Writing for outlets isn't worth it anymore
An author's perspective on The Great Unbundling and the "death" of media
Times are changing for writers. There’s been a recent wave who’ve stopped contributing to outlets and moved to newsletters like this, such as myself. To give some insight into what’s happening, the following is a postmortem of my decade-long career writing nonfiction for well-known media outlets like The Atlantic or The Daily Beast. Some of the articles I wrote won awards, like being listed as notable in the Best American Essays book series, and in many cases I was paid thousands of dollars per piece.
This year I’ve stopped doing this, and am focused solely on growing this Substack. In my own small way I’m contributing to what’s been dubbed the “Great Unbundling” of publishing wherein outlets unravel into individual writers. While this subject may seem like insider baseball, I think my personal story is interesting because it reflects on broader trends of institutional change, corrupted systems (some proof below), and what’s next for the future of writers and readers.
So why “cut the cord” as a writer? Let’s start with the fact that
publishing is harder than writing.
The amount of work it takes to actually get something published vastly outstrips that of writing it. This iron law of freelance writing is indubitable and unchangeable. You don’t just have to write a piece, you also have to pitch it. This involves all sorts of contortions and self-promotion and nudging and mildly stalkerish behavior. I had the most success by finding something an editor had written, emailing them with a compliment about it, and then (as subtly as possible, which isn’t subtle at all) moving on to the pitch. Your pitch is a miniature version of the article but pithy. It’s the clickbait version. Writing pitches is its own artform, closer to ad copy than essay. Even this sort of personalized pitching has a low acceptance rate and is extremely difficult to scale. You can always go the automated route of using submittable, but this will shift your acceptance rates toward the infinitesimal since your submission ends up drowning in a slush pile somewhere. God forbid you’ve written something timely, because then you get to watch your hot take get colder and colder.
Professionals thus often shift to a pitch-first approach, which heads off creating articles all dressed up with no place to go. Yet in a sense the real product in this approach is the pitch itself, the ad copy. So you spend all your days pitching, and emailing, and not actually writing.
Fame, or at least success, attenuates the degree to which publishing takes more work than writing, but only logarithmically. And while the most famous like David Brooks or Tyler Cowen get a recurring post at an outlet with millions of subscribers, even that doesn’t completely solve the next problem which is
lack of audience capture.
This was less of a problem pre-balkanization. You could worm your way into the center of culture with a good pitch and publish at Harper’s Magazine or The New Republic or The National Review or wherever you wanted to hang your hat, and it would feel like it was contributing to an ongoing conversation. That’s gone. There’s no there there.
From one perspective, a centerless culture is a recipe for nihilism. From the other, it’s an existentialist opportunity to make your own center. A missive with a tiny byline isn’t meaningful anymore. Spreading yourself thin over outlets means (some) money, but it also means no one sees anything twice, the audiences are different every time, and there’s no repetition, no loyalty, no feedback.
Professionally published pieces I’ve done have likely gotten hundreds of thousands of views, but there’s a sense in which I regret each one, because it’s all in the service of the outlet. And that’s another reason why I left, because working in service always led to the inevitable
I got in plenty of them and I became good at them—the key is patience. If an editor changes something for the worse (statistically more likely than a change for the better), change it back, but now make it a bit different to minimally address their original concern, and then write a long explanatory comment (much longer than the section being changed) such that they’re forced to dig through it to justify another further change they want to make, and so on. Embody the millstone and grind them away.
Often more drastic measures were necessary. Back in 2015 The Atlantic agreed to publish a 12,000 word essay of mine inspired by Marshall McLuhan, all about analyzing the unique powers of literature through the science of consciousness. I thought my life was going to change. They had accepted it! I was going to be the next Ta-Nehisi Coates, given reams of pages to studiously and laboriously build my case! Obviously suspicious. Months went by. Eventually I got the draft back, but with the instructions they wanted to publish it very soon and also could I make it under 3,000 words. The editors and I ended up on the phone, where they were shocked to learn the original was 12,000 words. After all, according to them it had been so interesting it seemed so much shorter! The young Brooklynites were baffled I could possibly care enough to fight with them over an article, as I begged for 8,000 words, then 6,000 words. They’d never had this happen before. . . what did it matter. . . and also, did I know they were The Atlantic? The ambitious piece dissolved into a simple review of the novel City on Fire, but I salvaged the bulk of the essay from them like I was a lizard leaving behind only its tail. The remaining body was eventually published in The New Atlantis as “Fiction in the Age of Screens.”
