Yes, of course writers should be paid for their work. Here’s why that’s not going to happen.

A few months back, I wrote a piece on whether writing is a dying profession.   My take was that, given the sorry state of traditional book publishers, there’s no longer any incentive for writers to honor the antiquated model of hiding their work in a drawer for years until an acquisitions editor taps it with a magic wand and declares it good enough for public consumption.

Everyone who loves books knows that publishers have abandoned their role as gatekeepers of quality writing in favor of being profit generators for corporate shareholders.  Confusing the two functions is a disservice to the culture, but it’s a disservice you can rely on.

Now there’s a firestorm on the Internet over the lamentable practice of not paying writers for their work, touched off in part by Tim Kreider’s New York Times op ed piece, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”   Kreider says out loud what every writer, musician, artist, actor – well, all creative persons – have been grumbling about as long as I can remember: “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.”  Kreider, and many other creative folk, would like to see this practice stopped.

Yes, it is outrageous.  Yes, it needs to stop.  It needed to stop twenty years ago, when club owners refused to pay bands, or worse – only allowed bands to play who paid the club for stage time.  It sucked then, and it sucks now.

But it won’t.  Stop, I mean.

Here’s why.   For us creative folk to get paid, all of us have to say no to working for free.  That will happen when the sun turns aquamarine and spits fishes at Mars.

First, our society is neither well-read nor well-educated, so most people can’t distinguish quality writing from the gum under their shoe.  That means there’s no reason for any entity that exists solely to generate profit to pay for quality writing.  And in fact, nobody pays for writing.  Publishers care so little for it they often don’t even read the books they publish.  As an aside, if you are an indie writer who still believes traditional publishers offer some kind of mystical validation of the worth of your work, please do yourself a favor and read this.   Then get back to the hard work of creating something awesome to share with the rest of us.

What publishers are paying for is self-marketing skills. They are paying for how many people they can get a bean counter to think your “product” will bring in.  That is all.

Second, if an individual writer does say no to working for free, it won’t take long to find another who will say yes.  This means that there is always somebody who will provide writing for free or for almost-free (remember, most traditional publisher advances for first novels work out to less than minimum wage, and writers never refuse those terms).

I’m not saying all artists are scabs, but enough are to insure that getting paid, or getting paid a reasonable amount for our labor, will always be problematic.  By “artists” I mean all creative people.  I’m aware some folks find the word “artist” off putting because it’s been misused as a self-designation by a lot of pretentious twits, but I find it useful as a catchall word for people engaged in creative pursuits so I’m going to use it anyway.

People ask for free art with a clear conscience because most of the time, artists comply.  It’s really that simple.  A lot of folks have no problem asking most service providers to work for free – attorneys, web designers, hair stylists – it happens.  There’s something about the intangible nature of time and expertise that makes some people reluctant to pay for it.  The difference between artists and other service providers, however, is that the latter are willing, as a group, to say no.  Sure, lawyers occasionally take on cases pro bono (for the public good); web designers and hair stylists might occasionally agree to donate their work to a charity, but most of the time they refuse to work without compensation.

Artists still buy the scam that they’ll help their careers if they forgo pay and work for exposure, so they let themselves get screwed by anyone who promises same.

Writing isn’t a business – that’s a foreign paradigm imposed on writing by corporate structures.  Most of us are Samuel Johnson’s “blockheads” at least part of the time (look how many of us blog for free), and all of us have different standards for when we’d willingly give our work away.  A gift for a friend.  A donation to a worthy cause.  Maybe a really cool project we’re genuinely excited about contributing to.  I’ve written for free without regrets.  My books, however, are for sale.

Where it gets messy and exploitative and wrong is when a website, publisher, music venue, or other organization “invites” an artist to donate work that a) the artist had no interest in producing before the invitation, so accommodating would be labor, and b) stands to make money from said work that the artist will never see, or c) has no problem paying everyone else associated with the project.  Business entities who do this almost always promise “exposure” in exchange for free labor.  “Give us a free article, drawing, song, live performance and all of our customers/visitors/clients will see your work and provide you with more business.  We promise they will.  We’ll even link to your website.”

Unfortunately, a lot of artists are so terrified of possibly missing an opportunity for exposure (whether or not the promised exposure actually exists or will actually translate to sales) they rarely get paid a fair amount, or get paid at all.  That’s the fault of the artist.

Here’s a true story.

Many years ago, I met an extremely talented painter who was excruciatingly eager to tell me that he “made a living” doing book covers.  I use quotes because after we chatted awhile, he complained to me that he was in terrible financial shape. His teeth were rotting, or he had some kind of gum disease or something.  He couldn’t afford a dentist. He couldn’t afford health insurance.  He was unhappy that he wasn’t getting paid more for his art, and therefore “had to” live off  less than – I don’t remember – some yearly income that closely resembled the federal poverty line.  He could barely pay for rent, food, and art supplies.   But he wasn’t interested in supplementing his artist income with anything else, because well – if he did that, he couldn’t say he was “earning a living” as an artist!  Apparently, he’d suffer through losing his teeth to claim that badge.  Deriving his sole income from his art was that important to him.

See the problem?  If you buy the myth that you’re not a real artist if you don’t exclusively earn a living from your art, you can feel the need to so fiercely defend your self-image that you’re willing to self-destruct.  This makes you ripe for exploitation.  I suspect he knew that, talented as he was (and he was extremely talented) if he held out for better pay, there are a lot of other extremely talented artists chomping at the bit to take his place, some of whom would be happy to work for exposure.

There’s a lot more talent out there than creative jobs that require it.  Artists know this, and it makes them hesitant to demand more pay, or any pay.  Some choose to live without health care if that means being able to “make a living” as an artist.  Ego trumps all.

