January 17, 2014

Why writers are in trouble and what we can do about it [By Claire Bell]

Earlier this year, I went to a writer’s conference where I hoped to get inspiring tips on how to make it as a writer.

Instead, I left glum and dispirited.

My overwhelming impression?

Writers are in trouble.

Big trouble.

Here’s why: Editors are swamped with manuscripts from a growing army of writers. But the number of readers as a percentage of the population remains unchanged.

An editor at the conference did say this. I haven’t made it up.

As you’ve probably surmised, this means more and more writers must compete for a static readership.

Incidentally, I have no idea why so many people want to be writers these days. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the few respectable professions left on the planet where you don’t need some kind of license or advanced diploma or degree to get started. Or maybe it’s because it offers the tantalising, but exceedingly unlikely, prospect of fame and mega riches along the lines of J.K. Rowling and E.L. James.

Whatever the reason, we’re stuck with a writer population explosion while our readers embrace the literary equivalent of ZPG.

Yep. Readers are in Zero Population Growth mode.

And all this got me thinking: why are readers as a percentage of the population refusing to procreate?

Here’s a parade of the usual suspects: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, computer games, iTunes, smartphones, Pay TV, short attention spans, mental lethargy and information overload in general.

But the real culprit lies elsewhere.

Like in this statistic, for instance: 47 per cent of all Australians are functionally illiterate. This means that about 10 million of us can’t read well enough to follow a simple recipe or understand what’s written on our medication bottles.

Then there’s this: In 2003, 10 per cent of Australian children told researchers they had less than 11 books at home.  Only three years later, in 2006, this number had risen to 19 per cent of Australian children who said the same thing.

More kids with less books at home equals bad news for children’s writers.

And it’s also bad news for writers-in-general because non-reading children are unlikely to be adult bookworms.

And if you think this literacy apocalypse is confined to Australia, you’re wrong. Even in America, the world’s richest country, 1 in 4 children grow up without learning to read and 23 per cent of the population is functionally illiterate.

That’s a lot of potential readers we writers will never have unless something’s done about it.

It seems logical to me that if a writer wants to be read by people other than his or her mother or best friend (J.K. Rowling and E. L. James excepted), then he or she must encourage a literate citizenry.

This benefits everyone, not just writers, because reading is really good for us. It staves off Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, makes us better lovers and conversationalists,  reduces stress, improves memory and generally makes us smarter, more imaginative and less inclined to imbecility and doltishness.

So here’s how I’m contributing to a more literate community.

Dmitry Orlov and Unspell

Dmitry Orlov is one of my favourite bloggers. He’s a Russian-American engineer, writer and linguist who’s invented a software program called Unspell.

It’s an ingenious piece of high-tech wizardry because it will allow adult illiterates (as well as non-native English speakers) to easily and quickly reach a professional level of writing and reading without having to learn to spell. How nifty is that.

Unspell will also improve pronunciation without the need for word memorization and its users will be able to look up the definitions of unfamiliar words without having to know how they are spelled.

This will mean lots and lots more readers.

Dmitry’s got a Crowdfunding campaign going on at Indiegogo. He’s trying to raise $50,000 to get a functional demo of the Unspell software together to show potential investors in early 2014. I’ve just donated money.

And if you’re a writer, definitely donate money. Now.

You know why.

Charles Hugh Smith

If Unspell doesn’t sound like your thing, then you might like to simply support writers – especially those outside the mainstream publishing cartels.

You can do this by first reading the following post by the wonderful writer Charles Hugh Smith:  Support your non-mainstream authors - buy a book/eBook.

After you’ve read it, do as I did and immediately go and buy a book.

I have a Kindle, so I bought one of the books Charles recommends. It cost me $5.21, which is precisely 81 cents more than what I paid for my spinach and cheese pie today.

And if you have no Kindle and the shops are still open, go and buy a book.

And while you’re there, get a gift voucher for someone else.

This piece, by Claire Bell originally appears on Midlifexpress and re-published here with her kind permission. Find more writing by Claire at http://midlifexpress.com/.

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