as i'm about to argue that an open-notebook approach to compensation for creative work is both honorable and optimal, disclosure is important. note, then, that i have written poems for several small literary journals and received contributor's copies but no payment; i've been a salaried editor at and writer for a print magazine for the past decade; mcsweeney's paid me $25 for contributing to a book; miranda july sent me a contributor's copy of learning to love you more, though my work was referenced in an essay rather than reproduced; my flickr photos were available under a creative commons license until about a year ago, and were used by national geographic, the wall street journal, the food network, a few print authors, and many websites; i once consented to receive a review copy of a chuck klosterman book that i subsequently panned; i once drank a bunch of brennivin and posted bruce springsteen cover art on this site; i do not ask for permission from or compensate anyone for the photographs i post on birthday cakes for animals; i have never received payment for my writing on this site (which has never featured ads) or for guest posts on a few friends' sites (one of which features ads); i paid my little sister $300 (as i recall) to illustrate our save-the-date cards and wedding invitations; i paid michel gondry $20 to draw my portrait.

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.


Megan said...

Not a direct comment here, but there's an interesting parallel debate going on in the scientific journal community where it has long been understood that you do not get paid. Now, for many open-access journals, the authors actually pay a publication fee. Not a vanity press, mind you, but a fee expected to be borne by grants or departmental budgets. Bleh.

LPC said...

No market can sort itself out efficiently without transparency. But money is the last secret in America, isn't it?

I hadn't thought about the SAG/Equity parallel - really stupid of me. But I believe that anyone can play someone on a YouTube video, that organized unions worked because access to distribution (i.e. theater movies and shows) required so much capital), and SAG and Equity influence may wane when/if YouTube channels gain credibility?

I could be wrong. In any case, it is important, very important, I believe, for smart people who write to think and talk about this. Or risk the market rebuilding itself to someone else's blueprint.

lauren said...

@Megan yikes. is there a point at which publication fees would drive authors to publish through, say, the university system rather than through peer-reviewed journals? how common is open access in the scientific community? (i have an easy enough time accessing abstracts, but i'd say only about a tenth of the studies i look into for work are fully available outside of a paywall.)

@LPC the SAG/equity analogy is imperfect, for sure, but the professional and aspiring-professional writing community is in dire need of some kind of guidance. i think the market has rebuilt itself to someone else's blueprint already: think of, for example, online publishers with robust revenues who maintain dishonest, gee-whiz "oh boy, if only i could afford to pay you!" postures. why is that okay? the little literary magazines to which i used to submit list their print runs, submission guidelines, and compensation policies in publications like poet's market. why don't content providers demand that kind of transparency from new-media types? feminists argue that women should demand to know male colleagues' salaries all the time. why don't we share that information with each other?

Rob said...

I enjoyed this. Anything worth publishing is worthy of compensation.

lauren said...

@Rob it's funny what sticks with you; i was straight-up shocked and deeply impressed when miranda july and her co-author sent me a "it turned out we didn't use your piece after all, but we're grateful you made it available to us and we want you to have a copy of the book anyway" note. it was a classic honorarium, and it made me think carefully about how to do right by other artists. i'm not so sure about miranda july's cat puppet from the future, but i think she herself is a class act.

Megan said...

At least in my field, there isn't a university based publishing equivalent. Of course, salaries are determined with the understanding that you won't make money publishing, so there's that...

Abby said...

I'm an infrequent commenter here. I really enjoyed this, and I like your idea of transparency. I've stopped giving page views to any site whose practices seem circumspect (not giving adequate credit, unclear sponsorship, bad comment policies, etc.), but a lot of that ends up being based on a general vibe and a few concrete observations, versus actual information.

Did you read the New Yorker piece a few weeks ago about that website for women? I forget the name, something like "Bustle" and the founder is already wealthy and has built his wealth using under- or unpaid writers, and he is working on doing it again.

lauren said...

@Abby on bryan goldberg, yes! $50 a day for "writing internships," per the piece. his ideas about what writing should be are so far out there that it's almost hard to hate him; he genuinely seems to believe that content is like fountain soda. in his world, who's to dispute that?

baby jo said...

Thanks for writing this post. I'm really struggling with the general acceptance of the idea that anyone getting started in any creative field is going to be screwed for awhile, but have faith! Someday all this free work will turn into real paying jobs and you just need to pay your dues and suck it up in the meantime (and get used to barely making rent each month.) What's additionally hard about this reality is that there seems to be disagreement about when a person CAN start charging accordingly - if jobs are word-of-mouth, free or underpaid is going to keep being the word.

On a slightly related note, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the rise of DIY and imitation projects. Having a couple of toes in the lettering/print world, it occurred to me recently that someone just mildly interested in buying word art could download a free handwritten-style font and print out that Chanel quote for herself, not spend $40 to buy a print hand lettered by an artist. Has Pinterest contributed to this? Are we supposed to trust that some people still care about originality? I'm losing faith, here.

uncle paul said...

