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
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.