Muzzling the Ox: Writers Don’t Get Paid

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Tim Kreider posted an opinion piece at the New York Times complaining about people who ask him to write things for free. He’s a writer by trade, and he thinks it’s appropriate to get paid for his work.

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.

Pieces like this have been cropping up more and more frequently. Those of us who populate the internet with “content” seem to be getting a little bit restless. A while back, Nate Thayer publicly complained about The Atlantic. In a Twitter conversation, Alan Jacobs told me to stop writing for people who don’t pay. It seems that even non-internet writing is no longer worth money, and Philip Hensher tried to shame someone who asked for a free forward for a book.

Can you blame authors for circling the wagons? Writers want to pay their bills. Writers want to feel that their work is valuable. We pay for what we value, but the internet is all about freebies.

We’re told that the “exposure” will be worthwhile. When I hear the word “exposure” I automatically think of a hard-working sherpa freezing to death on the side of Everest as he’s helping a wealthy European up the mountain.

Exposure will never pay the bills. Most readers don’t bother to look at an article’s byline. Multiple pieces need to get millions of page views each for a writer to gain even a few thousand Twitter followers. And then once you’ve gotten those few thousand followers? Tweet? Editors, on the other hand, tend to read bylines, but that’s a dead end since it’s the editors who refuse to pay in the first place.

The current business model for freelancers reminds me of an episode of South Park. The Underpants Gnomes had a plan for making money. Phase one: Collect underpants. Phase two: “…” Phase three: Profit. Web editors have taken this foolproof plan and replaced “Phase one” with “Write for free.”

Most writers who complain about this situation make a distinction between for-profit and non-profit organizations. If a writer believes in a certain non-profit organization, then he should do a little writing for free. It’s like a charitable donation. (Can I claim that on my taxes?)

For-profit organizations, on the other hand, need to start paying. The for-profit outlets will say, “We don’t have the money! Our ads don’t generate enough revenue to pay freelancers!” That’s not the writer’s fault. Editors can’t expect writers to prop up their failing business model. It’s time for internet writers to abandon the sinking ship and find other models to profit from their writing.

Other business models, however, require more of the entrepreneurial spirit. Since writers can’t depend on editors to pay them, writers must go directly to those people who can. Michael Hyatt has built a blogging empire on showing writers how to monetize their platform. Hyatt recommends that writers give content away for free, but when you do, you shouldn’t be after “exposure.” You should build a real connection with you readers, which will allow you to turn them into paying customers in the future.

In the music industry, NoiseTrade connects musicians directly with listeners. Musicians can give an album away in exchange for an e-mail address. Many musicians claim that having a fan’s e-mail address is more profitable in the long run than having them pay ten dollars for a single album. Perhaps there’s a way to adapt the NoiseTrade model for the written word. (I’ve already seen audiobooks on NoiseTrade.) If writing is to become profitable, writers are going to have to go straight to the people with the money because editors don’t have any.

Or course this will mean that the writing itself will have to be excellent and popular all at the same time. Freelancing might look very different than it does now for the financially successful writer. Some writers won’t want to make the shift. Writers will have to spend a little more time on self-promotion, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem since most writers tend to be a bit narcissistic. Even so, it won’t be easy to make a living at writing. Only the very good and the very lucky will be able to pull it off. But that’s always been the case.

One last bit of disclosure: I’ve never been paid for anything that I’ve written. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

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