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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Follow the Black Swan

A wild black swan Cygnus atratus .Image via Wikipedia

First of all let me apologize to the gentle reader who was misled by my title. This is not going to be an enlightening piece of literature, where the black swan is a metaphorical representation of some philosophical idea I am trying to convey to you. The black swan does have a symbolic meaning to me that I might divulge at a later time, but it has little to do with this post. This post is about one thing and one thing only: money!

Start any credible writing course or read any decent book about writing as a profession and you are more than likely to be reminded of the immortal words of Dr Samuel Johnson, author of the first English dictionary, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money". Most courses that are serious about getting you paid for your written work will encourage you to write letters for newspapers that pay, enter competitions for cash prizes - you will note that the vast majority of small writing competitions award cash prizes for a good reason - and indeed chase anything that means a monetary return. There is little place for pride in the early life of a writer trying to turn profeessional. In fact, the story of the struggling writer who prostitutes himself in anyway to make his talent pay is a virtual modern proverb these days. Check out the very funny Ed Reardon's Week for a great caricature of the overeducated writer desperate for work or, indeed, the Ricky Gervais's series, Extras for examples of an artist tortured by the continued loss of his credibility. And yet ask many non-writers their opinion on writing for a living and they will think it is a simple case of writing a book and sending it off the lucky publisher keen to get their hands on your gold. You then receive nice fat advance payments for every subsequent book, as you laze back in your expensive surroundings just waiting for the inspiration to grab you before writing your next bestseller. J.K. Rowling is cited as the supreme example of this and it is perhaps why many a struggling writer see daggers at this phenomenally successful writer. The truth for most, however, is a very different story.

When I was at school I remember a special room being set up where students, in their free time, could investigate career opportunities. You would enter your career of choice and then be given a list of the qualifications that best suited this job and the places in further and higher education that offered them. Then it would tell you what the general job prospects were. I remember going into the room with the same writing myth in my head I have previously described. The qualifications came up, English and History. I was overjoyed. My two favourite subjects! Then job prospects followed: very poor.

As the years have past I have got work in print. I even sold my first two not very good short stories quite easily, but this did far from open the floodgates of opportunity for me. I wrote for martial arts publications, using the vehicle of my twin passion to get some leverage up the professional ladder of opportunity. Unfortunately the ladder was sort of propped against the wrong wall, as the industry rarely pays hard cash for any work. It is a business based on the fact that a highly competitive world of clubs and retail businesses are falling over themselves to get publicized, meaning that some people virtually pay to get their work in print! I do know at least one person who got paid to write for a magazine, but from his account it was a severely unbalanced Faustian deal. Luckily I was published with Martial Arts Illustrated who although didn't pay me hard cash gave me free advertising space. So, I worked out a way to promote seminars off the back of articles I wrote on good martial artists.

Eventually I did succeed in getting a book into print and significantly it wasn't a martial arts book. However, no serious businessman would have been impressed with the niche market returns I received versus time and effort put into researching and writing this book. Mind you, this is the general nature of the writing business. The general path most professional writers take is qualify as a journalist and then to start writing their books in their spare time. This is not the route for all of us, much less those of us who weren't qualified to become journalists when we left school, however, the principle is a very sound one. Get paid for perfecting your craft in order to support the projects you love. Of course, journalism is an art unto itself and many journalists only write books as sideline and incidental projects. Their real love is their actual job. If you are a writer like me, however, you want to write books for a living. You want to write about your intererests and passions and receive a serious income for it. I am on my way and I have found some useful new tools at my and your disposal.

Writing has always been an accessible art to most people. That's why you get the J.K. taunts. Most people could write a book. Most people can also make money from it and some recognition. This blog is proof of the latter point. The internet has proven to be an incredible tool for today's generation of writers. It certainly has some big dangers varying from being dragged into listless or empty self indulgent writing, where your work is never going to generate any indirect let alone direct monetary returns, to the new problems with copyrighting /31_Why_My_Copyright.html However, if you can steer your good ship, Discipline with strong awareness light on well across the internet then there is plenty that can be used to your advantage.

