66 Comments

Summary:

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, an author complained about repeatedly being asked to write for free, but what he finds so insulting is something many others see as an opportunity — and it is not going away any time soon

shutterstock_141397174

Even if you didn’t know that the media industry was in turmoil, you’d be able to guess that something was wrong based on how often financial questions seem to intrude into discussions about journalism and writing in general — questions like “Who is going to pay us? How are we going to make money?” and so on. The most recent eruption along those lines occurred on the weekend based on an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”

Writing for free, of course, is nothing like slavery, as a number of people pointed out in their responses to the piece on Twitter. For one thing, it is largely voluntary. But author Tim Kreider’s argument is flawed in a number of other ways as well — and even contains the seeds of its own destruction in a way.

Writing is not like doing surgery

In the piece, Kreider — whose bio describes him as an essayist and author — talks about how he was receiving numerous requests to write things for zero compensation, or to give prepared speeches in return for nothing but “exposure.” Most of the rest of his essay was devoted to complaining about the injustice of this kind of behavior:

“People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.”

Like many similar pieces complaining about the new economics of digital media — especially the ones that involve paywalls and charging for things like the news — Kreider even falls back on that old standby: a variation of the “no one does surgery for free” argument:

“My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.”

Plenty of people like to write for free

As Derek Thompson at The Atlantic notes in a response to Kreider — and as I tried to point out to a number of people during a Twitter debate about the topic — writing isn’t even remotely like surgery, or practicing law, or being a plumber. Very few people do those things for free (although it should be noted that many lawyers do “pro bono” work), but thousands of people write for nothing.

Why do people write for nothing? Is it because some capitalistic conspiracy has decided that their work is of no value, as many of Kreider’s supporters seem to think? No. In some cases it’s because they like to do it, and don’t need the money. In other cases it’s because writing helps publicize other things that make money, as Dan Lewis pointed out in a post about why he writes for free — things like newsletters or books, or speaking engagements. Kreider even acknowledges in his piece that this strategy works when he says:

“The first piece I ever got nationally published was in a scholarly journal that paid in contributors’ copies, but I’ve never had a happier moment in my career. And it’s not strictly true that you never benefit from exposure — being published in The New York Times helped get me an agent, who got me a book deal.”

As more than one person pointed out during the debate on Twitter that followed the publication of the piece, there have always been people willing to write for nothing — the barriers to entry are just a lot lower now. To some, that is a great thing, a democratization of content that allows anyone to reach a potential audience, but to others these writers who work for free are like virtual “scabs” crossing a picket line and endangering the livelihood of other writers.

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity

A number of people tried to argue that publishers are the ones who set the price for things, and they are ruining the industry by not paying writers — although even Kreider admits in his piece that most of the people asking him to do things for free have little or no money. But the point is that this view of the industry gets things exactly backwards: the reality is that media or content broadly speaking has gone from being primarily supply-driven to almost totally demand-driven, and that has changed the economics in some fundamental ways.

As media theorist Clay Shirky has put it, “abundance breaks more things than scarcity,” and any form of writing (or music, for that matter) is a great example of that in action. Writing hasn’t become free or cheap because no one wants it any more, it has become free or cheap because there is so much of it that its intrinsic value has eroded — and the advertising content that used to help pay the freight for that writing has eroded just as quickly.

Is this a bad state of affairs for many people? Sure it is, just as the amateurization of photography and other fields is difficult for some professionals in those fields. But it’s arguably good for many others — some of whom can now create a life that includes doing something they love, reaching an audience or connecting with other artists, and maybe even getting paid for it. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Carol Anne

  1. “writing isn’t even remotely like surgery, or practicing law, or being a plumber. Very few people do those things for free (although it should be noted that many lawyers do “pro bono” work), but thousands of people write for nothing.”

    That makes no sense , Writing is like all of that , the lack of pay doesn’t make it different. The “problem” is that it’s not payed and writing does require training so it is a problem since vast majority of writers that do it for free are not trained in any way and at the very least lack ethics.
    It’s also amusing to think about how feminists think about stay at home moms vs the logic you are trying to push that writing is not a job.
    From an economic point of view it is like slavery , the publisher earns money while the slave doesn’t.Slaves got some minimal shelter and food so exposure or w/e other upside free writing has is similar.
    From a social point of view , i don’t see much upside from writers being free ( like the social upside from what stay at home moms create) , if anything the lack of ethics creates major problems.
    Then again i am not very sure what you want to say here , that free writing is ok or that free writers are here to stay or both.
    Anyway , overall this is a negative thing and maybe regulators should protect creators with both minimal fees and copyright legislation (as long as copyright exists – i am in no way advocating for the existence of copyright but if we have it it should protect everybody not just the MAFIAA) . We do have a minimal wage but that doesn’t offer any protection here and the laws are behind the times. Look at unemployment ,there is clearly an oversupply of workforce but we still enforce minimal wages, this is a segment that is not protected at all.
    And you don’t seem to have any valid arguments at all, you like the idea and are defending it somehow but it makes no sense.

