Pay The Writer? Don’t Pay The Writer?
What with being around five years behind the rest of the internet, I only recently watched this video from the writer Harlan Ellison, ranting at expectations that writers need not be paid for their work. It is a pretty funny rant, but pretty flawed. I found it kind of funny that the keeps using the word “essay” rather than the correct phrase “filmed interview about a TV programme” to make a point about being paid for his work, as if his every utterance is on a par with a carefully constructed and argued piece of writing. I have no problem with him wanting paying for everything and anything he does, that’s up to him, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves – talking about Babylon Five is hardly on a par with the finest literature.
And then there is an unsettling moment near the end when he says, “You’re undercut by all the amateurs!” The argument that writers should be paid for their work seems a reasonably solid one, but with this statement the argument seems more like those that get paid should continue to be paid, and those who do not yet get paid, should get out. There is no protectiveness towards young writers getting exploited, there is just defensiveness towards protecting his own patch.
I read today a far more recent, less rant-y, much calmer, yet equally financially focused piece from Margaret Atwood, from her book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. She writes on the perils of making writing pay, and the perils you then encounter if you can. It seems like a serious artist needs paying to be taken seriously, but if the serious artist makes money (especially whatever is perceived as too much money) then there is a fight for credibility and the serious artist is no longer seen as such.
It appears that the writing world is full of such circular arguments, elitism and distrust. Makes you wonder why anyone would want to be a writer? Or certainly why anyone would try to make money out of it. The Ellison video and Atwood extract also made me wonder: why does it always seem like it is those writers who are paid the most that go on the most about money? Does getting paid for writing make you fixated on money?
Which brings me rather awkwardly around to the subject I’m wont to go on about from time to time – where blogging sits in the future of writing and the future of yr social media/internets/etc etc. What of those pesky amateurs undercutting the pros?
I guess if you go along with any Death of Blogging thesis then you’re likely to argue that people are blogging less (if they are, I’d look it up, but y’know, nobody is paying me) then that is because blogging is an awful lot of work for very little reward. And I guess on the surface you would be absolutely right. There hasn’t been a Blogging Goldrush. Nobody is likely to retire off of their income from AdWords.
There are ways blogging can lead to money (scam-ery, creating content people might want to pay for – if you’re really lucky, getting picked up by the mainstream media to do what you do already – if you’re even luckier), but it has become increasingly clear that if you’re blogging for profit you are probably going to have a bad time of it. First, because if you’re writing to make money from blogging, your writing is probably going to be horrible and will only be read by other bloggers wanting to make money blogging and we’re at best in another circular argument and at worst in some horrible pyramid scheme that is just bound to end in tears.
So, with the Blogging Goldrush over before it began we’re just left with those people who get a kick out of putting stuff up on the internet in the hope that other people see it and respond. Now, this might have led to 99 per cent of all the crap that clogs up the internet, but still seems like a more noble, or at the very least, achievable aim.
Yet, wait! The pool of potential bloggers gets filtered down even further. Now, with the likes of Twitter and Tumblr, all your urges to put stuff up on the internet are fulfilled in a far less work-intensive fashion. You are the curator, you don’t have to sweat creating anything. You get the social interaction as well as the satisfaction of presenting something as your own and as a mirror of your soul or whatever, without having to spend time churning out words.
This leaves us with…those people left who want to write, are happy writing, and want to share their thoughts and ideas without having to wait ten years for a proper, real writing job. I’d like to think that this leaves us with a stronger core of bloggers/writers (with the exception of me, obviously, I mean what is this stuff?) and a better quality of blogging/writing, as it has weeded out those that aren’t that fussed about writing after all.
And perhaps some of us don’t see getting paid for writing as the holy grail. Maybe we fear a life of hackwork just as soul-destroying as any menial job. Or we want to say things that the mainstream media won’t publish. Or want to make links between subjects that the paid press aren’t interested in making. Maybe we like the immediacy, the connection and the community with like-minded people.
I’m not saying that amateur writing is necessarily the more honourable or pure route. But I do think there is something to be said of writing that is not dictated by economics – be it writing something because one hope it will sell, or writing something just because the market has commissioned it. Blogging may not pay the bills, but its freedom is not something to be easily dismissed. Unless you’ve already made millions from writing, and then you probably don’t give a shit. You’ll just be waiting for the next lorry-load of cash to arrive. Whilst yelling at those amateurs to get off your lawn.
Some kind of postscript
There is probably a distinction to be made between writing for nothing for yourself (ie blogging, self-publishing) and writing for nothing for a corporate entity that is likely to make money off your work. While I see the latter as more of an issue, I can certainly understand why people would do it, to get their foot in the door. Big multi-nationals doing this seems initially more suspect, but at least the writer is guaranteed exposure. I think I feel more uneasy with smaller journals and the like asking for submissions and either not paying contributors, or even worse, asking for payment from the writers themselves. This kind of exercise makes me feel far queasier than Big Media shenanigans as the writer isn’t really getting any noticeable benefit beyond seeing their name in print. They might as well take the blogging/self-publishing route, be in full control of their work and save themselves a few quid.
