Dear God, not the payment question!

25 08 2009

Yes! The payment question.

The eternal struggle that has plagued all new writers. Do I charge for my work because I’m a talented professional who occasionally likes to eat food, or do I give it away so I can get my foot in the door?

I’ve been swayed back and forth on the subject, but in the end I can say there is no easy answer to this. Both sides have great points to make.

One one side, the Pay the Writer arguments:

  • Writers train for their craft.
  • They’re skilled.
  • It’s, like, a real job or something.
  • Getting compensated for a job well done is the American way.
  • Writers don’t live in caves; they like to buy things.

In fact, let’s turn this over to someone passionate about always paying the writer by showing you what Harlan Ellison, famed psychotic science-fiction writer, says. Please disregard the irony that I’m not compensating him for the use of this video:

He makes some damn good points. Take a computer programmer, or a truck driver, or a secretary. Would any of these people work for free? As a rule, hell no. And no one would ask them to. It’s a lack of respect to not pay a writer, or anyone, for their work, and yes, that has a corrosive effect.

By working for free, you’re stealing a paid job from another writer. You might even be stealing a paid job from yourself.

But…

That isn’t the whole story. I’m sorry, Harlan, but there weren’t as many writers back then. And there certainly weren’t so many bloggers, or NaNoWriMo novelists, or starry-eyed dreamers who over-romanticize becoming a published author. Yes, they’ve flooded the market, but that’s the market. How is one supposed to get published when they’re competing with hundreds of other writers who will work for nothing? And yes, it’s true that you get what you pay for. Most writers who write for nothing suck at it, but who really notices anymore? People who don’t write, themselves, often can’t write. And they can’t really identify good writing on a conscious level. So they don’t care.

People need experience to get the really good, well-paying jobs, and people need practice to be worthy of them. Selling yourself cheap-to-free can accomplish that, to some degree.

And let’s not forget the axiom, if it’s your passion, you’d do it for free.

That’s all well and good, I guess. But then, society has always abused people with passion. Writers aren’t the only ones who are undervalued in society. Artists, teachers, hell, professional wrestlers, all will settle for less than their worth because they’re passionate about that job, and don’t think their employers don’t know that.

So what are you going to do? If you demand pay, you’ll never get read, and if you do it for free, you’re a traitor to your people.

Well, the first thing you can do is to not buy that presupposition.

First of all, there are plenty of people willing to pay a new writer, but that writer has to have ideas. That is, in the end, what publishers are paying for; not the craft of writing. They don’t want to see a hot mess, but by and large, beautious prose isn’t what sells magazines.

Second, if you’re not putting any value on your work or your profession, your potential employers won’t put any worth on it either.

Third, writing is a fun job, and if you’re having fun doing it, and you’re not missing the money, then frankly, it doesn’t matter if you write for free. I absolve your of your treason. The market can’t get much more screwed up than it is. But if you’re doing it, do it for love of the project or the prose, don’t do it because you think it’ll get your foot in the door. It won’t. People don’t respond to those types of tricks. They don’t respect you in the morning. All people respond to enthusiasm.

Talk to other writers, and to people in all industries who use writers. Make connections. Put out good work. The rest will work itself out.

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4 responses

27 08 2009
Caitlin

You can’t expect to be taken seriously as a writer if you write for free. Write for peanuts if you must but at least get something so that it’s a professional transaction.

The exception is guest blogging to build SEO and credibility for your own blog – but that should be a two-way street IMHO.

27 08 2009
matthewgallagher

You and your customer determine the true value of your work. Any reciprocation is better than free if you intend to make a business out of your writing.

I wouldn’t want to imply, however, that it’s a bad idea to donate your time for a cause.

4 10 2009
4 10 2009
Mike Cane

And it wouldn’t let me do two in one post, so here’s the second:
http://ebooktest.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/respect-the-artist/

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