Fumbling For the Truth: The Freelancing Author, or Will I Ever Be Paid Again?

I’m not sure what the big deal is.  Nate Thayer was respectfully asked by Olga Khazan, the Global Editor for The Atlantic, to repurpose an article he wrote for NK News about “basketball diplomacy,” for the benefit of her readers. Nate Thayer, needing a paycheck more than exposure, respectfully declined. And then, perhaps deciding that if he was going to work for free, he might as well get that exposure in a different way, he chose to adapt his experience into a blog post about the sorry state of unpaid journalism. Publishing the editor’s e-mail address seemed unnecessary, I suppose, but hardly vindictive so much as childish: “You offered me exposure to your readers, I return the favor to you via mine.” And then his comments were picked up by New Yorkwhich got him being a bit more profane and officially on-the-record. Recursively, the whole thing wound up back at The Atlantic, in a half-defensive blog post by Ta-Nehisi Coates that seemed intent on contextualizing Thayer in the worst possible light. Which might not have been such a terrible thing, what with another blog accusing Thayer of plagiarizing his entire article. The whole thing’s spit-balled around the blogosphere long enough for even me, The Lowest Man on the Totem Pole, to chime in about it . . . so let’s get back to the actual point: that writers are increasingly asked to exchange their services–whether to create entirely new content or to adapt previously published work–for nothing more than the opportunity to reach a larger, or different, audience. Monetizing that would, one assumes, be left up to the writer . . . though if The Atlantic finds itself requesting free articles in order to boost their own ad revenue, I don’t imagine that’s a winning strategy.

But rather than write about things I don’t have the full story on, I’ll share some experiences of my own. I graduated from Binghamton University in 2005 and took the experiences I’d gotten from running the entertainment section of our school’s newspaper (Pipe Dream) and working within the theater department (and its scrappy community brethren) to find work writing freelance theater reviews for Show Business Weekly and for a new blog founded by the PBS show Theater Talk, New Theater Corpswhich had gathered sixteen young would-be critics. At first, I was happy simply to have validation: that outside of college, professionals thought enough of my work to still publish it (and to support my unsustainable habit of regularly going to the theater without having a paying job). How could I not forever be grateful to Susan Haskins for the opportunities that she provided me–to make my first, extremely nervous television appearance and, later, to take over editing the site (which actually did pay). None of this made me feel as if I’d been taken advantage of, or misled, and the work that I was doing there helped me to get some paying freelance work with David Cote at Time Out New York; I’d like to think that if I were better at networking (or even sending out my resume), I could have continued to find paying outlets. Enough to sustain myself? Probably not (and I’d personally rather read Helen Shaw’s writing than my own), but at least there was a path available, if I could afford to walk it. Hell, as one of the original members of the Show Showdown, I even got a write-up in the Times herself, and that traffic gave us a foundation for reaching out to more publicists and covering more shows, especially ones that other publications weren’t ready, willing, or able to get to.

But then the economy started to slide. The grant that sustained the work I was doing for New Theater Corps dried up, I stopped receiving assignments from Time Out New York (save for an unpaid request to help with their Fringe Binge, which I gladly accepted), and after nearly two years of writing for Show Business Weekly, when I’d informed them that I’d like to start getting paid something for my work, or to perhaps get some paid copy-editing or proofreading work thrown my way (which is what I do for an actual living), I basically never heard from them again. I liked the editor that I worked with–I think every blogger should have access to an editor; perhaps we could edit one another’s work–and I’d like to think that I was somewhat helpful to the people I worked with at New Theater Corps, but let me tell you, I’m sure they had the same experience: save for some reference letters that I wrote, they’ve never heard from me again. I haven’t sent any opportunities their way, though I’d like to think that if I’d gotten into a position to do so, I would have. Still, small comfort to them that I’d been exactly where they were, writing and rewriting without pay; in fact, the very fact that I was where I was now all but guaranteed that they wouldn’t be paid, since I wasn’t going anywhere.

And then my full-time job, the one that actually paid, imploded–taking an entire 150-plus-person department with it–and I found myself unable to even get interviews for internships in the field that I’d spent six years writing about. I’m not saying I’m better than the people who did wind up getting those positions; I’m saying that there were suddenly so many of us, all struggling to find a position. I remember when The Sun folded and I realized that if I was serious about it, I’d be competing with people like Eric Grode. Around this time I started missing performances that I’d booked, or worse, attending and failing to write the promised review; how was that supposed to help? By punishing people who, even when I was being paid nothing, were probably making even less (given that some companies spend their own money to make a dream production come true)? I knew what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t even that I couldn’t get paid to do it–it was that I suddenly couldn’t even get not paid to do it. (I’ve since discovered a new means of self-motivating, and that’s largely come from being more discerning in the assignments that I take, whether they’re something that I’d probably already be doing, like television or video games, or if they’re shows That Sound Cool. Whether anything career-oriented comes of my writing is beside the point now–though one always hopes for the best–I’m just personally happy to be providing exposure to subjects that I find interesting.)

So when someone like Thayer, whether you respect the guy or not, announces that he’s being treated the same way as the rest of us, that the freelancer is essentially an ink-stained Sisyphus, rolling words uphill (is that not what writing feels like?) and then being crushed back down by financial burdens, it makes one pause. Perhaps the Atlantic isn’t greedy, perhaps they’re struggling under the same market conditions as the rest of us (but at a different order of magnitude), and they really can’t afford to pay for content, not when bloggers like me are quoting and repurposing their paid content. (I feel a little better in knowing that I at least pay for a yearly subscription, that I’m at least less a part of the freeloading, paywall-skipping problem.) And it’s not as if they don’t pay any authors–and more than fairly, when they do–so much as that most people can’t afford to work on constant spec, hoping for the moment at which an Atlantic-type publication will swoop in, recognize their portfolio, and shower money upon them.

That said, here are two possibilities to alleviate this situation:

  1. Create a “path to staff”; like a tenure track, or an unpaid internship, this would essentially be some sort of contract that would guarantee (in the sense that anything in the tenuous “publishing” world can be guaranteed) future, paid work in exchange for unpaid (and less-edited, hopefully less-strenuous) work in the present. I’m phrasing that poorly, but the implication from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog post is that his unpaid work led to him eventually being hired as a staff writer for The Atlantic, and even if that’s never put in writing, a simple good-faith understanding would provide that reassuring light at the end of the tunnel, a sign that the struggling author is not going insane (you know, from publishing over and over again without ever being paid but expecting a different outcome). At the very least, there have to be some perks that The Atlantic (and other large publications) could offer to their toiling, literally freelancers, whether that’s through exclusive first-looks at job postings or through some sort of social network in which you have more than good faith than an editor you’ve given free product to is going to be advocating on your behalf. What about sharing access to JSTOR or other research tools that you have the money to license, but which your average struggling, unpaid author could really use in improving the quality of future work?

  2. Stop simply offering “exposure” and come up with a way of monetizing that for authors. Doesn’t YouTube offer a very small percentage of ad revenue to the videos that most drive traffic? If that fails, or your site doesn’t actually generate income on its own (not without the print component, or through brand awareness/relevance), you might consider simply being transparent about it–revealing why you don’t have the money to pay your writers might make them feel more empathetic and less ripped off. All things considered, why not implement a “tip” button beside the various tools to retweet or post on Facebook? If the numbers of eyes that you offer the unpaid author are really that spectacular, and the content they’re writing is actually worth publishing and reading, perhaps you might shame readers into paying a bare minimum, much like the Humble Indie Bundle basically gives games away (for exposure), but at such a volume that money is actually made. I wouldn’t expect my readers to pay a dollar a word (especially at the rate I’m ranting), but what about a thousandth of a penny? If you had the Atlantic‘s supposed 13 million readers, and one percent of them gave one-thousandth of a penny per word (so basically a cent and a half from each person in that elite 1%), this essay would’ve made more than $2,000. That’s the sort of monetized exposure I could get behind. Sure, it’d lead to pandering, with authors attempting to write to those most likely to donate, but that’s what you’d have the rest of the paid writers for: to focus on the articles that need to be written, regardless of our low-attention spans and fetishization of celebrity culture.

As I’ve said, the purpose of these “Fumbling for the Truth” posts isn’t accuracy or even answers: it’s simply a ball-rolling hope that this time–this time!–the boulder of words will make it over the hill, pick up momentum, and reach the intended goal: more sustainable wages for writers. Until then, I guess there’s always Kickstarter. (So long as my idea focuses on a forbidden love triangle between a socially awkward vampire, a teenage mummy and his wizardly cat, and an angel with a bondage fetish.)

112 thoughts on “Fumbling For the Truth: The Freelancing Author, or Will I Ever Be Paid Again?

  1. I think your plight is indicative of many freelance professions, like photography, for instance. Exposure is great, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into food on the table.

    Also, I’ve noticed this trend in the publishing world, too, where authors are expected to do much more of the work that traditionally was done by the publishing house, for the same percentage of book sales. I know of several authors who are self-publishing now, because of this.

    • I can’t speak to larger trends in publishing, but I imagine this is true, particularly on the publicity end. You’ve got to have a Twitter feed, a fan site, you’ve got to find ways to give teaser content away for free (exposure isn’t a new thing; it’s just more pervasive thanks to the web), and it’s more than just book tours and interviews.

