Wednesday, February 02, 2005

What's a word worth to you?

I started writing this as a comment in response to Rachel's response to this post from earlier this week. As I wrote more, I realized I had a really good rant going. So I pulled it out of the comments section and am posting it here for y'all to read.

BTW, if you're not reading commments on anyone's blog, you're missing out on all the democratic fun. It's even better than a Starbucks on a Saturday night - no eight-dollar lattes and too-dry desserts. Just good conversation. So gather up your courage, grab your mouse and scroll down just a little bit to that magical Comments link. I know you want to. C'mon. Go for it. I'm digressing again, so on with the post...

I've become tired of people devaluing what it takes to write for a living. They seem to think that I can whip off brilliant prose in a mere few minutes and, as a result, I should be perfectly content to simply give them the fruits of my labor in exchange for...nothing.

In truth, I often can whip off brilliant prose in a stunningly short amount of time. Yes, I know I sound arrogant. But I'm a writer. It comes with the territory...if you don't pat yourself on the back every once in a while, it's not like the world is going to spontaneously do it for you.

But just because I'm capable of it - and can make it look easy in the process - does not mean that the end result is eminently worthless. Yet, for some strange reason, many people - who clearly don't write for a living - still seem to believe just that.

For example, a couple of years back, a new magazine wanted me to write for them. I had a brief, informal conversation with the publisher, and was excitedly informed the next day that they really liked me. I was "in". Then the publisher played the poor card: "We're new, and we don't have enough of an advertising base to pay our writers. We're hoping to have some money someday, but for now everyone has to write for free."

Right. I wonder if she tried doing that with the electric company, the gas company, or with the folks from the city who collect business taxes.

Didn't think so. But for some reason, it's become acceptable to target writers as the one group willing to work for nothing.

Writers face this conundrum all the time. Many newcomers - and lots of oldcomers, too - are desperate to get their names into print. So they negotiate with themselves. They justify accepting no fee, giving their work away without question, as the price they have to pay to gain traction as a writer. They see it as the only way to break in, to get noticed, to build a portfolio and gain experience.

The problem is, if you do it once, you've set a precedent. And they'll never see any reason to pay you in future because you've already confirmed that your work is worth what they've paid: nothing.

There are other avenues to building a profile. Conventionally, newspapers have letters to the editor (my absolute favorite section, for this is the heart and soul of any paper, but there I go digressing again) and other reader-based guest columnist opportunities.

Interestingly, blogging provides a compelling new-age answer to this formerly Hobson-eqeue choice. It is publishing - admittedly, self-publishing, but publishing just the same - and it allows writers to build a profile without having to go through the traditional channels.

True, they're not getting paid when they begin publishing a blog. But it's different in that they make that choice - no publisher makes that choice for them. If they're savvy enough, they might be able to parlay that blog into a paying gig of some sort (think Wonkette as one classic example.) But the control remains entirely within their hands, just as it remains in mine to write these words, edit them, shape them, and click Publish.

I didn't simply hand the result of my educated labor over to someone who neither appreciates nor values what I put into it. And neither, in my opinion, should you.

If you're a writer, what's your strategy to educate others on the value of your work? Even if you're not a writer, what say you? You read this stuff, so do you think it matters if those who write get paid or not? Why? Why not?

Let me have Comments, of course.


Photominer said...

Hi Carmi, here's my scoop. As you know I am just starting this writing thing. It is extremely difficult for me to get exactly what I want to say down in story form, but I toughed it out and wrote something. I will be published in April for the first time in my life, however it is unpaid. I'm happy to do it for a few reasons.

First, it is a validation for me that I potentially can do this (with a lot of work of course). Second, I got a tremendous amount of positive feedback, advice and honest criticism. That alone is worth the price of working for free, especially for my first real try.

In the future, I will be submitting for payment. I look at this as an internship, odds are I'll do more for free on ocassion too, if it seems like the right thing to do. I don't think of it any differently than that internship, much the same that any career choice offers in the workplace.