    Share
    1. Writing isn’t like those other jobs because the level of entry is non existent. Everybody can write an article, maybe not a good one, but many professionals write terrible articles as well. Additionally the ability to do direct harm is far less than any of those other jobs. Imagine if your surgeon, lawyer or plumber had something like the broad protections journalists have when it comes to messing up, even when it’s (semi-)intentional.

      Working for free, any kind, writing, internship, etc. is nothing like slavery. No-one is forcing these writers to write for free. There might be no payed work for them, as there isn’t for a lot of people. But more importantly no-one is forcing these people to be writers in the first place. If you think this is anything like slavery you have no idea what actual slavery is.

      If you choose a (on average) low paying profession, with a massive surplus of workforce and then choose to keep doing it despite not getting payed then you are nothing like a slave. You’re just not making smart financial and life decisions.

      Share
    2. The point is that those slaves who got food and minimal shelter didn’t choose to go into a career of slavery. They didn’t end up having their labour exploited by owners making a profit because they were competing in a race to the bottom against other workers who envied their position and were prepared to work for even less than them. There were no slaves who wanted to have the same conditions as them even without a master.

      The only way that slavery can exist is through force – this is not true of free writing. There are thousands of people who want to write for free (or who are happy to lose lots of money self publishing) and it is they who are bringing the wages for writers down, not the publishers.

      Call this a terrible state of affairs if you like, but your comparison to slavery doesn’t hold water.

      Share
    3. So you’re saying that money = ethics? A writer grows ethics as soon as he gets paid? Taken a look at the paid journalists out there lately in the ethics department? As an editor, I see every day for a fact that writing takes no “training” to accomplish. It’s my job as an editor to clean it up to be ready for publishing – again, however, it’s nothing I was ever trained for, I just turned out to be really good at it. We’re not able to pay our writers – and I dare you to tell them to their faces that they have no ethics! I’m sorry, but YOU are the one not making any sense.

      Share
      1. Would you then edit for free?

        Share
    4. Realjjj, you do realize that by writing your post, you are creating content for this website. You are writing for free and benefiting this website. Are you getting anything in return? You must think so, otherwise you would not have written for free.

      Share
      1. Surely you can see there is a difference between me penning this quick reply – or even a rather longer reply if I so chose (which I don’t) – and professional written work that draws on craft and expertise accrued over some (in my case many) years?

        Share
  2. Veasey Conway Monday, October 28, 2013

    Last paragraph: “Is this a bad state of affairs for many people? Sure it is, just as the amateurization of photography and other fields is difficult for some professionals in those fields. But it’s arguably good for many others”

    This isn’t a bad state of affairs just for the creators. It’s a bad state of affairs for society.

    The democratization of creative work isn’t inherently good. (Giving every American a box of paint and a brush doesn’t mean we will have better painters.) Capitalism, journalism, and society must have functioning systems that nurture and reward quality.

    Share
    1. I disagree — I think the democratization of creative pursuits like writing, photography etc. is fundamentally good not just for artists but for society.

      Share
      1. Veasey Conway Monday, October 28, 2013

        But the work isn’t finished once you give everybody a paint brush, pen, a camera. That’s just the beginning. There need to be institutions that push these things to higher planes.

        Share
        1. Exactly. In my industry (Internet media — sports writing), there are tons of free bloggers, but over time, the very best build a loyal audience, and — if/when they put up a paywall — are rewarded with subscriptions and can then make a living at it.

          Does that make us an “institution that pushes these things to a higher plane”? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly provides opportunity, and the cream rises to the top. Those with no talent or nothing interesting to say are ignored and fade away.

          Share
        2. No. That’s antiquated thinking. Sure, some institutions add value and credibility, but their approval is no longer a requisite to succeed in the marketplace of ideas.

