Writers Are (Relatively) Poor, but Can Still Be Very Lucky
Thoughts at the end of 2023
Earlier this year, I was invited to an event that included some of the most famous and influential people in the worlds of politics, government, and business. Although I’m nowhere near poor by normal people standards, putting aside a few token intellectuals I may have been the least wealthy individual there by some orders of magnitude. I wasn’t really self-conscious about this fact until I found myself sitting next to one of the most famous writers in the country, who turned to me and said “Richard, tell me, does being at an event like this make you want to earn real money?” At that point, he pulled me aside and explained the exact line I had to take on Israel to become as important and successful as him.
Ok, that last part didn’t actually happen. But he did ask the question, and it did make me feel insecure, when moments earlier I had felt confident about how much influence I had and all the important people my work had brought me into contact with. Later, I was talking to an attractive French woman, and when I told her I was a writer, she became absolutely giddy. Oh my goddd!! A writerrr? That iz so byootiful. You get to tell yourrr trooth. Yourrr trooth! This made me feel good. I do indeed tell the truth. Not long after that I was talking to an executive in the music industry, and he asked who I write for. When I said I was independent, he was like Damn, dawg? You just on Substack and you got invited to a place like this? Man. Mad respect. Having gotten reassurance from a French woman and a black guy, I could leave with my head held up high. As a side note, I ended up having a one-on-one lunch with the famous writer mentioned above, and we’ve stayed in touch since, so I don’t want to give the impression that I was personally upset with him. How can I, of all people, get mad at someone else for bringing up an unpleasant fact?
Still, the question did make me think about whether I should do less writing and use the connections I’ve made over the last few years to try and make “real money.” A couple business opportunities have come up, and I have given thought to others. But every time this year I tried to devote serious time to doing something primarily for financial gain, I just couldn’t find the motivation to pull myself away from writing. The few ventures that I have become involved with have had something to do with prediction markets, a topic I was already interested in enough to think and write about before. For better or worse, I’m stuck telling mon trooth.
I’ve heard conservatives say that one reason intellectuals hate capitalism is that society never pays them what they think they are actually worth. A freelancer who has been published in the New York Times and Harper’s can look around and realize that he’s making significantly less than a regional manager at Walmart who has never read a serious book in his life. I always found this argument plausible, but my experience has now given me a much more intuitive sense of how true it is.
Again, the most famous writers you know are mostly not poor. But successful authors — I’m talking people who write about serious issues, not The Da Vinci Code — gain a level of status that is disproportionate to how much money they earn. If you’re the 200th most famous high-brow political writer in the country, I would guess you’re not earning that much compared to say the 200th most successful used car salesman. On average a small business owner in this country makes well into the six figures a year, but if you’re an “average” Substack writer and that’s all you have to live off you probably qualify for public assistance. A typical professor has an income similar to that of a small business owner, and even becoming a professor is an unattainable dream for most aspiring academics.
This means that I’ve done well by the standards of my job, but not relative to the kinds of people I now regularly come into contact with. That’s fine, and I’m not going to cope by therefore pretending that the fallacy of central planning doesn’t exist and labor unions are good. The thought of working a normal job horrifies me. People often say that their career involves “doing what they love,” but that also seems like a cope, as the odds that what any one person loves doing would be a thing that has any market value at all to others seem quite low, even if such thinking is adaptive, unlike becoming a bitter socialist. The things most humans enjoy doing cost money, they don’t bring it in.
In my case though, I’m confident that I am actually doing what I love. This is because at a much earlier point in my life, I was writing about politics for free. No, not just writing for free, but taking significant risks with my future. I chose to go into academia because I thought I could spend my career researching interesting questions, but then came to the conclusion that the kind of focus it demanded was so narrow that it wasn’t much more intellectually satisfying than your typical corporate job, not to mention you had to do a lot of non-research and non-writing activities like taking sexual harassment trainings and teaching classes to bored undergrads.
The relatively low pay that one makes as an intellectual of course reflects market realities. Many smart and hard-working people find writing to be enjoyable, and will, as my own life shows, produce content either for free or for very low pay compared to what they could make doing something else. I have many friends who write me long text messages and emails about contemporary political and social issues, during hours when you would think they should be focusing on their jobs instead. The boomer ranting on his Facebook wall is a tired cliché at this point. If you can make a somewhat decent living doing this thing that a lot of people do for free, you are very fortunate.
The appeal of writing is obvious enough. Taking your own thoughts, beliefs, and ways of framing issues, sending them out into the world, watching them colonize other minds, imposing your reality onto others, even, or perhaps especially, when your ideas unleash antibodies in the form of psychological defense mechanisms — all this is intoxicating. At a smaller scale, this is what the Facebook boomer is grasping for, as is anyone who has ever been sucked into an endless group chat or email thread while knowing that they should be getting back to their job or family every moment they’re unable to resist the temptation to send out just one more message.
