adjacent industries. Entering the marketplace from the other side are writers who were unable (or unwilling) to attract a traditional publishing agreement, those who self- or small-press-publish with modest, and sometimes surprising, success. In short, more writers are publishing for fewer profits: the long tail of publishing is becoming ever longer. These challenges condition the kind of creative work writers do; as the industry changes, so does the writing that is possible within that industry.

Integral to the disruption of publishing’s commercial operations has been the digitisation of bookselling and book-buying processes, which have transformed how the industry collects market data, harvests that data, and feeds this information back into decisions about book commissioning and acquisitions. Clayton Childress notes that BookScan’s point-of-sale data has influenced acquisitions practices in publishing houses, displacing editorial knowledge and taste. Like most other facets of consumption, publishing is increasingly subject to the operations of Big Data. Amazon relies on its predictive algorithmsto rank and recommends products based on the aggregation of users’ buying history. As such, the algorithms favour similarity and reproducibility. Mark McGurl argues that this has intensified the sector’s investment in genre fiction. Kindle’s Whispersync function, which allows readers to continue to read where they left off on any of their devices, gathers data about reading habits, such as where readers slow or stop all together. As Mark Davis et al have shown, this data subsequently affects publishers’ decisions about the length and complexity of new projects.

All of this pressure to produce market-safe books leads to increased demand for read-alikes. Among my peers, I have witnessed some take advantage of the investment in read-alikes by deliberately writing into a burgeoning market, others have been encouraged to do so through existing publisher and agent relationships, and some have found themselves in the hands of very insistent editorial teams, hell-bent on changing everything from titles to unhappy endings in order to shape a book for a certain audience. In other cases, literary writers such as Danielle Wood (writing chick lit as Minnie Darke) and Amy Matthews (writing historical romance as Tess LeSue) have pursued more sustainable careers by branching into more reliable market genres. The imagination is challenged by the possibilities of the marketplace; creative practice is unquestionably shaped by publishing’s commercial needs.

Digital transformation of the sector has also provided an array of opportunities for writers outside traditional publishing. Social platforms for posting original fiction, such as Wattpad and Inkitt, bypass traditional publishing practices and allow a new generation of creative practice into the marketplace. Once conceived as a space for amateur creative writing, Wattpad’s contributors now include Margaret Atwood and Paulo Coelho. Wattpad boasts hundreds of million of uploads and 80 million users. Some of the stories have been read more than half a billion times, such as Anna Todd’s After, recently adapted for film. The platform offers opportunities for writers to monetise their stories with advertising, and has recently moved into book publishing by drawing from their most popular stories. Wattpad’s format encourages a different kind of storytelling to the traditional novel structure. A large proportion of stories are served up in bite-sized pieces, which end on a point of narrative tension to lead the reader forward, in some ways mirroring the cliffhanger endings and autoplay function of streaming television services that are associated with binge-watching. Wattpad invites readers in with short chapters that propel the reader easily into subsequent chapters, with drama concentrated episode by episode, rather than in the traditional novelistic measured rise of tension over time. Creative practice is altered by the demands of the platform and its readership.

Likewise, many writers are turning to digital and on-demand publishing through small press and self-publishing ventures. In Australia, Driscoll et al have shown how self-publishing has been particularly keenly taken up in the romance fiction sector, and small-press has been dominated by fantasy fiction. In these paradigms, the novel starts to lose its hold as the centre of the reading market as cost considerations about page extent become unimportant in digital form. As Monica Tan has noted, short stories and particularly novellas are resurgent.

Challenges and opportunities around writers’ adaptability in the face of technological change may affect creative practice; but the influence also flows in the other direction. Creative works go on to shape the industry: sometimes in small ways by reinforcing existing patterns and processes, sometimes in large ways by inspiring new patterns or innovating new processes. That is, the hustle we do as writers impacts the industry we work within. E. L. James was hustling when she self-published her Twilight fan fiction as Fifty Shades of Grey through an Australian online publisher, the Writer’s Coffee Shop. Within a few years, erotic fiction was the most emulated genre in the industry.

In my own years hustling as a midlist writer, and in observing my peers, I have never failed to be amazed at how capacious the imagination can be when faced with an opportunity after a long corridor of closed doors. In 2004, with a new and slightly scary mortgage to service, I accepted an offer to write a series of children’s books. These books bolster my lending rights royalties bountifully every year. In 2006, I side-stepped a mediocre BookScan record by rebooting myself under a pseudonym and writing a staple of the market, the ‘commercial women’s novel’. My alter ego has now been published in 21 languages. In 2013, aching to write novellas about medieval legends, I published an award-winning book with a small press. Hardly anyone bought it, but I’m very proud of it and it won a national award. In all these cases, I invested my imagination as readily and passionately as I do with any of my projects. Writing stories has always been the richest, juiciest fun for me. Maybe from the outside it looked as though I was selling out, but to me it felt like art. Art does not passively grow in a hothouse; it listens, responds, adapts. It is vibrant, mutable, human, and shot through with the social. What some might call selling out may actually be art listening, responding, and adapting to dynamic changes in the environment in which it is produced.

Mark Banks writes that artistic autonomy has always stood in relation to the market. He uses the term ‘negotiated autonomy’ to describe the way cultural producers, in our case writers, seek ‘opportunities for meaningful self-expression’ within the limits of an industry driven by the need to make a profit, but whose control over the literature produced is ‘never fully prescribed’. Writers have always negotiated their autonomy; though those negotiations are different in in the twenty-first century as the industry passes through its biggest change since Gutenberg. Rather than seeing response to such change as a negative, as an inherent compromise, I argue that the commercial pressures of an industry in turmoil are productive forces that shape creative practice, provoking innovation and inviting multiple uses of the imagination.

I’m excited to see what we produce next.

This Writers at Work essay has been funded by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland. This stage of the series has also been funded by Creative Victoria and Arts Tasmania.

Works Cited

Antonia Hayes, ‘Objects in Mirrors’, The Lifted Brow vol. 30 (2015), pp. 107-112.
Bernard Lahire, ‘The Double Life of Writers’, trans. Gwendolyn Well, New Literary History, vol. 41, no. 2 (2010), pp. 443–465.
Beth Driscoll, et al, ‘The Publishing Ecosystems of Contemporary Australian Genre Fiction’, Creative Industries Journal, vol. 11, no. 2 (2018), pp. 203–21.
Claire Squires, Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Literature in Britain (London: Palgrave, 2007).
Clayton Childress, ‘Decision-Making, Market Logic and the Rating Mindset: Negotiating BookScan in the Field of US Trade Publishing,’ European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 5 (2012), pp. 604–620.
Giles Clark and Angus Phillips, Inside Book Publishing, (London: Taylor and Francis, 2013).
Lene Tanggaard, ‘The Sociomateriality of Creativity in Everyday Life’, Culture & Psychology, vol. 19, no. 1 (2013), pp. 20–32.
Mark Banks, ‘Autonomy Guaranteed? Cultural Work and the Art–Commerce Relation’, Journal for Cultural Research, vol. 14, no. 3 (2010), pp. 251–269.
Mark Davis, et al, ‘E-Books in the Global Information Economy’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 18, no. 4-5 (2015), pp. 514–529.
Mark McGurl, ‘Everything and Less: Fiction in the Age of Amazon’, Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 3 (2016), pp. 447–471.
Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, ‘ The return of the social author: Negotiating authority and influence on Wattpad’, Convergence, vol. 24, no. 2 (2016), pp. 117-136.
Monica Tan, ‘Nick Earls on the Unlikely Rise of the Novella, Star of the eBook Revolution’, The Guardian, 2 May 2016.