          Share
          1. johnwiththelens Wednesday, October 30, 2013

            ‘Marketplace of Ideas’?? Last time I went to a market I had to pay money to trade. There weren’t a whole lot of people saying that milk was so abundant in society that it had no value. If, on the other hand, there was no law to protect farmers from anyone milking their cows, at that point there would be a surplus of free milk. And why would such a law be useful you ask? Why don’t we, indeed have the ablility to go milk any cow we want? After all it’s a democratisation of nature – man shouldn’t be forcing us to pay for what nature provides. Thing is we want to keep farmers in business so that there is a supply of milk that is both Quality and Available. If copyright laws are not updated and upheld to shore up the hole in the fence that the internet has created then am afraid a lot of creatives with amazing credentials and abilities will be out of business. And the service won’t be there when you need it.

            Share
          2. johnwiththelens Wednesday, October 30, 2013

            ‘Marketplace of Ideas’?? Last time I went to a market I had to pay money to trade. There weren’t a whole lot of people saying that milk was so abundant in society that it had no value. If, on the other hand, there was no law to protect farmers from anyone milking their cows, at that point there would be a surplus of free milk. And why would such a law be useful you ask? Why don’t we, indeed have the ablility to go milk any cow we want? After all it’s a democratisation of nature – man shouldn’t be forcing us to pay for what nature provides. Thing is we want to keep farmers in business so that there is a supply of milk that is both Quality and Available. If copyright laws are not updated and upheld to shore up the hole in the fence that the internet has created then am afraid a lot of creatives with amazing credentials and abilities will be out of business. And the service won’t be there when you need it.

            Share
          3. I think it’s less about adding ‘value’ and ‘credibility’ and more about recognizing that not every mode of thinking needs to be thrown out just because of the internet. The internet is what, 15 or so years old? That lifespan is not enough for me to abolish hundreds/thousands of years of thinking about how creativity is harnessed and improved. The internet disrupts many things, but not every thing.

            Share
            1. I get the most value out of creatives that spend tons of time doing what they like. To me, more often than not, these are the people who introduce the best thought-provoking ideas and ways of thinking about the world.

              Professional creatives don’t have a monopoly on ideas and creativity. And their ideas are not inherently better than other ones.

              But their experience brings wisdom, skill, and understanding. They know when to work quietly and when to unleash their ideas on the world.

              I want people who are able to work 8, 10, 12, 16 hours a day on their craft. I’ll take one creative who can do that over three creatives who can’t. Any day.

              And that means giving creatives that money, loot, guap, skrilla, paper, bread, cash, benjamins, and greenbacks to do it.

              Share
        3. There need only to be experts at the craft willing to coach, counsel and mentor others. There do not “need to be institutions,” in which these higher-paid “slaves” toil.

          Share
      2. Stephen Moffitt Tuesday, October 29, 2013

        If the discussion were about just democracy, then having greater diversity is better than less; however, democracy does not exist in a vacuum. In our case, it is fused to capitalism. The debate here is about how one is compensated for one’s labour. Some people, such as Kreider see writing as a scarce commodity, that is there is only one of him, so his output should be paid for, per the logic of capitalism. It seems that the other argument is that words are abundant, therefore there is no need to pay for them.

        Share
      3. How is it good, Mathew? Would you care to elaborate (rather than just throwing a vague hurrah-word like “democratization” about, together with fuzzy feelgood expressions such as “creative pursuits” and “fundamentally good” (for “artists” and “society”, no less!))?

        Share
      4. Matthew, what the hell has not getting paid have to do with “the democratization” of art? If you want to write on your blog, have at it (but I do notice advertising on this blog, so somebody is getting paid somewhere). But when a publication or some established, money making organization asks a professional to do it for free, they are making money off his talent. Talent that’s taken years to develop, just like a surgeon, plumber, or lawyer.

        People are just used to getting creative work for free; your democratization comment is the same argument pirates use when they steal movies, books, or music (I know, I had a book stolen). I too have been asked to lecture for free. I always turn them down. Because, let’s face it, neophytes in their field are not the ones being asked to work for free. It’s those of us who have spent years developing our craft.

        In the end, this democratization you speak of is just another word for the race to the bottom where art is seen as valueless.

        Share
  3. Well, as the old saying goes, why buy the cow when the milk is free? The debate rolls on just as it has for many years. The problem is really that in the eyes of most people, all writing is equal. In their eyes the person who writes for enjoyment, self-expression or to entertain family and friends and the person who’s studied and worked hard to make writing a livelihood are just the same. That means that publications and other writing markets are going to snap up free content from those eager scribes rather than pay the person who’s trying to make a living. And that does devalue the work. Ideally we’d all be giving art away for free to celebrate the creative process and make the world a better place, but putting food on the table makes the world a better place too. Professional writers shouldn’t have to be competing with somebody who’s just looking for an outlet.

