New Grub Street


George Gissing

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The new paradigm for creative folk, that is. Dispense with jobs, with their soul-deadening cubicles and time clocks (metaphorical or literal) and bosses looking over your shoulders—but also, admittedly, with their clockwork paychecks and medical benefits—and become your own brand. That meant establishing yourself online: with a blog or social-media presence or Huffington Post column. None of these offered any remuneration, and mounting and maintaining a website can indeed be pretty expensive, but they could offer great promotion for what you had to sell, be it book, CD, paintings, lecture tour, consulting services, whatever.

George Gissing’s 1891 novel, New Grub Street, took a look at the (sorry) state of freelance, or hack, writing, at the beginning of the mass-media era. Maybe the new technology would offer better opportunities? With my professor’s job, I had the luxury of giving it a try. It was like the old joke. (This version is from the My Western Wall website.)

The melamed (Jewish religious teacher) of Chelm was speaking with his wife.
“If I were Rothschild, I’d be richer than he.”
“How can that be?’” asked the wife. “You would both have the same amount of money.”
“True,” he agreed, “but I’d do a little teaching on the side.”

Writing for Lingua Franca would never make me as rich as Rothschild, or even a third-string shortstop. But the folks at The Chronicle of Higher Education are honorable folks, and they pay me and my colleagues a darn sight more than Arianna Huffington pays her serfs writers. It’s in the same ballpark as the fee Calvin Trillin reported receiving from The Nation—the high two figures. And the bigger point is that this is a prominent perch from which I can express my small insights and hawk my wares.

If you look to your right and scroll down till you get to my mug, next to it you’ll see some book titles in blue. If you click on them, you’ll be taken to, where, with just one more click, you can have them for your very own. But wait, there’s more. Because I’m a member of the Amazon Associates program, these are special links, like the magic beans in Jack and the Beanstalk. If someone follows them and buys anything at Amazon, I get (in addition to my author’s royalty, if they buy one of my books), an additional 6 percent of the purchase price. Ka-ching. Or, rather, ka-ching-ish. Below is a statement showing my Amazon Associates earnings, which Amazon calls “Advertising Fees,” for the last couple of months. They usually fall well short of Trillin territory.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 9.33.08 AM

I direct your attention to the second link next to my picture, You Need to Read This, followed by an excessively long subtitle. That one demonstrates the extent to which I have gone all-in with the new-paradigm program. As the blurb notes, You Need to Read This is an e-book containing essays about writing and language I’ve done for Lingua Franca and other sites. A major publisher “published” it, which in this case meant providing an attractive cover and design, copy-editing services (although the pieces had already been copy-edited), and promotion.  I wasn’t given an advance (as is customary in paper-book publishing), but from the first copy sold, I was paid a 25-percent royalty (as against 15 percent in paper). And with an attractive price point of $3.99, the book was sure to fly off the virtual shelves.

Again, not so ka-ching. Last week, I got my first payment for the book. It revealed that it had been downloaded a grand total of 164 times. With Amazon Associates fees, I barely made it over the Trillin line:

Photo096Clearly, we are in early days for the new paradigm. Its economics are problematic, to say the least, but no one can deny that it has presented some interesting developments and opportunities. A few years ago, I started a blog on the subject of British expressions that have become popular in American English, like ginger, early days, go missing, and, most recently dodgy, my 372nd post. It might seem like a narrow topic, and it is, but narrowness turns out to be one of the things at which the web is brilliant (to use another Britishism). There are great blogs devoted to cover songs, to images of movie stars riding bikes, and to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture, especially tattoos.

Sometime this week, probably on Friday, Not One-Off Britishisms will get its one millionth page view. Who knew? I haven’t made a single cent from the blog, but presumably it’s promoted the Ben Yagoda brand, such as it is. More important, it’s been enormous fun, especially in the witty and knowledgeable band of readers and commenters it’s attracted. And I still have my teaching on the side.

Return to Top