a colleague and friend of mine, easily the most prolific writer i know (she's got something like ten novels and probably hundreds of essays and articles for everyone from the new york times to women's magazines to sites like salon.com and nerve.com under her belt), wrote a long facebook post last week about a site she'd just pitched with an essay. her contact declined to buy her piece, but said that she was more than welcome to post it on their site for free. what magnanimity! i won't quote directly from the post (it still isn't public), but in short, my friend made a strong case for writers needing to protect themselves from "exposure" gigs, noting that actors with union cards aren't allowed to work outside of contracts (to do so would be damaging both to them and their peers). groups like actors' equity, AFTRA, and SAG don't really have analogs in the publishing world, but maybe they should; as tim kreider noted in the sunday times this weekend, it's a hot mess out there right now.
I know there’s no point in demanding that businesspeople pay artists for their work, any more than there is in politely asking stink bugs or rhinoviruses to quit it already. It’s their job to be rapacious and shameless. But they can get away with paying nothing only for the same reason so many sleazy guys keep trying to pick up women by insulting them: because it keeps working on someone. There is a bottomless supply of ambitious young artists in all media who believe the line about exposure, or who are simply so thrilled at the prospect of publication that they’re happy to do it free of charge.i haven't had to spend too much time thinking about the implications of writing for free. my literary-magazine credits are ancient history, and i am confident that turning my juvenilia over to those now-extinct journals did no serious harm to my community (i do squirm a bit over the strange poem about christina aguilera, but that's another story). this blog predates Big Web Money for personal writing, and my feelings about it haven't changed over the years; i hope it's been of use to other people, but i'm not ashamed to admit that i've written it mostly for my own benefit, and i'm comfortable with its potential financial impact on my peers as a not-for-profit public site featuring my recreational writing and photography. as for the writing i do as part of my full-time magazine job, it's work with formalized pay, bless it, and fairly uninteresting in the context of this discussion.
the majority of my experience giving it away is with photography, and honestly, i'm ashamed of it; i think that because i'm an amateur, to put it mildly, it didn't occur to me that making my photos accessible via creative commons could affect anyone's livelihood. it felt good to collaborate with, say, self-publishing authors who really couldn't afford professional images, and the random bigger hits were entertaining. hey, my selfie is on gizmodo! i started getting messages from professional photo assistants who wanted to use my stuff, uncredited, for free (for the titillation i would get, i suppose, from seeing them distributed to a wider audience?). i noticed traffic to my flickr stream from public-domain search engines, and it occurred to me, after way too long, that my hits were replacing paid work. whether or not someone can afford to pay a photo contributor is beside the point these days; why should they, when there are millions of folks like me out there? my default licensing setting is now creative commons/attribution/non-commercial. that feels right to me, but i still don't really know what i'm doing.
the titillation of exposure for non-professionals as currency has been examined to death in discussions of, say, reality television, but i'm starting to think about how it affects the food chain in other ecosystems. my friend's post-your-essay-for-free! offer is what kreider calls "death by exposure" for professionals, and in a media climate where everyone with a keyboard is a potential content provider and traditional outlets are dying off like giant pandas who can't figure out how to mate in captivity, the less-experienced writers who think they're building portfolios by working for nothing or next to nothing are going to find that there's no one left to look at them. long ago when the earth was flat and lots of newspapers still existed, i wrote a column for my college daily that was syndicated across the country. it was less impressive to the intern coordinators at big publishers here in new york than the fact that i'd been promoted at the on-campus coffeehouse (that, at least, showed i had management experience), but as far as i know, my friend's mother remembers me as "that girl who wrote about having sex with you." at some point in the near future, the kind of titillation keyboard-havers get from seeing themselves onscreen could be exposure's main value—or its sole value.
is it fair to resent amateurs and aspiring pros for what's going on in the media world? does resenting them do any good? some of my friends believe the market will sort itself out, but i...think about how that worked out with regulations and big banking over the last several years, and i have my doubts. also, have you ever watched writers try to split a restaurant tab? what we as "content providers" and lovers of thoughtful communication can do, and what we must do, is take responsibility for what we're doing, and how it affects our industries, peers, and contributors. i mean that literally: why don't we talk about things like how much we are or aren't getting paid for our work, and how much we pay each other? "Maybe [people who ask you to write for free are] asking in the collaborative, D.I.Y. spirit that allegedly characterizes the artistic community," kreider writes in sunday's times piece. "I have read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, and participated in a gift economy for 20 years, swapping zines and minicomics with friends and colleagues, contributing to little literary magazines, doing illustrations for bands and events and causes, posting a decade’s worth of cartoons and essays on my Web site free of charge. Not getting paid for things in your 20s is glumly expected, even sort of cool; not getting paid in your 40s, when your back is starting to hurt and you are still sleeping on a futon, considerably less so." gift economies work, or "work," in closed systems like burning man, where collaborative community is institutionalized. in practice, proprietors of profitable businesses depend upon (and in some cases prey upon) contributors who decline to commodify their work.
friends and colleagues, please make your contributor-compensation policies easy to find and easy to understand. take responsibility for how your participation in this new, weird community affects the rest of us. make sure you're not the guy who doesn't kick in on the tab. we're supposed to look out for each other.