Have you seen Scratch and Who Pays Writers? They're doing some good work.

The perceived-value problem is real, and has a partial analog in my day-job field of software where most of the offerings are free. Disclosure and solidarity!

LPC said...

Solidarity is the missing piece in my free-market pamphlet on transparency. You are so right.

One point, however, and I think it's germane. Software is paid for, either by advertising, as a proxy for marketing costs (freemium), or by community recognition, (GitHub).

Almost everything is paid for by someone, some way or another, in my personal transactional model of the world. Note that I don't think transactions have to be evil or brutal. They can be kind.

lauren said...

@jo it continues to shock me that people in the same (embattled) industry do this to each other, both because it feels like peeing in the bathtub and because, to be woo-woo about it, it just feels shitty to rip people off. if you've come up from nothing and remember what it feels like, why on earth would you inflict that on a peer? hazing? are we frat boys?

on DIY and imitation, i used to worry on behalf of people who bought vendor stalls at things like renegade craft fair. people wander all over those things talking about how they could make what's being sold, and aren't they going to go home and do just that? if maxwell at design*sponge is to be believed, though, pinterest boards are more like butterfly collections than to-do lists for most people (and it must be said that a lot of people are really shitty at craft reproduction). me, i think most people are more likely to pay the $40 or what have you for lettering art that's a finished project than they are to go through the trouble of getting a font and printing it out themselves. and framing, man, that's another headache if you don't get off on it. the sort who would DIY it out probably wasn't a serious potential customer to begin with? your question is bigger than that example, of course, and i don't know the answer. my old M.O. at fairs, if i saw a product that would come home in my head rather than my tote bag, was to buy something from that seller as acknowledgement that they'd contributed something to me. that isn't always possible, and maybe it doesn't make sense, but, well, yeah. i don't tend to straight-up reproduce things other people have made for the selfish reason that it's more exciting to have come up with something myself. as for small-business types who rip each other off? i have no idea how that works.

@paul i love that (it reminds me of the salary reports at mediabistro), and i hope it becomes more searchable. do you feel like, as lisa argues below you, that your software is paid for in one of the three ways she describes?

@Lisa i too believe that everything is paid for by someone, but i'm more cynical about it: as i said when we were talking about this stuff on twitter the other day, i think a lot of people aren't quite where they think they are relative to the check.

maggie said...

I like it when you express your opinions, Lauren. Also I completely agree. Otherwise I think it's a return to the patronage system.

uncle paul said...

Our software is paid for by cash money (we do charge for it), but that puts us in a minority in the mobile app stores, which are overwhelmingly full of free apps put out for the reasons Lisa gives. The third reason (community recognition) is the one that's analogous to your Flickr stream; it's done by hobbyists or moonlighters who don't expect to get paid for it, even if they sling serious tech skills at their day jobs. They do it for fun, or as portfolio pieces to land paying work. Mind you, I'm not at all opposed to free software; but as with web content, the difficulty of charging consumers works against remuneration for producers. The winner is of course Apple, who sells the hardware.

lauren said...

@maggie and i yours, friend! (that grammar troubles me, but i'm going to leave it alone. this is unpaid writing, what the hell!)

so i was catching up on last week's new yorker on the train home last night and learned, via caleb crain's piece on jack london, that in 1898 (when a dozen eggs cost fifteen cents in san francisco), as a 22-year-old part-time hobo just back from prospecting in canada, jack london sold "a Klondike story for five dollars and a tale about a mad scientist for forty." according to scratch magazine (in the "who pays writers" section paul mentioned above), that's more than refinery29, a fashion site that projected $8 million in revenues in 2011, pays some of its contributors today.

Hannah Mae said...

Amen to solidarity! I am researching a paper on women in the music of the 1930's coal-mining protests - wars, really - and it's striking (ho ho) how consistently victory went to the side that stuck together. (Also striking how much grievous bloodshed there was. Mass murder, roll the bodies into the river, repeat.)

The question, as always, is how. I have found a serious aversion to the notion of unionization in most of the non-labor industries I've been in (and unions in the trades have their own problems, though god might strike me dead for so saying) - nobody in computers wants to think that they are an exploited wage-slave who would benefit from collective bargaining, everyone sees themselves as a future startup CEO who will find the union a pain in the ass. BUT sepia-tinged atavism is all kinds of hip now - Levi's shot commercials in Braddock, PA! - so perhaps we writers are ripe for an old-fashioned union, before we all start looking like Dorothea Lange photographs. (Is there a DL filter on instagram? That makes you look hollow-cheeked and noble?)

