Why Writers Need to Think Like Entrepreneurs

Old books on a wooden shelf.
Old books on a wooden shelf.

I sat next to a woman at a lunch recently who heads up the magazine publishing program at NYU, and she said the students are, understandably, feeling down about what they see as bleak prospects in magazine publishing—simply because those seats are becoming fewer and fewer.

It’s easy to interpret the shuttering of (many) print magazines and newspapers as ‘death’ to publishing, but I don’t see it that way. What we’re seeing is a shift in consumption habits, in expectations, and in business models. Content may be king, but we’ve also become accustomed to having it be, well free. What is and will continue to change is how we pay for it, and who is paying for it. Yes, that changes things.

Print magazines are, simply, a platform. No different from any other platform you use (newspapers, books, blogs, and so on). As beloved as they are to you, they were a platform, and platforms evolve or die off. We’ve gotten attached to them, of course—we’ve had them longer. Now social media and other content platforms come and go so fast that they seem disposable; we hardly have a chance for habits to form around them!

But one thing is for sure, and this I can say without question: There will always, always be a need for great writers and storytellers, people to create and curate. We need them to see, capture and interpret the world for us and always will.

How can we not? With all the content pouring at us from all platforms, streaming toward us through every device, we rely on editors to tell us what to pay attention to, and what not to. The era of the Big Magazine and Big Publisher may be shifting dramatically (and yet as you can see, they’re not totally gone), but what that means is that the role of the storyteller is even more important. You go to the salon for the stylist, not the other way around, right?

Enter: personal branding.

Writers are now responsible for their own brands. Many of them cry that the surplus of content has driven the fees (and quality) down. If you are a writer and your claim to fame is that you can string words together, you’re no different from a plumber; you both can combine separate objects so that something vital can flow through them. Fine. You can do a thing. Doesn’t mean I need to pay you for it.

Some writers feel they should be paid to do what they do because, well, they like doing it. Sorry! That’s not a reason for a job! Would you hire a plumber because he said, “But I really love plumbing! It’s my passion!” Nope. You hire a person based on how well they solve your problem, period. (See my TEDx talk for why passion isn’t enough.)

Enter: entrepreneurship.

The future doesn’t belong to just people who can do a skill; it belongs to those who can find ways to create value for someone. If you want to make a living as a writer, editor, OR plumber, you have to identify a need, ideally someone who will pay you for your solution. And you need to supply that solution in a way that suits your customer, suits your market.

This doesn’t depress me, and it shouldn’t depress you, either. We are living in a very exciting time for content! It used to be you had to pick magazines or books, and jobs for content were fairly limited (even if there were more seats at traditional publishers). Now, the degree to which you create something amazing determines how well you do. And that is in your hands.