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The Free and the Antifree: On payment for writers

5 August 2014

From N+1:

For a young writer who hopes to produce literature, the greatest difference between now and twenty years ago may be that now she expects to get paid. Twenty years ago, art and commerce appeared to be opposing forces. The more you were paid for your work, the more likely you were to be a hack.

The term of art was “sellout.” Any artist who tried to make money would end up unable to make art. Record producer and guitarist Steve Albini outlined the story of the sellout in the Baffler in 1994. A sympathetic scout would persuade a band to sign a letter of intent, and from that moment forward the terms of the deal would become the most important factor in their work. An incompetent producer would make their songs sound “punchy” and “warm.” (“I want to find the guy who invented compression and tear his liver out,” Albini wrote.) Worse, the band wouldn’t even make money. Their manager, producer, agent, lawyer, and above all label would turn a profit, but the members would probably end up in debt.

. . . .

The changes in other cultural realms were slower to arrive and are still ongoing, but you could trace them in the increasing visibility of the unpaid internship. This was a practice that began in government and finance, was taken up by colleges, and finally was adopted wholesale by a grateful culture industry; by the mid-aughts, interns had become the butt of jokes in popular culture. “Don’t point that gun at him,” Bill Murray’s eccentric oceanographer says to an angry pirate in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), “he’s an unpaid intern.” Anderson’s film was among the first to portray interns as so stupid they didn’t deserve to be paid.

. . . .

By the mid-aughts, a day job was no longer an inconvenience but an aspiration, and attitudes toward it changed. The work writers could get at corporations—as listings editors or fact-checkers—may have remained secondary to artwork in their minds, but that work, so much less reliably available than before, demanded a new level of effort to find and to keep. Not only one’s position but one’s entire department could, without much warning, disappear.

These writers and copy editors were among the many who, faced with limited resources and their own cultural omnivorousness, came home each night eager to download MP3s, PDFs, and other digital copies of artworks and research they would otherwise be unable to access. Around the reality of these thefts a powerful ideological movement emerged, taking as its inspiration not just facts on the ground but also the libertarian, antigovernment, “hacker” spirit of the earliest personal computing and internet communities. The apostles of the Free Culture movement, as it came to be called, argued that stealing digital content was a progressive politics and should be brought into the open.

. . . .

Free Culture ideology appeared to be approaching mainstream consensus when the 2008 recession made users feel, both rightly and perversely, that culture–producing corporations were fragile. In book publishing that year, hundreds of midcareer editors, writers, publicists, and other industry workers were pushed out. In the first week of December alone, the Observer reported a “massive reorganization” with layoffs to follow at Random House; a reorganization and layoffs at Macmillan; layoffs at Simon & Schuster; and an acquisitions freeze and layoffs at Houghton Mifflin. Some of these people eventually found new publishing jobs, but the industry had contracted. Many were the twentysomethings who had sold out in the Nineties and now, a decade later, ran up against the possibility that they no longer had anything to sell.

. . . .

OR Books, founded by longtime independent publisher John Oakes and former Scribner senior editor Colin Robinson, was a perfect example of publishing veterans using reduced online costs to modify industry standards. Rather than investing in large print runs and taking a loss on returned copies, the company would sell only ebooks and print-on-demand editions. Old hands rather than visionaries, Oakes and Robinson presented this cost-saving model matter-of-factly. For them the project was simply the prospect of “high efficiency, and minimal, or nonexistent, returns,” as Oakes wrote in Publishers Weekly.

. . . .

Freelance writers rightly began to demand more transparency from these publications. The most notable effort has been the blog Who Pays Writers (the source of some of the above figures), where writers anonymously submit pay rates for magazines they’ve worked with. Its founders went on to start the online magazine Scratch, “about the relationship between writing, money, and life,” which modeled itself as an ethical startup, openly sharing the terms and outcomes of its profit-sharing contracts with writers.

. . . .

And so, strangely enough, it was smaller publications that seemed most vulnerable to the shaming critique produced by Who Pays Writers. Not only the publications but the writers, too, had to be shamed, as full-time freelancer Yasmin Nair did, when in a controversial blog post she called academics and others with steady jobs who wrote for small fees “scabs.” Both the people who gave and the people who accepted unpaid internships at these publications, further perpetuating their existence, would have to be shamed as well.

. . . .

