Mining the Miners (and Writers)

Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trai...
Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush (I’m the fourth man from the bottom). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a recent visit to the Klondike Gold Rush site in Seattle, I was reminded once again that the people most likely to make a killing in a gold rush are the folks who sell stuff to the miners. The saying in Seattle at the time of the gold rush was that the city-folk sought their fortune “Mining the Miners.”

While there are always a few in a gold rush that find a fortune, nearly everyone else does not. You’d think picking up gold lying on the ground would be more lucrative! Of course, the gold is only lying on the ground for the first lucky few, then it is hard work. I’ve always found gold rushes fascinating and have read a fair amount about them over the years, enough to appreciate why people go and also enough to know that it would be pretty stupid (for me) to join one.

But now I find myself aspiring to be a successful writer. All you have to do is look at the payout of a Dan Brown or a JK Rowling, and the horde of starving writers in the shadows behind them to realize it is another form of gold rush: yes there’s wealth in them thar pages but the average writer isn’t going to find it. I long ago came to terms with that. I like writing for the sake of writing and while I might not do it with the same dedication if there wasn’t some glimmer of at least a modest payout, it’s a better use of my time than a lot of other pursuits.

However, extending the gold rush analogy brings you face-to-face with the people selling writing services. There’s no right or wrong to that, of course. There’s a demand for it and many of the services are quite good. But having recently joined the Writer’s Digest mailing list, I’m now receiving a flood of offers for $90 webinars and the like. It feels… very much like mine-the-writer. I have to hand it to the Writer’s Digest guys, they have a finely tuned sense of what is too much: they manage to slip in just enough interesting blogs along with all the solicitations that I haven’t yet turned it off but I’m close to doing so.

It’s not that I don’t use or don’t like some paid services: there are great workshops and services out there. But a flood of $90 webinars seems over the top. If I did just a fraction of them I’d blow my writer’s budget in three months. I’ve also seen writers spend way too much time taking courses and not actually writing.

In the end, this is just an observation but I’ll confess a little niggling doubt: one of my favorite demotivational posters shows a ship wreck with the caption (paraphrasing from memory): “What if the only purpose to your life is to serve as a warning to others?” Which begs the question, what if the only purpose of my writing is to line the pockets of those mining-the-writers? (Below is a similar poster I found at despair.com).

Mistakes: what if that ship is my book? Courtesy Despair.com
Mistakes: what if that ship is my book?
Courtesy Despair.com
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13 thoughts on “Mining the Miners (and Writers)

  1. BTW I’m an engineer, we seem to have a thing for dark humor. And my particular fascination goes back to a job I had years ago where the CEO thought he could motivate his engineers by plastering motivational posters all over the walls. He pulled them down when we started putting up the de-motivational posters. But then again, he was the boss that told us all once that “he could do it better himself” in the same pitch he was trying to get us to up our work-week from 80hr/week…

  2. Quick note: I found where you can opt-out of all those WD emails and just get a weekly summary of their newsletter posts (just one a week!). I think if you just click on the unsubscribe button on the bottom of the emails, you can go the page to customize what you get and what you don’t. I am a much happier person for doing just that. 🙂

    I agree that those WD workshops are tempting, though. I want to take them so badly. I mean, I can. I make good money. Instead of spending the $3k I just did on a kayak, or the $6k for my husband and I’s trip to NZed, I could have spent that money on writing workshop(s), conventions and whatnot.

    But I didn’t because, frankly, I’ve already spent a bunch of money on workshops. And while they each have great information and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from taking more, the thing is, you can hear the same thing said ten different ways, but the lesson will not sink in until you’ve written hundreds of thousands of words.

    You are not a warning. You are a writer.

      1. Liar! Just joking. Dark humor, I understand. I work in an office full of geologists and drilling engineers – lots of interesting types of humor there. 😉

        I do think I am a warning to others. “Don’t be like me! I suck!” So, I thought you might suffer the same disease. Glad you don’t.

        Also, glad I could help with WD.

      2. Oh, you know writers, we’re all neurotic. Had to talk my wife out of quitting today. And I was close myself when working on the !@#@!#&^*& synopsis recently.

        When of my next posts is going to be on “hope management”: it’s a tricky business staying hopeful without getting silly or depressed. I’m sure it varies by writer but for me, when I’m expecting feedback, it helps to be realistic, it stings less that way. But when I’m starting on page 1 of a new project, it’s good to let my dreams soar, makes it easier to get into it 🙂

        I bet geologists and drilling engineers share the same sense of humor as electrical engineers 😛

        Already changed my WD settings 🙂

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  4. Great analogy. About ten years ago I heard a statistic that something like twice as much money is spent by writers on books and seminars than is paid to writers in royalties and as payment for stories. “Mining the writers” indeed! Some (most) of us aren’t going to get the investment back, in terms of real dollars.

    I think this is probably getting even more disproportionate due to self-publishing. Some of that is an investment, and it’s hard to say you won’t spend it, because not doing so means you won’t sell what you write.

    Anyway, for me, being both on a tight budget and cheap by upbringing, I keep my investments very small, very targeted. I think of Ray Bradbury’s snow flurry of rejection slips, his self-education at the library, and his ultimate success–not only financially, but in finding his own style and voice. I try to remember that it’s about getting better at telling the story I want to tell, rather than selling what I’ve (almost) written. And given the financial realities, I try not to spend more than I’ll feel was absolutely necessary to give it my best shot.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. I can believe your statistic and you’re right, it must be even worse today with so much easier self-pub.

      I do occasionally buy something but I watch the amount. As a mentioned later than this post, I am going to do a DSM workshop because I really like the instructors model and it is interactive so I get some professional feedback. Plus my wife took the course and I like the instructors way of working.

      But I’ve also decided not to go to this year’s Willamette Writer’s conference because, while I’m local, $200 per day (roughly, and if you discount the opening day) seems too much to me. If they had more than 1 agent in my market, I might have given it more consideration but, while I’m sure the sessions are great, that’s too much. That money will be spent but on other things (in this case, that DSM course and an RWA membership and I’m still ahead.)

      So much of the writer’s industry seems to be folks lining their pockets on other people’s hope.

      Thanks for dropping by!

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  6. This is such a perfect metaphor for what goes on in the writing industry of selling writers ‘stuff’. This post has become such a part of my thinking about how the mining the writers industry works, that I linked to it in my most recent blog post. If that is not to your approval, please let me know and I will disable the link.

    1. Thanks for the ping-back! I enjoyed the post. I have used some products but overall it gives me mixed feelings. And it pays to check prices, you can find a 4x difference and still get equivalent services (i.e., $4 per page versus $1 per page for development critiques).

      1. Yes – that is a most irksome tendency. I will shortly (ho ho!) be heading into the uncharted waters of cover design, as I want cover and thumbnail images sorted out in advance of revision completion so that when I am ready… the rest of it is. Fingers crossed and all.

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