      I will say that the number of full-time jobs in the copy-editing and proofreading world certainly seems to have diminished!

  2. This is a really serious issue. Right now, I’m eager to see (and might ask Poynter for a grant to really get some data) what the actual, real, quantifiable ROI on “exposure” is. Because, for most newbies and desperados, it’s pure BS. Let’s see a survey of 1,000 freelancers to determine: 1) how often they allow their work to be used upaid; 2) to whom 3) for what reason and 4) exactly how many (prolly none) PAID gigs came about as a result of their putative “exposure.”

    I’ve been writing for a living since 1978, many years FT freelance, and have given it away unpaid maybe four or five times, and those only in service of promoting my books, (my choice and a very clear ROI to me if done before the right, huge audience, which it was.)

    No one can pay their bills with “exposure” and Olga is sucking up a salary to ask veterans twice her age and with 3x her journalism experience to give it away. As if.

    I hope you’ll permit these two links; the latter got 52 likes. People are utterly fed up being taken advantage of!



    • If you can get that data, I’d love to read it (and I’ll be checking out your links when I get back from work tonight).

      As I mentioned in my post, the work that I initially did for free/coverage (straight out of college) did eventually lead to networking opportunities and paid work, but my deeper fear is that many of the short-term gains from exposure actually tend to evaporate over the long term. Because there are so many people out there who are attempting to build up that straight-out-of-college portfolio and because the barrier to writing has gotten so low (thanks to the deluge of content), there’s a sort of Catch-22 in exposure in that you need it to get paying jobs, but because you or others have worked for free, the eventual salaries — if they ever appear — are lower than they might have been. All told, time spent writing for free combined with time spent writing for salary, average rates are most likely going down.

      Things to factor in when you go grant-/data-hunting!

      • As a writer, I have very little experience, although I have been paid for my work. When I completed my degree four years ago, I cold see that monetizing
        words was going to be difficult when the starting pay, locally, was 25.00 per article. I have had success working my way into a different type of work position, but freelance writing is one place where you brand yourself. Once you work without profit, it is very difficult to prove your worth. Well stated.

    • I agree that authors don’t want to spend hours/days/years perfecting a story, only to find that some sites would like the story on their site because it makes them appear to be better and bigger than they actually are. But then when it comes to actually paying for the stories, they give any numbber of excuses not to do so.

      I’ve had seven long short stories/novellas on on a South African website for over a year now and when I check up on the number of clicks, I’ve got between 800 to over a thousand of them for each story. Yet when I query why I’ve not been paid the miserly R8 per click, they tell me the clicks are all wrong and that in a year I’ve actually only sold 1 story, but that several of my freebies are doing well.

      Well,I don’t believe her, simply because I know a number of family and friends have bought and paid for these stories, because they’ve commented on the content and I’ve not given them any free copies.

      -I guess I could ask again for my stories to be removed from the site, but when I tried to do this previously, I got the ‘exposure story’ mentioned in your article.

      The owner of the site initially complained that bank charges were so high that that she made hardly any profit out of the book sales. She therefore encouraged me to put most of my stories on for free. Then deciding this was a bit or racket, I linked two similar stories and said I wanted R8 per copy sold. Then later I linked three stories and said I wanted R12 per copy sold.

      She eventually agreed to do this, but with all those clicks and family and fans that have bought the stories, I’d expect at least a fifty or so sales in an entire year.

      I don’t want to give up writing because I enjoy it, but I would like to at least be able to pay my own way and contribute something to the household budget through my writing.

      The site takes thirty percent of the money anyway, so now I suspect that I’m helping to finance her business.

      Best regard,

    • I would never consider the blogging I do here to be straight-up journalism (except for some of my reviews), as I spend a limited amount of time editing and researching, both of which I think are key components to quality articles. I aggregate a lot, I repost and quote with citations, but without the sources in those magazines — the actual journalists — I’d have nothing to write about.

      There are, however, plenty of bloggers who do actually function as journalists; I feel even worse when they go unpaid and jobless!

  3. I love this post. It validates the experiences I have had as a freelancer the past two years. I now have a desk job and work on my own writing, and have given up most of the “exposure” gigs I was doing before. The element I find most problematic about this relationship between the author and editor is the promise that if you start off unpaid, you may become a regular contributor and earn a paycheck eventually once the site has enough revenue.

    In my experience, even if I contribute often, there is never any monetary incentive. However, there are often plenty of curt comments from editors if an article is a day late, if you say that it is not feasible to post more frequently with no compensation, etc. Some sites will apologize that they are unable to pay, but most are just asking for free content, and getting frustrated with “flaky” writers who only post once a week for nothing.

    I have decided to stop producing free content for building sites, unless I find their project to be one of true quality. “Free” lancing is just too exhausting, and I would rather focus on my own blog and it’s readers, or be paid for my work of course.

    • Right, that’s sort of what I was getting at with my first suggestion, that there be more of a set path for compensation. (I believe that there are government regulations in place regarding the nature of an internship; I know the Internet is still the regulatory Wild West, so to speak, but with unemployment so high — especially among young, tech-literate, fresh-out-of-college job seekers — this might be a great place to really crack down.

      Building a site is difficult, and a Catch-22 in its own right: you need readers to appeal to advertisers, but without advertisers, you can’t pay writers, and without writers, you can’t get readers, so you need to avoid paying writers. By the time you start turning a profit — if ever — you’ve already built up a model that avoids compensation, and even if you could theoretically pay them at that point, why would you? (Which is not to say that places don’t do this, so much as it is to point out that many places either never make it that far or never actually share.)

      As for your notes about editors, I’ve been fortunate in the sense that none of them have been curt, and when they complain about me running late for a deadline (on account of me having to do paying work first), they’re generally apologetic or simply passive about it. The experience I get from working with an editor, even a frustrating one, is sometimes worth more than the exposure; they make it clear when your thoughts are not getting across as intended.

  4. It is true that bloggers may be unpaid journalists yet it opens up my world to so much knowledge and I don’t mind this kind of unpaid. Does anyone else agree?

    • If I read your post correctly, you are saying that you are happy with lots of people writing unpaid so you can gain plenty of knowledge. Therefore the answer is no – if you want someone to be a journalist, to work at creating content and put a load of effort in then long term, they should be paid.

      If you are saying you are happy to write for free as it opens up your world to new facts then that’s great. Write for free but remember that you will be doing it forever as the wealth of free content on the web means people will never see a need to pay for it.

      I think writers need to take a harder line or the public needs to accept lower quality control. After all, if I’m not being piad, why would I spend money travelling to see someone or even doing basic fact-checking?

      • (EDITED to correct the subject; when I first saw this post in my feed, I thought it to be a response me, not to Segmation.)

        segmation, I’m not happy with the current state of affairs: at best, I merely understand and empathize with editors, having myself made similar requests in the past. I’ve offered two suggestions for ways in which editors might look to compromise with authors, or in which the system might self-regulate to ensure that writers are less taken advantage of. This comments thread, some of which I’ve excerpted in my most recent post is also filled with clarifications and expansions on the various ways in which a freelance journalist should be compensated or should find ways to monetize their existing work/product. This falls in line with what Phil is saying in the idea of taking a “harder line,” although I fear that the public already seems comfortable with “lower quality control,” especially when it comes to political reportage: people tend to want to hear things that reinforce their existing views, whether or not that news is accurate and unbiased.

        As for what Phil’s talking about, whether one is happy to write for free, I wish to clarify: Given the amount of material that I read every day and the fact that my mind sometimes wishes to skim (especially after focusing for so many hours on the proofreading/copy-editing that I do for a living), I find it helpful to jot notes in the margins and to later write down and process those thoughts. I suppose I could keep those thoughts private, but since I’ve already done the work of writing for myself, I see no reason not to share that with anybody else who might be interested, particularly if it spurs discussion and opens me up to viewpoints that I had not previously considered. All the better if I’m made to defend the stances that I’ve adopted: if we don’t question ourselves, how can we learn to question others? There’s a distinction between writing for myself, however, and writing for another site, or allowing my material to be appropriated by others: I expect *some* level of compensation in these situations, even if it isn’t always in the direct form of a check for services rendered.

  5. I think it’s a great idea. Instead of asking readers to pay a bare minimum amount, large publications can actually set up some sort of system that will allow the writer to get paid a percentage of the revenue that his writing generated to the publication.

    In blogging world, there’s this term called revenue-sharing. Which means everyone can have their own AdSense account on rotating method. I’m sure large publications like The Atlantic come up with something that will keep a record of how much a writer’s article is generating them (generally CPM) and then they can offer a small portion of that to the writer.

    But you know what? I don’t think they’re going to do it unless all the freelance writers in the world come together and stand for it. Which as you can guess is never going to happen.

    I wanted to be a journalist. A tech journalist. But my local news agency hasn’t paid me for my March-April 2012 bills yet. I gave up from May 2012 and still lurking them for the money they owe (around $250) me from March-April ’12. I can only think of the bigger picture and I’m already feeling lost. I love writing and I wanted to take Steve Jobs’ advice of doing what I love.

    Not like it’s going to happen actually.

    • All the freelance writers taking a stand *or* government intervention, which I mentioned elsewhere in this comment thread. I’m not sure which is less likely — especially since the government can’t even manage to get freelancers who *are* promised compensation (and given a contract) to be paid. At least many of these editors who advertise on Craigslist for portfolio-building writers to help them with their start-ups don’t promise anything other than exposure (which is itself often an overstatement: demand stats).

