A Piece Written For Free About Writing For Free

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

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Sharing stifles creativity? Why this guy is just flat-out wrong

So I read this article today with this guy whining about piracy, file sharing and the music business and I’m compelled to make a few points. No sense in beating around the bush, let’s get started at the beginning, with the headline.

“How a generation’s freeloading has starved creativity”

Starved creativity? The last I checked, there is more music being produced today from a wider range of artists with a more diverse sound than ever before, and that’s expanding. There’s more books being written and available by a wider range of authors with more diverse styles than ever before, and that’s expanding. Creativity hasn’t been stifled at all. It’s been unleashed in a major way. The studio system (and the traditional publishing industry among others) is what stifled creativity. If you want to argue that the changes have stifled these old school media conglomerates’ ability to dominate their respective industries, I can get behind that. But it has in no way stifled creativity. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s generally a bad sign when the headline of your piece kicks off with unsubstantiated bullshit. You’re basing your argument on a false assumption right off the bat, and an easily refuted one at that.

“Things changed for me when I got a job in a Brooklyn café in the late 2000s. Many of the most respected and critically-praised bands of the day were customers there, but my excitement at getting to know them was dimmed when I realized that rather than enjoying the fruits of their success, they were, well, just as broke as I was.”

And if you’d gotten that job in the pre – Internet ’90s, they’d still be just as broke as you were. Same goes for the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s etc, etc. Conflating that with the coincidental emergence of file sharing is a mistake. He goes on:

“Apologists for digital piracy advanced one fantastic new rationalization after another—that artists would actually be helped by their rights getting trampled; that old-timey models like touring and merchandise would magically become a cash cow; that you could solve the whole problem by just letting fans “pay what they want.”

If you retain control of your rights, you have the choice to allow sharing of your music or not. Unless you’re signed on with a big label, in which case you have no choice in how you’re music is distributed or shared. That’s evidenced by this guy, the musician Kaskade, who is directly opposed to his label suing for copyright infringement but he has no legal right to stop them or to determine what he considers an acceptable use of his own music. In that sense, you’re correct that artists’ rights are being trampled, by their own labels.

Touring and merchandise are old timey? How much do you know about the music industry? Touring and merchandise were where artists made their money in the past. The labels made their money from album sales (whatever format) with contracts structured so that even some of the most successful bands ended up owing money to the label when all was said and done. If touring and merchandising aren’t cash cows, then why are record company contracts increasingly demanding large cuts of any revenue bands earn from both of those areas? Bands are broke because of the labels and their exploitative advance structure, their accounting practices and increasingly grabbing revenue from touring and merchandise that bands themselves generally controlled in the past. These aren’t problems the internet or file sharing created, this is the result of the standard operating procedure of the labels.

The book industry isn’t quite as exploitative as music, but they’re not far behind. They, too, use an advance system and accounting practices that virtually guarantee the majority of books never get to the point of earning royalties above the advance (and not because advances are high or because the books themselves aren’t largely profitable). They, too, try to lock up other rights so authors can’t generate any other income streams on the material, even when they have no intention of exploiting them.

Did you see the recent UK report that showed writers’ incomes shrinking? Most of those writers were longtime traditional writers. Publishers have been establishing a low rate for ebook royalties that pay them more but authors less than on a regular print edition. They focus their sales efforts on ebooks and high discount print books, both of which cut authors’ compensation per book dramatically. The internet isn’t causing these authors’ incomes to shrink, their own publishers’ actions are. And not coincidentally, the publishers are reaping sometimes record profits.

And fans have always paid what they want. If they want it new, they’ll buy it. If they don’t, they’ll get a copy from someone or they’ll buy a used cd for a few dollars. Today, they may download it. They used to record it from the radio or television. But if you only offer one full price option, and somehow magically eliminate any possibility of obtaining any other copy, you won’t see more sales. You’ll see significantly fewer. Not to mention a whole lot of pissed off people with money in their pocket that might have decided to spend it with you now and in the future.

“The people who fought against copyright in this battle would have to confront the fact that they were never carrying the flag for freedom or “openness”, but for aggression, entitlement and selfishness.”