I’m also aware my argument have a number of flaws. Well, what did you expect from an amateur, eh? Anyway, I welcome any corrections, additions, abuse etc.
Most blog posts–the ones I gravitate to, anyway–are op-ed type pieces, lists, general interest personal narratives, book/music/movie reviews, etc, typically taking no more than 5-7 minutes to read.I have some journalist friends who disagree with me on this, but I do think that occasionally an interesting blog post can lead to some interesting, worthwhile feedback.
All of which is great, and I still enjoy reading handful of well-written, well-considered blogs and I happily wrote hundreds of blog posts myself over the years without even thinking about getting paid for it. I wasn’t motivated by money (although if someone ever sent me a check, I’d certainly cash it), but I did like comments and long discussion threads. But the format began to break down when I decided I wanted to flex my brain a little bit and write about something a little meatier. Could I write personally challenging material and still maintain a author/commenter relationship?
Either way, I’d find myself some very unenviable positions. 1) I could spend weeks or months on a 15K word blog post about whatever mental illness is afflicting me, and then get fewer page hits/meaningful comments than I thought my post was worth. 2) And the low page hits would lead to something worse; since I’m mostly motivated by comments and page hits, but also by the idea of challenging myself, I’d start to pander to my readership, incorporating their quirks and preferences into what I had in mind for a blog. And I didn’t like where that would lead, so I decided to give up blogging (in written form, anyway) altogether.
And I recently developed some qualms about writing as a whole, but that’s another story for another comment.
Wow, a lot to unpick here – thanks as ever for the thoughtful comment!
I used to very much be in the 5 to 7 minute camp, preferring smaller chunks and moving on to the next thing. But I think the whole Longreads/Instapaper thing has changed my reading habits and helped extend my blog-reading attention span a little.
While most of the Longreads-esque stuff is from the mainstream press there also seems to be a bit of a trend for longer work from blogs too, so I now read longer blog posts as part of a more general longish-essay-reading routine. And I think it makes me more inclined to write longer pieces as I like to write what I like to read.
I think visitors and comments are a great motivation and a great reward. Can meatier/more challenging stuff work and maintain a readership? I think now the definition of blogging is now more nebulous (for want of a better word) I think anything goes and anything can work. Which I guess leaves it down to whether the author wants their thoughts out there or not.
Re: uneviable positions
1. Naturally that’s a risk, but I think quality work does rise to the top, and I think you would get quality responses. Can’t guarantee what volume, but I guess that is the gamble.
2. I think every writer panders to their audience to some degree, whether motivated by page hits or cold, hard cash. Maybe it is just me, but even if I write something that is unlikely to ever see the light of day, I have a vague sense of a readership in my head while I write. I think your scenario is still a long way from linkbait hell or general hack-ery.
Which is all a rather long-winded way of saying I hope you find yourself wanting to write again soon.
I love me some Longreads. I’ve actually had to let some of my magazine subscriptions lapse because when the magazines finally arrive in the mail, I discover that I’ve already read most of the articles. The authors of these articles are paid, and I won’t pretend to understand the business model behind it, but I’ll take free quality writing on a slow day at work anyday.
Re: pandering. I wasn’t ever concerned with pandering when I was writing a blog post. But I didn’t like where it was taking me when I was prewriting a blog post. Like, I would find myself on some level framing my own personal experience on what I thought might make a fun blog post. I wasn’t to the point where I would actually seek out experiences to blog about, but the idea that I was spending time thinking about how I could document an experience instead of actually experiencing made it clear to me that it was time to take a break.
Re: writing. I’ll make it back one of these days. But my part of the country has pretty good weather: 330 days of sun per year and it only gets below freezing after dark for 3 months of the year. Writing tends to be a lonely, somewhat depressing experience for me, so I’m taking a break to soak up some sun. If I ever find myself back in the tornadic middle of the country or the dreary Northeast, I’ll reconsider.
“I would find myself on some level framing my own personal experience on what I thought might make a fun blog post. I wasn’t to the point where I would actually seek out experiences to blog about, but the idea that I was spending time thinking about how I could document an experience instead of actually experiencing made it clear to me that it was time to take a break.”
Perfectly and completely understandable. Yet, I think I’ve enjoyed some experiences more for knowing that I could blog about them – have taken a greater interest in the details, have been a bit more observant etc. However, I don’t really want to live my life as one long blog post, so I can see the benefits of stepping away.
I am not envious of your weather patterns. Not at all. I love rain.
This was lovely too read