The Free movement had a few professorial spokespeople and millions of adherents; antifree was a small group of interested artisans speaking up for the dignity of being gainfully employed. As antifree grew beyond the small world of left-wing blogs, it attracted 25-year-olds who objected to being paid $50 by a corporate website that presumed them lucky to get the experience. It attracted veteran journalists who balked at being asked to write for a large, profitable magazine’s website for chump change. And it attracted unpaid interns, who at profitable media corporations (ranging from Condé Nast to Gawker), actually filed suit for violations of labor laws. These were individual stories, but they added up. The entities that had once supported journalists and writers were now doing their best not to pay them for the simplest of reasons: they could get away with it.

. . . .

Across a whole range of issues, a simple defense of intellectual property is right now a rebuke to the corporations, not a sop to them. “Show me the money” is a necessary slogan at a time when giant firms leverage a million retirement accounts for a split-second gain in the ominously named dark pools of the financial world.

Link to the rest at N+1 and thanks to Karen for the tip.

Books in General

32 Comments to “The Free and the Antifree: On payment for writers”

  1. I may have had one of the last paid internships on the planet, back in 2009. Granted, it was in zookeeping, not in writing.

    • I had an intern last year. I paid them (and well above minimum wage.) I have no use for people who abuse unpaid interns.

      Well, one, but fertilizer is cheaper and easier to buy from Home Depot.

    • I actually have one now, though it’s in brewing and not writing related. I only work there one or two days a week but, now that I’m done with my “real” job and writing to pay the mortgage (a month early, woot!) I may work there more if it doesn’t interfere with my writing.

      A foot in the door in a very competitive industry, free beer, and free access to brew fests, and I get paid. I’m still not sure how I BSed my way into that one.

      I’m with Marc one his one. If someone doesn’t consider their interns worth paying, even at a reduced training rate, they’re not someone anyone with any self-respect should consider working for.

  2. As bad as authors have it with tradpub, a lot of musicians have had it much worse. Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) made no money on the albums released by his former label. He had to make all of his money through touring and other deals. He even went so far as to tell people in his concerts to pirate every last one of his songs, just to screw over the record company. Some bands literally have gone into debt because their contracts forced them to pay out money before it was even earned. I’m so glad we have options now as indies.

    • Some bands literally have gone into debt because their contracts forced them to pay out money before it was even earned.

      It’s sickening, isn’t it?

    • Nine Inch Nails also uploaded their self-published album to torrent sites, with an option to download an uncompressed version from their own site for $5 or so. If I remember correctly, they made over a million bucks in a few days after the release.

  3. “Pay the author/artist!” and “Can you sell out if there are no boundaries?” come to mind.

  4. In around 1960 my junior high English teacher Winnifred Shea warned us that “any writer who uses writing as a source of income is unworthy of being read.” Better cross Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Fitzgerald and Hemingway off our reading list. The list of potentially worthy writers was made smaller still because Winnie declared that any writer who mentioned sex or love was off-limits to young teenagers. There go Aristophanes, King Solomon, Charlotte Brontë and me.

    • There are a lot of things about the sixties that are best forgotten, Michael.

    • Winnie sounds like exactly the sort of English teacher that so successfully manages to beat a love of reading out of their students. I’ve had a few like that, and the only reason I think I stuck with the hobby is because I’m stubborn.

  5. So many of my professors pushed the unpaid internship as a way to get those x years of experience that everybody requires for entry level positions. Kinda screwed those of us who had to work to support ourselves and our families. I think, though, that having to come at all this from a position of “pay me, dammit” has made me a little more flexible about how I can leverage my art to pay my bills.

    Starving artists may be romantic but after a while the lack of food affects your brain.

    • In the UK, it seemed to be the way the middle-class media crowd ensured that jobs went to their middle-class kids. Few people can afford to live in London while working for free, unless they have rich parents to support them. Most people I know who tried it lasted at most six months before they gave up after the elusive jobs never came.

    • In college I had an intern adviser push one particular internship that was unpaid (he said it was very lucrative and educational), but I turned it down in favor of the ones that pay because I had to work my way through school. I’ve long assumed that unpaid internships were intended only for those kids who have Daddy Warbucks stashed in their back pockets.

    • Lots of professors push it. But they wouldn’t do it if they could get their students paid internships. The people willing to take the interns usually weren’t willing to pay anyway, which tells you how much they really value the interns in some cases (except for maybe with nonprofits).

      You have to consider that in the years before the indie revolution, a lot of English professors particularly did not think students were going to make much money in the arts anyway. They just accepted it because that’s what they grew up with. Nowadays…well, it may be a different story and they may start telling students to build up their skills and really sell what they have to offer. Just depends on the times.