      The solution will probably come from an innovator, like the person who created Square or other micro-transaction processes: something so smooth and seamless that sites won’t be able to avoid integrating it alongside their posts, or which authors will be able to handle on their own.

  6. I’m so glad you wrote about this, and this doesn’t just effect just writers, but musicians and other artists. As a musician, we are asked to perform for free for exposure. There are so many artists will to work for free, but it doesn’t benefit the art, it doesn’t benefit the people. I think most artists just have to become entreprenuers, work for themselves, be creative with how they get money, because working for free for someone else isn’t going to cut it. You spent time, money, education on your craft, why give it away for free?

    • Right, and this brings me back to my second suggestion: if we can’t rely on organizations to pay us, we need to come up with a way to monetize ourselves. If we can actually convert readers into loyal followers and fans through the free gigs we do, we have the potential to sell ads on our own sites (though often using someone else, like Google, as a percent-taking intermediary) or to essentially ask for “tips” every season or so. (I know a few crossword writers who publish excellent weekly crosswords and occasionally open up their sites for donations; it’s not a primary source of income, but they’ve shared their numbers and they are not insignificant.)

      On the other hand, I dislike the idea of having to shill for myself; I’d like the writing to speak for itself. I don’t want to — and in fact never have — run ads on my site, and I don’t want to have to ask readers — many of whom are probably in the same situation as I am, if this comment thread is any indication — to charitably donate. I also don’t want to feel directly indebted to an audience; that can be a dangerous thing, especially if you’re writing subjective reviews that tend to generate better traffic when they’re positive. (On account of relinks.) There’s only so far we can compromise (consciously or unconsciously) before we run the risk of losing whatever spark made us so appealing in the first place.

      • Even though you feel bad about asking for money, it just sounds like guilt. Maybe there are alternative methods for making money off of writing? Self publishing books? Being a guest author? I don’t know myself how to make money off of writing. With music it’s performing and selling merchandise. Advertising isn’t a bad idea, why are you against it? There’s a choice to be made then. Find a way or do something else. Why don’t you set up your own blogging website, get other writers and go from there?

      • Elena, since you’re talking in music terms, I guess I’d be against advertising in the sense that it’s akin to “selling out.” I do agree, though, that if I’m not happy with my current decisions, or if I wind up relying on this instead of my day job for income, then yes, I’ll have to find a way to monetize. But we’re talking about compromise here: selling your own merchandise is fine, but if nobody’s buying it, would you enjoy selling other people’s CDs? Performing other people’s music? Becoming a backup singer instead of the star? Joining the crew instead of playing on stage? What we’re discussing isn’t an inability to make money: it’s an inability to make money doing the thing you want to do.

        As for starting a “blogging website,” I’d need something unique enough (and of common interest to the other writers) to set it apart from the literally thousands of such sites that already exist and are more established. Show Showdown, which I mentioned in my post, was such a site; it still continues (almost entirely without my participation, but with great new people), but it’s still not making a profit. And here’s the kicker, not to be defeatist or anything: in the early days, before making money, what would I be paying my writers? As I worried about in another comment in this thread, if I ever did turn a profit, *would* I start paying my writers? (I’d like to think so.) Moreover, if the solution to not being paid is to start your own site with other unpaid writers, wouldn’t the people you’re trying to hire be simultaneously attempting to hire you? We’d be the Ouroborus.

  7. Pingback: Pay the Writer — Harlan Ellison Speaks! | The Chorizo Chronicles

    • I’m not convinced that the person who linked to this article has actually read it: I’m not criticizing Thayer’s position, nor do I find writing to be an unenjoyable punishment–I find *freelancing* to be Sisyphean. You spend as much time struggling to find the work (unpaid) as actually doing it (also sometimes unpaid), and then just when you think you’re settling into a comfortable routine, the jobs or the promises of compensation dry up and you’re sent rolling all the way back down to the bottom of the hill to rinse and repeat.

  8. Having just retired from four decades as a newspaper editor — the last quarter-century as a member of the Newspaper Guild union, meaning finally reaching the median-income level — and as the author of two published novels, I very much appreciate your discussion of the perils of publishing in any form.
    A dear friend found years ago the freelance field died when publications would post her work online, thus ending the possibility of second and third publications, which were often the lucrative ones.
    Maybe the crucial factor in monetizing our work is getting the purveyors of our work — the Googles and Yahoos — to start paying for the content they so gladly, and profitably, give away.

    • This is a no-brainer: nobody should be making a profit off of your work (at least, not if you aren’t as well). But I do think there’s a distinction to be made: any site that is wholesale republishing your work, especially without crediting you or providing a link back to the original, is plagiarizing you, and this is the one area of copyright law that I’d like to see more enforced. But a site that credits me, quotes me–even large chunks–, and links back to me is free to do so without charge, so long as they add something of their own to the discussion. (If their site has no ads, no forms of revenue, I’m even more lenient.) As far as I’m concerned, this applies to anything out there, and if I want to summarize, extrapolate, or draw conclusions from published work, I feel entitled to do so. Really, so long as we’re engaging in conversation as opposed to attempting to hijack a thread or post so as to reap the bounty that is monetized traffic, I’m cool with it: I’d rather have fifty hits and fifty comments a day than a thousand hits and one comment.

      • I agree. Some of the joy of blogging I’m experiencing returns me to the essence of correspondence, only this time with people who are essentially strangers.

  9. Reblogged this on the salonnière and commented:
    As a freelancer, it’s hard not to be discouraged by the lack of pay that makes it hard to write full-time. I sold my soul to the corporate world and freelance on the side because it makes me happy and, though I would love to give writing full-time a shot, it’s incredibly difficult to leave the comfort, benefits, and steady paycheck of a corporate job.

    It’s good to know I’m not the only one out there with these thoughts churning around in my head!

  10. Sooner or later, we will perhaps realize as readers and listeners that we cannot get something for nothing and we are getting exactly what we paid for. That isn’t to say there isn’t some very good “free” work out there. But cultural production can’t just be a rewarding hobby if we want quality information and quality art.

    • See, I don’t think people necessarily want to get something for nothing; I just think they want to get it in ways that we are unaccustomed to. An acquaintance of mine, let’s call her M_____, downloads television shows. Constantly. And yet she also pays for cable and subscribes to specific theaters. It’s not that she’s unwilling to spend money, it’s that she wants to better choose what she watches and on her own time. (Which is not to say that there aren’t outright pirates, but still.) And as you’ll see in my latest post, there are plenty of people who just put up money sight-unseen for a new Veronica Mars film.

      When it comes to writing, I have no doubt that there *are* editors out there who want to manipulate and wrangle writers for free content so that they can increase their own salary or look better on paper as a money manager. Just as I also have no doubt that there are editors who overpay, who get taken advantage of by over-billing freelancers, and who literally live to serve a greater artistic cause. And correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t a lot of the quality information and quality art of the past taken on as a hobby by the exceeding rich, or enabled by the select few?

      Money’s a factor, but I don’t know that it has ever really been the responsibility of individual readers/listeners to create and maintain quality arts; maybe that’s the real problem it is running into these days.

      • Oh, I want something for nothing. I expect something for nothing. My 7 bucks a month to Netflicks isn’t paying anyone anything. That deal for music or writing wouldn’t be enough to pay anyone for their work in those industries. It only works on Netflix because there are so many other venues in which film and television pays. I’m not even a digital native, and I’m a fairly honest and conscientious person. That is just what has happened for us. Our expectations have changed.

      • I should add that, yes, the rich used to pay for most of the arts that was shared with the rest of us. They stopped. If we still want it, we will have to pay for it ourselves.

      • Well, as I mentioned in my post, perhaps the Internet’s giant reach can help us to compromise on this. You’re willing to pay $7.99/mo. to Netflix for DVD and TV, just as I am willing to spend $16.99/mo. for GameFly video game rentals. I don’t necessarily ever need to buy a book again, but I might be willing to pay giant distributors (who would buy up the libraries) a set monthly fee or yearly fee (like Amazon Prime’s) for a “media license” in the field that interests me.

        The piddly percentages of pennies that artists get from streaming music sites are terrible, except for when they come in from millions of people, and if artists were entitled to full revenue share from unimaginably huge markets, *that* might allow people to continue to earn a living at the arts, sponsored not by the rich but by a collective of the poor and arts-starved. I wax poetically on this, but I really do think that people *are* willing to give (as for In Rainbows, for the Humble Bundles, etc.) if you put it into their hands. It’s really just a matter of coming up with a way to tap into that revenue and then finding an equitable way to split it up between the people who actually create the raw content (writers, in this example) and those who assign it, manage it, produce it, maintain it, and otherwise prettify it.

  11. This is amazing, and so true. I refused to write for free (except for my own blog) so…I didn’t write. I was very tempted a few times though and I would find the same thing, or weird payment schemes that paid so very little, with such dull content, that it wasn’t worth it.

    (But I just landed a paid full time writing gig! Thank heavens!)

    I hope this piece picks up major steam, not just so publishers see it, but also so that readers and media consumers in general see it. They are a part of the whole system too.

    • Congratulations on getting a full-time writing gig! I’m glad the piece resonated for you; when I first started writing it, I was concerned that it would be just be yet another derivative spin on a topic that I’d been reading and musing about in other places. At the same time, I’m sort of depressed that so many freelance writers and bloggers can relate to my experiences; we all know what’s going on, and yet we really haven’t found a way to stop it.

