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Navigating the Ever Changing Digital Landscape

by Don Outdoors, over 2 years ago

Don H. Meredith

I’ve been at this freelance writing business for nearly 40 years. I am an outdoor writer and photographer who has published many articles, columns and photos in Canadian magazines and newspapers. I have published two young adult novels, and edited and provided content for several non-fiction books. I have also done contract writing for businesses, governments and non-profit organizations.

It’s amazing how things have changed over the course of my career. When I started back in the 1970s, I wrote in longhand on foolscap and typed my later drafts on a heavy, manual, desk typewriter that I soon replaced with a portable electric model. In those days when you got an edited manuscript back from a publisher, you had to retype the whole thing when you revised it—risking the inevitable typographic errors. And once your manuscript was accepted, a typesetter had to retype the whole thing yet again.

Word ProcessingOf course, personal computers and word processing changed all that. I was an early adopter, purchasing an Apple II+ in 1981 with the proceeds of a contract. Although word processing speeded the editing and revising process, I still had to print my drafts and send them by postal mail to publishers, most of whom were reluctant to adopt the new digital technology for economic reasons—retooling being a large capital investment.

My first novel, Dog Runner (1989, Western Producer Prairie Books) was written on the Apple. The young-adult novel was published, promoted and distributed in the traditional manner, the publisher doing the heavy lifting. They booked me for readings and signings and the book sold well. It was short-listed for several awards and won the 1990 Writers Guild of Alberta Award of Excellence in Children’s Literature. The royalties I earned over the next few years more than paid for the time I put into it.

Of course, publishers eventually adopted the new technology, and then along came the Internet and e-mail in the 1990s. In a few short years the way we communicated with each other changed. No longer did we have to wait for postal mail to return a physical manuscript. Its digital version could be delivered right to the machine on which it was written in the first place. Also gone was having to completely retype each draft.

Photography

Digital photography came along a little more slowly. Back in the 1970s I was using a Nikon F1 Single Lens Reflex (SLR) film camera with an assortment of lenses that I had acquired over the years. The camera took great photos, but of course you didn’t know how good they were until the film returned from the developer.

Then in the early 1990s I attended a photographic workshop in Edmonton sponsored by some major players in the industry. Film was still the way things were done but the workshop had a session on how some publishers were digitizing film images to enhance the printing process. Fujifilm, however, demonstrated a 35 mm SLR camera that had been outfitted with a digital sensor, bypassing the film stage all together and displaying the camera’s image on a TV screen. The Fujifilm representative stated that despite its name, his company had decided to hasten the obsolescence of film, as they believed digital would soon rule the photographic world. Although everyone was amazed with what they saw, most of us did not realize how fast digital was indeed coming. Within a few years, digital cameras flooded the market. Most of the early versions were point-and-shoots, but the SLR camera quickly caught up.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I jumped when I found Nikon had a digital SLR (or DSLR) model within my price range that would accept my film camera lenses. Although publishers were slow to catch up, it wasn’t long before all photographers and publishers had adopted the new technology in order to keep pace with each other.

And of course, the race to digital didn’t stop there. Nowadays, smart phones and tablets have word processing abilities and cameras that can take both stills and video. Indeed, the cameras and screens in these devices have improved with each new version, making it possible to take some quality photos and videos with a device that can be carried in a shirt pocket. The popularity and portability of these devices have put them into the hands of just about everyone. That has changed who provides the stories, photos and videos people read and see, and how they are paid for.

Getting Paid

For example, I used to receive pretty good payments for articles and photographs I submitted to magazines. The time to research, write and submit articles could be justified by the compensation received. Over the last 40 years, however, those fees have not changed in absolute dollars (i.e., ignoring inflation). Indeed, in many cases they have dropped. But inflation has done the real damage. Each $1.00 I received for an article sold to a publication in 1978 would be worth $3.63 in 2015 dollars (www.measuringworth.com). Yet, I’m still paid at the same or smaller rate. In other words, the buying power of the money I make from selling magazine articles has been cut by more than 73%. But it gets worse in terms of photography. In many cases, I’m no longer paid for my published photographs. The publisher expects me to supply the photographs as part of the writing fee.

As a result I have curtailed my magazine writing. I do write a monthly column for a regional magazine but more to keep my hand in the game than make money. The fee I’m paid doesn’t cover my time, let alone my office expenses.

How do I stay in business? Nowadays, most of my income comes from contract writing. There I’m paid for my time not just the words produced. It’s not inspiring writing, often doesn’t get my byline, but it pays the bills and I’m usually interested in the subject.

Although technology made the writing and photography easier, it has allowed publishers to take advantage of the amount of free content people are willing to supply. When I ask to be paid more for my writing and photographs, the publishers tell me they can get what they want from others who will supply either for free or at the lower rate.

Book Publishing

Book publishing is no better. When I decided to submit my second novel manuscript for publication in the early 2000s, I found that several book publishers had folded and those that remained were difficult to deal with. It was hard to get a manuscript read, let alone accepted. In one case, I politely contacted a publisher by telephone after they had held my manuscript for over six months without so much as an acknowledgement of receipt. The editor berated me for disturbing his day, that he didn’t have time to look into my specific problem and that he would get back to me when he felt like it. I told him to send the MS back to me, that I would look elsewhere. I knew I would never be able to work with someone who showed so little respect for the people providing the content he wanted to publish.

I tried other publishers and finally one took the time to read my manuscript and got back to me within a few weeks of my having submitted it. They were very enthusiastic. An editor was assigned to me and we worked together to make the novel better. However, they sent me an untenable contract asking for all rights, not just book publishing rights, and at a much lower royalty than I got for Dog Runner. A telephone conversation with the publisher did not resolve the issue (“all our contracts are non-negotiable, take it or leave it”). I told him where he could "leave" his contract. Thus, after three weeks of working with their editor, the whole thing fell apart.

After other runarounds with other publishers I decided to self-publish (the now well edited) The Search for Grizzly One (2005, iUniverse). With the help of some writers’ organizations, I was able to promote the book at school visits and readings. It sold well as long as I promoted it. And that’s the deal with self-publishing, you will sell books as long as you market and promote them yourself. Marketing and promotion takes a lot of time, effort and money. I don’t have a lot of time, effort and money to spare. Although Grizzly One was well received, winning a couple of awards, I have yet to fully recoup my publishing expenses. So, I am a bit sour on book publication right now.

Access Copyright

I would be more positive about freelance writing generally if the federal government had done its job in protecting my copyright in the stories I write. I used to get a very nice annual payment from Access Copyright for the copying schools and other institutions did of my publications. Access Copyright provided a way for those institutions to make reasonable payments for that use under The Copyright Act and pass that revenue to creators. The Harper government, in its revision of the Copyright Act, decided that educational institutions could copy a writer’s material at will without compensation. Now, my Access Copyright payments are much smaller, and I feel my government is disrespecting the work I do.

I have been riding this paradigm shift for quite a while now, and I’m still sorting out the digital landscape. However, it seems to me that we so-called “content providers” are getting a raw deal from the people who should be appreciating what we do. If quality content is desired in the future, something needs to be done to ensure creators are adequately compensated.

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