My two cents! Good topic. Thanks.

Chris Rachael Oseland said...

Ah, Carmi, I fear writers are not the only artists taken for granted. How often have you searched for a bit of clipart (or used Google's image search and stolen a good picture) because you didn't want to find and pay an artist for a little drawing of a tomato? After all, that should only take them five minutes, right?

The real problem is the issue of content providers versus artists. Content providers are interchangable cogs who can be swapped out without any impact on the final product's quality. Artists are individualized draws on the consumer dollar, regardless of the packaging. The publishing (and music, and commercial art) industry sees everyone as a Content Provider, even though they make thier real money off the Artists.

I can't speak for mainstream publishing, but Science Fiction has a distinct set of catagories to address this issue. I'll warn you, the solution doesn't make anyone happy, but so far it seems to work.

Basically, you have to pay more than 3 cents a word in order to be considered a "pro" magazine. If a magazine wants the status and recognition that go with this (and the subscribers) they have to pony up the cash. For writers, until you've published one book or 3 short stories at 3+ cents a word, you're still officially a diletante. Those magazines content to see their sales limited to a couple hundred can skimp on pay. Those writers content to be big fish in a small pond can fill the covers of the many magazines which only pay in copies. Everyone else puts up with the tremendous slush pile and internal politics necessary for Pro publishing.

As for self publishing via blogs, I don't see it as giving away work so much as offering readers a free sample so they'll buy the whole box. Of course, my blog is nothing more than a way to keep in touch with family scattered across the country, but I've seen many blogs by successful writers which are little more than gateway drugs to hardback book purchases.

My two cents...because I'm not paying you three cents a word for a comment. :)

Christine said...

Well said. I'm not a writer (other than I write a blog), but if you do it for a living, why would you give it away for nothing. Everyone has to pay their bills. I think it's insulting to ask of your time and talent that way, and offer nothing in return.

I post a lot of "crap" on my blog - stuff my kids say that I want to remember - that kind of thing. I also love the interaction I get from readers, so I post things that will encourage their comments. When I work up to something "good", it means a lot to me that others enjoy it. Sometimes I can "whip it out", and other times it takes me a lot of time to get it just the way I want it. Either way, my time is precious, and if someone would want to use it to sell their product (newspapers, magazines, etc.) then I feel I would be owed something for that time.

Rachel - Wicked Ink said...

Thanks Carmi, I had to go back and read what I had written, thinking I had set you off and insulted you into ranting.

It's taken a little while, but I have learned the value of my skills. There are still times when I give it away for free, but I choose the recipients.

The more who stand up for themselves, the less 'obvious' it seems that we can just do it for free.

Robin said...

First, thanks for saying that it's perfectly okay to use the phrase, "I'm a writer" when lauding our writings. You're absolutely correct... often we are the only ones patting our own backs (though more than once I've simply slapped the back of my head instead.)

As an unpublished writer, I have zero to add. I did however spend four years writing songs for a publishing company out of Nashville. The owner had all the connections to make my mouth water, so I was more than happy to write for free... FOR FOUR YEARS. Now he owns all my songs (and some of them are very good) and I can't pitch them to anyone else until the "good will" period (six years) passes. I will never again offer up my work in order to build my portfolio. I don't care how tempting it is - adding a non-motivated publisher to my resume does not enhance my career options (or my income.)

Gonzo said...

Carmi, I'm only posting this comment because of your warm invitation, and not because I have much to say about writing as a profession. I didn't even read your entire post. (I will, but for me it was all about the democracy of comments. I had to see what that was all about.)

Ok, so now I've read your post and, as it turns out, I do have a few thoughts on the subject. Just send a donation to my PayPal account and I'll tell you where you can find the comments.