  12. I did consider journalism as a career several decades ago. But then, decided to get a 2nd university degree which did lead me to a whole career –with some transitions.

    Good writing skills are appreciated for any job that requires business report writing, proposals and marketing. But you know that, didn’t you? Small comfort, I know.

  13. I come from a marketing communications background. After over two decades in advertising agencies, I left to try freelancing full-time. Been doing that for about 30 months. I also have a part-part-time fishing guiding business, and I write the occasional article for fly fishing magazines.

    My best advice to a young person who wants to be a freelance writer/whatever would be:

    1) Find a “real job” in your field that satisfies some of your creative wanderlust and helps pay the bills.

    2) Marry someone who understands your creative passion and accepts that you will never be rich.

    3) Whatever you do, love what you do. The money then becomes a bonus.

    Steve Culton

    • You could just focus on Step 2 and find someone to marry who *is* rich. I kid, I kid! (Or I dream, I dream.) The advice you give is mostly accurate, though unintentionally insulting — even with the air quotes — due to the largely accepted idea in today’s highly literate world that, somehow, writing for a living is neither work nor a “real job.” Saying that those who want to be a freelance writer shouldn’t describes the problem; it doesn’t solve it.

  14. I hate when that happens (unintentionally insulting). What I was trying to say was that there’s the reality of dreams, hopes and aspirations, and the reality of life on a practical level (each of us will have our own definition of what’s practical). Back in my 20s, I knew I wanted to do something creative that involved writing, and advertising was a way to make some money to live on while I fulfilled my creative needs (some of the time). The “real job” was a terrific means to an end — eventually becoming a full-time freelancer — which ironically was never a long-term goal of mine. I’m lucky in that I love what I do, and I have established relationships with vendors (ad agencies, design firms, web developers, video production houses, and magazines) who appreciate what I do and pay me for it.

    On that note, I’ll add a number four to the list, which would be:

    4) Do great work.

    It’s a lot easier to get paid if you’re good. And it makes it a lot easier to tell people that you’re not going to give away your ideas for free.

    • It’s an ugly word; sounds as if I’m being asked to streak. Which, you know, I might actually do — if I were getting paid.

    • You’re freelancing or working as an intern, like Zac Davis? There is a distinction between the two, as I was trying to get at in my post: with the latter, I think you legally have to be assured of some practical experience and job skills in exchange for your labor (can’t just be a coffee gimp). The former, on the other hand, should have clearer legal assurances; it’s not enough to just promise “exposure” with a minimum of effort on your end, hence my suggestion that large magazines offer the services that they’ve already licensed (so still no cost to them) to the people who are temporarily, and freely, “working” for them.

  15. Offering “exposure” to some who has already held a job in a field sounds like an insult.

    I will be taking an unpaid internship at a local paper this summer, and they didn’t even offer me exposure, instead, they offered me experience of actually writing for a real newspaper that isn’t the university one as well as to be edited by a professional.

    This is great for me, as I will be entering my senior year afterward, but that just sounds silly for someone in your shoes.

    • I stressed this earlier, but I’ll say it again: being edited is a gift, practically payment in of itself. If the person doing the editing is skilled at their job, they will actually be providing a service to you, even if you are not being paid for yours. (And consider that editors can make hefty part-time salaries, depending on the field.)

      However, an internship is for a set length of time, after which there is an assumption that you will either get an offer, viable references, or connections that will help you secure a position. Freelancing feels as if it goes on forever, and after a while, editorial comments aren’t nearly as valuable as they were before. Or as Thayer put it, exposure’s great, but paying the bills will eventually be more important.

  16. Slightly off topic, but in the vein of freelancing…

    Living in the South, there are not nearly as many outlets for publication — for pay or “exposure.” I actually joined several of those content mill websites only to find that pay pennies per article. I’ve found job listings where the person wants someone to write 500-word posts for his website — articles that are researched, edited, perfect in grammar and spelling — and pay less than $10 per article.

    It blows my mind how so many consider writers’ abilities worth so much less than a graphic artist. I know graphic designers who charge $100 an hour for freelance work. I’d be lucky to get $50.

    • I’d hardly consider this “off topic.” Transparency from the editors and profit-sharing among participants is the meat of what the freelancing argument is boiling down to; without seeing metrics, it’s difficult to gauge the use of exposure (and I’ll be writing later this week about the “help” that being “Freshly Pressed” this week has brought me), and even harder to demand better rates when you have no idea what people in exactly the same boat as you are being paid. Thanks to the Internet, you’re competing with pretty much everyone in the world who could theoretically write on a subject, so rates (demand) are being driven down by supply, too.

      In any case, I wouldn’t take issue with a site that wanted to pay me $10 for an article . . . as long as that site was making 10% as much as a site that paid $100 an article . . . and if the higher-paying site didn’t want to hire me, or didn’t think I had enough experience. That’d really be the only reason to take the lower-paying job. But there’s too much information we don’t know, and we aren’t able to make these decisions. We’re also hammered by financial situations, especially if we’re full-on freelance (i.e., have no other forms of income, like a part-time or full-time day job) that back us into poorly represented positions, or which cause us to overcommit — which can be dangerous to future job prospects if that ends up bringing the quality of your work DOWN (or if the site editor *doesn’t* actually improve your text).

  17. Pingback: Freshly Pressed: Friday Faves — Blog — WordPress.com

  18. Pingback: Freshly Pressed: Friday Faves | Clube do Facebook

  19. As a small business owner in the PR field, I think you’ve made some terrific points. I often accept projects that include a fair amount of unpaid work because I anticipate the other benefits they might provide, and because, like you, I crave the “work” aspects that motivate me to keep engaged in my writing and other professional endeavors. That is one reason I found Amanda Palmer’s Ted Talk (http://on.ted.com/Amanda) so interesting and touching. I guess one question we could add to the discussion is whether we consider our paid work to be art — and if so, are we willing to ask our patrons to support us?

    I love the donate button idea, and do try to contribute when I find free content that has helped me. Sometimes I can’t afford a “cover price,” but appreciate the opportunity to contribute what I am able.

    • I’m glad you linked me to that TED talk; it’s a bit repetitive, but I loved her opening bit as a statue, when she points out that she would look at people and acknowledge them, and that simply the act of acknowledging them was sometimes enough to brighten a day. That’s one of the reasons I find it so important to respond to comments: I’m not writing for my own amusement (that stuff I leave unpublished, even by blog standard!), and if someone’s gone through the trouble to read what I’ve written and add something to the conversation, I have a desire to naturally want to continue to communicate.

      As for whether these posts and essays are “art,” I’d fall back on the fact that art is as art does. If you see value in a four-year-old’s paintings, if you are moved by the scribbles of a line on a bar napkin, or if you take comfort and find connection in something you’ve read, I’d say it’s art to you. Why limit or cheapen someone else’s experience?

      Going that step further, however, and actually asking for support . . . I suppose if I felt I’d truly forged the sort of connection that Amanda claims to have with her fans (reaching out via Twitter, sharing a cup of coffee with a stranger, getting props from a loyal follower), I wouldn’t feel bad about it. But to ask the first-click visitor or the occasional reader who is simply seeking something to fill their time with? As I pointed out with my opener about responding to comments, I’d *like* to have a relationship with the people who stop in here (and as a critic, I think my audience is served best by getting to know and understand my tastes), but I’d also like to just let that organically grow into whatever it is.

      I mentioned elsewhere in this comments thread that Matt Gaffney (http://xwordcontest.com/), an excellent crossword constructor, opens up a “tip jar” every now and again on his site. That’s his ask. Perhaps I’ll do the same, assuming I’ve been able to update as regularly and substantially as he does.

  20. I left the freelance design world in 2008 and recently made the decision to come back because for the first time in my career I am not getting call backs on full-time jobs. I am in total disbelief to see how much it has changed. It seems that all clients want everything for free and print is really dying. I don’t know how it will change but I hope that for those of us that have made our lives of freelance, it will find a balance soon. It is heartbreaking to see so much talent, art, education and skill wasted. It is everywhere I look.
    Loved your post. Thank you.

    • Kari, you should get the link to your blog fixed (two r’s, not one) — I had to find it myself (http://surrogatemuse.wordpress.com/). I correct it here because I really enjoyed your article about freelancing (posted way before mine!): http://surrogatemuse.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/freelance-again/. I’d like to quickly quote a piece of it:

      To be successful with art or design as a career, you really need to do only two things.

      1. Keep working
      2. Make that work available to other people
      Every other aspect is personal, changeable and variable. How you negotiate, what you expect, what hours you prefer to work all of that is up to you and no two people or situations are the same. Whatever your preferences, if you keep working and keep selling that work you will eventually find some kind of success.

      I’d like to think that applies to writing (and a blog is a great indicator of your ability to commit and reliably turn out copy; it also stands as its own constantly evolving portfolio), and that persistence will slowly broaden one’s opportunities. Perhaps I should be looking into some of the sites that you mention in terms of finding paying work; I think the moral is that you can’t be passively generating content — YOU need to use what you’ve done to get others to HIRE you for pay. In the context of my post, I could summarize as saying “Maybe do one piece on ‘spec’ (i.e., for exposure)” but set boundaries and terms that you won’t then cross until you’re actually getting paid.

