Saturday, March 09, 2013

Why There Are No Starving Publishers

An email exchange between an award-winning freelance writer and an editor of the Atlantic online has sparked the latest debate on how media is changing in the Internet age.  This time it is from a writer's point of view.

Nate Thayer was asked if he could "repurpose" for the Atlantic online a piece he'd published elsewhere.  He started a correspondence on adapting it, and soon asked the usual questions about length, deadline and payment.  The answers: end of the week, 1200 words, "unfortunately we can't pay you for it."

Thayer responded in part:  "I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children...I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts... Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them." 

Thayer posted the email exchange on his blog and got lots of comments, many about the new realities for writers.  Unfortunately however this is not an entirely new reality.  For-profit publications have been cajoling writers into writing for free since I started writing professionally in the 70s.  And when they couldn't get you to work for absolutely nothing, they kept their fees very low.

Except for a few writers in a few places, that still seems to be the rule.  Some freelance fees have not changed in forty years, some longer--that is, if you got paid $50 in 1972 for a review, you might well be getting paid $50 (or less) today.  (The rent for my Cambridge MA apartment in 1972--admittedly not in a better part of Cambridge--was $150. It would not surprise me if it were ten times more now, but certainly 5.)

It's possibly even worse for literary writers, who almost never get paid now.  But even when magazines were still publishing and paying for poems and stories back in the 70s and 80s, I recall reading that many of their rates hadn't changed since the 1940s or even 1920s, despite inflation.

Everybody loves to make arguments about costs and circulation, etc. that are probably all valid, to a point.  And the point is this: the editor gets paid, the accountants get paid, the janitors get paid, but in a business with written words as a main product, it's okay for the writers not to get paid, or to get paid the least.

Even at the enlightened liberal cutting-edge electronic age site the Huffington Post, I'm willing to bet that Arianna Huffington takes home some dollars, and that Howard Fineman gets a paycheck, benefits and probably stock options, etc.  But the "bloggers" get nothing but the chance to look like they're important.  This may or may not lead to paying jobs (why would it?  They work for free for Arianna, why not for me?) but I'm pretty sure they can't pay for groceries with page views.

Writers in the realms of journalism and the general area of non-fiction may not have a great deal in common with literary writers, but they do share this.  I recall a conversation long ago with a freelance theatre artist--performer, puppeteer and writer.  "I know starving artists," he said dryly, "but I don't know any starving arts administrators."

The arts in America have long been subsidized by artists, through their unpaid or badly paid labor and creativity.  Journalists and non-fiction writers had it a little better in the 70s: writing for nothing or almost nothing was something you did when you were young, because it could lead to paying work.  If it didn't, you found something else to do that earned an income.  Writing record reviews for five bucks (and the record) for alternative newspapers could lead to staff jobs on weeklies or dailies, and/or magazines. Well-known names at the New York Times etc. started that way. That might lead to books.  There was some kind of path, and risks and inadequate pay all along the way if you didn't take the unionized daily newspaper gig, but at least something like a path existed.

Maybe for the young today there is a similar path that starts with free or very badly paid writing online.  But it's not just the young who are being starved by the collapse of periodical and book publishing.  That makes it worse.

I'm sure that today there are also overworked and underpaid editors and others as well. Still, the fundamental disconnect has been there for a long time.  Nobody would dare ask anyone else in the business to work for free--they only ask that and expect that of writers.  And writers are arrogant and unrealistic for pointing that out.