Free Lunch? Surely Somebody Has To Pay…?

It’s a funny thing, telling people you have a blog in which you’re attempting to write regularly.  I mentioned it to a friend a while ago, and she asked if I were making any money from it.  ‘Well, no,’ I admitted.  ‘But I’m trying to use it as a platform to write nonfiction stuff, you know.  Social commentary, philosophy. That kind of thing.’

I wanted a place where I could do some writing that was a bit more ‘serious’ than just the general blather with which I fill my livejournal, and to perhaps expand my horizons a bit.  And I’ll admit, I wanted a place where, if I were to apply for a writing position somewhere, I could point my potential employer, as examples of the kinds of writing I like to do.  I have some friends who have done just that, and who now have regular appearances on Huffington Post and in other well-known internet publications.  They have reached a decent level of internet success, and I’m proud of them — both for  their good writing, because they are consistently really good, and for their commitment to promoting themselves, while parenting fulltime or working fulltime or doing some of each.  And I think it is really very cool that they are getting the recognition they deserve.

But… like me and my little page of essays here, they’re not earning any money from it, either.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think it should always be about the money.  I do write for the pleasure of it, I write because I have something to say, and I want to have a conversation about it, and because I want to get better at expressing myself.  However, I’ve not ruled out wanting to also earn money by writing.  And despite what my spambot-followers would have me believe, I think it’s probably a lot more difficult than they make it appear.  Then it occurred to me the other day, that one of the reasons for this might be the way we access information these days.

How do you pay someone for her writing, when all the readers want to have it for free?

We are so used to getting everything for free these days (and I’m not even talking about piracy, here) from news to entertainment and everything in between.  One of the amazing things about the internet — possibly THE most amazing thing — is its accessibility, and there is no way I would want that to change.  However, if writers want to make an income, regardless of how small it is, then the sites on which their work appears need to be able to make money, too.  And I don’t know how we will turn around an internet public which is used to reading everything for free, and convince them that now they need to pay.  Because I can pretty much guarantee that people are just not going to pay, and are going to the go somewhere, where they can continue to read for free.  What’s silly, is that articles on the internet can see an incredible amount of traffic, with thousands of views apiece.  If each reader were only paying a few cents per view, it would still add up to a small sum — even just a thousand views would be around $30.  Granted, you’re not exactly going to be able to quit your dayjob on that amount of cash.  But it’s something.

I know there are already some sites which pay a small fee to their casual or freelance writers, but it seems that many of the more prestigious sites simply offer exposure rather than remuneration.  Of course, the exposure is brilliant to have, and writers absolutely need it.  However, it shouldn’t be the only thing they offer.  And it seems like they’ve convinced at least some of their contributors that internet stardom and the promise of thousands or even millions of readers is enough.  Is it?  Other writers certainly don’t think so, as Nate Thayer’s exchange with the global editor at The Atlantic illustrates, and The Atlantic took some criticism because of it.  Of course, in the vastness that is the world of online and paper publications, getting one’s name out there is hard, and even if the Nate Thayers of the world stand up and demand payment, there will be many others who are willing to take the exposure and accept the lack of remuneration.

Here’s the thing: it’s not all the fault of the sites that don’t pay.  It’s also the fault of the writers who write for them, and the readers who read their work.

We as writers are to blame, because we need to demand payment for our work.  I understand that heady feeling — really, I do! — when a piece is accepted for publication, and perhaps I’m alone (I’m not) in that I do spend time, very precious time, writing, then editing, then rewriting my work.  Surely that time is worth something other than simply recognition — especially if the publication is for-profit, which will be generating profits from your work?  To allow publishers to offer exposure is to agree that your work is not worth payment.  And we do deserve to be paid!  We’re doing a job, after all.

We as readers must also share some of the responsibility, though. For too long we have been demanding ‘free’.  We read articles for free, we listen to music for free, we watch TV for free.  As consumers of culture, we do so with seemingly scant regard of the fact that somebody has to create it, and if they’re creating it for free, it means it’s cutting into the time where they could be doing income-generating work.  In the scheme of things, unless writers start demanding payment for their work, this won’t matter, because there will always be free writing to read.  But for goodness’ sake, people pay for the Daily Mail, the Bild, the Daily Telegraph and any number of other tabloid newspapers.  They pay money for that!  And yet, they won’t pay money for meticulously researched, painstakingly edited, carefully crafted articles, essays and fiction.