  21. These days, I don’t do anything unpaid unless it is in trade for something I want (like pancakes). Like many, I started out doing free bits here and there, but gradually I found that I had more and more requests for my great (unpaid) content. Pretty soon I had more opportunities than I had time for, and so I started charging per-word to cull the herd down to a level that is more manageable, and to filter who I write for.

    I think anyone with writing talent can, and should, be compensated for their work. I’ve decided that writing for exposure isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yes, I hope when my content shows up here and there that someone will look me up and buy a copy of my novel. But chances are they are probably going to read and run. I’ve had much better success working with a small group of professionals who recognize that my time has value.

    • Given the last few comments that I’ve read in this thread, I think writers really only have two options: either you need a giant “client” base (in TED Amanda’s case, these are her fans and followers; in the freelance world, these would be your actual PAYING and REFERRING clients) or you need one SPECIFIC professional to have you on staff. You can dance all you like between those two, but it’s tricky and far from time-efficient; I’d rather spend my time editing/writing than dealing with figuring out who to write for, pitching myself, negotiating rates, setting a schedule, and only then actually beginning on a project. Like you, I’d rather get to that “small group of professionals” who understand and appreciate the value of your work than I would to continue to trade it (save for things I want; pancakes are pretty high on my list, too).

  22. I am glad NT risked being called childish..sometimes that idea represses vocal expression needed to makes waves..I think your tip button suggestion is a fine one…reminds me of a TED video I watched recently on the art of asking….gracias (o:

    • Yeah, I just replied to a comment about that TED video; and absolutely, the thing that keeps the average worker down is secrecy and silence, the stuff that allows jobs to pay employees varying wages for identical services, or to get away with murder off of people who simply don’t know better.

  23. I think I’ve run across some “similar” situations (for others, not myself–yet) in creative writing…it seems like most aspiring authors going the self-published route have to offer their first book for free and then charge for the sequels since they don’t have the power and name of a big publisher behind them (Simon&Schuster, Tor, etc.). I suppose the industry has come down to publish for free and get “exposure” or become your own marketer… I’m definitely choosing the latter!

    • Releasing your entire first book for free seems to be an extreme option; it’d be far easier to simply choose an amount of the book to freely display and then charge for a complete version (similar to how some publishing houses will include a tantalizing “first chapter” of a different book at the back of the one you’ve bought).

      Becoming your own marketer is certainly where we’re headed, especially with the waves this whole Veronica Mars/Kickstarter thing is making (I have a post up about that, too); as I just finished mentioning to another commenter, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I’d rather focus on the work I know I’m good at, not develop a parallel set of skills.

  24. Mathew:

    Thanks for this excellent, well argued and reasoned gentle slap upside the collective head to refocus this important debate where it belongs: that if quality journalism (or writing, music, theater, photography, etc etc) is important to a healthy society, someone has to find a viable business model to support those who produce that product and provide that service.

    I will add only a couple comments, as I have, for reasons I really have not yet had time to decipher, been somehow thrust unintentionally as some sort of poster boy for this debate. This issue, obviously, has nothing to do with Nate Thayer or Olga Khazan.

    I am a journalist, and I think a very good one. It isn’t what I do for a living, it is who I am as a person. A few days ago I wrote an article for a serious specialist news site for people who follow North Korea, NKNews.org, for essentially a token fee, and willingly and with pleasure. A few hours later I get a call from a billion dollar for profit media empire asking to commission my services as a central tenet of their business model to increase their profit margin by eliminating the cost of paying for the production of that product they sell to make money. You saw the entirety of the communication and contribution I have made to this debate. That was it.

    If you read it, Olga was very polite as was I, and both equally as straightforward in our responses. I didn’t like it, obviously, but in all honesty, while irritated, I wasn’t that angry, as a variation of it has happened to me hundreds of times over the years. I cut and pasted the email exchange, added a sentence or two at the top and one at the bottom and titled it “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist–2013” and posted it on my ridiculously small blog. I then linked it to my FB and Twitter account and forgot about it entirely. I am a social media Luddite. I really don’t tweet. I don’t even own a smart phone. I write words.

    A few hours later I woke up and, as is now obvious, the topic resonated with more than a few and has gone viral. The day before my blog averaged less than 100 readers a day. Within a few hours, 150,000 people had checked into read, almost all from Twitter followed by Facebook. Tens of thousands of messages came via elsewhere, worldwide, from people who experienced and were struggling with similar issues. It certainly wasn’t because my article was brilliant, or about me, certainly not Olga, and even not the Atlantic. it is systemic for people who are creative artists and those who work to provide quality journalism to free societies, and the issue needs to addressed and solved.

    Thanks for solidly argued the cogent issues here.

    Finally, I will say this. It has certainly been interesting and distracting, and then, for me, it got ugly, as if I was the flavor of the minute, and too many wanted to ride the wave and find a new angle like this was some Kardashian sister TV show. It is not.

    I am falsely accused with plagiarism. It is not true. Full stop. It is not a coincidence that the allegations were made by people who never contacted me or asked whether it was true or evidence to dispute it, not a single source i was alleged to have not spoken to or quoted saying I did was contacted, not even the original author from whom I was alleged to have stolen and taken credit for his work was asked. It is a bit late for that, as that horse has left the barn and if those alleging these things were seeking the truth, they would have simply asked, but then there would be no story, and that wouldn’t do, would it? I will, of course, answer and document and prove the allegations are false in the coming days, and I will, unlike those who made them, make sure it is done properly, honestly, transparently and with no spin or PR hype. All I ask is that people withhold judgement until they read the full story, and then form whatever opinion they want. If they do that, I will be vindicated, in full, I assure you. In fact, the true story will be shocking as to how such allegations ever were given credence to begin with. I would prefer not to have my reputation as collateral damage for the entertainment or agenda of others.

    In the meantime, thanks for keeping this vital debate on track and focused and alive

    Nate Thayer

    • Not sure who “Mathew” is, but thanks! I want to add on and clarify a couple of things:

      1. This story isn’t about me, either (as I also saw a marked interest in traffic and comments after getting reblogged/featured on WordPress), nor about Nate Thayer as poster boy for the movement (though perhaps he should be, considering the fine ACTUAL JOURNALISM he’s doing on his “blog” about Hydra: http://natethayer.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/random-house-agrees-to-respect-authors-right-to-make-a-living-excersizing-free-speech-works/). The post I made is part of a series called “Fumbling For the Truth” (and collected under the tag “Readings”) in which I attempt to talk through and understand things that I’ve recently read, both for my own organizational and cognitive benefit and in the hopes that other people will seize on the raw kernels and expand upon them. (Let’s make literary popcorn with our microbrainwaves.) In this instance, the place I began from (the catalyst) was the original blogging about Nate; where I ended up (and where the comments have gone) has been personally enlightening to me, and I’m both thankful and surprised that it’s all at least appeared focused, well-argued, and reasoned. Keeping it alive’s the key, now.

      2. In terms of plagiarism, I’m sorry that I included the link. I wasn’t supporting that viewpoint; the point I was making BY including the link was actually that it was a good thing you hadn’t gotten the Atlantic’s “exposure,” as it would’ve opened you up to all of this nonsense. Except that you wound up getting their exposure anyway! But yes, let’s be clear: I’m not reporting anything, I’m not speculating anything, and that’s not what any of this is about.

      Cheers; here’s to finding that new “viable business model to support those who produce that product and provide that service.”

  25. Pingback: Freelance for Free | Weyburn Writers' Group

  26. Pingback: Response: Week of March 15 | /'kül/

  27. Thanks for posting this. I just ventured into the world of unpaid — or virtually unpaid — freelance writing, and while I used be excited to be writing at all, I had to be real with myself. I have bills, need to eat, and all that survival stuff; so I hear you on this issue.

    • Just as the physician must heal him/herself (and I know I’m taking that out of context!), the takeaway from all the comments I’ve been reading is this: “Writer, monetize thyself!”

  28. it is all the fault of the bloggers, curse their fuzzy little heads!

    But they aren’t to blame. There they are, normally earning money in some field totally unrelated to journalism, paying the bills and living a normal life. They like food/travel/cinema and in their spare time (or more likely when the boss isn’t around) they write about these on their blog.

    Then they offer the copy to an online journal who, aware that well-followed bloggers can drive traffic to their own site, accept. They don’t offer to pay but the blogger doesn’t mind, they already have a paid job. The offer of being sent on some press trips, or free meals, or free tickets is fine by them – but what they really enjoy anyway is seeing their words ‘in print’

    So who can blame the blogger?

    • Excellent points, Nick, and I’m guilty as charged for much of this, though I’d say that swag and content are sometimes payment in itself: when I was writing for Film Monthly, I had access to the Tribeca Film Festival. Some of the television I covered got me access to channels that I couldn’t afford to subscribe to (or at least the shows that I wanted to see); the same goes for theater and video games, which provide “payment” in the goods themselves. These editors tend to be rather open about the way their “payment” (or lack thereof) works, and as I said elsewhere in this thread, if their actual editing isn’t useful to you, then you’re *really* can’t justify any sort of payment received (experiential, promotional, etc.).

