A few days back, Tim Kreider wrote a rather interesting piece for the New York Times titled, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite.” Therein, Mr. Kreider argues that the internet created a new definition of the word “content” to the extent that artists, be they literary of visual, are little more than content generators whose product is reduced to “stuff to stick between banner ads.” The essay ends with a call to action for all writers to stop giving away the fruits of their labours for free.
Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.
Though my actions on this website may appear incongruous with the following sentiment, I quite agree with Mr. Kreider’s argument. Writers and artists at large should get paid for their work. Even though I give away everything that I write on this website, I’m confident that one day I’ll be able to pull together a collection of essays, sell them to a publisher, and get some money back for what has otherwise been a labour of love.
As for the guest posts that I’ve hosted on the PoR, I don’t consider myself ever having “paid” somebody in exposure. In fact, it’s usually the other way around. The people guest posting here are doing me a favour by lending my writing and “editorial” style some small measure of legitimacy and credibility. It also helps that those people are usually my friends or at least colleagues within a creative market place. Trading favours in this way pays dividends in the intangible currency of social capital among peers and/or beers from said contemporaries at conventions.
That said, I want to spend a few words discussing the core question of Mr. Kreider’s essay: why would anybody write for free? The answer, I think, is quite simple; the market is over saturated with writers. This should come as no surprise to anybody who has ever looked at a freelance writing board, such as E-Lance, and watched a $500 dollar job get bid down to single digit percentages of the original offer. While it’s easy to blame this phenomenon on the internet making people more connected, we shouldn’t ignore the educational dogma of the 20th century doing wonders for literacy rates. The same century also saw college and university graduation rates go up. This and a number of other factors which I don’t care to enumerate in this post, yields a market place filled with individuals who think they can put pen to paper for love or money.
The reality is somewhat different. Anybody who has ever read a slush pile or is remotely familiar with the comments section of a news website knows that ratio of people who can actually write (and reason) compared to the number of people who think (incorrectly) that they can write is fairly high. And if the written word, as Mr. Kreider reports, is little more than stuff to stick between banner ads, then this high volume of writers presents as the ideal market condition for the mobilization of crap. Vanity driven, foul smelling, making somebody else a fortune on advertising, “hey look mom I got a byline,” crap. It’s a shame. But it’s also voluntary, right? A person can’t really be a writing slave if they are doing it of their own accord. Thus, I submit that the humble peasant is more suitable metaphor for this situation.
Historically, the peasant works hard, for very little – often nothing – and dreams of nothing more than elevating themselves to a higher social station. I know many writers who have and continue to write for free not because they think of their work as worthless, but because they see it as the only way to get into the game of paid writing. In days past formal education and some obvious talent was enough to get a would-be writer out of the muck and into an entry level position. Now it is common place to read news articles about writers having to work for free – even if it is just a side gig – under the pretense of paying their dues to the institution and the generation above. And if said chosen few acolytes don’t like it toiling in obscurity and poverty, there are legions of others who will not only take a big ol’ bite out of the shit sandwich, they’ll eat the whole thing before begging another.
Certainly, it is a contemptible market where eventually getting paid for one’s work is the carrot with which editors/publishers pump writers for content. Despite that reality, I don’t see this as a problem that can be solved by a wholesale refusal to participate. When the market is saturated, a good writer will always step up to replace the excellent one who refuses to put pen to paper. I know. I’ve been that good writer, desperate for the validation that comes with a byline. Rather, Mr. Kreider’s article should serve as a rallying call for a deeper discussion that invites “we pay you in exposure” publishers to quantify what a writer will get out of the deal e.g. extensive feedback on their prose, practice copy editing, introductions to other publishers, and/or legitimate resume fodder.
If those factors are in play, then why not write for free, for three months, as a side project, making sure it comes with the requisite professional support and training that would be afforded to any apprentice. If it doesn’t, then take the next step beyond refusing to play. Build some nuance into the conversation by asking hard and public questions of those publishers. Rarely are the creative arts black and white; similarly the dialogues on to write or not to write for free should not be limited to binaries of yes or no.