Like it or not, we live in an increasingly on demand world. You can call it entitled and selfish all you want. It’s not going to change it. The people you’re trying to sell to want what they want when they want it. The technology exists to give them exactly that. And everybody knows damn well digital distribution is far cheaper than physical, so prices must reflect that. There’s a huge stream of people looking for music and books 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not providing what they’re looking for in the price range they’re looking for, that they can access in the way they want to is their failing, not the internet.

Even then, people will still seek out free alternatives. I downloaded my first song in 1998 on AOL dialup. I had been a huge music collector for a full decade prior to that. At no point in those 10 years pre-internet, was I ever not able to get a copy of any damn thing I wanted for free. The internet didn’t invent this behavior, it’s been with us for a long, long time. What happened to the music industry as technology proliferated to allow people to make and acquire copies of music on their own? It grew exponentially. When did it shrink? At the precise time they chose a strategy that openly attacked the sharing of music. That’s not a coincidence.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking the torrent-indexing websites that popped up in my search results are just rambunctious, boundary-challenging adolescents swapping files with their friends, as Napster disingenuously spun themselves.”

That’s precisely what most of the people using Napster (and later Limewire) were. The music and film industry stomped on them, leading to the development of torrents that let little pieces of files be downloaded to and from multiple sources so no one except the few souls who seed ever actually made a full file available for download. It drove them from their own communities into the arms of the profiteers like Megaupload. The persecution of which, by the way, regardless of what you think of them, is a disgusting abuse of law and power. Read up on it.

It’s a bit like the gateway drug problem, I think. These sites make millions precisely because the actions of industry drove sharing amongst individuals underground. Without those acts, people would be openly sharing within their own communities now instead of enriching parasites. If there’s any gateway effect to marijuana ( and I don’t think there is) it’s caused by the prohibition. The only place you can get pot is from that sketchy guy on the corner who’s also got meth, heroin and some blow. Take out the prohibition and exposure to genuine bad elements drops dramatically if not altogether.

Black markets come about when there’s a gap between what a sizable portion of the public wants and what’s available to them. Drive off the safe alternatives and you’re left creating many more problems than you solve. I don’t get down with media companies decrying the black market when their own actions created the problem and made it exponentially worse.

“The big question is: how would things look if the illegal free option weren’t as convenient? Would Hollywood not be quite as dependent upon comic book blockbusters and take a few more chances on new stories? With stable promotional budgets for record labels and studios, a few more daring artistic voices might find an audience, and charge their way onto the pop culture radar, and even change the way some of us think about the world.”

Hahaha! No. I’ll tell you what it will look like, exactly like it looked in the late ’80s, stagnant and repetitive. The only time new voices got through was after an independent movement somewhere built the momentum for it. And then, the labels would descend, sign up every band that remotely sounded like the new in-thing, saturate the world and squeeze every last dollar out of it before moving on to the next hot movement (see: Seattle in the ’90s).

On top of that, with increasing digital sales yet no free option, discoverability, which largely happens word of mouth from sharing, would take a huge hit. Sales of all but the biggest names would plummet and we’d be left with far fewer risks being taken and far less unique voices ever getting a chance. You know, precisely what was happening before the internet came along.

“Forging an internet that takes individual rights (including privacy), cultural diversity and sustainable progress seriously also requires that consumers get on board.”

Ah, yes. Please pay considerably higher prices so we don’t actually have to adapt or alter our ridiculously outdated and inefficient corporate structure, or even pay lip service to giving you what you actually want for those higher prices. Get on board, already!

“We are all entitled to fair compensation for our work.”

I see, customers are entitled in a bad way for wanting what they want for their money (or not) but labels and artists are entitled in a good way for wanting what they want for your money. Nobody is entitled to make one red cent. You have to convince people to want to pay you willingly. That means convenience, price, format, restrictions on use; everything must be done to appeal to the guy holding a credit card and deciding if he wants to use it. “Hey you! You’re gonna pay more and we’re gonna tell you what you’re allowed to do with it and you’re gonna thank us for it” is a bad strategy.