      The choices I made were largely to write for myself, and the majority of stuff I cover at this point is either “indie” theater — off-off-Broadway work that isn’t covered by the majority of papers (often not enough reviews to get aggregated on StageGrade) — or independent games, like “Splice,” that are most likely going to be glossed over in the major publications (and even some of the bigger online journals). Even when I’m not being paid — and I’d like to think I will eventually be able to demand at least a small stipend for my contribution — I feel as if I’m at least offering an acknowledgment to these hard-working artists (many if not most of whom also “write” for free, or as the hobby they pursue while the boss is away), and a valid, constructive critique of their work. The magazines, which couldn’t justify print space such niche products, and online hubs, which don’t see traffic spikes from unknown and non-controversial games, weren’t publishing (or paying) for this work in any case; I’d rather there not be a void, even if that leads me to sometimes be taken advantage of. (As I mentioned, this isn’t my paying job; I work as a proofreader/copy-editor, and I’m fairly comfortable with the rates I demand.)

      So yeah, it’s hard to blame the blogger; might be more important to find a way to monetize the blogger so that they don’t feel the need to offer their copy to an online journal–either to procure the product in the first place or to ensure that there are more eyeballs on the piece–so that, in fact, they wind up competing with the online journals. (Actually, I think this is what’s missing in our digital version of capitalism: there’s enough room for everyone on a bookmark bar, so where’s the competition?)

  29. yeah, well written – nailed it – the eternal optimist in me [the one who refuses to believe my book will go unpublished] still hopes that the writing sells itself and so if it is good enough and worth being read and passed on etc, that that will happen – obviously a lot more difficult in the age we find ourselves in where everyone with twenty minutes of time and an internet connection can vomit their thoughts on a screen [and with the tendency towards shtupidt that exists that their literary vomit may be more popular to the masses than thought out researched and much higher grade writing] and so the field is more of a battle but still my heart [and mind and unpublished book] hopes and believes that those who write well should continue to because they will be discovered, published, retweeted, whatever…

  30. Freshly pressed yesterday and it reminded me I have a step grandson just entered the fray. His step uncles have or had the software answer at their fingertips and it is just a question of finding out which system is the best for whom.

    a dear friend found years ago the freelance field died when publications would post her work online, thus ending the possibility of second and third publications, which were often the lucrative ones.

    I believe in watermarks as identifiers, they do not need to be invisible, in fact, matching them up with software that would change the intensity of a contrasting colour every time the article in question is transferred to another computer would serve a multiple purpose. A while ago I came across Professor Ted Baker’s website, (Teaching english as a foreign language – Oxford uni.) Every time I hit his website the URL was different by one letter. That programming goes back 40 years or more, so the programming is feasible for adaptation.

    The watermarks would have to be a link to the originating website wherever they were fished out from, which means the co-operation of sites like wordpress, and all their themes, the web design programs like dreamweaver etc, and the educational fields where the web languages are taught. There must be hundreds or thousands out there.

    Getting monetised, not my specialist subject. The tip box sounds good as long as the links to the site get there. ‘Support a penniless writer ‘ appears in many blogs, I don’t have net trading stuff apart from itunes – maybe a collective to sign up to with a ‘just give’ type of app. would take pennies from itunes as well as credit cards

    The solution will probably come from an innovator, like the person who created Square or other micro-transaction processes: something so smooth and seamless that sites won’t be able to avoid integrating it alongside their posts, or which authors will be able to handle on their own.

    I am just a blogger and do not expect payment, I have no idea what ‘Square’ is, I could research it but I am not a journalist. Neither am I an experienced blogger and I do have trouble getting links to quotes from comments, which the above are, and the only thing is to automate it using the same system as for the articles. Programming wise it means another colour with a colour picker app included, eg red for the blogger green for the commenter.

    Maybe the crucial factor in monetizing our work is getting the purveyors of our work — the Googles and Yahoos — to start paying for the content they so gladly, and profitably, give away.

    I’m not sure that that is the answer. There has to be clear differentiation between professionals and the rest, and it is up to you to invent a title and for all the freelancers to add their name to the list – will it be just another one? list I mean, joining all the others failed?

    I’m using this in my blog as well.

  31. This, alas, is where freelancing has gone of late; an attitude of contempt by editors who seem to view the prestige of appearing in their magazine or newspaper as payment enough. I freelanced for many years, in part to help build an author platform for my books – but have basically given up. It isn’t worth it.

    In many ways this isn’t new. The industry always has been rather dog-eat-dog. I had one editor who threatened me with dumping if I so much as sent him an invoice with the work (a standard business practise). Then he made a mistake over what I was to be paid, and my reward for sorting it out was to be dumped…go figure…A lot of it, even in the best years, was also personal; it depended on an association with a particular editor. When they moved on (as they inevitably do) that channel of work also dried up.

    All this has been emphasised of late by the turmoil; into which the print media in particular has been thrown by the internet, coupled with the notion that anything on the internet should be free. That’s led – among other things – to the notion that (a) even a tag-line to promote a book is unacceptable (though in the past it was OK), and (b) freelance contribution is worth very little and why pay anyhow?

    I don’t know where it’s going to go, but at the moment the challenges for the freelancer – and for any author – seem manifest. It’s easy to publish, given the way the internet has gone. Very hard to get that read. Or paid. I don’t know the answer other than to say ‘it’ll all come out in the wash’ – but that doesn’t, alas, help us now. Or, maybe later.

    • I appreciate that you’re speaking from experience here: when I talk about the actual value of exposure, I’m extrapolating from current trends and the limited experience I have with being able to parlay readership into opportunities to cover a wider range of subjects (via publicists who would like to tap into said readership, my ability to articulate a thought is probably largely beside the point).

      You’ve already put in the years trying to build an author platform, and you can speak to the point that it has not paid off. Ta-Nehisi Coates relays a different position in which for him, it has — the point is that both arguments are anecdotal. Regardless of whether it helps us now or not, I’m not entirely sure that it will come out in the wash: unless some sort of legislation is passed, or unless a technology comes along that seamlessly allows writers to independently monetize their sites by tapping directly into their readers (as opposed to indirectly, through middle-man ads, of which we get the smallest percent), there’s really no reason to pay.

      As I mentioned, I once edited a site in which I was paid and the writers I was using were not. Granted, the people I was using were generally just out of college, had little experience, and no portfolio, so it was closer to an internship, but it still feels wrong to have done so, for so long, especially since I know how many writers I was actually able to see along to steady, paying jobs (and not just the one-off assignment for a print publication).

      Smart editors will find ways to at least appear to be offering more, even as they cut corners; I’d say the best we’ll get is lucky enough to find the few who are willing to reach the smallest of compromises.

  32. Great article Aaron. Helping freelancers, bloggers, and big publishers earn a living is what iCopyright (www.icopyright.com) is all about. If any freelancer or blogger has feedback on the platform, or tweaks you’d like to see to better monetize your writing, I’d love to hear it! (dan@icopyright.com).

  33. Pingback: Thinkings or thoughts?

  34. I understand where you are coming from. I found that when I consider the costs of doing something, it cost me money to write free articles. Having a number of websites, I have a constant need for content. I have ended up buying articles. One thing I found out was low cost articles are not real quality. No matter what they claim. I am buying fewer articles, but paying the price for high quality. I can not afford to spend much money, so I purchase fewer articles but I get quality.

    It comes down to your standards. Are you willing to accept lower quality which is what you get for the lower price?

    I made the decision, I would rather have a smaller number of quality articles than a lot more lower quality articles.

    When you ask for free or low cost articles, they do not have the more extensive research. The proofreading is not of a high standard. They are not as well thought out.

    You are defined by what you put out there. I made the decision I wanted to be defined by high quality. The publishing companies asking for free articles are not going to get an in depth researched high quality article. They are debasing their brand.

    I think that the new management of most companies do not have any idea of what they are doing. They do not realize they are cheapening the value of their brand.

    That is their decision. I made the opposite decision from them. I refused to devalue my brand.

    I think that one enormous unstated reason that the news media has lost so much readership is, they have cheapened their brand so much, that people do not feel it is worth paying for.

  35. Aaron, your article is so on-point to what we’re doing at iCopyright that I’d like to pay to license the article from you for republication at http://www.icopyright.com. If that’s agreeable to you, please go to http://www.icopyright.com, install our toolbar to your site, and then, if the price you set is reasonable, I will use the toolbar to pay you for the right to republish on my blog at iCopyright.com. The topic of our blog is “Valuing Content in a Digital World”, and our toolbar is designed to help authors like you monetize their articles. Great article!

    • Even though this comment is self-promotional, the concept that you’re pitching isn’t a bad one. The website makes a lot of things confusing though, and before I assume that this is yet another ploy to take advantage of the limited information available to freelance writers who don’t have a firm awareness of normal rates or the toolbar usage, I have some questions I’d like to you to address:

      1) The site constantly notes that the toolbar is free to install . . . for thirty days. What are the rates to maintain the toolbar and the separate Discovery (anti-plagiarism) application?

      2) When I went to your blog and attempted to “print” something from the toolbar, it notified me that I could either print five copies on the honor system with ads, or print six copies at a rate that I assume is set by the user (between $0.15 and $0.50). If this is correct, where does the “advertisement” money go, and where does the set rate money go? What percentage, in other words, is iCopyright deriving from other people’s work?