According to Don Tapscott's Grown Up Digital the era of the critic may be at an end. Few consumers trust the words of the distanced academic "expert" over someone they can relate to. The internet provides a collaborative community, a global one at that, which forms groups and trades information. Savvy internet companies realize this. They understand that Tapscott's Net Generation like to read reviews from people like themselves before they decide to buy a product. They also understand that this community will reward and recommend good reviews. Many sites, such as Amazon, have done this. I am actually a member of Amazon Vine, a special group that receives any early releases they list whenever I want free of charge in order to review them. This is hardly payment for my services, but it was quite nice to receive that recognition for a bunch of reviews I wrote years ago as an exercise to see how my work reviewing non-martial arts items might be received by the general public.

However, what prompted me to write what has become a rather lengthy ramble is a price comparison website called Dooyoo. This is where I appear as the BlackSwan featured in my title, writing reviews and actually getting paid to do it. How do I find the time? Those who know me will understand that time is not a plentiful commodity at hand. I try to restrict myself to writing stuff that is directly related to my own work - be it teaching martial arts/self defence or promoting my book. However, like most writers I am also constantly feeding off inspiration. This mainly comes in the form of books and entertainment. I love to discuss these things and there are plenty of people who enjoy reading my opinions and recommendations. Therefore, I thought why not use the time I would normally use to reply to an email to make some money?

Dooyoo was recommended to me through the famed "money saving expert" Martin Lewis. Here's the page I read: I am not interested in wasting my time on paid surveys. That's not what I like doing. The point is I like writing about works that either inspired me and also ones that didn't. If you are a reading this you are more than likely to be a person who enjoys writing and enjoys sharing their views on different media. This a great exercise to get your views out there and to see if they people find them useful. Better that than to write a big explanation on Facebook, Myspace, a forum or the like whether or not you thought the latest episode of Big Brother was any good.

When I first registered with the site I was expecting - rather pompously - to see a huge slew of badly written reviews and plagerized work. Although there is a lot of dross on the site, which is only to be expected, I was astounded to see a large number of good writers, many like me who have their own professional website and blogs. The community was very much the embodiment of what Tapscott described in his book with members policing and rewarding one another. If you do decide to join up, here are a few pointers I have learnt early on:

1. Obviously don't plagerize. Any new review is immediately registered and the community are onto it like white on rice. You will get a rating - Very Useful, Useful, Somewhat Useful or Not Useful - pretty quickly. There are a lot of serious users on this site, and a good number probably relying on it for a decent secondary income. However, there is nothing wrong with recycling an old review you may have written on your blog or another website that encourages customer feedback. My advice would be to preface the review with a small disclaimer that the review has been previously posted elsewhere - if it is on your blog then that's more advertising!

2. Make sure your reviews are for products only listed by Dooyoo. Remember it serves as a price comparison website, so many of the products are from other retailers. There is a function that allows you to only see products in the Dooyoo catalogue. You won't get points for reviews written for any other products. It might add to your profile, but the money is way too small and time is far too precious to bother with that sort of thing. Also, if I know many of you like I know myself you will get snared into producing more and more work without any instant rewards.

3. There are two types of review, an express review and a premium review. The premium review is the one that pays the money 50p per review. These immediately get advertized once you have written them. You have to get £50 before you can request a cheque. Express reviews are any reviews under 150 words. They don't get advertized and I guess are a way for to save an incomplete reviwe online, a review you can later add to in order to make the 150 word count. You can edit any of your online reviews at any time. You get points for good ratings on your reviews by other members, points that help get you to your money mark, therefore you are given an incentive to produce both quality and quantity.

4. Join me. Let's get our Circle of Friends going. That way we can build up plenty of points and our work better recognized, which means more money! Also don't forget to give me ratings when on get on there. Follow the BlackSwan!

Don't forget to check out Jamie Clubb's main blog

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