Friday, October 11, 2013

On Writing For Free

This is probably it for me and writing. I've had enough. I've had enough of being asked to give my time, experience and - yes Goddamnit – my talent away for free. I've had enough of being told that my writing is valued, just not in a monetary sense. Enough is enough.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not one of those people driven solely by money. I actually loathe people obsessed with money. They bore me senseless. A friend recently asked me point blank how much money I make a year, and man did she cop an earful. She was almost dropped on the spot, because who fucking cares? Of all the stupid, pointless questions to ask someone... I believe you should respect what a person does (or not, in the case of advertising people, sales people, advertising gurus and criminal lawyers), not how much they earn.

But money is a necessary evil. Few of us have much choice but to work at a job we may or may not like but have to do each day to pay the bills. If you've got a job you love doing, you are one of the lucky ones. There are a lot of you around, but you're also pretty rare. I reckon 99% of the people you encounter during the day are just doing their job because it's all they can do. Except for the career drones mentioned above who are just leeches with money coursing through their veins.

People generally end up doing something that they have a little bit of aptitude for or something they have a bit of an interest in. Or maybe they don't have any interest in what they do for a living but they've somehow ended up there and what the hell, you have to do something. Gotta pay the bills somehow. And in any case, maybe driving a bus all day long is mind-numbing, but at least I don't have to deal with people and be nice to them. Or sure, dealing with idiots all day sucks the life out of me, but at least it's better than digging ditches. Or sure, digging ditches all day long is ruining my back, but at least working outside is better than working in an office. Or sure, crunching numbers all day long in front of a computer screen in an office is making me go slowly insane, but at least I can live with my conscience, unlike criminal defence lawyers. Or sure, defending criminals I know are guilty poses a few moral dilemmas and basically I am breathing scum, but fuck me the money is soooo good.

But at least all these people get paid for their efforts. Sometimes it's not a lot, but if it's not enough you work more hours or take on another job, you do whatever you have to do to make ends meet. Employers, generally, understand that they need an employee's efforts. They understand that the contract is basically swapping hours for dollars. They need your thinking or your hands, your time and effort and in return they give you the stuff you need to make the wheels turn.

So why... why do so many publishers expect writers to give their time and effort for free? Not just writers but most creatives are expected to donate for free because... well why? Why the fuck should we keep saying yeah sure, I'll do it for free because it will be good for my portfolio?

My portfolio is in reasonably healthy shape, so basically, fuck off. You want me to sit down and put time and effort and care into writing something that you need? Show me the money! I won't even ask a lot, but something would be nice.

I recently had a music mag approach me and tell me that they really like my writing and that they'd love to have me on board. Great, I said, what are your rates? Rates will be discussed after your first two on-spec articles. With new writers, they said, we ask that they contribute the first two stories for free, then if we take them on on a regular basis we discuss payment. It's kind of a probation period – if you don't stuff up the first two stories, then we can talk about payment.

The thing is, at times I've made my living from making words. I've interviewed countless performing artists. I've been doing this job for quite some time now. The chances of me stuffing up the first two stories is pretty damned slim. In fact, I told the music mag, how about this: I'll do the first two stories on spec, but if they are good enough for you to use, you pay me for them.

I haven't heard from the music mag since. Am I just being cynical in thinking that they get an awful lot of first two stories for free and don't follow up with ongoing stories for payment?

The same principle applies everywhere. As print media goes the way of dinosaurs, online mags are springing up every day with the promise of giving new writing talent the opportunity to be published. Just don't expect payment for it because the real pay-off is in “how good it's going to look in your portfolio.”

And they get away with it because new writers come along every day and go hey yeah, this will look good in my portfolio; finally I really am going to be a published writer.

I know online mags are start-ups and they have costs to meet which make budgets tight. But so does any small business. As we speak, I'm starting up a cafe. Can I ask any of my suppliers – the coffee guy or the milk guy - to donate their time and services because it will look good on their resume? Can I ask them to donate their time and money because they love what they are doing? The coffee guy might be passionate about his coffee but I still don't expect him to deliver it for free. Would I expect staff to work for free so they can get a foot in the door? It wouldn't occur to me to ask someone to work for free.

So why should writers write for free? Sure, for most writers it's in your blood. It's just what we do. We can't stop doing it. Best response to someone being asked why they write that I ever read was, why do you have dark hair? Some things just are.

But writing, it's still a thing of value, no matter how much it's a part of our nature or how much we love doing it. Online magazines may have budgets, but I bet they don't ask their other suppliers to work for free. I bet they pay their tech support. I bet they pay their rent. I bet they pay their fucking coffee guy.

Then why don't they pay their story suppliers? Magazines would be nothing without written contributions, so why do they expect written content to be delivered for free?

Furthermore, why do writers agree to this shitty contract? Just stop doing it. Stop bending over and taking it from behind. Tell them no, I am worth something. I care about what I do. Sometimes I care so much about what I am writing that I cry tears of blood. In my down times, I definitely care more about this copy than the cleaners care about cleaning your office, so if you pay them why don't you pay me?


Bright Precious said...

Brilliant, Lee! A standing ovation from me! x

Lee Bemrose said...

Sitting blush from me :)