In closing, I leave you with the badly transcribed but expressive words of Immortal Technique:

They trying get us to rock for the love of hiphop or rock for the exposure
Now look man, I don't mind doing a guest spot for my peeps
Or, or, or doing a benefit show, but don't lie to me pussy
Coz I find out I'm paying your lightbill, I'm fucking you up

Rachel said...

I wish I had more time to ponder and comment on this! It's important, and not discussed as often as it should be, and honestly, I don't spend as much time thinking about it as I should.

1. I put my blog in a different category, so I've never considered it competition with paid authors. Is saying it's a hobby an excuse? I don't think I'm replacing any kind of compensated writing. In the early, heady days of blogging, I had some projects featured on DS and AT, and those are uncompensated (which I think is legitimate, although the sites make money, the projects weren't commissioned, only shared with a wider audience).

2. I do, however, ask for compensation when doing freelance projects for publication. And man, do you have to negotiate those fees up. I've pretty much decided not to participate in any DIY books again, because the per project fees they offer are just barely enough to compensate for materials and time, at minimum wage. I see that as giving it away for cheap and I'm over it.

3. Re: DIY and imitation - I'd agree that the person who will DIY instead of buying is not a potential customer in the first place. I don't feel guilty about re-creating things I see out in the world, although I usually like to modify it anyways. (But selling something that I re-created based on someone else's product? That would be skeazy in the extreme.)

There are so many more things to talk about, and you do it more eloquently than I can, but I love the discussion.

Hannah Mae said...

Perhaps obvious, but so common it bears specific mention: seems like a sticking point for everyone is whether the enterprise involves money *for anyone,* not just the "content provider. That is, we are much more likely to write/draw/whatever for free if we are asked by a (small) publication which (genuinely) does not make money (and not just a micro-brand spinoff of Gawker or whatever) - or at least, we turn them down with apology rather than indignation. I think we just want some piece of the pie - if it's a free pie, give me some free, but if anyone is getting paid, pay me too.

But I think we're headed the exact opposite way. Artsy jobs have been low-paid forever - a friend who was a (well-paid) sysop for MTV in 1999 told me how little they paid their animators then, and they probably don't pay them at all now - and now with the rise of the business internship, people in whole swaths of other fields are expected to work for free too.

lauren said...

@Hannah Mae agreed, heartily, re: free pie. which takes me back to wishing we were all a bit more explicit about how flush we are or aren't, and gnashing my teeth at one-sided gift economies.

on the rise of business internships, i still haven't figured out how i feel about condé nast nixing its internship program altogether. despite the fact that talk of it and the various internship-related lawsuits are all over the industry at the moment, i actually hadn't known much about the guidelines for unpaid internships until i read that forbes piece i just hyperlinked:

The Fox Searchlight and Condé Nast cases are just two in a rash of more than a half dozen recent suits brought by plaintiffs in creative fields like publishing, fashion and film, who point to a six-part test laid out by the Labor Department following a Supreme court case in the 1940s. Under the test, an unpaid internship is legitimate if the employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” It also says, “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.” In other words, the internship’s goal should be to train and teach the intern, rather than to provide free labor for the employer. If the employer doesn’t meet the six criteria, it is supposed to pay minimum wage or better.

will there be litigants in other fields?

Hannah Mae said...

I don't think (there must be data on this somewhere) that internships ever actually increased the accessibility of the paid jobs that they were supposed to lead to - they just added independent wealth to the list of job qualifications, which is not in itself a job skill. *Some*body still has to proofread, and if Conde Nast now has to pay people to do it, that seems fair to me. (Of course, it could just mean that more work gets piled on existing desks, rather than any new people being hired, but... no but; it probably will. Hm.)

One has to hate the game rather than the players, though - blaming capitalists for doing what capitalists do (taking as much value as possible, giving as little value as possible) is like blaming bears for eating out of the trash cans at the campground. The best nature of government, though, is to do things which none of us could do individually, like bomb entire geographic regions back to the Stone Age. Er, institute worker protections. So I am pleased to see the Labor Department having some rules about this, even if they seem laxly enforced at the moment.

lauren said...

(Of course, it could just mean that more work gets piled on existing desks, rather than any new people being hired, but... no but; it probably will. Hm.)

being an entry-level (or even a second-tier) fashion assistant is already a back-breaking job; being a condé fashion assistant who doesn't have interns working for college credit to help her log and return samples is going to be utterly grueling. my impression was that making all internships for college credit would be the win-win solution industrywide, as a lot of other publishing companies have gone that way in the last few years (and my magazine, at least, has hired a few of our college interns); i don't know what to make of condé taking their ball and leaving. is it that the end of print is so geometrically mapped at this point that that first tier of the editorial pyramid just doesn't need to exist? is it that they'll poach our interns? where do babies come from?