How I fashioned the business of writing after William Shakespeare, and why

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

I did it again, dear reader. A few days after I ran a column on how an increase in minimum wage would affect the economy, Wal-Mart announced that they are going to raise the store’s minimum wage to $9 an hour.

I am continuing the trend of being ahead of the game when it comes to these topics. Remember the selfie stick column? Shortly after I wrote that, Saturday Night Live featured it in the 40th Anniversary show.

Look, I don’t have my nose in the computer screen reading news stories all day long. I have other things to do. But I learned a long time ago, that if something interests me, then it probably will interest other people.

It’s something writers tend to pick up on after four decades of being in the business.

Actually, I started writing in high school, so that makes it a little longer than four decades. But who is counting?

Once I got this English-language thing mastered, with all its awkward rules, I landed in a high school with some incredible teachers and started to realize that writing is not only fun, but it could be financially beneficial as well.

I read all the classic books I could get my hands on. They knew me in the local library by my first name it was on the library card.

But writing alone is not automatically a money maker. It has to be combined with some sort of business. William Shakespeare wrote plays and owned his own theater. The guy knew how to turn words into a profit.

It takes a little research to get his jokes in the comedy plays, because the language has changed over the centuries. But he didn’t just write something and have it look pretty. He had to market it, like any other product.

So, the love of writing by itself is not as practical as writing something that is actually marketable.
In high school, a lot of my friends possessed less-than-adequate writing skills. They were smart, and pre-engineering students, like myself, but they were more interested in the inner workings of a transistor than finishing that writing assignment. So, we helped each other out a little.

I could write an essay on a topic in several styles, and they could go on messing with their transistors. It worked out pretty well.

For those of you who are wondering what a transistor is, it is what made electronics work before the microcircuit. We used to build radios in high school with them, and they actually worked.

So, as Shakespeare was selling his plays in his theater, I was doing a little business on the side. Both are practical writing with a purpose other than making money although the money part is important.
Shakespeare was entertaining; I was saving my friends from the ultimate doom of having to retake that dreaded writing class.

I actually studied Shakespeare on a graduate level before I realized that his style of writing is not really what I was looking for. But I kept on learning from the master of old-fashioned entertainment, tragedy, and practical writing.

After a dozen years at the Houston Chronicle, my wife, Sharon, and I asked ourselves why we’re working for someone else when we could be doing what Shakespeare did – write and sell.

And that’s when The Bulletin started.

I was so into this Shakespeare practical writing concept that one year I ran a Shakespeare contest in The Bulletin, giving away two Bulletin coffee mugs to the entrants who could answer my question.

Two entries were received, both correct. Both got a mug. That was the worst contest we ever ran.

One year I talked a very small, sort of national syndicate to pick up my columns. They did, and for a while everything went well.

Shakespeare would have hated this move, because I didn’t get paid for the reprints.

Then, one day I got an email from the editor that they have discontinued running my columns because they were not political enough, and the syndication was trying to focus on political columns. Mine just didn’t fit it.

But there is just so much you can do with a political column, I replied. You are losing half the readership, no matter which side you take. Now, if you write about a three-headed snake that can fetch the morning paper, you’ve got everybody’s attention. So, why not keep my columns, and drop some of that boring political stuff?

They didn’t listen. A year later, when just out of curiosity I went into the syndication’s website, guess what I saw? There were a few political columns, but most of them were about holidays, the past, and other non-political subjects that held readers’ attention. None about a three-headed snake that can fetch the morning paper, though.

Once again, I was way ahead of the game, but the editor would not listen. His loss. I’m still writing, but in a practical way. I just did that syndication stuff for the fun of it.

One thing I noticed is that the columnists were all “award-winning.” That is not such a big deal, although it sounds good. What award? Over the period of decades, every writer is going to win some sort of an award. So, being “award-winning” is slightly misleading.

In conclusion, Shakespeare would have been proud of The Bulletin. He wrote plays and ran a theater. I write columns and other things, and sell them in a free weekly.

Now, If I could just get some of his punchlines ...