A similar story with The Baffler—by then I had started asking upfront about what sorts of edits outlets were intending. Originally they said they loved the piece, barely any cuts or changes would be necessary. After a few months they of course proposed a 60% cut and a bunch of changes. I was able to show them the original email promising explicitly not do that and saying how much they loved it. It was only this sort of entrapment that allowed me to publish “Enter the Supersensorium,” which I still get emails about from strangers who stumble across it and say it literally changed how they consume media.
At this point you might be thinking: “There is a common denominator here, Erik. You. Truculent, micromanaging, logophilic you.” Maybe there’s some truth to that. But I honestly got the impression I was different from the other writers editors were working with simply because I cared about the final draft in the first place. So if that’s the case, I’m proud of it. And I’d point out there were plenty of editors I did get along with, who actively improved pieces, at places like The New Atlantis, Nautilus, my own literary agent and then later my editor at Abrams Books for my novel The Revelations—all took what I gave them and made it shine a bit brighter at the best bits and made the dimmer parts pass more quickly.
But these felt like the exceptions rather than the rule, and the sort of literary bludgeoning I had to defensively do meant even if a piece was accepted it wasn’t safe from eventual cancelation. Consider the time Inference: International Review of Science offered to pay me $4,000 for an essay on the science of consciousness, an outrageous sum. It turns out Inference is a bit of a shadowy organization (an impressive feat for a science magazine). It’s quietly funded by Peter Thiel, which depending on your politics may either ring alarm bells or inspire interest, but what unequivocally did ring alarm bells for me was Contributing Editor David Berlinski. Berlinski, the author of a book calling atheism The Devil’s Delusion, is a prominent intelligent design proponent who seems to be almost preternaturally well-connected.
Yet the rest of the Board of Editors contained big respectable names, a few I knew personally. And $4,000 is a lot of money for postdoctoral researcher, who make little more than graduate students. Other articles seemed okay from my cursory examination. So I said yes. How bad could it be?
Disaster. The worst edits I’d ever seen. They sent me back a piece entirely different from the one I submitted, with none of the edits tracked, rewritten in a voice not my own, and containing all sorts of elementary mistakes I simply couldn’t put my name behind lest I look to the world like a fool. I asked them to give me a new set of edits since these were simply unacceptable, not a starting point at all, and to track their changes, as is common practice. After some back-and-forth it was revealed Berlinski himself had likely been the man behind the curtain editing it (originally it was anonymous). He sent me this refusal to provide a new edited version with tracked changes:
I would much prefer it were you to clench tightly your jaws and accept the edited version of your manuscript. We did not change your manuscript whimsically. Quite the contrary. We invested very many hours in going over it word by word. The edited version represents our unanimous judgment. If you cannot live with it, you must change it as you see fit. I must tell you, however, that we will not accept your revisions without editorial scruple. Inference is a highly-edited journal, and everyone, from Noam Chomsky to Sheldon Glashow, submits to the yoke.
Your Nobel laureates might "submit to the yoke" as you called it but when it comes to writing I simply cannot be bought.
It was revelatory to me that apparently those listed as members of the Board of Editors like Chomsky and Nobel laureate Glashow were submitting to some further editorial yoke. Ever since then we’ve had a saying in my family: “Hoels submit to no yokes.” And by the way the astrophysicist Sabine Hossenfelder had a similar experience with the magazine, saying that:
. . .I received a revision from an anonymous editor who had garbled up my argument so badly and misrepresented my opinion so much that I could see no common ground and just refused to agree it be published.
