The Right Price.

A friend of mine and I were talking online recently, where he was teasing me about something I’d said, and we were light-heartedly discussing my work in the coal mining industry. Of course, I’ve never worked in the coal mining industry, which my friend knows (hence the joke) and I responded that I was intending to take up a position with Philip Morris instead, the humour being that both of these industries were facing falling profits and had questionable practices when it came to ethics and/or the environment.

I guess you had to be there.

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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.