Friday, March 15, 2013

Worth Its Weight in Work

So, the story goes like this. A journalist named Nate Thayer wrote an article that caught the interest of the Atlantic's freelance editor. She offered him the opportunity to distill it down to 1,200 words and have it posted on the Atlantic's website. He asked about payment, and she said the only payment would be exposure, because she had spent all the money in the freelance kitty for the moment. He said (politely enough, but with what felt like major fury under the words) that he is an established journalist and doesn't work for free, and that was that.

And then he posted the exchange on his website, without censoring names or other details. Eeek. Go read it, it's more interesting than my own summary.

The Atlantic then fired back not one but two articles on this matter. One of these sort of generally discusses journalism in the past and now and tries to explain and break down the math...honestly, I skimmed that one, because I didn't like the writer's voice and it seemed a defensive, poorly organized, and hastily written piece to me. The other piece was far clearer, and takes something like the opposing view to Thayer's: working for exposure can be valuable. That's a good 'un, really good reading.

I found this whole exchange extremely interesting.

A couple of years ago, I was talking to my mother about blogging, and - I'm distilling a complicated conversation - she said it seemed foolhardy to write my blog for free, to give away my words, when after all I'm trying to make my living from words. Her profession is very different from mine, but she also makes a living from words, and she noted that she would never, ever write for free. Doing so devalues your work, she said, and that means that the next person to try and buy your work has evidence that she can get away with paying you less. If you don't value your work, she pointed out, no one else will.

The thing I thought but did not say was that that was all well and good for her, seeing as how she was well-established in her career and the possessor of advanced degrees, but I'm not in a position to be demanding money for my work. Nothing about me is proven. Thayer is in a good position to be indignant, if he's been a journalist for 25 years and was the recipient of a six-figure offer from the Atlantic.* Me? If someone from the Atlantic, or Slate, e-mailed me to ask me to work for free, I'd likely break my leg in my haste to get to the computer and say yes.

But here's the interesting thing to me. If I'm Stephen King, and Entertainment Weekly asks me to do The Pop of King, do I demand payment that's commensurate with my royalty checks? (Is that even possible?) Or do I offer to do it for free or for token payment because I enjoy it so much, with a clause that I can terminate at will when I get tired of it? Lord knows, if I'm Stephen King, I am the last writer that EW positively needs to pay. Better to hire three or four starving freelancers, right? I'm doing A-OK.

But EW will make money from me, because I have such a big name that I'll bring traffic to the magazine. I probably deserve a piece of that pie. Plus, if I work for free for EW, does my publisher feel free to offer me less for my next advance? I'm clearly worth money, so why would I agree to work for no money? Unless I don't value my own work, in which case my publisher shouldn't either. Dangerous, maybe, working for free if you're established.

I could go round and round on this for days. In part because I think it depends pretty much wholly on the writer, the situation, the gig. If Slate asked me to work for free today, I'd say yes without a second thought. If they asked me after I became an established author I think I'd say yes, because I love Slate, and it would be a thrill to add them to my list of publishing credits. If the New Yorker asked me to write for free, I'd [hope I'd have the chutzpah to] say no, today or after I'm established. The credit is worth more than Slate, but its philosophies and fare give me intellectual indigestion. Its readers are not my readers. And I know they could afford to pay me, anyway.

So I guess I value my work in a really particular, case-by-case way. Before accepting an offer to write for exposure, I hope to think carefully about trading such vague value for my effort, which is not worthless, and to consider the nature of the exposure and the nature of the publication. Thayer wasn't willing to work for free for the Atlantic online, but would he have agreed for Time in print? (Probably not, but such a thing would make a difference to me, and possibly to Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

Leaving journalism aside, I struggle with this regarding my fiction. You can get fiction for free everywhere. Classic books in the public domain are one example, but there are also free books for Kindles and Nooks, free fiction in online magazines, free stories posted on writers' blogs. Heck, there's the library. Does this mean that fiction is inherently worthless? Of course not. Does it mean that fiction is less monetarily valuable than it was 50 years ago, when you could still place a horror story in a titty magazine and there were a dozen paying mainstream markets for science fiction? I don't know. Maybe.

When I was in a major submittal period back in 2006-2007, I attained a decent handful of publishing credits, nearly all for online publications that offered little exposure and no money. I did get two print credits, one of which paid in copies and one of which paid in money that was converted mysteriously into a subscription to the publication. In 2011, I decided to stop submitting to online publications with no readership and no money. It was a conscious decision to value my work more, to see myself as a writer who was good enough for major print markets. Better one sale to Tin House than a dozen to little nothing pubs. I still don't expect to place in Tin House without a lot more work and improvement, but the point is considering the work valuable.

Would I put fiction in Tin House for free? Probably. That's exposure that's worth its weight in work.

*One of the most mind-boggling aspects of this whole thing to me was the payment amounts they talked about. $125K a year? Is that really a normal salary for a top-flight journalist? I never dreamed you could make six figures as a journalist. And the same publication offered $100 for a freelance blog post, and $16,000 for a feature article? That discrepancy is fucking crazy!

Footnote: Some indistinguishable amount of the Atlantic hubbub is due to the way print and journalism are dying changing as the Internet becomes the primary way that we consume content. That aspect is so important and I'm not at all qualified to comment on it. I don't expect that the major print markets in which I want to place work are going to stay static, either, and I'm not dissing online fiction mags simply for being online fiction mags. There are some terrific ones - Strange Horizons is a great genre mag, Contrary is a good literary one. But discerning a worthwhile online mag from a shitty online mag isn't hard. In fact, sometimes the very existence of payment becomes a central distinguishing factor. 

Second footnote: I'm leaving e-books (Kindle Singles etc.) and any discussion of their value out of all this on purpose. Too complicated. 


Denise said...

Wow, intense conversation. This is a big problem, and one of the reasons I'm not confident about going near this market with a ten foot pole. It seems like the hardest thing is that there's no standard across different outlets, so you can always compare yourself to someone else and say-maybe I should've tried that??? Am I being to proud?? Am I being too humble?? Now if only we had aristocracy who could be our patrons like they did in the old days... =)

Katharine Coldiron said...

Yeah, the too proud/too humble question is a toughie, for sure. Because some would say that I should start out presuming my work is worth something instead of working my way to payment.