Writers’ Shadow Work

on November 13, 2011 in Misc

First, a little announcement…


Now on to the subject at hand…

I never knew it before now, but I’m one serious shadow worker.

See, according to an article in the New York Times, the term “shadow work” means unpaid labor, which is getting out of control in our society.  It’s also applies to a whole lot of us writers.

I’ll explain by first describing ancient history:  my childhood.

I’m so old I remember how when my Dad pulled our family car into the gas station, he never, ever got out and pumped gas.  A station attendant did that job, plus cleaned the front and rear windows and asked if he should check the oil and the tires.  Then he took my Dad’s cash and brought back change.

We didn’t have to go to the store to buy milk because  it was delivered each week.  If you had trouble with an overseas call or finding a number, an operator helped you.  At the grocery store clerks checked you out and bagged your stuff, and in department stores they measured your feet before bringing out precisely sized shoes (in my case, 9 Narrow when I reached 13).  When I took my first hitchhiking/ backpacking trip to Europe straight out of high school, a travel agent helped me buy my airline ticket and Britrail Pass.

We used to live in an economy where people were paid to help you.  Now we perform these tasks ourselves and nobody is paying us, and I don’t see anything getting cheaper because I’m doing for free the work companies used to pay their employees to do.  Even at my job, I’m doing some tasks others used to do, and I sure as hell haven’t seen my salary go up commensurately.

Can you and I perform most of these service tasks for ourselves?  Of course.  But because corporations have made us take on so much shadow work, their profits are way up along with unemployment, and doctors are saying that more than ever Americans are exhausted.

Now this blog is a lot about action heroes who can do EVERYTHING themselves.  But the point is, they don’t have to (with the exception of Nikita) because they’ve got fantastic spy agencies/ servants/ governments backing them up.

Me?  I got squat.  Which is okay because outside of my head I’m not an action hero saving the world.

But I am a writer, and looking around I realize how much shadow work has been creeping over the writing and publishing professions for some time now.  Sure, I pride myself on being low-maintenance in most aspects of my life, including writing.  And by self-publishing I have, by choice, taken on a major chunk of unpaid labor.  But even for traditionally published authors, unless their names are Stephen King or James Patterson, the burden of work placed on them is expanding.  They’re told that a manuscript must be as close to perfection as possible before an editor will look at it, and it’s not a bad idea to personally hire a freelance editor to groom it before submission.  And do you the author have a platform?  Blog?  Facebook and Twitter followings?  What are your plans for promoting your book?  Will you be hiring a PR expert?  All of which must be done on the author’s time and dime, with no promise of recompense or a substantial change in royalties.

In defense of many literary agents and editors, I don’t think they’re too happy either.  Some editors in the big houses complain that they’re not given enough time and support to do the job they love.  And my impression is that some editors are happier being in the new small independent publishing houses, where they may not earn big bucks but they can work more closely with authors and manuscripts.

If you ever want to see (and weep about) how much publishing has changed, pick up a book I read years ago:  Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.  Perkins was the legendary Scribner editor of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Rawlings, Taylor Caldwell, Alan Paton… the list goes on.  This is a man who often traveled to see his writers, who kept them sober and sane and encouraged them to write masterpieces.  Hell, Marjorie Rawlings was writing successful commercial stuff until Perkins convinced her to go literary and write The Yearling, which won the Pulitzer.  Wolfe’s manuscript for Of Time and the River came in three crates, which took Perkins two years to shape into an American classic.  Was Perkins an editing genius?  Absolutely.  Are there similar genius editors around today?  No doubt.  But these days no big company will pay for those editors to be great.

In the meantime, we writers keep working and loving and struggling  with what we do, same as always.  But the big difference is, we now must work harder than ever not just to get ahead, but simply to stay in place once we get there.

6 Responses to “Writers’ Shadow Work”

  1. Robert L. Read says:

    A lot of economic progress is generated by making things more efficient—which often means putting people out of work.

    However, it is important to note how many more people go to college and have cars than in the past.

    I think a bigger point is that world is enriched by artists such as yourself essentially without compensation. However, in the past, your chance of having anybody read your work was smaller. Today, you, and hundreds of people like you, have books published and available to the public that never would have seen the light of day before.

    With music it is the same—in Austin there are 50 bands that play every weekend for less than the cost of the gas to haul their gear to the gig. This is a good for the audience, bad for the artists—but the same artists can sell CDs on the internet that never, ever, would have had a listener outside their home state back in the 50s.

  2. Helena says:

    Robert — You’re right about an upside. E-books are really hurting bookstores, but readers take chances on writers when they can get a “book” in super cheap form. And I’ve heard that some musicians are bypassing record companies and selling a lot of CDs on the Internet. On the downside, there are people who more and more don’t want to pay for music or for much anything from artists.

    Either way, I still miss travel agents.

  3. Ciara Knight says:

    I’m off to buy my Kindle copy!!! Woot!!! So excited. :) I hope to read it by end of year. I”m afraid edits and Nano are killing me right now. Congratulations!

  4. Helena says:

    Ciara — Thank you so much! But please bear in mind that I wrote one fat book, so if you don’t finish it before next summer, I’ll more than understand. And I’ve started Love’s Long Shadow and am loving it! (You really know how to describe how emotions are physically FELT.)

  5. I’m definitely going to have to check out your book. I’ll add it to Goodreads.

    I love this blog post. It shows me in a nutshell how much the world has changed in just a short time. It’s kind of bullshit if you ask me…but you’re right. America is slipping into what I call a third world country. Greed has caused this. Ah well. It just makes me mad to think about it.

  6. Helena says:

    Michael – THANK YOU so much for any chance that you’ll add my book to Goodreads. However, The Compass Master doesn’t really deal with this topic (except for the action hero stuff). But my next two historical novels I hope to publish, which I wrote before TCM, do just that: Charity MacCay and the Almighty Dollar, and Charity MacCay and Holy Relations.

    And you’re right about the third world country descent for the U.S. — economists (like Nobel Prize winners Stieglitz and Krugman) have been warning us about this, and they’re also saying that if we don’t turn around the extreme concentration of wealth among the few and save the middle class, we’re in for even worse times.