      3) One of the issues addressed in this comments thread regards the awareness of writers and the difficulty of promoting oneself (especially if your majors lie outside of business); are there guidelines in place that suggest optimized prices to set, such that we are more likely to have our articles “bought” (based on an analysis of the data that your site is surely pulling in)? Or is this outside your company’s concern: i.e., let us worry about it, you just need to get the software on our sites so that you can profit from them, regardless of how successful we actually are.

      To be clear, the idea of an easy-to-install iCopyright tool sounds great, but you’ve got to make sure it’s a symbiotic relationship, in which the more you help the blogger, the more you profit off the blogger (like an agent or a manager); as I’m interpreting it, the whole enterprise appears to be more parasitic: you provide a service that you will charge for after thirty days, so you’re guaranteed money, regardless of the blogger’s profit margins — and in addition, you take a percentage of actual profits, or worse, inject your own profits (ad revenue that isn’t shared with the blogger). Please correct me on any issues that I’m confused about; feel free to link me to the exact places on your site where I may have overlooked information that, in my opinion, is currently hidden for nefarious and far from above-board reasons.

  36. I love this article and the fact that we have the freedom of speech. It is a sorry state of affairs that it would seem that those who are unpaid to report the news are now the ones who report most accurately. We do need a new system that helps support getting information to the public while supporting the people who supply that information. The current process is not benefiting the public or those who want to provide the truth. Thanks for putting this article out there. It was fair and balanced which is what good journalism is about. I am glad to see it still exists.

    • Redfern, I don’t think I’d agree that the best news or most accurate news is being written by unpaid bloggers/freelance journalists on spec; there’s certainly SOME, but the majority of balanced, long-form, researched pieces (especially ones that require budgetary expenses — i.e., cannot be entirely written from the comfort of one’s workspace) come from talented, paid writers. It’s certainly easy to get raw data out through unpaid citizen journalists or via on-the-scene tweets from digitally savvy bystanders, but processing that into a story that reflects history and trends without bias — that, too, often requires pay, or at least access to resources that the average blogger doesn’t have access to (for instance, sources who are reluctant to go on the record to an unknown entity). I am glad you found my piece to be good journalism, but I don’t think there’s necessarily a problem with the current process in relation to paid journalists and their means of accurately getting the news out to the public so much as there is with the way freelancers are treated.

  37. Great questions Aaron. I’ll answer each in turn.

    iCopyright doesn’t charge any activation fee or fixed monthly fee for deploying the toolbar. Rather, we earn money only when you earn money using the system. For this reason you don’t need to input a credit card to go live with iCopyright. The goal is for us to be sending you monthly checks.

    iCopyright retains the first $6 in licensing revenues generated each month by the toolbar. After that, iCopyright sends you 80% of the licensing revenues from instant licenses and iCopyright keeps 20%. For the Delivered Prints services, where a reader can order copies delivered to their doorstep, you get 50% of the amount paid by the customer. Most of the remainder goes to the reprint shop to cover the cost of producing the prints and a portion goes to iCopyright. The same split applies to Custom reprints. Because iCopyright bears the costs of designing and producing the reprints, you are effectively keeping over 80% of the margin from licensing sales.

    With the Free Use services, such as Free Email, Free Print, and Free Post, iCopyright creates new opportunities for you to earn ad revenue. After going live you input your Google AdSense codes, and our system will automatically place your ads in half of the new ad inventory our system creates and our ads in the other half. Our system has no effect on ads on your website – only on new page views that are generated when readers click the toolbar to re-use your content elsewhere.

    The 30-day free trial period refers to our Discovery module that scans the internet for duplicate copies of your articles. If one signs up for this service the entry-level plan is $6 per month after a 30-day free trial. Depending on how many articles are on your site and how frequently you want the system to check for infringers, you may select a larger plan.

    To see documentation on this, visit our site’s FAQs and see the third question, or visit https://license.icopyright.net/publisher/statichtml/CSA-Online-Plugin.pdf and see Schedule B, or see a video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQUjHOcGryI.

    You, the creator, are in charge of what services you offer and what prices you charge. You can change that anytime, instantly, in your Conductor console. You mentioned printing 5 copies for free – even that number is something you can set to whatever number you want.

    You asked whether there are guidelines in place that suggest optimized prices to set. Great question. When you go live there are default prices already in place which we believe are reasonable starting points and which you can change to whatever you like. We hope folks will experiment with different pricing strategies. We accumulate pricing data across publications and will eventually be using that to offer feedback on what prices optimize your profits. But we don’t yet have a sufficient installed base to do that analysis. When we do, we will analyze the data and help folks optimize.
    We’ve tried to make this a no-risk prospect for writers, and to align iCopyright’s interests fully with those of the writers that use it.

    Last week we released a new website for iCopyright and part of that is starting an active blog about “Valuing Content in a Digital World” (http://info.icopyright.com/blog-page). I’d love to republish your article as our first guest blog … if the price set in your iCopyright toolbar is reasonable!

    I really believe that if a critical mass of writers would deploy this system our culture would change, people would become accustomed to paying for quality writing, and the problems you describe in your post would be solved. Any ideas for further improvement are eagerly welcomed!

    • Dan, thanks for taking the time to address my questions; I don’t see any problems with the service that you’re offering, and I wish you the best with it. I especially like the fact that if you attempt to copy large portions of text, a pop-up is triggered that prevents such action from being taken without obtaining a license. I wonder if this is a modifiable feature, too; i.e., can I control the number of lines that someone is allowed to copy without triggering this alert via the Conductor console? In any case, I may fiddle around with installing the toolbar at a later date (especially since you’re looking to grow and generate data for your users); in the meantime, if you in particular wish to re-blog this on your site, I give you permission to do so, no charge (I mean, anybody is always more than welcome to send me a check if they feel like it). Just be sure to credit me as the author, and to provide a link back to the original post. (Actually, I wonder if this is a customizable feature: i.e., once licensing something, could I at all control the number of linkbacks that had to appear within the republished article?)

      In any case, intriguing as this non-intrusive toolbar appears to be, it’s still only addressing one’s ability to safely republish their work (and to make it more difficult for pirates) and to potentially monetize that transaction. The real issue is still in selling the article to begin with; I’m assuming the value of any purchased license decreases the more that people buy it, so if I’ve already run something on my own site, I imagine that any subsequent sales would be for less than if I’d simply been paid to write it in the first place. Essentially, everything I do becomes spec work, and I’m still somewhat reliant on writing the sorts of pieces that I believe other sites would want to pay to repurpose as is. (Remember, the original test case with Nate Thayer revolved around his being asked to cut down a 5,000 word article to a 1,200 post for which he would be paid only in “exposure.”)

      • Thanks Aaron. Yes, you control how much text readers can copy before triggering the EZ Excerpt pop-up. The default setting upon install is 50 words, and you can change that to whatever you want in Conductor at Publications/Toolbar Configuration.

        You raise the question whether there is more money in writing a piece and selling it under exclusive license to a single publisher versus writing a spec piece that is offered for sale under non-exclusive license to all potential buyers. In theory, I think the math favors the latter not just because of the larger pool of potential eyeballs, but also because of the viral structure – each republished version of the work embeds the licensing offer and so becomes another marketing node for further sales. Of course, for theory to translate into practice a critical mass of writers and publishers would need to start employing an automated mechanism for getting paid for the republication of their content so that it becomes part of popular culture.

    • Becca, thanks for the link. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with some of the “advice” that’s presented on the site (and some of the webinars that I rabbit-holed myself down while clicking through), but I at least appreciate the perspective. Of course, I’m probably doomed in the sense that I don’t plan to cater to a specific “niche” so much as to talk about a lot of different things at once, all under the banner of what sounds cool, but hey, freelance WRITING isn’t my day job (so much as editing), and there are plenty of good ideas embedded in these sites that I can apply to my job searches, salary negotiations, and pitches on that end.

      The one thing I’m not sold on (of the various topics I browsed via the link you provided) was the thought of unpaid guest blogging. The goal seems to be to get subscribers–and dedicated ones, which is a statistic I worried about in my Friday post–and to somehow leverage them as a readership when pitching yourself to other places; i.e., even if the story I write for you is terrible, I can guarantee you a certain amount of traffic if you run it. On some level, this feels akin to selling e-mail addresses to advertisers, but I think that’s more just my inner skeptic. Speaking of which, once you start thinking and reading about monetizing everything, you can’t help but feel a bit skeptical of everyone: the thought that people leaving you comments are just trying to promote their own sites, to redirect traffic, to get the opportunity to guest blog themselves, etc. I guess I’d rather avoid thinking about the business-end of writing and focus entirely on the expressive side of things.

      At the end of the day, paid or unpaid, there’s no downside to writing. At the very least, it’s experience: the honing of one’s skills.

      • I agree with your sentiments: “you can’t help but feel a bit skeptical of everyone: the thought that people leaving you comments are just trying to promote their own sites, to redirect traffic, to get the opportunity to guest blog themselves, etc.” But, I have to say, as a writer who generally appears in good old-fashioned print media, the guest posts and comments on other blogs really do create more audience for your work.

        The real reason I wanted you to look at the site is that it provides creative ways for you to market yourself and procure gigs, paying gigs. The suggestions are very concrete and have gotten me paying work. (And that’s little ole me who usually writes fiction and/or for kids, which is pretty much the worst-paying thing short of poetry.) You sound like you have A LOT of experience, and that should be a great jumping-off point for finding work.

