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What to Do When the Sky Starts to Fall

Bane, Vickie
By Vickie Bane

When “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence” came out last year from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), it didn’t command a lot of attention even though it reached some pretty scary conclusions for those of us who write for a living. Among the findings: nearly half of all young adults, ages 18 to 24, do not read books for pleasure.

Studies in other mediums found similar results. Take, for example, Harvard University professor Thomas Patterson’s recent one for the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. His work, entitled, “Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Look and News on the Internet,” concludes that when it comes to news, audiences are increasingly using the Internet as their source of choice. He says in the past year alone newspaper circulation has fallen by three percent and broadcast news by a million viewers. Notes Patterson: “As online use has increased, the audiences of older media have declined.”

So what does this mean for the freelance writer or book author looking to sell his or her works in 2008? It could actually mean opportunity. Consider what you can do, such as…

FOLLOW THE LAYOFFS – In 2007, when newspapers like USA TODAY did voluntary layoffs of 45 people and Time Inc. let go hundreds of employees across many magazine titles, they didn’t lose the need for good content, just the need to reduce salaries and benefits of those who provided it. In this convulsive job market, the freelancer who watches the layoffs, reads the new look of those publications and pitches accordingly is likely to profit.

CREATE FOR MULTIPLE MEDIUMS – Query letters should include what you want to do for the printed page and how that can translate into a piece for online. Editors everywhere are concerned, and not always knowledgeable, about what moves on the Internet. Before you query, read the print editions of the publications you are pitching as well as the online editions. Show editors how your article fits in both places, or make a pitch just for online.

THINK PITHY – Focus groups (the media relies on them) tell us that many readers of print newspapers and magazines want stories shorter and easier to read; they like boxes. Keep that in mind when you’re doing pitches, and have suggestions ready to help understaffed editors.

SELF-PUBLISH – Publishers are taking harder looks than ever at potential manuscripts and accepting fewer. If you are willing to fork out money upfront and work hard at marketing your book, think about self-publishing. Organizations such as SPAN (the Small Publishers Association of North America) and CIPA (The Colorado Independent Publishers Association) can explain how it works and see if it makes sense for you. The upside:  profit margins, per book, are usually higher with self-published books.

And, although it’s probably too late to bring around those lackluster 18-to 24-year-olds mentioned in the NEA study, we can save the children. Make a concerted effort to spend even more time reading – with pleasure – a newspaper, magazine or book, and do the same with your young children and grandchildren. As that great American writer, Harper Lee, once said:  “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.”

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