  6. I largely stopped freelancing for publications a few years ago specifically for just this reason. The money they offered shrunk to the point that it didn’t even cover my gas, let alone time, for the contracted work. On top of that, actually getting paid became a huge hassel, often taking months after publication to get a check, and usually only after repeatedly raising a fuss. When it got to the point that I was having to call the publishers’ parent company’s accounting department to get a check for $75 for an article run 4 months earlier, I bailed on it. All the folks defending publishers don’t really understand the reality that the writer’s pay is always the first to take the axe from these folks. They don’t nurture writers, they chew them up and spit them out. Amazon arguing that writers need to be paid considerably more is a major sea-change in how this industry operates and can’t be dismissed or under-estimated.

    • All the folks defending publishers don’t really understand the reality that the writer’s pay is always the first to take the axe from these folks. They don’t nurture writers, they chew them up and spit them out.

      This. Totally this.

    • Yup. This is where I am. I’m offered a fraction of what I earned freelancing 1-15 years ago. In fact two publications that paid me well are using interns to write stories.

      • I meant 10-15 years ago. That goes for the corporate copywriting I do, which has always paid better than journalism. But everyone I know who does it is paid a lot less than they used to.

      • When I was in college, I was writing for a couple of magazines, but I quickly saw the way that was going. A lot of the writers that inspired me to get into it got out shortly thereafter, citing the fact that they just couldn’t do it financially anymore. After having conversations with a couple of editor-in-chiefs of those magazines, they understood that it was going to be much harder to attract writers and that they were going to have to lean even harder on the ones who had been working for them for a while and were willing to keep doing it virtually for free. The rest of us moved on.

    • Your post is 100 percent correct.

  7. “For a young writer who hopes to produce literature, the greatest difference between now and twenty years ago may be that now she expects to get paid. Twenty years ago, art and commerce appeared to be opposing forces. The more you were paid for your work, the more likely you were to be a hack.”

    This … is … so stupid, so short-sighted, so dogheadedly wrong, that I hope that the person writing this is young — devoid of knowledge and ignorant of the past.

    Then, to pull an example from popular music to support your historical knowledge of literature makes as much sense as drawing on FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech in a discussion of my dog’s urinary problems.

    “Free Culture ideology appeared to be approaching mainstream consensus when the 2008 recession made users feel, both rightly and perversely, that culture–producing corporations were fragile.”

    The n+1 editors are overthinking this. Crediting ‘Free Culture ideology’ with encouraging downloads is like crediting feminism for encouraging birth control. It’s putting the ideology before the technology. Technology drives change; ideology not so much. If the Free Culture movement didn’t exist, people would still download, because it’s been made easy to do.

    And if the corporations were “fragile,” they wouldn’t have survived. Instead, they rebalanced their profits and losses by letting go of staff and cutting back until their revenues again covered expenses. This is Economics 101.

    “In the argument between the free and the antifree, we’re with the antifree.”

    Deluding yourself by shrouding your philosophy in something that’s not call capitalism will help you as much as being drunk and fat will help yourself throughout your life. I get it: You don’t want to work for free. Welcome to our world. The answer to that is to not work for free and find a way to get paid for doing something. Just don’t expect to get paid just because you’re doing something no one wants to pay for.

    “And what about tax reform? In Ireland, artists are exempt from taxes on the first 40,000 euros they earn from their work—whereas artists and freelancers here are faced, among many other obstacles, with onerous self-employment taxes that punish anyone who tries to stay clear of the corporate system. We could do better.”

    The first concrete suggestion in this piece, and it’s at the end of the article. There’s your problem in a nutshell.

    “One did not become a writer in order to starve, but nor did one become a writer in order to get rich.”

    “Money doesn’t buy you happiness, but it helps improve your negotiating position.” — Berkeley Breathed

    • Yeah, pretty much all of this article made no sense.

    • I’ve always hated the saying that “money doesn’t buy you happiness.” Money contributes a huge percentage to my happiness. For one thing, it keeps me from having to worry about crap I’d really rather not worry about. I value not having to worry so much about things. That helps me be happy. I don’t know anyone who is not at least somewhat made happier by the fact that they have money.

    • Money does not buy happiness, but poverty buys misery.

  8. Wow, this is the best thing I’ve read on this site in at least a week!

  9. “Starving artists may be romantic, but after a while, the lack of food affects your brain.” KORT…lol

  10. “The more you were paid for your work, the more likely you were to be a hack.”

    I live in hope of reaching the highest levels of hackery.

  11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

    Since no one has posted this, I will. Hope the link works.

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