All that being said, though… I do like money and I wish you would give me as much of it as you’re willing to part with. If you’re so inclined, see below.
The link above will give you 30% off for life, which gets you all the podcasts, the mailbag, the monthly links, extra articles, and more. I feel like most Substack subscriptions are not transactional in a way that someone might buy a bar of soap from the supermarket simply so they can use the product, but reflect a desire on the part of readers to express appreciation for a writer and donate to the larger cause of him trying to popularize his ideas and more generally improve the discourse. So if you’re doing well in life and are feeling generous, please click on the link above and choose the “Founding Member” option, which will allow you to put in any number you want.
I enjoy the meetings too, so consider this a reminder that those are also still available.
The rest of this end-of-year wrap-up is basically going to be a series of disjointed thoughts about what I have been doing and what I hope to accomplish in the near future.
Thinking about and Using AI
At the end of 2022, I wrote about what had been a major shift in my thinking on American foreign policy, and geopolitical trends more generally. I wanted to write a followup, but realized there’s been no change nearly as dramatic this year. I have shifted my focus a bit, writing more pieces that take a socially liberal perspective. This hasn’t involved developing new beliefs though. What has changed is the extent to which I see the “sanctity of life” philosophy as a societal threat. Even conservatives who are with me on things like abortion and euthanasia have a psychological tendency to downplay their disagreements with members of their own imagined tribe. I lack that instinct, and things like continuing Republican extremism on abortion and the freakouts over MAID and surrogacy have brought home the fact that religious conservatives can be just as destructive as wokes. I’ll write more on this in 2024.
In the reflections piece of 2022, I promised more work on AI alignment. Yet a series of conversations have convinced me that we probably don’t face an existential risk in the near future. See my discussions with Robin Hanson, Steven Pinker, and Leopold Aschenbrenner. I’m not 100% certain the first two are right, but they were persuasive enough to ensure that I won’t dedicate my life to talking about this. Leopold told me that if I think there’s even a small chance AI leads to the end of humanity, I should drop what I’m doing and focus on that, but there are a lot of things that one could make that argument about, like low birth rates or far-right opposition to biotech. I choose topics not just based on importance, but on other criteria like emotional investment and whether I have something unique to say.
Rather than writing a lot about AI, it’s probably a better use of my time to think about how to incorporate it into my work. A year or two ago, if I wanted a passable transcript for a podcast, I had to hire someone to do it by hand. Today, automatic transcription preforms about as well, and this has become integrated into different platforms. The Substack transcripts aren’t that good compared to other places, but they’re free and only take a minute to make, so I include them with all conversations now. Of course, DALL-E was used to create the thumbnail to this post. All of this might lead one to wonder whether everything I do might be replaced, but I doubt that’s on the horizon, for reasons I’ve written about before. I think most people read their favorite writers not just for the information and arguments that they provide, but also for the human touch. They like the idea of going on an intellectual journey with another human being, seeing how his mind incorporates and adjusts to the latest developments in the world, and understanding how his psychological quirks and experiences lead him in a certain direction. Even if AI could make the same arguments and even impersonate me down to coming up with plausible sounding stories about my past, if people know that those stories are products of a language model rather than personal experiences they can relate to, that defeats the whole purpose.
It seems like AI is probably bad for journalists who simply provide facts, and maybe even op-ed writers who aren’t known for having colorful personalities. The independent Substack author who has formed something of a community is probably safe for now. Or at least that’s what I tell myself…
Tyler’s latest book is the best example I’ve seen so far of a writer using AI to supplement their work. I have some ideas of my own in this space, so stay tuned.
Continuing to Grow
Here is my net gain of subscribers for each year so far.
2023: 5,500 (as of December 16)
So we hit a bit of a snag in 2023, but it’s actually much more concerning than the numbers above suggest, since I had tons of growth in the first half of the year, but then things became stagnant at about the time that Twitter started throttling outside links. Interestingly, Elon taking over, and him following me, has been very good for my account there, and X growth shows no sign of slowing down. Between subscriptions and ad revenue sharing, new management of the site has also helped me bring in some extra income. That said, I prioritize Substack growth, and want to make sure my essays continue reaching as many people as possible.
I saw Nate Silver write that it’s actually hard to transfer followings across platforms. This is definitely true from my experience. Silver currently has 3.3 million Twitter followers to my 84,000, which is over 39x as many. At the same time, he only has about twice as many Substack subscribers, despite publishing articles regularly now. There are many kinds of disparities like this if you compare different authors. I’ve been trying to find ways to convert current X followers over to Substack, but whenever I tweet something like “hey guys, the newsletter is much better than the tweets, trust me, you should be subscribing if you’re a follower,” it never works. In my experience the main thing that actually matters is producing articles that go viral, which contributes to a cumulative process. If more X followers helps, it’s by increasing the probability that individual essays take off, which again, is harder to make happen than it used to be.