  38. Reblogged this on writernall and commented:
    If writing is so easy (everyone’s a writer), why is so much content badly written? I am fortunate to have clients who prioritize the message/content as an equal partner in their communications strategies. But there are legions of writers who experience the debacles of eLance, “give me five 100-word examples and I’ll think about it” offers, pittance pennies per word payments for SEO focused websites, and other hard-labor-with-little-return assignments.

    • The ease of writing and publishing has nothing to do with the quality of said writing. Even within the ranks of paid writers, published authors, etc., quality varies all the time. One of the main reasons for content being poorly written is that among unpaid bloggers, there is little need or opportunity to truly improve and self-edit. Unlike scholastic essays, which were graded and, hopefully, held to higher standards, or editorial assignments, which generally have to meet a certain level of quality, self-published material need only be good enough to drive traffic and comments. In many instances, quantity is the driving force, not quality, especially if you’re being paid by the word or by the post. (I wonder how Dickens would’ve been as a blogger.) And, in all honesty, even editors are often unpaid or overworked, which results in compromising or rushing through passes in an attempt to simply get material up; yes, it could be better, but don’t worry about it: it’s Good Enough.

  39. I am currently in school and I find your blog very interesting I am very curious as to how I can get my foot in the door financially when it comes to my journalism.

    • I couldn’t really tell you, but if you browse this comment thread, you’ll find some interesting links. Since you’re in school, I would advise you to take an internship with a newspaper that gives you practical writing experience (especially under the hands of an editor) as well as helps you develop pitches for features; this should also help you network, build a portfolio, and start to figure out what you’d actually like to be covering/writing about. Best advice? Read a lot. Find the magazines and online journals that do pay, read their content, find favorite writers, and try to digest what works and what doesn’t.

  40. Pingback: A Look at Longform on WordPress.com — Blog — WordPress.com

  41. Reblogged this on Lady Firebird Rises and commented:
    I stumbled upon this recent blog post and was struck by how prevalent the works of even a seasoned creative professional are devalued.

    “Why should I pay you when…”

    Someone from India or the Philippines can and would do what you would normally charge ___ , for $20…
    I can get free ideas from eager artists from 99 designs and select the lowest bidder…
    I can get a kid out of junior high school to do something for me in exchange for a slice of pizza…
    I can do it myself using MS Word and PowerPoint, but I just don’t have the time…but hey, you have the time since you are a stay-at-home mom…
    You can do this in your sleep with little time and effort…
    You can just copy XYZ’s look and feel and plaster my company’s name all over it…
    You are doing a favor for a friend…
    We can trade/barter services/goods? You can have a plate of the best gluten-free brownies in exchange for your graphic design and art direction man hours? What? You need more than one plateful of the BEST gluten-free brownies to create my bakery’s brand identity (business cards, invoice receipts, packaging, website, social media integration, etc.)? How about for a big giant platter of gluten-free brownies? You can keep the melamine platter; it is from IKEA…
    Your spec work for me can be added onto your portfolio…
    I am allowing you to garner free exposure for your services…


    I must sustain myself and those who depend on me. Not only do I have student loans to pay off and rent and utilities to pay, I also have mouths to feed.
    What I do (or did when I was getting paid to work) is an actual profession that took years of schooling, years of professional experience, and daily efforts to stay current in my field.
    In a nutshell, respect for the artist.

    How can people underestimate and devalue all the vision, planning, teamwork and final creation of an artist? This phenomenon seems to transcend all areas of the arts: film, television, music, fine/visual arts, photography, publishing, etc., so this issue should touch everyone to some degree. When will the artist finally get his/her due and not be asked to basically work for free? This is why I like the “Fumbling for the Truth” post by /kul/ – he offers two solutions for the artist. Until these solutions, or perhaps different, but completely relevant solutions, become part of our universal consciousness, spreading the awareness of the artist’s plight will have to do. In the meantime, I will politely decline from the $10/week jobs or the platter full of gluten-free brownies knowing that there are like-minded individuals out there struggling to keep one’s profession relevant.

    • Well said, Lady Firebird. I think the way in which you’ve laid out your comment is telling, too: to the average employer, there appear to be more reasons *not* to pay than reasons *to* pay: empathy, after all, has no place in capitalism, which believes that when we *can* take advantage of someone (or leverage our market value), we should. Sometimes this works out in our interest, as when corporations clash and Walmart forces distributors to charge less for their product, but even in this example, smaller businesses are being forced to operate at the scale of a large business, and they sometimes can’t compete, even with a superior product. (Or they’re bought out early, for less than they’re worth.) I don’t think it’s a matter of ignorance, or that these businesses actually believe the services they offer (exposure and the like) are equivalent to the costs they seek to skirt, and so the solutions don’t rely on educating people to the personal plight each writer suffers — they already know and don’t care — but rather in forcing companies (out of their own self-interest) to solve the problem, which is why regulation isn’t such a bad idea. That iCopyright toolbar is remarkably easy to implement; I imagine a tip button that attaches itself to your article no matter where it is reblogged would be similarly easy to code.

      But yeah, unless everyone starts refusing to turn in copy for free — or enough people do so such that the quality notably decreases to the readers who *are* paying for content or supporting the site through traffic numbers — we’re not going to receive our due.

  42. I was flippant in this discussion earlier by quoting Samuel Johnson to the effect that none but a dolt would write except for money. But of course all writers start as dolts. I started at fourteen, more than sixty years ago. Most anybody I ever knew who was or is a writer was started by then or earlier. And for sure we were taken advantage of, sometimes swindled. Most didn’t persevere. Many had to switch course to go with a flow that wasn’t really where they wanted to go but where they could use their talents to advantage. PR and teaching are two alternative professions for the almost artist who doesn’t have that extra entrepreneurial juice and belief in herself to keep plugging until he makes it — or not. Never give up. That’s my advice. It’s chaos out there but there’s lots of coin around for anybody sharp enough to get noticed in the midst of it all.

    • Nice to see you again, Scansite — hope you’ve been enjoying this thread as much as I have. (And flippant can be fun!)

      But I would say one thing: you say that an “almost artist” is someone who “doesn’t have that extra entrepreneurial juice,” but I’d argue that many of the artists who died penniless in their time (and whose works are only now worth millions) were in fact artists, and I’d say that many of the most entrepreneurial writers, like Dickens, were, for lack of a more descriptive word but also so as to get more words crammed in here because I’m theoretically getting paid by the word, hacks. I get what you’re saying, but I’d like to get to a point where writers/artists–especially freelance ones–no longer have to sell themselves.

      And sure, some of us can get agents, but consider that, too! We still have to first sell ourselves to AGENTS so that they can sell us to bigger fish (at a fixed percentage of our rate). Here’s an example of writers being forced to indirectly pay for services that a company should do itself (i.e., hiring people to read slush pile submissions). I’ve also found that for some companies, you literally cannot work without an agent garnishing your wages — at three different jobs, I’ve been forced to register with an intermediary AFTER finding, applying for, and sometimes GETTING the job on my own. It’s one thing if a headhunter or agent approaches me, hoping to get me on their “staff” so that they can profit from the career opportunities they open up to me; it’s quite another for them to leech off of me once I’ve already “made” it.

      In any case, your key point is well heard, and worth repeating time and time again: “Never give up.”

  43. Hi Aaron
    Dumb me, it took your hint b/4 I twigged to your link to wordpress. Good on you. For myself, nobody can outdo me on the working for nothing front. I run two blogs on this platform that are exercises in long form journalism and for which I receive not one cent, even though one of them is directed at a large economic movement. But never mind. Let me tell you of my recent experience with a New York site directed at the media, promoter of one of the major social network conferences, with a comprehensive daily update. Took about eight hours to get it right at the start. Worked it down to six. At the end I was able to do it in five hours of pretty intense work. They paid $25 per edition. The guy who runs this operation is a media star in New York, written up in Bloomberg.

  44. Great post! I think this is my favorite line: “the freelancer is essentially an ink-stained Sisyphus, rolling words uphill (is that not what writing feels like?) and then being crushed back down by financial burdens”.

    I freelance a bit and also work in an ad agency, where I face the Sisyphean task of the Endless Rewrite, aka Copy by Committee, aka The Clients Think They’re Copywriters. And trust me, the agency doesn’t always get paid for that either.

    Here’s an idea to monetize yourself…why not have someone design an image of the aforementioned ink-stained Sisyphus and then can sell it on coffee mugs, tee shirts, etc. Of course, you could offer the designer “exposure” to defray your costs (kidding). But I would seriously buy some ink-stained Sisyphus swag. Let me know when you set up shop. 🙂

    • Wendy, I’m glad you liked that line–I was proud of it. Not entirely sure that covering a coffee mug in ink will make that morning jolt go down any smoother, but you’re certainly right that it’s a catchy concept for a T-shirt or two. Now that I’m a bit further into my freelancing, I think what most concerns me about this hill is the irregularity of the surface. There are days when I’m flying upward, and then week-long stretches in which I just appear to free-fall. At least the boulder itself isn’t crushing me; that’d be insult to injury, I think.

  45. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your site. It’s a very easy on the eyes
    which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often.
    Did you hire out a designer to create your theme?

    Great work!

  46. I put freelance work first because it’s something you can start today with zero up-front investment. And if you take the time to move beyond writing – and master a specialized, in-demand skill – you can easily earn 5-figures per month.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: