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From Writer to Cyberscribe?

If you're a writer or publisher, the daily news is full of all kinds of depressing statistics, whether you freelance for various publications, gin out computer books for the big guys, or pound the pavements for the newspaper industry.

But there is hope.

In Cyberscribes.1: The New Journalists, Anne Hart explains the kinds of opportunities available to writers in this new medium and shows how to adapt your writing process to the kind of content needed for the Web.

Before the Web

Even before the advent of the web, the writing and publishing market had undergone significant changes. On the lists I follow, many freelancers report they gave up magazine work long ago. The pay is simply inadequate to cover their expenses.

Writers of computer books, often considered well paid, have a different set of complaints. They report long hours to produce their many-paged tomes in mere months, and sometimes even in mere weeks. Some will tell you that while the pay rate seems higher than in other writing areas, the actual non-stop pace they put in to meet deadlines make the hourly rate less than regal.

The plight of the small publishers was almost as grim, held captive by large book distributors who often refused to handle their books. The book superstores didn't want to order from small publishers, only from the large distributors. Even if one of these few large distributors did condescend to carry the books of the smaller publishers, they usually wanted a bigger discount As the small, independent books stores were forced out of business by the superstores, small publishers found fewer and fewer places willing to handle their titles.

Before the present days of vast publishing empires, a number of well-known houses took interest in new writers and felt it their mission to nurture emerging talent. These well-known houses have generally been gobbled up by the publishing conglomerates, which rarely care to take a chance on an unknown name. They usually prefer to blithely advance millions for the stories of big names, stories usually written by someone else, with no illusion to good reading, but rather gossip. Many of these highly touted books fail to earn back their outrageous advances, but the publishing industry hasn't seemed to have learned their lesson here. In the meantime, the smaller independent publishers have taken over the job of nurturing new writers and bringing real books to the reading public.

In the newspaper industry, the story line is quite similar. Newspaper journalists have been taking hits for years, even before the web. Many local newspapers were acquired by large publishers in the 80s, and in the shakeup, local control as well as many local voices were lost in this vast homogenization. Large cities with two and sometimes three newspapers became one-newspaper towns. And in this business model, the news per se was no longer the goal, but rather making money for the corporate coffers. Often, newspapers ran fewer and fewer of the longer feature stories about people and the ratio of advertising to content jumped markedly. The newspapers in smaller towns often somehow became shoppers, papers with virtually no content except perhaps a few press releases and lots of advertising coupons.

After the Web

Along came sthe World Wide Web, and many writerly things changed big time.

Now writers can publish their own work directly on the web. Many authors maintain their own web pages where some even provide advance copies of book chapters or even post the entire work. In the computer book industry where a new software announcement can make a book obsolete in a matter of weeks, web pages offer computer book writers a place to address new software releases and keep their readers up to date.

With the appearance of, suddenly small publishers had a bookstore virtually at their doorstep willing to offer their books worldwide. lists -- and sells -- most of the titles in Books in Print. If it's listed, they will try to find it for you. Try that one at your friendly neighborhood superstore. Of course, now Barnes and Noble feels compelled to go after for false advertising., Barnes and Noble complains, is not really the biggest book store in the world because they don't really stock all those titles. This from a corporate entity known for the rapid demise of independent bookstores. The sound of the shoe being on the other foot, perhaps?

Small publishers even have the option of selling their books directly to their customers. Actually, wasn't the first online bookstore. According to Mary Westheimer, president and co-founder of BookZone, the first store to go on the Web was Book Stacks in 1992, with BookZone the next general bookstore appearing there. Small publishers no longer have to drive around with a stationwagon load of books, tailgating their wares in populous places. They can set up shop with home pages. Or contract with a web book site like BookZone to create and manage their web pages for them.

Mary Westheimer says BookZone allows publishers to do a number of things at their site that the other book sites don't allow, but probably one of the most important is allowing links to come in and out of their site., for example, lists my book on restoring old houses, and I can create a link to my book in Amazon's catalog from my web pages, even garnering a bit of a commission if someone actually clicks from my web pages to and buys my book. However, does not allow a link from their site to my pages, where I have put up a sample chapter and the table of contents, something that is known to increase book sales.

Newspapers have jumped onto the online bandwagon as well, and there is frequent discussion on Steve Outing's online newspaper list about the differences between hard copy newspapers and online versions, what works and what doesn't, and how online versions will pay for themselves. There are now over several thousand newspapers on the web, but many following the discussions on Steve Outing's lists believe newspapers haven't adapted to the new media. Instead, they have in many cases simply put up an online version of their hard copy paper. Dan Willis, Senior Producer at Digital City South Florida notes:

The Web CAN give birth to a unique and valuable news product, but let's keep in mind that many of our current visions of this product are hampered by the newspaper print box many of us were trained in. To do it right, the better writers, photographers, editors, and graphic artists will have to redefine concepts like depth and news judgment relative to a non-linear medium. There's a lot to be learned when users see as much value to their lives in telling the world their favorite shampoo as they do in reading a multi-faceted discussion of world politics. This is our market over the coming years and they have a lot more to teach us than we have to teach them.

This brings up some very uncomfortable journalistic challenges, where to be successful, we will all have to confront and creatively solve collisions of information and entertainment, revenue-generating content and non-revenue-generating content, objective reporting and subjective user opinion.

Done right, it's going to be pretty scary.

With a world audience instead of a local audience, selling local advertising obviously becomes a problem. Some newspapers have tried to become the entertainment calendars for their cities. On the other hand, in times of crisis, online newspapers have a definite niche. When Grand Forks, North Dakota, flooded in April of 1997, the Fargo Forum set up a frequently updated album of flood pictures at their site. This is an area in which online newspapers can easily surpass hardcopy papers.

From the business standpoint, the question is always how will this venture pay for itself. So far, the old models often don't work on the web and the new models haven't been rolled out yet. That the medium is developing at such a breakneck rate further muddies the waters for those who must figure out how to pay their bills. The results of these varying forces often lead to prophecies of gloom and doom. Writers wonder how they're going to adjust to the new medium, while the movers and shakers in the industry are often blinded by the glitz and the technology. The rest of us just want easy access to information. Suzanne Lainson, in another post to online news, wonders when the newspaper industry will wake up to this shift:

In the last several weeks I have read several articles in places like the New York Times and Business Week quoting people from places like MIT that the personal computer industry has been headed in the wrong direction for some time now, designing for complexity rather than simplicity, paying software designers to create features that few people need or use instead of encouraging them to solve real world problems.

I have been looking at who's getting hired for what online jobs and the emphasis is still on skills rather than insight.

So for people interested in careers in online publishing there seem to be two different target audiences: employers who want tricks and the public which wants functionality and relevance.

Is there going to be a massive reshuffling in a year when publishers decide their current approaches to web publishing still haven't sufficiently tapped into the potential online market and they want more communicators and fewer technical experts?

No wonder there's a lot of contradictory opinions roiling around about the direction the Web will take writers in the future.

See my review of Anne Hart's, in Cyberscribes.1: The New Journalists for some well-grounded suggestions as to where these developments leave the writers of old -- all kinds of writers, not just journalists. She surveys the technology, looks at the kinds of skills writers need to develop to make the transition to online authoring, includes conversations from many people who have successfully made the switch, and provides some specific advice on how writers can think about the kinds of writing they are comfortable doing, and how they can repurpose their work to fit the new media.

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