Pay the writer

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From The Bookseller:

I’m currently reading Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions (Bloomsbury, 2015) by the brilliant writer, Eve Poole. The book meticulously slays capitalism’s dragons in fairy dresses: the assumptions of competition, the invisible hand, ‘market pricing is just’, the supremacy of the shareholder, the legitimacy of the limited liability model and more. It is a very thorough and intellectually robust read. I strongly recommend it.

I did notice that the book doesn’t cover one key toxic assumption that capitalism appears to consider to be fact: writers neither want or need to get paid.

I cannot think of any other reason why anyone would consider it wise or fair to approach a professional writer to work for them for free. I also cannot think of any other realm of professionalism (outside of the creative sphere) in which mega profitable organisations expect to be able to extract labour and expertise for free.  

Don’t cry for me -I am to blame for my own woes. I struggle to resist Twitter and often put ideas out there, like many people. Perhaps I accidentally gave the impression that I like giving away my labour for free. So, it should probably come as no shock that the source of my current bewildered disdain permeates from a tweet I wrote.

I was approached by a blue-chip multinational corporation to write a piece for them on the governments’ seeming push to regulate social media organisations in light of the racist abuse faced by England footballers.

Noticing they hadn’t mentioned a fee, I asked what it was. Their response:

“Sadly there is no fee for opinion pieces ☹ I am told it’s because it is the ‘foundation’ so it’s all meant to be charitable.”

I’d have no problem contributing my time to a charity. But context is critical here: the ‘foundation’ arm of a corporation that made $5.98bn last year asked me to clear my diary, research, write, rewrite, battle with my self-doubts (and demons), rewrite again and then send them a professionally written piece. For free. Or, as they put it, ‘for charity’. I passed.

The representative of the organisation came back to me and said: “That’s fair enough. I am fighting internally for opeds [sic] to be paid so I’ll keep you in mind in case it changes. Have a lovely day!”

. . . .

“I hope that works out well internally. I am part of an organisation called the Black Writers’ Guild and we’re very strong on this. Being a Black writer is often a double whammy – our labour as Black people and then as writers is often not valued. I understand this is a ‘foundation’ but I’m assuming everyone in your hierarchy is getting paid for their labour. Writers have bills too. If the ‘foundation’ wishes to contribute their proceeds to charity – that is admirable. But it is an unfair assumption that writers can afford for the fruits of their labour to go to charity. Home is where charity starts after all. And we won’t have homes if we don’t get paid for our labour.”

. . . .

This is not the first or tenth time this has happened to me. I was once asked to come and spend half a day with another multi-billion-pound organisation. Upon enquiring about pay they offered me “five thousand dollars…”. ‘HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN THE SKIES ABOVE ARE CLEAR AGAIN!’ I thought… until I read the sentence in full: “…five thousand dollars… in Ad Credit… to a non-profit organization of interest to you”. Again, I passed.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG has a somewhat different take on the free work than the author of the OP. PG’s take is based on his experience of many years as a retail attorney in a low-income area.

One of the (many) things that malpractice insurance companies warn attorneys about is what is sometimes called, “street-corner advice” or “coffee-shop advice.”

Attorney bumps into an acquaintance who owns a factory that employs a couple of hundred people at a street corner. The factory owner is someone who would make a nice client. The two stop and chat briefly then the acquaintance says something like,

"I was thinking about you the other day after my kid, who just got his drivers' license, bumped into another car in the high school parking lot. 

It was a little thing that didn't do much damage and nobody got hurt. Since he's a new driver, my car insurance premiums will go through the roof if I tell my agent about it. 

There's nothing wrong with me keeping the whole thing quiet and just giving the other kid's family a couple of hundred dollars to fix the scratches is there?" 

The attorney wants to do this guy a favor because then when he needs help with something bigger, the factory owner might remember how nice the attorney was when his kid had a problem. He smiles and says, “Bob, you’re probably right. I do some work on accidents and know all about those crazy auto insurance bills. Sometimes handling little things like this off the books is best for everybody.”

Bob smiles and says, “Thanks a lot. I won’t forget how you helped me.” Attorney walks back to his office smiling even though there’s nobody sitting in his waiting room.

A couple of months later, the helpful attorney receives a letter from the largest law firm in town announcing that the firm has been retained by the factory owner to pursue a legal malpractice claim. That claim is based upon the incorrect legal advice their client received when the helpful attorney suggested that he not report the accident to his insurance carrier to avoid a premium increase.

The accident in the school parking lot resulted in $25,000 in damages to the other driver’s new Mercedes, a birthday present from her parents. The other driver has also been seeing an orthopedist for back pain and may require back surgery.

The factory owner’s auto insurance company has cancelled his policy and is refusing to pay damages because the factory owner failed to make a timely report of the accident to the company and admitted his child’s liability for the accident while offering the injured girl’s parents money in exchange for their signatures on an agreement to hush up the whole affair.

And the son totaled the family Rolls Royce the day after the policy was cancelled.

End of over-long hypothetical lawyer horror story.

Like nearly every other attorney who has practiced for very long, PG was sometimes asked for informal advice in a non-business setting. His response was usually something like, “I’m so sorry to hear you’re having trouble and I’m happy to help. I’ll have my assistant call you to schedule an appointment as soon as I get back to my office on Monday morning.”

The response accomplished a couple of things:

  1. It communicated that PG was a concerned acquaintance and was happy to help and
  2. PG was a professional and wanted to handle the problem in a professional manner.