Obviously Inference is an outlier among outlets. But I suspect the demand to submit to the yoke is an articulation of a deep belief many other editors at prestigious outlets wish they could express aloud. The phrase “submit to the yoke” is a biblical one, oft used in the Old Testament, where it was as much about slavery as it was about oxen. Jesus implores his followers to “Bend your necks to my yoke” in a manner that carries both promise and threat. It is the Christ-like sense of usage the worst editors indulge in, because, see, it’s all for your own good. Place on your shoulders the yoke of the vaunted house style of The New Yorker, the blandness of which is legendarily impossible to break even if you’re a famous author. So that’s one of the main reasons I’m
And coming here. I’m certainly one of the younger and lesser writers to do so. Most outlets aren’t going to notice. I won’t lie: I’ll miss a minority of editors. But the best improved my work by 20%, while the worst ruined it. It was never an equivalent exchange, and good first readers of private drafts accomplish much the same function.
Speaking of: where is here? What is this? A blog? I guess, but the word “blog” brings to mind LiveJournals and life updates. A newsletter? Sure, but for what news? Mentally, I’ve settled on “an ongoing online collection of essays,” which is pretty much what “newsletter” now means. The problem for blogs was always search, audience capture, monetization, and the impulse to blather about nothing. I think the transition of essays out of blogs and into newsletters effectively solved these problems, since now the incentives incline more toward quality rather than quantity.
Why write essays online like this? The truth is most people wake up and the first thing they do is look at their phone and read. What they read is not a book. Neither fiction nor nonfiction tomes, nor poetry nor autobiography, no, nothing like that at all. They’ll read social media posts, they’ll read news articles, their emails, sports summaries, they’ll browse Instagram posts or go through comment threads. But they’ll also read an essay. Right away, right with their head still on the pillow. Do you know how powerful—really powerful—that is? This fact is somehow both common knowledge yet woefully unacknowledged. The essay is the native written artform of the internet. At their best an essay is varied, ranging, authoritative but amateurish, stylish, concise but unhurried. It creates the most civilized online discourse due to the context provided by its length, and since communities of voluntary readers are appropriately siloed from each other. The essay is a rare chance to break free from the straitjackets put upon thought by academia and capitalism’s incentive toward hyper-specialization.
The patron saint of the essay is Michel de Montaigne, whose 1580 Essais defined the genre as something literary, as artful as a short story or poem. And this 440-year-old medium is just entering its Golden Age now. So why not move to where the attention is—why not embrace it, why not even make it primary, if you’re a writer?
Of course, nothing I ever write on here will win the Pushcart prize, or be selected for the kind of literary essay collections that graced the shelves of the bookstore I grew up in, the very collections I used to dream about being included in. I’m glad I published an actual physical book you can hold in your hands, and plan to do plenty more of them. I admit to originally possessing, unconsciously, a very East Coast definition of success (my gut told me it somehow involved The New York Times), a definition which has been shaken over the past decade. My advice to writers just starting out is to still pursue official publications: hone your pitches, and get the prestige associated with a publication, particularly if you’re building up a portfolio to query a literary agent. Never forget that we millennials are a transitional generation. We’re not wholly of the internet, but we’re not wholly analog either. We’re centaurs.
I admit that decamping in this way was at first weird, as if I’d walked through a portal and left behind the physical. Yet now I’m like an astronaut who finds all his back pain cured after a few days in space. Gravity is working differently here and already I’m unsure I could ever fully return. My bones, newly elongated into a terrible but beautiful creature, might break under the strain of Earth’s yoke.
While I call out some bad editorial behavior here, writers can behave just as badly. I am guilty of this. Once I submitted a piece, an editor happily accepted, I realized I didn’t want to lose the rights to the piece so didn’t sign the contract, I waffled, I waited, weeks went by, I didn’t know how to express my issue, they sent a followup and . . . I just never emailed them back. I still feel bad about it. It was the nadir of my professional career.