Anyway, it’s not just the arts.  Some businesses, like Yahoo, have adopted the practice of stack ranking, which means managers are required to rank all employees along a curve and to give a certain percentage a low rating, even if those low rated employees are extraordinarily good at their jobs.  If all of your employees are stellar, you are still required to give a certain percentage a low ranking so the company can lay them off.   This is the kind of corporate-devised template that artist was facing.  There are so many highly talented artists out there it’s easy to get stack ranked by complaining about pay.  Or complaining about anything.  With the added bonus of loss of artistic legitimacy in the eyes of a public that’s been hornswoggled into thinking that only mass-marketed art has value, or that the higher stack ranked employees really are better.  It isn’t the money, it’s the terror some folks feel of being extraordinary at something and having it go unrecognized.  For some that terror is so strong they’ll forgo the money to make it stop.  You tell me if that’s sad or silly.  But it’s clearly a factor in why we don’t get paid.

It isn’t just artists who get manipulated and exploited – it’s scientists, journalists, (also here) and everyone else who works with intangibles like time and knowledge and skill. It’s artists, however, who run the most scared of risking status for a living wage.  Although maybe that’s now starting to change. Kreider’s article has attracted a lot of interest.

So how do you get everyone to just say no?  There’s no writers union that can make that happen, no way to enforce that all writers get paid, or even to determine fairly who gets economic protection (union membership) and who doesn’t.  What would this look like?  “You can’t hire our union members to write long-form articles without pay.”  “OK, I’ll hire nonunion members who will work for free.”  “Our members have demonstrated higher skill in their craft.”  “So what, you think the average American can tell the difference? Put up a provocative headline, and we’ll get enough clicks to satisfy our advertisers.”

And who determines how much any member should get paid for what kind of work?  Who has the stomach to navigate the ugly politics that will inevitably arise from that?

Musicians unions are useless for the majority of musicians who play in bands and freelance, and I’ve yet to meet a stage performer who will let mere money stand in the way of getting an ego boost on stage.  Sorry, it’s true – which is why artists are largely to blame for this.  Venue owners know this well, which is why they charge performers to play.  Performers historically shut up about it, preferring to maintain an illusion of being sought after, rather than paying for access to live audiences.

And what happens if you do just say no?  Note the ugly reaction indulged in by the blog editor of Biology-Online.org  when a biologist he invited to write for his blog told him that, as a professional, she expected compensation.  The scientist, Dr. Danielle Lee,  has a PhD in biology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, studies animal behavior and behavioral ecology, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher who writes extensively on her areas of expertise.   When Dr. Lee asked to get paid for her invited contribution, the blog editor who had invited her responded by asking – get this – if she was an urban whore.  What’s striking isn’t just his refusal to pay this scientist, it’s his over the top ire at the mere suggestion that he should pay her for work he solicited.

Artists get this too, with a generous dose of shaming.  “How dare you expect us to pay you when everyone else will work for free? You think you’re so much better than so- and- so who worked for free?  We don’t pay artists but we provide wonderful exposure and you should be grateful for it.  If you brought us something we value, like a following (marketing ability), as opposed to artistic ability, you might get paid.”  (More on this sensitive issue of “following” later.)

So, there’s that.   Artists naturally get convinced that asking for a fair wage for fair work will blacklist them.  Editors will talk.  Club owners will talk.  Gallery owners will talk.  People will think you’re difficult and no one will ever want to exploit work with you again.  You’ll never make it.  Better shut up, lower your eyes, and work for smiles.

As to the sensitive issue of bringing people in.   Here’s the reality.  The part that sucks harder than geese on candy.  No business pays for talent.  They pay for your platform, and for how many people (dollars) you bring them. In other words, for your marketing skills.  One has nothing to do with the other.  So you sacrifice years of your life to your craft and the guy down the road who can barely write coherently or play three chords gets the gig because he’s more successful at self-marketing.  Contrary to what many writers have been told, traditional publishers are not in the business of “validating” your writing ability.  They are in the business of making money.  Those are separate issues.

For perspective, check out who just got “validated” by Random House.  A New York Post Page Six reporter just got a book deal for blogging about the 300 sandwiches she’s been making her boyfriend as a means to earning an engagement ring.  Nobody even bothers to pretend this deal is based on writing ability, because it isn’t.  The blogger has a platform, a cutesy blog full of recipes and photos of sandwiches, and a cutesy concept.  I’m not dissing her (from her copious food photos I’m sure she makes a mean sandwich, and who can fault her for exploiting it?) – I’m using her story as perspective for writers who beat themselves up thinking they must be “validated” by a commercial publisher for their work to be good enough, and out of this desperation work for free for anyone who asks.  Commercial publishers validate what they can monetize, your writing talent has zip-all to do with it.  Put up a blog of sandwich photos and recipes, have a platform reporting celebrity gossip for a well-known paper, be in publishing circles (she is long-time friends with a couple of Random House editors) and you’re in.

Revisionists like to argue that the arts have always been that way. “Dickens wrote for money.” But the fact is that until recently the arts have always been a mix.  There was a time when publishers and record labels (who for all practical purposes no longer exist) had room in their budgets, and enough religious faith in the taste of their acquisitions people, to release lowest denominator focused money makers and take chances on more experimental, sophisticated work, sometimes multiple chances on brilliant stuff that took a while to catch fire.  The culture was better for it.  Then the bean counters rolled over the industry and declared that everything has to turn a profit at all times, and destroyed the arts.  (Yes I’m being glib here, but not by much).

So here we are.  If you see a way out of the morass, drop me a line.

 

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