PG did a lot of free legal work, but he wanted to choose who he did free work for and what types things he would do without charge instead of having free legal work choose him.

When PG was in his office, he was in friendly lawyer mode and did things like ask a lot of questions, take a lot of notes (which included a summary of what the client told him) and treat the matter in the same way he did other legal matters when he was asked to give legal advice.

With the help of his brilliant and hard-working assistant (No sarcasm whatsoever intended – she was both brilliant and hard-working. So was his other assistant who handled billing and bankruptcies.) he would set up a file for each client that included his notes, letters or emails he sent and a record of the things he did and what he said. In some cases when he gave verbal advice, he would send a follow-up letter to the client summarizing his advice so he was as certain as he could be that the client understood the advice.

There was some CYA in this process, but it also was a way to help PG make certain that he had done his best to clearly explain and communicate his advice to his client and could remember that advice and his basis for it if the client asked him a question about it two years later.

If he wanted to be an effective professional lawyer, acting like an amateur wouldn’t help him reach that goal.

So how does this apply to a professional author (or would-be professional author), like the creator of the OP?

A couple of things come to mind:

  1. If you would like to write for an individual or organization at no charge, you choose the recipient of your charity. There are many that would welcome the help of someone who is talented in written communications.
  2. If someone asks you to provide your professional expertise at no charge, think about how you will respond ahead of time. Your planned response might include something like, “I’m flattered by your offer, but I’m a professional author. Writing is what I do to help support myself, so, unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of extra time to provide my professional services without monetary compensation.”

(PG notes that the end of the hypothetical response included in item #2 above strayed into a bit of lawyer-speak, but sometimes he can’t help it.)

Perhaps PG was a little put-off by the OP author’s complaints about people who asked him to write for free. PG heartily agrees with the sentiment, “Pay the writer!” (and “Pay the attorney!”), but he doesn’t complain if people don’t understand everything about what he does to earn his money.

11 thoughts on “Pay the writer”

  1. I did notice that the book doesn’t cover one key toxic assumption that capitalism appears to consider to be fact: writers neither want or need to get paid.

    Seems that would make both Bertelsmann and Bezos anti-capitalists. To the barricades! Pay the writer and bring down capitalism.

  2. As my now-late friend and client noted (NSFW language warning, but believe me this is nothing compared to seeing him rant on the subject during the last WGA strike):

    Pay the Writer

    Publishing is built on a culture of secrecy that would be the envy of most counterintelligence organizations. Nobody knows how much writers actually get paid, how many copies of books/articles/whatever get sold (let alone read), or darned near anything else that would allow writers to, like, “collectively bargain” (which doesn’t need to mean “unionize” if that’s a trigger word for you). Consider the “huge breakthrough” of decoding Amazon sales rankings… which nonetheless don’t distinguish price points!

    It could be worse, comrade. Writers could be critical resource of State and paid inadequate salary to stand in line for out-of-stock canned food. At least until offending Premier, then off to gulag where writers can meet others of kind, and not be paid just like those in West.

  3. I, for one, am glad that some people do not have the apparent attitude of the OP.

    I do think that my commentary here has a positive value (taken as a whole, I have off days) – but if PG and I had to “net out” our respective contributory value in dollars… well, let’s just say that he and Mrs. PG would be able to have a much nicer than usual trip to Venice. Probably with the entire family along.

    • I appreciate your contributions, W.

      However, one of the pluses of Venice was that the family was not able to come along. 😉

      You can love your family a great deal without wanting to be with them every day and every place. One of the benefits of children growing up. And when the children have babies and one of those needs a diaper change, you can gently hand them to someone who is one degree more closely related and say, “Oops, there’s a little problem here.”

      To stave off any critical comments, I have changed the diapers of a grandchild once in awhile. It’s like swimming. Once you learn, you never entirely forget how to do it.

  4. The OP seems to be confused. Failure to understand that creative services, like any other services, require remuneration is not a “capitalism” problem, it’s an “entitled twerp” problem.

  5. Wisdom. Last short family trip to California, however, my family resolved that by ensuring we had more than one transport in LA. (I went to Mount Wilson, son went to Disney Adventure, wife went to the Hearst Gardens – dropping off the daughters at the Castle for the art museum.) Worked out well, we didn’t see much of each other for two days running. Day trip to Catalina the third day, but mostly split up there, too. Only getting together for dinner, probably only because I said that if they wanted me to pay for it, they would meet me at that nights restaurant selection by 7 PM.

    Italy, I’m sure that each of them would find something of more interest several miles away. The wife and I would stick together for Venice, though, we have enough common interests there. Maybe a side trip over the Brenner Pass for Austria.

  6. Yes, but there’s also quid pro quo. I’ve done work (writing, designing) in exchange for something of value to me (lawyering, tree cutting). Value exchange is not restricted to money. Won’t work in all cases, but in some it does.

    • Then you were paid, Harald. And the Internal Revenue Service would/will be somewhat interested* in how you disclosed that payment on Schedule C for the relevant years. Benefits of barter are income under 26 U.S.C. § 61, and there were enough judicial opinions holding so that it’s an accepted core assumption.

      * Within the constraints imposed by its own budget.

      • I’m aware of that. But I was trying to show there can be more than one way to skin that cat (gruesome phrase, eh?) For the OP, maybe he could have made a deal: “I’ve give you one free piece but then you assign me a paid one.” Or whatever.

        • I was reasonably sure you were. I’m also completely sure that someone coming along here reading the comment won’t be.

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