So how do we change the status quo?  Leaving aside the fact that there are always going to be people who cheat and get their culture for free anyway, how can we persuade the average internet user that we need them to pay writers, so that writers can earn money from their work?  Well, first we insist that writers be paid, either from the end-user, or from the website where their work appears.  We change the expectation from ‘it should be free’ to ‘it should be paid for’.  And secondly, we make it worth their while.  We create easy ways to pay — how about a once-yearly, or even once-monthly fee tied in in with your ISP bill?  It doesn’t have to be much.  In the UK, yearly payment of a TV licence supports their BBC and means that those channels are advertisement free.  Would something similar be possible for online content?  Certainly, the internet is a far more complicated medium than television, and I’m not even sure what it would entail.  But whatever it takes, a dialogue needs to begin.  We need to consider what we’re demanding of those who create art.  Recognition of the work one produces is a great start — it is such a wonderful feeling when something is shared and complimented.  But having something go viral on the internet for a few days is not really recognition.  It’s a flash in the pan, and it rarely produces tangible results for the person or the writing involved.  We need for people to be rewarded for the time they’re taking to produce good work.  Do we still have the attention span for that, I wonder, or are we all just caught up, waiting for the next thing (and for it to be free)?

It’s not to say that people couldn’t still write in their blogs for others to read for free, or that there can’t be collectives and online publications which offer free work to view and consume.  It’s not that people would suddenly be able to afford early retirement, or buy a mansion.  It’s not even that money should be the ultimate goal, when sitting down to write — in fact, it shouldn’t be!  It’s just that instead of it being the norm that someone’s work is available for free, it might be the exception.  And that might mean that we value it, and the process taken to create it, a little more.


14 thoughts on “Free Lunch? Surely Somebody Has To Pay…?

  1. Oh, Bean, you raise such important issues! Who knows what the answers are. I don’t blame you for wanting to make some money, and I agree that it shouldn’t be so hard for us as writers to make some.

    At the same time, I, too, write for the Huffington Post from time to time, and, unfortunately, they do not pay anything. You write for the recognition you get and ability to get your name out.

    It’s all so complicated. By the way, I asked on my blog comment where you were from. Now I realize. Silly me. Take care, my friend, and KEEP WRITING!

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • I certainly understand people wanting to get their work out, and to be seen by others. I just worry that it has become the norm for that to happen for free, rather than to be offered payment. On the other hand, who’s going to pay?!

      It is very complicated! People need to earn a living, after all. But companies also have to be able to stay afloat — or there won’t be anywhere to sell your writing to!

      I was going to reply to tell you where I’m from, when I read this comment from you 🙂 Incidentally, I’m heading to the markets tomorrow for my week’s fruit and vegetables. I will see if I can take a picture of what I buy and upload it to show you. This obviously relies on rather more technological talent than I possess, so I can’t promise anything!! But failing that, I will certainly keep writing 🙂


  2. The fact that most of the web editions of newspapers over here demand payment in order to read it sticks in a lot of people’s craws, including my own. It’s one thing if it’s a little company. I’m talking about newspaspers which are part of huge conglomerates that could certainly afford to let their readers read for free. Instead they cry “Our advertising revenue is down so we have to charge you!” Well, then, I don’t have to read you, do I? I can get my news elsewhere and not pay a dime. Hello , NPR (that’s out public broadcasting system)!

    • But you DO pay for NPR! You pay through your taxes, and I think that’s actually a good way to go about it. I’m not saying we should pay for all the media through our taxes (goodness, the Tea Party would have a fit about that, wouldn’t they?!!) but it shows that it works: a payment you don’t even think about, and you’re getting all this amazing content. We get NPR segments on one of our ABC radio stations (News Radio) and I really enjoy them.

