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Friday, July 24, 2009

Pay the Frakking Writer

I'm one to agree with Harlan Ellison when he angrily complains about the state of professional writing. While I myself am not technically a professional writer, I do loathe the level of whoring oneself out present within the freelance and general writing communities. An entire generation of people have come to believe that they don't deserve to get paid at a reasonable rate for the writing and editing work they do, a fact that continues to baffle me. Perhaps this has a lot to do with how the Internet functions, and how desperate amateur writers are to get a leg up in a fairly brutal industry. Whatever the reason, Harlan Ellison is right: pay the frakking writer. And not just that, but pay the frakking writer well. Professional quality deserves professional rates.

There aren't that many instances in which it is okay to not be paid for writing or editing work:
--You're doing it for charity. I can't argue against writing a story to help raise money for cancer research.
--You have a personal blog or website. Hard to hire yourself to write for your own blog.
--Aliens have invaded your brain and forced you to write for free. Certainly a bad thing, and a good excuse, I think.

There are probably other good instances, but, let's face it, writers deserve to be paid, and well. The amount of money authors make for what amounts to a hell of a lot of work has been declining for decades. It used to be that one short story sale could pay your rent. Now? You'd be lucky if it paid your grocery bill. Novel sales aren't any better, with an average advance making up a fourth of the income you'd need to be right on the poverty line. That's not a lot of money at all, and I don't fully understand why. Aren't writers important members of society? Don't they provide a valuable service?

Or maybe I'm just an angry, bitter curmudgeon like Ellison, looking back to the glory days with longing. Maybe I want to see a world where writers demand and earn what they're worth. But I doubt that will happen; not now, and not in the future. There are too many people willing to work for almost nothing thinking they'll be like Stephen King if they just trudge at the bottom for a while, getting paid fifty cents for a 500-word article, or some other ridiculously low paying avenue. And now, with these folks, some not worth even the paltry sum they currently earn, flooding the market and selling themselves short, those who think writers should get more are put in a horrible position. We can join the ranks, or take fewer jobs.

But, maybe the glory days never happened and any desire for a writer's utopia is nothing short of a delusional fantasy. Give it a few years and we might be proclaiming the slow and agonizing death of the professional writer. And the world will suffer for it.

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  1. Dead-on correct. It's true you get what you pay for, and if you are paying dirt rates, that's what you're getting. Content may be king, but it's held cheaply (speaking of internet writing, specifically.)

    Anyone who thinks it's easy to write for a living evidently has no clue. I think it's a combination of factors; the transitory nature of the internet, the influx of people who will (or need) to take the low paying jobs, and a general de-valuation of the profession in general.

    Sad days. Yet, a writer doesn't do it for the cash -- they do it for the love because there ain't no cash. Maybe THAT'S the problem.

    Great post.

  2. Anonymous2:08 AM

    Who will pay them? What you're missing is that most publishers have no money to pay... in particular on the internet.

    The problem is that no one has figured out how to make money on the internet yet... if they ever will.

    I run a successful blog with millions of monthly readers, yet we barely make enough money to pay two people a living wage. Yet in order to maintain our readership we need at least 5 editors and 5 or 6 writers.

    The question you should be asking is why are writers working for free? The answer is because no one is making enough money to pay them anything. So it's either work for free and write, or don't write at all in most cases.

    There's precious little money to go around in the writing game, and if you're going to make any of it most of the time you're going to have to work for free to prove yourself first.

    It's a horrible, horrible system but simply shouting "pay the writers!" doesn't fix it.

  3. Netta: It's not always true that you get what you pay for. Some writers/editors do a fine job, but perhaps lack the experience to get those high paying jobs and have to scrounge at the bottom. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people to take advantage of them, to exploit them...there is no minimum wage in freelance writing.

    I also disagree with the "do it for the love" argument. If you do it for the love, then there's no reason to get it published at all. Publication means getting paid.

    Anonymous: I'd like to know when exactly we stopped paying writers well. We used to pay writers pretty darn well for the work they did in quite a lot of the markets, but these days the frequency of crap-paying jobs has skyrocketed to absurd levels. Maybe if today was 1900 and the writing jobs paid $10 a month that would have worked out, but today writers are making less per job a month than the people in the Great Depression made.

    If you run a blog with millions of hits a month, you should be able to turn that into a fairly profitable machine. If someone like me can make a few easy bucks off a small blog like this, someone with your traffic strength should be pulling in a lot of money on adverts and what not. Plenty of bloggers make a living that way.

    And of course shouting this doesn't fix it, but saying "that's how it is" does something worse. It allows the problem to persist without raising awareness of it. Better to say something than do nothing at all...That sort of attitude is what got us here in the first place.

  4. Anonymous10:46 PM

    "If you run a blog with millions of hits a month, you should be able to turn that into a fairly profitable machine. If someone like me can make a few easy bucks off a small blog like this, someone with your traffic strength should be pulling in a lot of money on adverts and what not."

    I agree, I SHOULD be able to but the reality is that it isn't happening and it's not just me. Most of the large, popular blogs are in the same boat, that even includes a lot of the corporately owned blogs, though those are in a little better shape.

    I don't know how much you make off this blog or how much traffic you have, but you're wrong if you think that should you suddenly skyrocket up to having millions of readers you'll also suddenly have enough money to afford a large, paid staff. You'll be lucky to earn enough to pay yourself.

    The money in internet advertising revenue simply isn't there, even using the highest quality advertisers.

  5. Well, I suppose having a blog with multiple authors and editors who all need to be paid puts a strain on the money. My blog is mostly solo, with the occasional guest post. I don't make much at all, but I'm not really in this for the money. I'm more in it for the content and the for the fun of the community. But you sort of have to be at my traffic level. If you start getting illusions that you'll be like the big guys, then you'll end up disappointed.

    Do you use text links and private ad sales? I'd think if you're hitting millions of hits you could have ad space for a high price. I'm no expert on that, though. I'm new to most of the net advertising stuff. PW is only profitable if you have huge hits, but text links tend to do real well, in my opinion.