WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

We’re not doing it for the money … apparently

dollar sign

Here’s another in a series of alerts that writers are getting screwed. That is, nobody wants to pay them for their work.

Writer/academic/activist Yasmin Nair goes into great depth here, and the bottom line is that far too many markets for good writing think of content as either a labor of love or a literal contribution. It’s a long article, so it’s particularly depressing.

It’s true that many varieties of artist are in the same boat. Musicians are getting hit hard, we all know, as are actors, no doubt, visual artists, indie filmmakers, poets (for sure), playwrights, stand-up comics, sculptors, cartoonists, choreographers, and knitters of humorous cummerbunds. (I’ve been listening to a lot of George Carlin lately …)

Why is it that no one wants to pay for things that bring such pleasure, enjoyment, wit, and wisdom?

Nair attacks this as mainly a labor issue, and it’s definitely that — at least in part. But there’s no minimum wage for artists, since we’re all, in effect, independent contractors, so there’s no recourse. And ultimately, as I’ve said before, this boils down to the plain fact that there is a superabundance of talent out there, so any time a writer says “I won’t work for free,” there’s another waiting behind her who will. It’s like my little rant last week about the freelance site, Upwork, where editors are bidding each other down down down, until there’s no reasonable way to make a living at it. Same in the arts. If you fuss about your publishing advance, HarperCollins will find someone who’ll take that five grand and be happy.

How/when did this happen?

Hard to say. All I know is, there’s pay-to-play atmosphere in the arts (see unpaid internships, MFA programs, expensive writers’ conferences, etc.) and plenty of artists who can afford the price of admission. The classic “struggling artist” is shut out.

What did I read recently, about people who wrote for some popular artsy thing (I’ll try to remember before I finish this), where, when you get into their backgrounds you realize they were already well set-up and able to do this rewarding thing on the side? Oh yeah! It was a documentary about New Yorker cartoonists! Clearly no one can make a living as a New Yorker cartoonist, since they only print so many per issue, so many per year, and yours can represent just a fraction of the total, even if you’re lucky. But it turns out that a lot of these guys (n’ gals) have done things like writing for Seinfeld or Saturday Night Live, or they’re well-off enough they don’t need the money. Imagine.

I’m not sure about Roz Chast. She’s my favorite.

Anyway. That’s the story. For now, at least, we’re not doing this for the money. If we ever were …

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15 comments on “We’re not doing it for the money … apparently

  1. kingmidget
    March 31, 2016

    In an email to a writer/blogger last night, I commented that I’m not looking to write a bestseller and see one of my stories on the big screen (although it would be nice). But I would like to be able to make low five figures from my writing … say, $10,000 – 25,000. The difficulty in finding the path to that goal grows rather than narrows. I mean, seriously, the more I look into it, traditional publishing seems to have become a money making scheme for others. And there are so many self-published authors out there now that it’s impossible to rise above the multitudes. Just don’t know how this gets any better for us.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2016

      I’m not sure how many traditionally published writers actually make enough money to live on, unless you’re talking real genre franchise writers. The advances are low these days, and if you don’t earn back your advance in sales you never get royalties.

      But even so, as the article makes clear, it’s not just book publishers but big online entities like Huffington Post that don’t want to pay writers. They seem to think the exposure is the payment …

      But I agree: This ain’t getting any better for us!

      • kingmidget
        March 31, 2016

        Yes! Exposure for what??? The 1 in a million chance at a publishing contract that pays more than peanuts.

      • Kevin Brennan
        March 31, 2016

        Yeah. Exposure shmexposure.

  2. christineplouvier
    March 31, 2016

    A terrible precedent has been set, and it’s going to take a lot of work to overcome it. Every freebie day or giveaway that an Indie author does further undermines our position as legitimate wage earners, not to mention the reluctance of many writers to protect their work by official copyright registration. Yes, we are artists, but we should respect our Art and the work it takes to create it enough to be professional businesspeople, too.

    It’s also not just a traditional publisher or HuffPost problem: WordPress is doing the same thing, making money off of our unpaid journalism by means of the ads they sell that appear with our blog posts. Where’s our cut?

    Joining the National Writers Union would be a step in the right direction. I looked them up and found that dues are only $10 per month, and they’ll admit members on a semiannual basis. Even that amount may be a hardship for some of us (my writing made a whopping $24.02 last year), but the potential benefits are worth looking into.

    Finally, we need come out of our Indie silos and do some grassroots organizing and collaborating. Cooperative marketing is a way to start: if we construct jointly operated book catalogs in our genres, and unite those catalogs under a brand name, we will have our own virtual bookstore that we can promote via blogs and other social media, to help one another find that elusive paying readership.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2016

      I like the idea of the Writers Union. Solidarity forever!

      I do think this boils down to the simple reality that there are always plenty of writers who’ll gladly offer a piece for free. Writers who demand payment just won’t get their stuff into print. Alas…

  3. Parlor of Horror
    March 31, 2016

    Today, writing, authoring, and publishing has become so easy that everyone can do it. (and everyone is doing it). It’s called ‘the long tail’ in marketing. I see that the way to success is to self publish a few books, build a fan base, move to an indie publisher that can offer you a bigger base and followers and more support, and if you catch a big enough wave, sign to a major publishing house that can deliver some best-seller activity. The problem is, there are over 4 million self published and indie ebooks on Amazon. Chances are most hard working self published authors are not going to sell more than a couple of hundred copies of their books (if they’re lucky). No way to make a living on that and it wont attract any publishers that can make a career from your talent.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2016

      True. I’ve read that some agents are willing to look at a self-published novel if it has already sold 10,000 copies. That’s like twice as many as the average traditionally published novels sells! Talk about BS …

  4. John W. Howell
    March 31, 2016

    Oh, I don’t know. I make a comfortable living writing. I’m comfortable as long as I have my card board box and “Will Write for Food”sign.

  5. ericjbaker
    March 31, 2016

    It’s simply commerce. If what you’re doing doesn’t generate revenue, they’re not going to pay you. Most books don’t sell, few literary mags sell, people would rather hear songs they already know, and so on. It sucks, but there are simply more of us (artists) than there are patrons who are willing to support us. Being good might be 5% of it. We’re all trying to capture lightning in a bottle and getting frustrated when we check every morning and the bottle is still empty.

    This message brought to you by the jaded voice of a corporate drone.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 31, 2016

      What bugs me is that outfits like Huffington don’t pay, though. But you’re right, Mr. Drone — if this is what the market will bear, that’s reality. Till it changes (to a model where the writer pays to be published!).

      • ericjbaker
        March 31, 2016

        HuffPo is such a hypocritical pile of dog poop, going on and on about living wages and being all rah-rah-Bernie-Sanders, and then they exploit workers just like the people they pretend to rail against.

  6. Donald Baker
    March 31, 2016

    One of my meager writing credits is Huffington.

    They didn’t pay me.

  7. 1WriteWay
    April 4, 2016

    I think Eric doesn’t like HuffPo … 😉 That’s just it. So many writers will write for free because they are HOPING that just getting their name attached to something like HuffPo will be their ticket. They might argue they are just “paying their dues.” I’d argue they are being nothing better than slaves. But whatever. I’m a wage-slave (and these days a very bitter one) and even though, like yourself and so many others, I don’t ask for much more than a respectable return on my (currently nonexistent) books, writing might always remain a labor of love for me because I am just one drop in this great (and quickly rising) ocean of clamoring writers.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 4, 2016

      Yep. Always supply and demand, and the supply seems infinite …

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