The black-hat writer

Thu Jul 24, 2014

At the height of the long wet summer of the Seventy-Seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy.

‘Have I got a deal for you!’ the Thiefmaker began, perhaps inauspiciously.

‘Another deal like Calo and Galdo, maybe?’ said the Eyeless Priest. ‘I’ve still got my hands full training those giggling idiots out of every bad habit they picked up from you and replacing them with the bad habits I need.’

‘Now, Chains.’ The Thiefmaker shrugged. ‘I told you they were shit-flinging little monkeys when we made the deal, and it was good enough for you at the—’

‘Or maybe another deal like Sabetha?’ The priest’s richer, deeper voice chased the Thiefmaker’s objection right back down his throat. ‘I’m sure you recall charging me everything but my dead mother’s kneecaps for her. I should’ve paid you in copper and watched you spring a rupture trying to haul it all away.’

And thus begins the novel The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I’m opening with this quote mostly because I’ve just started reading this novel and think it’s awesome, but the Thiefmaker should be the sort of sleazy salesman character everyone is well aware of. Most of us recognize stereotypical used-car salesmen and telemarketers for the smarmy charlatans they are, but these guys are the jesters of capitalism - nobody takes them seriously, even if they’re actually good at what they do.

When it comes to the writing profession, I like to think of us as the good guys. As a writer, I hold to some lofty ideals of honesty, sincerity, and a humble desire to communicate in plain language. What is a writer really, if not a messenger of ideas.

But there is a dark side to the writing world. Imagine if you will, switching out used-car salesmen for used-idea salesmen. Just as offensive but more innocuous - they’re called internet marketers. I’m specifically talking about those freelance internet marketers who claim to be legitimate experts in the field by virtue of their “published works”.

Let’s be clear - the only goal of this type of internet marketer is to make money through online ads or commerce. Their favourite trick to give away ebooks to drive traffic and get eyes on their ads. Ebooks on, you guessed it, how to be a successful internet marketer. They appeal to the basest of human instincts - avarice. After all, who doesn’t want to make mucho $$$ just by sitting in front of their laptop in their PJs all day? By positioning themselves as magnanimous subject-matter experts with plenty of wealth and generosity to spare, they draw in the hapless and desperate more effectively than any Nigerian Prince email campaign could - and let me tell you, there are a lot of desperate people out there to work with.

I’m not bashing anybody who wants to make money online, because everybody has the right to try and make a living in whatever way they can. But what really irks me about these guys is that they are nothing more than cannibals posing as legitimate writers. When your “hook” is nothing more than a poorly-written and shallow ebook about SEO, social media marketing (yuck), affiliate marketing, etc. you are contributing exactly nothing to literacy, or journalism, or any sphere of knowledge that exists on this planet. You are just a used-idea salesmen. At best you are wasting everybody’s time with spam and useless tweets. At worst you are using people. Using those who buy into your BS to further your own selfish interests. You are no writer - you are a sleazy salesman using writing as a “value proposition”.

Sure, nobody will get rich by reading your garbage, but that’s not the point. The point is that you got “clicks”.

I may be an idealist, but real writers have something genuinely altruistic to contribute - whether it be a story or research or some honest conversation. The point is that writers don’t write for the sake of generating content - they write to communicate. Even at its most pedestrian, good writing can convey information clearly. In its most sacred incarnations, it can uplift the human condition. True writers should not lie or coerce to make money - they should write because it’s what they love to do. And if the money follows, then that is a secondary benefit.

So to all the writers out there, I say this: Don’t be a black-hat writer. By all means market the hell out of your genuine contribution to our human mythos and collective knowledge. But don’t get it backwards and start by looking for a way to make money.

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