      The thing about the newspapers is, I think, that they are losing revenue and haven’t worked out how to recoup it. People used to subscribe, now they don’t, and I think most major print newspapers are struggling. They’re a dying breed. How they go about trying to survive on the internet, while maintaining a staff of experienced writers — all of whom need to be paid — is a hurdle that many of them probably won’t be able to overcome.

  3. I do think it’s possible to eke out a living by writing online. You have to say something no one else is saying, do it continuously so people feel they must come to you for those pearls of wisdom (and from reading your article, this includes you), then spread the good word. I have developed a bit of an income stream from writing, barely enough to live on (which is a wonderful writerly tradition–starving with a pen in our hands). What money I make I fell into–they found me. It could go as quickly as it arrived. But isn’t that true of any job.

    I like your thoughtful approach to your topics.

    • I’ll admit, I haven’t yet tried — so far, I am just attempting to manage to keep up with posts once a week, which sometimes is difficult enough! But thank you for your advice (and your compliments about my writing). You know what they say about starving artists — it keeps you hungry to do better! And absolutely, it’s true of any job that it comes and goes. It’s good to hear a positive story about someone earning income from writing though!

  4. . ” But for goodness’ sake, people pay for the Daily Mail, the Bild, the Daily Telegraph and any number of other tabloid newspapers.  They pay money for that!  And yet, they won’t pay money for meticulously researched, painstakingly edited, carefully crafted articles, essays and fiction”

    I know! So frustrating. I think an automatic subscription might be more reasonable.i have no problem paying for my e national geographic, but i have had issues w/ paying for a newspaper back in the day because there was the understanding that they generated most of their profits from ads, not subscription

    • Hey, Matt!

      I remember a woman coming to talk to my school about newspapers. I was around 10, so this is the mid-80s, and she was telling us then that the ratio of news to ads was 30-70. I don’t imagine that’s changed much, although obviously I’m not in print-media, so who knows? But yes, they get their revenue from ads, and as I was saying to Kizzy, how are they going to get it when people can avoid the ads?

  5. I think one thing that hurts your (generically, not personally) ability to get paid is people like me. I don’t and probably won’t write about the same kind of serious topics you’ll tackle, but, for a few readers (Hi Mom!), my “flavor” might be reasonably appealing. If I’m doing this purely for fun, my free content, cheesier though it may be, may be just barely good enough to make a person not want to pay even a small bit for your better quality.

    While the collapse of fee-paying conventional journalism/commentary continues, I think there’s a niche for a kind of co-op (like REI or some rural electric providers or some grocery stores) to create a model like HuffPo and split the ad revenue. The same thing might work for arty writers, I ‘spose.

    In any event, I’m sorry if the blathering of me and my peers drowns you out of legitimate pay. We’re having fun, but quality should draw money!

    • Ha. Please. I don’t think your content is of a lower standard than mine — and it’s not like it doesn’t take effort to produce a post that’s funny or satirical. At present, I’m not even trying to really promote this or anything else as I don’t have the time to maintain it (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!) but I’m thinking more of other friends who are trying to get their work out there. And some of their stuff is funny and light hearted, too — just a shame it’s not being paid for :/

      • I’m saying my stuff is lower quality, but I’m not taking that as an insult. I think my stuff is pretty decent, but I think that the pursuit of quality in your work shows through. Also, if I magically get to remake the world, I’ll figure out a way so at least I pay for each click on your site. The stamp might cost more than the pay, but darn it, you deserve it!

      • Aw, thank you. Haha, that’s so sweet! I do think people underestimate the effort in humour, though, and that’s what I was trying to get at. If I’m writing something on here, I might take a few days to get my arguments straight and make sure my claims are substantiated (and sure, it takes me that long because I get interrupted a LOT) but funny, in this very tragic world, can be hard to do. And hard to do well. People dismiss it, but they shouldn’t.

  6. What about the money the sites earn through ads?

    There are some news pages that require an account and payment, but I don’t use them. I am, however, willing to accept ads when I view free content (or play games etc.).

    • I guess there is always the option of ad-blockers, which a lot of people use. I don’t subscribe (via a paid account) to any news sites, either, but I do wonder about the demand for good writing, when we’re not required to pay for them, you know?

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