I do agree in one way with being entitled to fair compensation. But that argument isn’t directed at the internet or consumers. It goes to the media companies. Stop ripping off your artists! You think artists aren’t being paid fairly? Changing conditions so media companies make more money isn’t going to change that. It’s just another version of trickle down nonsense. The labels make more money and those musicians in your coffee shop, they’ll still be just as broke. The copyright argument with file sharing has nothing to do with rewarding artists, it’s all about further enriching large media conglomerates.

“Just as US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr said of taxes, consider it ‘the price we pay for civilization.'”

The price consumers pay, you mean, in high prices that have no bearing on production costs or market value? Or the price artists pay in exploitative contracts and shriveling compensation from their corporate “partners”? The media conglomerates here don’t pay any price, for civilization or otherwise. They simply reap the rewards of squeezing the only two irreplaceable cogs in the industry machine, consumers and creators.

Why should we as artists have to accept pittance payouts? Why should consumers have to pay more for less? Why shouldn’t these corporations have to alter their business models, ones that developed in a different time and a different set of conditions, to meet the new realities? Why should we have to severely restrict the conduct of people that has far pre-dated the internet and file sharing?

You are conflating the business difficulties of large, once dominant corporations that are becoming increasingly obsolete with a decline in the industry and creativity itself. That’s a mistake. We don’t need record labels. We don’t need publishers. Before much longer, we won’t need film studios either. What we need are artists willing and able to create and customers willing and able to buy. Restrictions and higher price points to support corporate bottom lines achieve neither of those ends.

Piracy and file sharing isn’t the problem. The old industry titans who choose to stand in the way of what artists want, what consumers want and what civilization in general wants; they’re the problem. Advocating for a system that enriches them by taking money out of the pockets of both artists and consumers achieves nothing.

As a final point, there seems to be a thread to the piece that assumes people getting music for free is not good for commerce. Well, take a look at The Live Music Archive. There are over 6,000 bands and 130,000 separate concerts available for download or streaming absolutely free and totally legal. Concerts range from 40 years or more ago right up to yesterday. Many of the artists in here are very well known, many are unheard of independents. But they all allow fans to bring equipment, record their live shows and freely distribute them however they choose. In fact, the one thing they are prohibited from doing is selling them. And the community itself polices that kind of conduct very nicely. There’s a huge sub-industry in music totally outside of the major label system that not only encourages the free sharing of their music, but thrives on it. The most famous band to take this track is the Grateful Dead, who pioneered much of this and parlayed the touring and merchandising you dismiss into being one the highest grossing bands of all time, almost totally outside the label system. Their big label studio albums were almost an afterthought to their career accomplishments.

And as for bit torrent, which you sited as a particularly egregious tool for piracy, look at this. Etree.org has a huge, ever changing list of torrent files for concerts totally free and legally available for download. Bit torrent is far from simply an elicit tool for piracy. It’s used here to great effect to freely distribute music from bands who aren’t cowering in fear of consumers or sharing, bands that are building careers one fan at a time, without so much as a dime of support from the label system. I’ll guarantee you’ll find a wider array of music styles and talent here than any label-driven alternative. Giant media companies, as more of us are learning every day, aren’t the only way to pursue a career in the arts. They’re likely not even the best way.

There are problems with the internet, legitimate problems with piracy, too. But what you advocate benefits a portion of the industry, who also happen to be the richest, most entrenched, afraid to adapt element of it and does nothing to further anyone’s ends but theirs. Take a wider view of things. Track the problems you site deeper than simply, “Oh, Napster caused this” and you may find issues like artist compensation and stifled creativity far predate the internet itself. And who was running the show back then? These same giant media conglomerates. Huh.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Free Books on Independence Day!

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In honor of July 4th, I’m offering five full-length ebooks absolutely free from Amazon.  Follow any of the links here to get your free copies. Happy Independence Day!

Bad Timing

Devil’s Dozen

The Valentine’s Day Massacre

The 13 Days of Halloween

Decline & Fall of the Publishing Empire

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