    Share
  4. Democratization of creative pursuits is neither good nor bad, like pretty much all things in life it has positive and negative aspects. The positive aspect is that people who previously were stopped from having an opportunity to share their work at all can make their projects available. This means that a greater variety of voices can, in theory, be heard. Access to raw, unfiltered voices that were once locked out is a great thing and there is a possibility that we’ll find many diamonds in the rough. Also, there is something to be said for the communal creation of art as it was done before it became professionalized. Art was something you did, not something you bought.

    What is at risk of being lost is specialization by people who train for years to hone their skills. If there is no mechanism for paying writers a living wage then the field will only be open to hobbyists and those who are independently wealthy and do not need an income. It is the vast middle that is damaged.

    Even in old societies there were arts specialists. They were acknowledged to be specially gifted in song or poetry or humor and they were supported by the tribe or by rich patrons. If we want to support the creations of people who specialize then there has to be some mechanism for them to be fed and housed so they can keep working. In modern society this is done with paychecks.

    One thing I often find missing in the “anyone can do it” argument– here phrased as “it is not brain surgery”– is that there is a difference between the work of someone who has dedicated years of time and effort and often eduction into mastering a craft and someone who does it as a hobby. We do not say, for example, that because anyone can put on a garage sale that commerce has no value and people who open stores shouldn’t be compensated. Both are market places, but we know there is a difference in those two things. Professional sports are like art in that people both play and watch them for their amusement. We like to watch specialists play in professional leagues and we compensate them for that. Very well, in fact. Even though we know that throwing a ball is not “brain surgery” and “anyone can do it.”

    People tend to talk about “artists” as one thing, lumping in any person who dances with the specialists who dance at American Ballet Theater, the kid who likes to play guitar with the full time musician, the person who sings in the shower with the woman at the Met, and anyone who can write a blog with a seasoned journalist. Yes, anyone can do it, but there is a level of professional commitment that has value and which, if we want to retain it as a society, we need to find a way to support. In fact, I am confident this will happen. It has always happened historically. Artists have been supported (badly) through all sorts of historical changes. I am sure they always will be.

    Share
  5. Want to stay poor? Become a writer or a journalist.

    Share
  6. People don’t do law or medicine for free as amateurs because it’s Very Much Illegal to do so. Didn’t somebody let you know about that one when you were one of the the lucky few who was getting paid back at the Globe?

    (And for that matter, how on earth does someone who cites lawyers as an example not know about the enormous oversupply in that field? It’s kind of a whole big thing. )

    Share
  7. Ha! Writers are finding out that their educational attainment is the equivalent of a man who spent four years perfecting his hammer swing, but couldn’t be bothered to learn about home construction or even nails.

    No one values word craftsmanship. People value useful information. Poets went out of fashion simetime around WWI. Stop pretending you’re anything but a poet and become a subject matter expert in something meaningful.

    Share
    1. I agree that there is value in useful information. That’s not a surprise. But I have to disagree that there’s no value in craftsmanship. That’s flat wrong. And I’m not talking about poetry or a feature story on the evolution of pillows; what about. Finley crafted analysis of the Mideast crisis or Putin’s reign or a column on the World Series?

      Share
    2. johnwiththelens Wednesday, October 30, 2013

      Many writers trade in useful ideas and information. These are the people we need to pay, but are finding themselves marginalised by people with lesser ideas and information keen to be heard to satisfy their own curiosity as to what it would be like to live their dream of being a writer.

      Share
  8. It’s tempting to blame consumers as they are the ones that do not value the works of professional authors like Mr Kreider but at a deeper level the consumer has never known what the price of content is.

    Buyers of newspapers or magazines don’t divide the price of the publication by the number of articles (only McKinsey consultants do this to produce another shiny slide) to deduct what they pay per article.

    It takes time. It takes experiments. But I am a strong believer that it will work out. One author’s revenue model will be that he/she writes for free but makes money as speaker or moderator at conferences, others will write for free and make money on their books, and still others will make money because people will pay for their article.

    Share
  9. “Writing is not like doing surgery”… “Plenty of people write for free”… those two phrases alone indicate how little Ingram thinks of people who take their writing seriously, and have obligations to the rest of the world. And finally, assuming that abundance removes the value of writing, is saying that writing is worthless because anyone can put two sentences together.

    I’ll write for free when all my bills no longer need to be paid.

    Share
  10. I agree that the slavery metaphor is off, but I have long noted the irony of full-time paid staff (sometime well paid staff), generating revenue from interns they can’t afford to pay and writers they can’t afford to pay, all in the service of publishing content products that pay THEIR salaries. And this way happening WAY before the Internet…

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post