The big money of course is usually in being a dumb content creator. There are only a handful of writers who I think are unusually smart and also have massive audiences. I’d put Scott Alexander, Matt Yglesias, and Andrew Sullivan in that rare category. Sullivan and Yglesias once had access to jobs with the MSM, while my influence has been mostly a complete creation of the internet. In each case, their writing careers have been much longer than mine has, so I’ve done almost as well as anyone can hope in just under three years. I remember when I got into an argument with Chatterton on X, and he resorted to declaring that he was better than me because he was more famous. But right now, I’m at about 60% of his follower count, when he published a popular book in 2010, and I’ve only been writing for a public audience since 2020. I’ll probably pass him eventually, though since he’s blocked me I will have to rely on the rest of the world to shame him with all my glory and success.
Nonetheless, the drop off in the second half of 2023 has been somewhat concerning, and it’s important to arrest the trend now and avoid longterm stagnation so Chatterton doesn’t get the last laugh. Nobody wants that to happen, which is why I’m asking you to please share my articles far and wide. It’s probably inevitable that I’ll always have more followers on X than Substack, since there are a lot more stupid and intellectually lazy people in the world than those who want to read thoughtful essays. Being active on both sites has given me a great deal of appreciation for the adage that “the medium is the message,” and one might add that every medium draws a different kind of consumer. But I’d like to significantly close the gap between the two platforms in the coming years, and Yglesias and ACX give me hope that there are at least enough smart people out there to build the kind of massive audience that I would actually want to have.
It would be particularly useful for readers to share my articles in spaces where people might not have been exposed to my writing before, as this tends to draw in larger audiences. I think there are a lot of people on the left who would probably be disinclined to ever give this newsletter a chance if the first thing they heard about was my views on woke, but there’s plenty of stuff that they might potentially like, including the articles on abortion, euthanasia, and liberals in general being smarter and more honest than conservatives. I think Reddit tends to be a good place to share essays, and I’m also still doing interviews on my book and other topics. There are probably other methods of distributing content that I’m at most vaguely aware of, in addition to personal recommendations individuals can make to their friends and family, so here I trust in the knowledge distributed among my readership and ask for your help.
Goals for 2024
My first goal of this upcoming year is to do more live person events. Whenever I have in the past I have met a lot of great people and had meaningful experiences. Often, I’ll also make connections that turn out to be valuable. But having a family takes a lot of energy, and between that, the gym, TV shows and books, and my work, there’s just not a lot of time left. I highly recommend Alex Nowrasteh’s recent piece on the opportunity costs of raising kids.
As hard as it might be, experience tells me that making time for real life events is worthwhile. Getting out in the world and interacting with others is psychologically encouraging, and also helps expose my work to new people. The trend in society is for everything to move towards the virtual realm, and although I think the nature of my job means that I’ll always be in the top few percentiles of the “laptop class,” it’s good not to get too detached from other flesh and blood human beings. I’m going to start with an event in LA on January 6, so I’ll hopefully see some of you there.
My own use of technology has also been getting healthier. First, I was on X all the time, then I quit X completely, and after a few iterations of this I think I’ve found a balance that allows me to maximize the benefit I get from the site while letting it distract me as little as possible.
Never checking X during work hours. I can send out a tweet if I have a thought or read something interesting I want to share, but will pay no attention to the reaction it gets.
Never look at the mentions.
Allow myself to scroll only within restricted hours.
These aren’t completely inflexible rules, but they’re the ones I try to live by, and even coming close to following them helps me avoid the downsides of social media.
Finally, as implied by the use of the term “work hours” above, I’m now treating writing more like a regular job. In the first few years I would basically write whatever I wanted at my own pace, which could mean releasing monster essays followed by long periods of little to no activity. If I finished a piece Thursday night at 8PM, that’s when it would go out. There was something very fun about doing it like this, but now that I’ve realized just how cumulative growth tends to be, I have to submit to practicality and adopt something like a regular schedule. That means getting out one article each Monday morning, one podcast on Thursday, and at least one or two additional pieces of content every week. Doing this while maintaining quality is the key thing, and that will require much better time management than I used to show back when I was scrolling Twitter all day.
I want to once again thank everyone who reads the newsletter. This has been a fun and unlikely journey. I don’t know if I should be optimistic or pessimistic about the next few years, but one thing I’m confident of is that we are living in very interesting times. There’s a good chance Trump could win the presidency from jail, and we’re just so immune to the world being funny now that it’s not something we think about all that often. Between the insanity of American politics, including an upcoming election, the impact of AI, and geopolitical shifts, there’s no danger of running out of fascinating topics to talk about. I look forward to continuing to watch events with the rest of you and trying to influence them in my own way when possible. And once again, if you haven’t subscribed please take the opportunity to do so now.
Merry Christmas to all, and have a happy 2024!