"It is time - past time - for new media writers to abandon the childish hope that the web offers them a sanctum outside the economy, untainted by the spectre of publishers and booksellers and money."
So says Mark Bernstein, president and chief scientist of Eastgate, established in 1982 and probably the oldest hypertext publishing company around. But can new media writers and artists ever seriously hope to make a decent income, or are they forever relegated to the role of the "starving artist" business model? Whats the equivalent of an unheated attic in cyberspace terms?
John Cayley, London-based winner of the Electronic Literature Organizations poetry award, earns his living as a specialist book-dealer. He writes for both print and digital media, and knows perfectly well that poetry in any medium doesnt pay. Cayley says: "For me, the practice of literal art in digital media is an extension of poetic practice and so I have no expectations of commercial-rate advances, fees or royalties deriving from copyright in the work itself, which is - in the current legal and cultural framework - the engine of any commercially viable writing practice."
Like many print writers too, Cayley may not have earned much from the sale of his work, but he has been paid to present it, talk about it, and work with others on similar projects. Californian Marjorie Luesebrink, herself a hypertext author and writing teacher as well as Vice President of the Electronic Literature Organization, also sees writers making a living not from their work itself but from their associated expertise. And that, she says, is not much different from the print world. "Only a very, very small percentage of writers have ever made a living from writing," she says. "Instead, they often take their talents to the marketplace. Writers on the web can make money doing a host of net-related jobs - editing, writing copy, consulting on web page presentation or game design, and so forth."
Mez, an Australian codeworker whose innovative textual experiments interrogate the networked environment itself, earns a living from a variety of sources including journalism, writing commissions, arts grants, and exhibition fees. Despite a high-profile presence on the web, her income is sporadic. Although her work often features in critical essays by students and academics exploring this new area, there is of course no remuneration for being a subject of study.
Likewise, US net artist/writer Talan Memmott has received international acclaim for his multi-layered hypertexts, and his curatorial work as editor of BeeHive. Yet, despite his reputation, its still difficult to draw any revenue because the current system of distribution dictates that works (which often take many months or years to create) must be given away free in order to access a readership. Because he attracts so much interest in universities, Memmott thinks licensing for academic use might help. He says, "I find a lot of my work used as course material, but I see very little return, if any, based upon this usage."
Licensing may be part of the answer, but good old-fashioned selling is more straightforward. However, will consumers of new media writing ever be prepared to pay for content? Well, maybe they will, eventually. The Online Publishers Association recently announced the results of its first U.S. Market Spending Report for paid online content. It reported that U.S. consumers spent $675 million for online content in 2001, a 92 percent increase over 2000 spending levels. And what did they pay for? Business content, entertainment and personals/dating accounted for 59 percent of all online content spending. We can safely assume that the entertainment portion included very little if any new media writing, but maybe one day that will change - if theres a market for it.
Developing audiences must be the key. But for the form to develop market value, new media writers need the security to both learn the skills in the first place and then create the work.
Thats where arts funding comes in. There is a growing interest in supporting the development of digital writing but progress has been slow because this particular art form presents funders with a perplexing problem - which department should dig into its coffers? Is it literature? Is it art? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Will it ever fly at all?
Most certainly it will fly. It already is. New media writers around the world are exploring the potential of digital media and combining text with every known medium, plus others they are busy inventing. But more people need to know about it, enjoy it, and ask for more. Here are some suggestions to bring that about:
- Arts organisations must climb off the spiky fence and create sensible and inclusive funding strategies for new media writers.
- Academics must find more ways to sustain the development of the works they so admire through fellowships, residencies and bursaries. This includes campaigning for new media writing to be taken seriously by academic research funders, so that more money becomes available.
- Print-based readers must put down their books for a while, go online, and discover the pleasures of an entirely new art form. Arts enthusiasts must visit the internet on a Sunday afternoon instead of a gallery. Creative people of all kinds must open their minds to the web and all its opportunities.
- New media writers and artists must build up an audience by soliciting invitations to present their work at local libraries, galleries, museums, TV and radio stations; offering articles about it to the print press; performing it live wherever possible. Inform. Educate. Entertain.
Not only does new media writing have no visible means of support right now - its not even visible enough in the first place, and why should anyone care?
We care, and so its up to us.
Its up to us to build an appreciative and informed audience of readers/users/viewers and with them, eventually, will come fees and royalties and whatever else occurs as income in the new e-economy.
Sue Thomas is Artistic Director of trAce. Her books include Correspondence, Water and Wild Women. Most recently, her work was featured in Reload: Rethinking Women & Cyberculture (MIT Press 2002). She has just completed The Virtualist, an exploration of virtual and physical landscapes.
Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink: