How does writing survive in a down economy, a bear market and a subscription meltdown?

Joan Westenberg
7 min readNov 15, 2023


It’s late at night, and here I am, fingers poised over the keyboard, wrestling with a cloud of doubt and anxiety. As a writer in 2023, I find myself questioning the viability of what I do and how I do it. The economic landscape has drastically shifted — the cost of living is skyrocketing, and every penny pinched is a reminder of the struggle many are facing.

Publishing, both digital and print, has changed. The internet concentrated wealth and control in the hands of a few tech giants. Advertising dollars, once the lifeblood of traditional media, began flowing towards Google and Facebook. These platforms offered targeted advertising capabilities that traditional media couldn’t match, effectively siphoning off the revenue that once supported a diverse media landscape. And the digital opportunities that did exist were largely squandered by publications and mastheads that had no clue about how to adapt to the new normal.

The reduction in traditional print and digital publishing platforms means fewer chances for writers to get their work noticed and appreciated through established channels. The support structure, editorial guidance, and visibility these platforms provide are now harder to come by. This has led to a surge in writers turning to self-publishing avenues. While this democratizes the field, allowing anyone to publish their work, it also means that the burden of marketing, audience building, and monetization rests solely on the individual creators. The sheer volume of content produced independently makes it increasingly challenging for any voice to stand out and gain a substantial following.

The book publishing industry, traditionally seen as the holy grail for writers, has become next to impenetrable. The few writers who manage to break through find that the financial rewards are not commensurate with the effort and time invested. For most authors, the romantic notion of living off book royalties is a distant dream. You don’t become a writer to get rich; the reality vastly differs from the fantasy of bestseller lists and lucrative book deals.

Most of the book deals go to influencers, business leaders and celebrities, long before writers get a look in. It makes sense — book sales are down, and publishers want to bet on people who can sell the maximum number of books with the minimum level of effort and investment. Even if that’s not writers.

In this new world, content creators were told they could “be their own boss.” This mantra, while empowering on the surface, glossed over the harsh realities of the digital economy. The barriers to entry were lower, sure, but the competition was fiercer. Everyone could start a blog, a YouTube channel, or a podcast, but not everyone could succeed in a saturated market.

The resulting scenario is a paradox of choice for consumers and a survival-of-the-fittest scenario for creators. With so much content available, it’s harder for any single voice to stand out, and the economic rewards are concentrated at the top. A small percentage of creators capture the majority of attention and revenue, leaving most of us to toil in obscurity.

Platforms like Patreon and Substack promised a haven for creators, a place to monetize our craft directly from those who value it, through a stable platform of subscription payments. But in brutally challenging economic times, I’m left wondering: why would anyone choose to invest their hard-earned money in my work when they’re grappling with their own financial survival?

The guilt of asking for support weighs heavily on me, knowing that my potential patrons are struggling too. It feels almost surreal — like standing in a sinking ship, offering tickets for a tour. And when it comes to budgeting, subscriptions are often the first to go.

The challenge doesn’t end there. The Goliaths of the entertainment world — the streaming services — with their vast libraries and slick productions, make it harder for solo creators like me to stand out. Competing against them feels like a David vs. Goliath scenario, where David is armed with nothing but a pen and a dwindling sense of hope and Goliath can afford to pay almost a million dollars a year to a single AI dev.

In the past year alone, these streaming platforms have raised their prices by an average of 25%. This increase is more than just a statistic; it’s a significant shift in the entertainment landscape. For families, especially those with kids, the allure of a streaming service like Netflix is almost inescapable. Gone are the days of browsing a local video store for a weekend movie. Now, with those options long gone and kids to occupy, a subscription to a streaming service is fast becoming a household necessity.

But this comes at a cost. A subscription to a platform like Netflix now demands a significant portion of a family’s entertainment budget. In many cases, it costs twice as much as supporting a single writer like me on Patreon or Substack. This economic reality poses a tough question: how can individual creators compete in a market where a single subscription to a streaming service can provide endless hours of diverse entertainment, catering to every family member?

As a writer, my offerings can be nuanced and deeply personal, but by their nature, they will always lack the broad appeal and production value of the shows and movies on commercial streaming platforms. My stories, thoughts, and insights are crafted with care, but they must struggle to find their place in a family budget that is under pressure to prioritize where every dollar goes. In this economic climate, choosing between a Netflix subscription and a Patreon pledge is not a matter of preference — it’s a hard financial decision for many.

It’s a daunting realization that makes me question the feasibility of relying on these platforms for a sustainable income. The marketplace is tilting in favour of large corporations with the resources to churn out content en masse. In this environment, the unique voices of individual creators are at risk of being drowned out, not due to a lack of quality or passion but simply because of the overwhelming abundance of accessible content provided by the streaming giants.

And it all adds up to a crisis of confidence. Every word I write, every piece I publish, already felt like a shout into the void, and the prospect of making a living as a writer and surviving is daunting. The stories I want to tell are inconsequential against the backdrop of global economic distress. We all naturally question our worth as creators and our ability to connect with an audience with more immediate concerns. Like eating. Putting gas in the car. Just surviving.

In my more optimistic moments, I remind myself of the power of human connection. Maybe the value I offer isn’t just in the words I write but in the sense of community I can create. Perhaps people need stories more than ever — narratives that offer escape, comfort, or understanding.

Ultimately, the heart of the matter extends beyond the mechanics of finding an audience with the financial means or willingness to pay. It’s about a deeper, more intrinsic belief in the value and resonance of my own voice in a world that’s inundated with noise, a cacophony of endless content and distraction. This journey is not just about the practicalities of making a living as a writer; it’s about the intangible but essential act of faith in the power of storytelling, in the belief that there are still individuals who recognize and value the unique perspectives and insights that come from a single, thoughtful voice amidst the clamour.

It’s a leap of faith, stepping into the unknown with the hope that my words will find their audience — those rare souls who still cherish the intimacy and connection from reading a piece that resonates deeply. This leap is both a professional gamble and a personal test of conviction in the worth of my craft. In a digital world where the quantity of content often overshadows the quality, believing in the enduring power of well-crafted narratives requires a certain kind of daft optimism.

We’re all hoping, perhaps against the odds, that amidst the economic hardships and the tightening of belts, there are still people who see value in investing in the art of words. They’re not buying content; they’re supporting a vision, a way of seeing the world that challenges, comforts, or provokes. The adventure is in finding those who understand that even when wallets are thin, investing in humanity is not a luxury but a nourishment for the soul.

Whenever I stop to think about this problem, I’m left with more questions than answers. The path forward for creators like me is uncertain, full of economic pitfalls and overshadowed by corporate giants. But maybe there’s still room for the small voices, the personal stories, and the intimate connections that platforms like Patreon and Substack were built to amplify. Perhaps, even in this economic darkness, we can still be a flicker of light — not for other creators but for the patrons who seek something profoundly human amidst the chaos.

This belief drives me to keep writing and sharing my work and my ideas, even when doubt and economic realities loom large. It’s a conviction that the power of words can still connect and matter in an age where the visual and the immediate too often dominate.