Seriously (and yes, this time I mean it), I agree that writers are occasionally undervalued by people who don't have any idea of the skills and effort that the practice of good writing depends on. That said, all one has to do is go to your community volunteer center, or should I say 'centre', and take a look at the other skills and services that are undervalued in a capitalist society. Volunteering for everything from clerical work to caring for people dying of AIDS, in some job markets, has become the only way to get a foot in the door. Increasingly, employers both in the private and public sector depend on getting work critical to their operations done for free. The office in which I work would utterly fall apart without unpaid interns.

Then, there's the problem presented by the fact that people who can afford to take an unpaid internship or volunteer position are more likely to advance in their careers than folks who have to have a steady paycheck coming in, perpetuating inequities in our class system.

Where am I going with this? I suddenly have no idea. There must be something of value and relevence there. Right?

Diane said...

It seems that like any art for which the artist has a passion, writers sometimes feel that they need to start publishing in any way or form possible, just to build a reputation and get a readership. The laws of capitalism then kick in and sometimes the "free start" is expected it would seem.

Then there are artists like yourself, who are paid professionals. Your words are priceless but I am very happy to see that you are compensated for the glory you produce (whatever it is, it should be more). And you're so generous, you share them with us here free of charge. I never would have discovered your writing (and photographs either) if I had not discovered your blog. Thank you for sharing with us, and may you continue to prosper doing what you love.

P.S. - I was serious before when I mentioned the possibility of you publishing a complilation. You have some wonderful things here that I would love to see in my local bookstore. I'd snap that one right up!

Dean said...

From what I understand, the entire industry is plagued with this problem, which is that there are too many people who want to be writers, and too few markets for them all.

I suppose this mostly works as it should: the chaff floats away on the breeze, and the wheat falls where it should. If it is persistent.

The central problem, I think, is that pretty much everyone thinks they can write. It's related to something the (gonna try inserting a link here, may or may not work) sxKitten wrote yesterday, on American Idol. Writing is like singing: almost everybody thinks they can do it, a least a little, and that it isn't that hard.

I remember talking to some people some time ago. The woman of the couple was talking about romance novels, and how you'd get $12,000 for writing one. How hard can it be? I could write one of those things easily.

I didn't tell her that I've been working on a novel, and that novel writing is hard. It's nowhere near as easy as people think it is.

The bad news is that such fierce competition probably drives the market value of all written work down.

Anyway, I think you've got the right attitude. When I do start trying to publish, (and I think I've got at least 3 publishable short stories), I won't even consider giving it away.

Suzanne said...

I started writing when I was a kid. Elaborate short stories about ridiculous things that ultimately got me recognized by students and teachers. I had my own column in the high school paper, and wrote editorials in college, but have never been paid for any written words.

I think society has a skewed set of professions worthy of a paycheck. Mothers, teachers, volunteers, ...just for example, earn little to nothing yet make invaluable contributions to society at large.
Some would argue that writers fall into this category as well, offering information, entertainment, self help and so forth, yet are typically expected to work for nothing.

Why don’t we all quit our jobs and become a professional sports team that raps on the weekends? Perhaps then, we will get paid glorious amounts of cash? All we have to do now is think of a good name for our team.

Andrew said...

Interesting, I am not a writer (I am a software guy, VoIP mostly (work with skype); but I digress), nor do I pretend to be, but from my perspective writing is a business, your prose is your product. If someone approaches me in "start-up" stage, if the proposal is compelling, I will always come up with something to work together if they don't have capital. A strategic partnership, ownership, shared revenue etc. Can't your industy work the same? ex. I will write for you but I want 20% of ad revenue etc. Just some random thoughts.

Good Blog.

Valderbar de Cat said...

I suppose a career cachet that translates to dollars can be hard to predict. Why give away your services? It's like anyone who speaks English teaching overseas, or using clipart to advertize your business, or cutting your own hair. The customer doesn't perceive the value of expertize. The client base has to be educated and the expert has to be far and above blowing the jack-of-all-trades competition out of the water.