Should writers work for free?
As a general rule of thumb, I’m a fairly enthusiastic fan of that small coterie of magazines that might best be described as trade publications for writers. There aren’t many. There’s Writer’s Digest and there’s The Writer. And then there’s Poets & Writers, although regardless of the fact that it is absolutely exceptional, I almost never read it, probably because the word “poet” appears in its title. I’m not a poet nor do I aspire to ever become one, so there’s probably some sort of neuro-association I carry around about P&W — specifically that it’s not a magazine for me.
It’s Saturday today, and I was feeling uninspired, and lazy and bored this morning. So I got in the car and drove to Barnes & Noble under the pretense that I would check to make sure my book was stocked, and if it was, to position it on the shelf so that passersby would see not its spine, but its front cover. But instead of finding my book and then leaving, I ended up wandering over to the magazine department and leafing through a few interesting titles. Poets & Writers was one.
There’s an absolutely fantastic article in the current edition (July/August 2007) by Steve Almond — he’s the author of Candyfreak, which I haven’t yet read but which also seems fantastic. (That’s Steve in the photo above, eating candy, natch.)
Steve’s piece is about a very frustrating situation in the writing world, in which editors and other higher-ups very often pay writers nothing for their work. Probably because of the editorial focus of Poets & Writers, Steve’s piece mostly explores the literary journal scene, in which contributors, in lieu of a proper paycheck, have long been given two “free” copies of the issue in which their work appears. But he also briefly touches down in journalism territory, where freelancers are almost always paid very poorly, and almost never see their rates of pay increase to match inflation. A number of very well known publishers have even been known to significantly lower the rates that freelancers are paid. Probably the highest-profile contingent to commit this crime recently was the Village Voice.
If you’re a journalist or writer of any sort yourself, you’ve no doubt seen this argument — Is it ever okay to write for free? — played out on countless message boards time and time again. Still, I cannot recommend Steve’s piece highly enough. It’s more than a regular ol’ article — this thing is an absolute manifesto. Halfway through reading it in fact, I felt a very strong urge to turn it into pamphlet form, and to then distribute it throughout MFA programs and literary readings far and wide. And what’s more, Steve succeeds so completely in creating a rock-solid case for never writing for free that the article is literally the sort of thing that could incite a freelance writers’ revolution. And if you think the idea of a freelance writers’ revolution is silly — if you think freelancers as a whole are not seriously pissed off — you either aren’t a writer yourself, or you haven’t been paying any sort of attention.
At any rate, I apologize sincerely for not being able to reprint even so much as a sentence from Steve’s article on this blog; I ended up not purchasing the magazine because I assumed — wrongly — that the majority of its content would be available online. But like all smart publications, www.pw.org posts some free content, but it abstains from giving away the whole cow, you might say. I think that’s smart. I certainly haven’t been a regular pw.org visitor in the past, although for the current issue at least, they’ve posted their FOB section, as well as a good bit of online-only content.
Although I’m the type of person who spends endless hours in front of a laptop each day, and although I get the vast majority of my news from papers I read online, I’ve never really understood why so many publications give away all their content for free. It’s true that most magazines don’t do this. But it’s also true that most newspapers do. Furthermore, it seems that once your organization chooses a route, customers and readers will inevitably clobber you over the head if you decide to change direction. Remember the noise that emerged when www.nytimes.com started adding some paid content to its site? Readers — myself included — went practically bananas. And incidentally, my guess is that we didn’t necessarily go bananas because they were now asking us for money, but rather because we couldn’t believe we’d been getting such wonderful content for free for so long, and we were simply pissed that the Times had finally found us out, and had decided to ask for a small contribution.
As for www.wsj.com, isn’t it true that all content was paid-only until very recently? (I’m actually not 100 percent clear on the facts here, so maybe a reader can fill me in.) In fact, I’ll be honest: I was never eveb aware of free content at wsj.com until about thirty seconds ago when I logged on to check; I was always under the assumption that it was a pay site, and so I never bothered to visit. For most of us, I think it’s largely the same deal with Salon. No one wants to watch commercials on a computer, so we visit Slate instead. Why? No commercials.
Notice I didn’t say “better content”, which may or may not be the case on any given day. But in the case of paid vs. free content online, I honestly don’t think quality has a whole lot to do with it. Unless, as in the case of the Wall Street Journal, you clearly stated your hardline position in the beginning, and you stuck to it. Speaking of which: Who else is curious to see what will happen to the wsj.com site once Murdoch takes over? I know I am.
Anyway, my point is, pick up the current Poets & Writers (July/Aug ’07) if you can. Aside from Steve’s must-read manifesto, there’s a great story by Tova Mirvis that will make you feel absolutely guilt-free for working in bed while wearing pajamas. (Essays like this one are the sort that change your life in little ways.)
Here’s my Working in Bed story: I was very late adapter when it came to laptops. I bought my first maybe seven or eight months ago. Seriously. It was my girlfriend’s beat-up old machine, and she sold it to me for $200, fully loaded. Incidentally, I love the thing to death, and after a few days of fiddling with it and getting to know its personality, I decided to give it a whirl in the futon. Before long, I noticed my writing was flowing in a slightly different manner. My style had somehow been affected. That makes perfect sense, of course, because a different environment will change any person’s attitude to at least some degree, and I had been working in front of a desktop iMac — in an uncomfortable plastic chair — for ages.
In an effort to take full advantage of that theory — the theory that changing your environment also changes your attitude — I’ve since taken my $200 laptop to cafes, to a library with free wireless, to my back porch. I even took it to Thailand, where it acquired a brand-new virus. But oddly enough, my writing seems to appear happiest when I’m at my most comfortable. And that, of course, is in bed. Throw in my grey sweatpants, a brand-new Fruit of the Loom pocket-tee from Target, and a big pile of pillows, and we’re talking potential Pulitzer Prize material. Maybe even a MacArthur Grant. And there you have it. That’s my Working in Bed story.
Tova’s own story is a bit classier of course, given that she’s a woman and probably not partial to pocket tees from Target. But I recommend giving it a read regardless. And I suggest you do so while sprawled out in bed.