Exposure, not Exploitation
A few years ago I was flipping through an issue of Writer’s Digest (or one of the similar industry mags) and they had a piece about the problems with the internet and how it would impact freelance writing and the ability for writers to make money. The article laid out what to expect in the current market, what different skills were worth, what many publications paid, etc. The article warned that it wouldn’t be long before writers would be making pennies compared to the pennies they were already making. They predicted more services would have to be provided for free and that paid services would drop to as low as $.01 per word. They begged writers not to take these jobs because it would mean that the expectations would be there. Well, writers took the jobs. Recently, a job posting for a freelance piece promised $.03 a word with a maximum payout of $30. That’s $30 for 1,000 words but if the piece were to be 1,200 words, the writer would still only make $30.
Just this week, Entertainment Weekly fired its writing staff but hey, guess what entertainment bloggers, you get the chance to write for them. FOR FREE. The exposure will be fantastic!
Excuse my lack of professionalism as I say to the following to the editors of the magazine: Fuck You and the Horses You Rode In On.
Despite what Hollywood would like to tell you, writing is not a lucrative option for employment. There is no reason that any writer should expect to walk in to a project and start making bank. All forms of employment have a natural expectation of rising through the ranks. Bloggers don’t expect to make a ton of money and the ad clicks they use to supplement their income really just help to buy dog food usually. Writers who submit poetry and short stories to literary magazines are usually paid in two or three copies of the publication and the right to submit their story to somewhere else. Coupons are common. “Independent” weekly papers pay freelancers but often columnists do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Novelists who self-publish through Amazon platforms usually are able to again, supplement their income. For every self-publishing success story there are thousands of writers standing around in a circle wondering how the hell that was possible and if the agent who just turned them down will take the submission again if edits are made. And don’t get me started on the impossibility of breaking into Hollywood as a writer. For those on the outside looking in, especially when they have acquaintances in the business, it is a crushing cycle of rejection while other people live the life you dream of. And by “life you dream of” I mean hoping to sell three TV scripts a year in order to feed your family.
Writers are expected to have blogs, youtube channels, active tumblr, twitter, instagram, and facebook pages. Websites are supposed to be clean, polished, and professional. We’re supposed to write 5,000-10,000 words a day while doing this. Have a portfolio of scripts, short stories, poems, novels, and more and do it all while somehow paying the bills and caring for our families.
When I am introduced to people, I say that I’m a writer. When I’m asked where I work, I tell them how I pay the bills. I am lucky enough to have a job that I love going to every day. I’m not waiting tables or stocking produce. My job pays my bills, provides me with vacation and sick time, and my health care coverage is fantastic. My management team supports my writing endeavors and so much of the work I do can be added to my writing resume and publishing credits. But the fact is that I know my writing success is slowed by the 8-5 world I live in. I often am not able to start writing in the evening until 7:00 or later. This can mean that I get to bed as late at 2:00 in the morning. Operating on a regular diet of 4-6 hours of sleep a night is actually not healthy for the human body. And I know that the story I have just related is not uncommon.
Writers are expected to work for free.
It is demanded that we accept our payment in terms of exposure.
Entertainment Weekly’s choice to fire writers in a business already cutthroat and deadly is a terrifying shot over the bow. Because writers need to work. We need that exposure. We need to walk through fire in the hopes that we can someday, in our 40s and 50s, be making money doing what we love to do. If this project succeeds, it will set the rights of writers back to a place where I can’t even comprehend. If this plan succeeds, what is to stop networks from demanding new rules at the next WGA negotiation? What is to stop online outlets from declining pay all together?
Exposure matters. But so does money. Until the electric company will take my most recent short story as payment, money matters. I am happy to shift with paradigms, I am happy to accept a world that will be better for artists and writers and musicians. I am happy to break away from the indentured servitude of the big publishing houses. But what writers have been faced with over the past few years, and are facing now in this Entertainment Weekly shitstorm is in fact not a paradigm shift but an expectation that our services are not to be exposed, but exploited.