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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Or Maybe Don't Pay the Writer

It seems that my post yesterday stirred a tad bit of understandable “negativity.” Perhaps I am naïve to think that simply expressing irritation on a blog about an issue I consider to be not only important to discuss, but important to resolve, will produce any sort of change in the writing industry.

But, at the same time, I cannot possibly keep silent about this. More of us, whether amateur or professional, should be upset about the state of the industry. Why we have bent over and taken such lousy pay and treatment for so long without open revolt is astonishing. We’ve put up with it for decades. This is not an issue that began with the invention of Craigslist or the Internet; it has existed, in some capacity, since the dawn of modern publishing. The Internet has only created a fast-paced, flooded market that has little interest in what is good for writers—it is understandable that employers are interested in their bottom line and not in the ability of a writer to be able to eat. The endlessness of this issue, however, means that writers have not done enough to demand better, and perhaps now it is too late. True, there have been recent upsets in the industry, most notably the screenwriter’s strike that involved Harlan Ellison himself, a man who, while certainly angry and difficult to deal with, has earned his place as both a fantastic writer and a spokesman for writers everywhere. We should be so bold as to take up his mantle in all aspects of the industry.

But, we’re not that bold. A handful of us will do what I am doing here: complain on blogs, websites, or even podcasts. That handful cannot possibly change things on their own. It requires greater action from movers and shakers in the industry.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not calling for a drastic adjustment of payment levels in the writing and editing world. I know this is impossible. The industry and writers themselves have developed a system that openly exploits writers who either don’t know any better or have subjected themselves to the mindset that doing a bit of “charity” work is what it takes to get anywhere in the industry. That mindset exists because it is now true. John Scalzi has waxed lyrical about the changes in publishing internships to highlight this mindset: the publisher isn’t going to pay if the writer/worker/editor/etc. is willing to take next to nothing for hard work.

And yet, writing this, I get the sense that anything I say on this topic is pointless, just as anything Harlan Ellison might say, however articulate and true, will amount to nothing whatsoever—except, perhaps, resentment or hatred against him, wholly unearned. Writers and editors, it seems, must accept their fates. We have to scrounge at the bottom, some of us because we actually like it there (after all, sometimes there are jobs that you simply do because you like them, not because you want to be paid), and some of us because we have no other choice. We can’t possibly demand what we have not rightfully “earned.” Never mind that someone wanting to be a manager at any business, with rare exception, at least makes minimum wage by working at the bottom. I suppose “freelance” translates to “above the purview of the Federal Government.”

I see a problem with that. Do you?

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  1. Just want to support the "Pay the Writer" statement. As Harlan Ellison said, the amateurs are ruining it for the rest of it.

    There's so much free crap out there, people are beginning to think that polished turds are gold, and eschewing paying for the 24K stuff.

  2. Jordan: I'm even guilty of giving away free stuff. I have a novel and part of a sequel on here that I did as an experiment when I started blogging on here. I wanted to see if I could do it, and I could. But, to be honest, I never intended to sell it or advertise it. It's flawed and I have never once indicated it to be of the utmost quality.

    There are a lot of issues with the market right now. Many low paying markets (although, that's not necessarily their fault, since acquiring revenue via ads or wherever isn't exactly easy, even with the ease of access created by the Internet), and then you have all the people paying pennies on the dollar for blog posts and what not, but still wanting professional quality.

    And people do it. They actually do the work. Part of me wants to blame them for all our problems, but it's not entirely their fault. The system has created the conditions that almost demand giving it up for free. I don't know how to fix that. Back in day things weren't perfect either, but it feels like at least those who could get published or who worked on newspapers, etc. at least got paid a semi-livable wage. Think about it: when Asimov's and all those "pulp" magazines first started out, they were paying almost the same as they are now, but in those days one good short story sale could practically pay your rent and feed you for the month. Now? A sale to Asimov's or Analog's or any "pro" market might cover your rent, depending on the length and where you live. Few markets are left that are paying for fiction or non-fiction writing at a rate that seems fair. And some of them are dying for various reasons...

    I don't know. Some part of me worries that the industry will kill itself and writing/editing will lose all value. Maybe some of it will be due to the freebee world (podcasting, perhaps, and other such things), or other factors. I worry that we devalue writing by saying "you don't have to pay anything for it."

    Writers used to be some of the most important people in the world. Now? They're important to "some" people, but generally they have little value to the majority of the population. Where writers are present, they are side notes (think television; not many avid watchers can name the writers so much as the producers and actors).

    But, I'm ranting...

  3. I think what we are witnessing is the disappearance of the midlist. If you're not a bestseller, people won't pay for your work.

    This is a shame. There's still room for writers, but passable work is no longer acceptable. If you're not an award winner then you're dead (or you're selling Twilight).

  4. And the death of the midlist could very well destroy publishing. It won't be the fault of the consumer, it will be publishers being unwilling to do business the same as always.

    I actually think too much is being published these days and not enough attention is paid to the quality as should be. I still think traditional publishing has far more to offer than any other avenue, but all the publishers are in such harsh competition with one another to keep their books on the shelf that they grab up a lot of things that could do with waiting.

    But, there's another thing that might not have a solution...

  5. Anonymous10:53 PM

    You continue to assume that publishers have all this money they're hoarding that they aren't giving to writers.

    You're envisioning this world in which blog owners sit in ivory towers eating steak dinners and laughing while poverty stricken writers scrounge for scraps down below.

    It's a fantasy. It's not true. Writers can revolt, stop giving away their work for free. Go for it. It won't change anything, you just won't write anymore. You can't draw blood from a stone.

    Bear in mind that I'm speaking primarily about the online world here... that's what I know. Maybe it's different in book publishing or whatever. But the plain truth is that blogs don't make that much money. They simply don't. They don't have enough money to pay but a tiny, tiny handful of people. In MOST cases it's not because they don't care or because they're greedy, the money you're asking for simply doesn't exist and no amount of complaining will change that.

    What NEEDS to change is the way advertisers pay on the internet. It's ridiculous that a blog with millions of readers recieves less advertising than a newspaper with say, 100,000 readers. The average blog earns less then .001 per reader... at BEST. Meanwhile newspapers with 100,000 readers make literally millions of dollars.

    Why? It's ridiculous. What needs to change is the advertising revenue model so that there's money to go around.

    I started out as a writer. I worked for free for years. Worked HARD. And because I did that, after a long time I was able to become one of the very select few who gets paid for writing online. It was extremely hard. If I hadn't been writing for free, I would still be sitting at home, writing nothing and making nothing.

    If you want to make it, work hard, write for free, and claw and scratch your way up the ladder. That's all there is. You aren't Harlan Ellison. He's established, he can hold out for more money. You can't.

  6. Anonymous: Nope, I'm not assuming that at all. Publishers aren't hoarding money, but there's a money problem somewhere along the line.

    Nope, I'm not sitting in an ivory tower where blog owners have magic money falling on them. There's a difference between blogging and taking a writing job. I ask for nothing for this site. Never will, unless my health goes to crap. This is free. I'm giving it for free to everyone because I want to, not because I expect to be rich off this site.

    But yes, you're talking about blogs, and I'm talking about something else entirely, as highlighted in the post. Specifically freelance writing (i.e. jobs you apply to get on a freelance basis) and book/story publishing (some hints go to news and journalism type things).

    I agree with you on everything you've said about blogs, though. But I wasn't really talking about that at all.

    For the record: Harlan Ellison never scrounged on the bottom. He went for gold and demanded to be paid from the start. He never worked for free (unless he did a charity I'm not aware of). Harlan started somewhere, and it wasn't at the top.