Excavator and Pan: Two Paths to Literary Gold

An excavator tearing up dirt and rock ton by ton and dumping it into a machine that blasts it with water and shakes it down a sluice box, separating the heavier material across a series of riffles, and the gold flakes eventually being sifted down into a thin layer of synthetic ‘moss’ to be collected later.  A scoop of dirt and rock being carefully panned by hand, swirling the water gently to gradually reveal whatever small bits of precious metal are hidden beneath.  I could have used any number of metaphors to display the disparity between brute forcing one’s way through as much material as possible, or taking time to handle an individual project with a bit more focus- a shotgun blast versus a precision rifle, fast food versus fine dining, a hammer and sickle, whatever.  I’ve been watching Gold Rush: Alaska lately.

In the last month, I chanced upon two amazingly disparate ways to ‘make money’ with writing.  One was an anonymous Reddit thread by some guy reporting on his success at making unseemly gobs of cash through putting out a slew of ebooks designed to capitalize off of how Amazon/Smashwords/etc handle sales rankings.  The other was Nick Mamatas’ collected articles on freelancing, Starve Better.  What’s interesting is that neither of these two methods point towards the typical “How to Be An Author!” advice, and when boiled down are simply methods of turning words into dollars.  The two methods themselves, while not completely in line with my own personal aspirations, deserve to be noted here.  The Reddit thread seemed to be fairly popular solely due to its mindblowing Thousand Dollars a Day claims, and Nick Mamatas’ more realistic goals provide a more reasonable counterpoint.

Posting under the name “throwaway_writer”, our anonymous Redditor chose to publicly disclose his method for pulling in over one thousand dollars in a single day.  The thread immediately caught fire, and he was more than glad to answer questions.  The core thing he discusses is his method of interlinking the ebooks, as well as specifically formulating the ebooks to be eye catching enough to net easy sales.  “Sales come from 5 things:   Cover, Description, Ranking, Title, Reference.”  He then goes on to explain that content is specifically not what grabs those sales.  In under a year’s time he cranked out some 80 ebooks, though most of them seem to be under 30 pages.  They were released under some half-dozen pseudonyms, each ebook having two distinct ‘categories’ under Amazon’s system, and with a link to other books by that genre’s ‘author’.  Compilations were made between the ‘different authors’ allowing readers to be introduced to other tentacles throwaway_writer has set up to snare more sales.  By casting as wide a net as possible with this link orgy, each ebook rises in the ranks within its own category, and becomes more visible.  By being more visible, and relying on probability and snap purchases more than anything, sales are achieved.

It’s an interesting tactic that preys on customers being willing to drop a few bucks on something that isn’t very good; or hoping that they don’t notice.  It’s exploitative and scummy, but I can’t entirely fault him.  He put in the work and did create about 80 seperate titles, regardless of quality.  He posted a screenshot of sales vs. returns, and less than 1% of people were upset enough to ask for a refund.  Again, either laziness or apathy on the consumer’s end benefits him here.  He admits he’s no great writer, and is fully aware he’s making a cut-rate product for the exclusive purpose of being bought by people who don’t know or care.  I doubt his whirlwind of cash will maintain itself for long unless he keeps putting out more material, so it’s not a simple case of putting out a hundred shitty books and retiring on some tropical island.  Amazon, of course, has no reason to dissuade this sort of action- sales are sales to them, and they get their cut no matter what.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mamatas’ concept is infinitely more humble.  You’re probably not going to get by on fiction alone, if that’s your thing.  Just like you’re probably not going to put a roof over your head with your sculptures or paintings alone.  To make a living solely on doing the art you love is a luxury that only comes to a very lucky few.  What he proposes is being prepared to use your talents in the more mundane realms of freelancing.  Getting a hold of magazines and suggesting  articles you can write, being your community’s ‘art guy’, etc, all factor into getting a small amount of money now rather than holding yourself to an unachievable standard.  I love the idea, honestly, and it’s not even anything new!  I’ve jokingly referred to my ideal job as literary ditchdigging, and have developed a yearning for the idea of art as work rather than divine calling to come back into mainstream consciousness.  The obvious analogy is sports, and how only a few thousand people at the top are going to be making the big bucks– but if you could pick up an extra couple hundred dollars a week shooting hoops at the park, you’d be silly to turn it down.

Mamatas really just suggests that people get over themselves when it comes to holding onto purely artistic, lofty goals, and to discover ways to pay for food and rent until the then that may or may not come.  Focused mainly on writing, he suggests to start small, use what you know, and never turn down work.  The more clips you collect, the more cred you have when it comes to snagging better paying work.  He describes starting out getting what amounts to beer money for helping friends proofread things, and then eventually getting a month’s rent handled with a night’s honest work.  It’s pleasing in many ways to see someone who has broken free of the commonly held notion that no one but the ultra-lucky can survive on writing alone.  He simply asks that expectations are lowered to the point of seeing that, for the vast majority of people, a day’s work will always be a day’s pay.   That’s not a bad thing at all.

Between these two methods, a giant uncaring machine designed to filter as much dirt as possible, and a single person swirling that dirt in a pan to eventually find a few nuggets that can be lived on for a while, there are tons of other non-monetary aspects to consider.  For one, throwaway_writer is clearly not trying to develop a name for himself as a legitimate writer.  By using a handful of fake names to disseminate his work, any attempt to truly claim recognition for what he’s done would disrupt the delicate web he’s created.  Mamatas, on the other hand, is an author whose name I’ve heard quite a few times.  There’s also the dubious aspect of churning out stuff you know isn’t good.  Obviously that sort of behavior is seen in every industry, and the fact that it’s one person doing it on their own rather than a boardroom hardly makes it acceptable.  Were I to try to imitate his feat, I’d be completely incapable of not putting some effort into making something worthwhile.  I have a hard enough time driving past my perfectionist nature with regard to my writing already.  To that end, despite the saliva inducing vision of hundreds of dollars raining from heaven into my account every day, I’d be more content with digging holes.

2 thoughts on “ Excavator and Pan: Two Paths to Literary Gold”

  1. I participated in that discussion on Reddit. You say that Throwaway_Writer doesn’t put in any effort to produce worthwhile writing. That’s not true. What he doesn’t do is agonize over it and put the writing on a pedestal.

    You *can* create something decent, quickly, if you treat it as craft instead of high art, and don’t coddle yourself waiting for your “muse” to lick your asshole and give you inspiration.

  2. I do say that he puts in the work. My stance is that he doesn’t put in the work to create work that people who care about books on a higher level would enjoy. Obviously I can’t say for sure how good or bad his writing is without seeing samples of his work, but given that he lists exciting titles and catchy covers above content itself, it’s hard not to draw that sort of conclusion. I’ve noticed a slew of hits coming in from Reddit, though the subforum seems to be private. I’d love to discuss this more there, if an invite was given.

    Edit: I am Capntastic on Reddit.

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