Monday, November 4, 2013

Part of the Problem

I am writing this blog post for free. This may be obvious to most of you, but in light of the recent flare-up on free writing on the internet (aka “exposure”), it may be worth repeating. Yes, you’re getting me completely for free. I don’t have a corporate sponsor; there are no ads on the right-hand side of the web site. I don’t even have an Amazon click-through. Perhaps I’m leaving a bit of money on the table, but I don’t think so.

Last week, the New York Times published this op-ed piece, which touched off a lot of debate among writers. Actually, it wasn’t debate, as the word implies arguing a few sides. No one I knew was arguing against paying writers.

By the way, I read that piece online, for free. And while I do subscribe to the Sunday dead-tree edition of the New York Times (I will never stop loving the feel of curling up on the couch on a Sunday, football on TV and sections of newsprint all around me), these days I’m getting most of my news without paying a thin dime. Thanks to Facebook likes and Twitter follows, I spent way too much time reading free news from Salon, Mother Jones, Slate, Talking Points Memo, the Daily Beast, and of course HuffPost. (And I’ve just outed myself as a gigantic liberal, but who didn’t already know that.) HuffPost is the first, biggest and most notorious of the “we don’t pay but hey, great exposure!” players, but I’m pretty sure the other publications actually pay their writers. Good for them! Sometimes I feel guilty about pressing the X on that dollar-a-year subscription offer (especially for publications that don’t take advertisements), but the guilt is fleeting.

In other words, it’s hard for me to complain too loudly about not getting paid when I’m benefitting just as much from the “don’t pay writers” system.

And I’m working really hard at not getting paid. It’s not just this blog, or the blog posts I do on other blogs, all in the name of exposure. It’s the internship I spend 10 hours a week on, reading and evaluating manuscripts, with nothing in return but a thank-you email. Or the book reviews in exchange for free books. Free books are great, but they won’t help pay the mortgage. Neither will selling my own book (buy it here!) for 99 cents. But my own Kindle is filled with 99 cent books, and I’ve put off buying books by my favorite authors because with all these freebies, I suddenly can’t stomach paying $13 for a download.

Going back a few years, I’ve written about 10 screenplays “on spec” (another word for free), and done several rewrites and original treatments “on spec” for producers. It’s hard to complain about not getting paid because they were working for free, too.

I work hard at what I do, and I’d love to bring in a salary that reflects that. But my college economics course taught me that the price of a commodity correlates with its supply, and the supply of free writing is astronomical.

What does this mean for the future of the publishing industry? While every writer starts off writing for free, the hardest working, most talented and luckiest find a way to support themselves through their stories. If this is no longer an option, will writing turn into a hobby that only the one percent can afford to indulge in?

I don’t know the answer. And I have a few more books I’m working on. But that real estate class my husband keeps pushing on me is looking more and more attractive.

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