Should you write for free? That’s a question that bounced around the blogosphere this week. My immediate reaction was, “Hell no!” But the more I thought about it, I kept coming up with situations and examples where it made perfect sense to do so. Basically, my “Hell no” has morphed into an, “it depends.” More than that, I realized it always has been. I can’t even begin to offer a realistic estimate of the volume of writing I’ve done over the course of my life. Suffice it to say it’s a helluva lot. For a sizable portion of it, there was a check involved on the back end. But for a great deal more, there hasn’t been a payoff in direct monetary terms. And you know what, I’m totally cool with that.
This discussion suffers from elitist syndrome. By that, I mean, there’s a certain subset of people who managed to finangle their way into regular paydays from strictly writing. Not many, mind you. Nor have there ever been, but let’s not allow an accurate depiction of history to interfere with today’s doomsaying meme of the moment. First, though, it’s instructive to ask what kind of writers are seeing their incomes decline like this? The answer, basically, is writers whose primary income streams depend on corporate media companies. Let’s review what’s happened in the past few years. There was a massive recession, the worst of any of our lifetimes so far. There was a giant disruption in their business model, which led to both the creation of an entirely new class of digital products and distribution and the emergence of viable alternatives to publishing and distribution that doesn’t go directly through them. They’ve not been receptive of these technological improvements, largely choosing to err on the side of protectionism for print. And when they do go after the digital dollars, they’ve created an industry standard for severely underpaying writers on this much higher margin product. Given these circumstances, why is it in the least bit surprising that many writers who choose this path as a primary revenue option are seeing diminished returns? It’s entirely predictable, in fact.
There’s also the question of value. There’s a routinely trotted out theory that self published writers giving their works away for free or selling them for a pittance devalues writing. But consider, if your finely crafted professional work can be so simply and easily swapped out by the work of what you consider inexperienced amateurs, maybe it’s not them devaluing the work at all. Maybe it was the rare set of circumstances that created the long-prevailing (and now broken) scarcity model that allowed you to over-value the work. Maybe you’re just not that special now that we’re in an environment where genuine choice has become a real factor.
Does that mean you should write for free? Well, it depends. If you’re writing for a major media company, fuck no, you absolutely should not. Under no circumstances. If the question is should I write for the Huffington Post in exchange for exposure, my answer is, if you’re looking for exposure, you should just stroll out into a blizzard in your underwear. It’ll be much quicker. The Huffington Post is a scam, a shop set up with the intent of not paying for content. All the better for their bottom line. To hell with those kinds of folks. But if you want to contribute something to some fringe website on some subject you know about, someone who isn’t exactly rolling in money and not backed by a mega-corp, why not? Maybe you care more about your ideas on the subject getting out there than if the purveyor of the platform can afford to toss a c-note your way. The idea that directly selling your words is the only path to success or achievement is perhaps the most narrow definition of being a writer I’ve ever seen.
It also seems to be the one adhered to by our friend Roxanna Robinson, the head of the Authors Guild, who did little to distinguish herself during the Amazon/Hatchette battle. A stance some people, me included, feel actually contributed to the declining revenues for writers that have their knickers all in a twist. But I’ll get to that later. Robinson is the head of a professional trade group of writers, so it makes a certain amount of sense for this to be her position. It doesn’t make it the right one. And it puts more than a little strain on her claims that they’re open to any and all writers when their principle position is one that basically only applies to an extremely small subset of writers.
What I find interesting is that, way back in the pre-internet stone age, as a young writer just starting out, the accepted practice was to submit to small press magazines, most of which paid nothing at all or in copies, if you were lucky. The theory was build up your resume, as it were, with publication credits to make your query letters more attractive in the hopes of working your way up to small paying publications, then possibly to well paying ones. But it all started under the presumption that your initial forays would be largely unpaid. And that says nothing of the numerous journalistic enterprises and the value of doing unpaid internships there in landing actual paying positions. Again, newcomers expected to work for free. If Robinson is arguing that these practices are exploitative, then I’m in total agreement. But somehow, I suspect her complaints are more geared toward the writers who now choose to avoid this particular set of trenches altogether.
You see, back when I was a relative newcomer, the submission gauntlet was more controlled. The scarcity that physical costs of production created inhibited most end-runs to the process, so a clear hierarchy became delineated on the “proper” way to strive for success as a writer. A path, mind you, that required a helluva lot of free work just to attract the attention of someone who might be willing to consider paying you at some point. The difference now, though, is instead of the corporations benefitting from all this free labor, it’s the audience who’s benefitting. That is a direct threat to their tiered labor structure, and it’s exposed a pricing scheme that is built upon a crumbling foundation of scarcity. Oh, wait. I’m sorry, I forgot. It’s all Amazon’s fault. Free labor is horrible, unless, of course, it’s our buddies expecting you to toil away unpaid. Then it’s called paying your dues. But if your free labor isn’t benefitting our pals, or worse yet, is actually benefitting you directly in ways that don’t require their approval, then you’re a blight on the industry.
Robinson is right in some ways, Declining author incomes (in her particular wheelhouse) is a very real thing. I expect it to get much worse, with the increasing use of Agency pricing designed to steer readers away from digital and back to print. That’s the theory, anyway. I expect it to be more a case of steering readers away from their digital stuff to other people’s digital stuff in the long term. The impact on print may be negligible, unless of course they do something stupid like tie the fate of their print and ebooks together while actively handicapping the more efficient, higher margin side. Whoops, too late.
Robinson is correct to be concerned. It would have been nice had that concern shown itself last year when a group like the Authors Guild had a unique opportunity to apply some pressure to publishers while they were in the midst of freaking out that Amazon was going to end the world as they knew it. But instead, she happily fell in line with the publishers’ slanted viewpoint, maybe hoping they would see that loyalty as something to be rewarded later in some undefined way. Well, you’re seeing the beginnings of what that loyalty earned her and the authors she helped lead down the garden path right now. Their publisher buddies, the ones they so willingly tossed their loyalty behind, are squeezing writer incomes to better their own. And now, thanks to their help, pubs have a level of pricing control in retail that, in my opinion, transitioned the threat level of their contracts all the way up to Defcon 1.
It’s easy to point fingers at self published writers giving their stuff away for free. Low-hanging fruit, as the saying goes. But if Robinson wants to know why authors incomes are falling, she should look in the mirror. If anyone is guilty of devaluing anything, they are. She devalued author loyalty when she so blithely gave it away during a damn contract negotiation with a retailer. She devalued the writers she professes to represent by going all in with their support without extracting even the slightest bit of quid pro quo. She allowed the publishers to trot them out as the useful idiot to put a faux-cultural face on what was essentially a power-grab. She did nothing at all to take advantage of the fact that they needed authors for that effort, and gave very little indication she actually recognized the situation for what it was. She let her fear of Amazon drive them into a corner. Might as well have held their wallets open to the pubs and said, “Here, take what you like.”
And this is the best that advocates of “only write for money” can do? It’s a little disheartening. But should you write for free? There’s as many different paths (and different opinions on what constitutes success) as their are writers. That wasn’t the case not so very long ago. Free work by writers isn’t a new thing, something magically thought up by the internet demons to destroy vaunted cultural institutions. There’s always been an expectation that being a writer involves a certain amount of unpaid toiling to reach the point of actual paying work. All I can say is that you should strive to make certain, should you choose to do so, that unpaid toiling benefits you in some way. And despite what some of the well-heeled at what they perceive as the head of the writerly class might suggest, direct monetary rewards are not the end all, be all of the discussion.
So, should you write for free? It depends. What are you trying to achieve?
Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron