is creative work worthless

Is Creative Work Worthless?

‘Was nix kostet, ist nix wert’


This German saying, which means, ‘What costs nothing, is worth nothing’ is one I use a lot.

Lately I have been using it a lot when talking about payment for writing, and it came to mind when I read this blog post from writer, Nate Thayer, who was asked if he would be interested in having one of his articles republished on The Atlantic website. When he asked about format, deadline and fees, he was informed that while the Atlantic would like to publish his work, they were not willing to pay him for it. His reply:


I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free. Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken.


and the reply from Atlantic


I completely understand your position, but our rate even for original, reported stories is $100. I am out of freelance money right now, I enjoyed your post, and I thought you’d be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork. Some journalists use our platform as a way to gain more exposure for whatever professional goals they might have, but that’s not right for everyone and it’s of course perfectly reasonable to decline.

Thank you and I’m sorry to have offended you.


I can see no reason to blame the editor, who is obviously under pressure to find writers who would be willing to share their work without payment, but what about the media outlets who consistently share content from unpaid writers, while pocketing advertising revenue? Atlantic is far from the only one doing this, many other online media sites do the same. I enjoyed this article about online media start-ups not paying writing staff.


Why do we accept that our work is not worth paying for? And does this make us worthless? 


In recent conversations about the future of Jump! Mag, I have been asked why I feel the need to change the magazine, and to introduce a subscription to pay for these changes. Why not leave it as it is, and allow girls to read it free? For one thing, I think that Jump! Mag could be so much MORE, and could reach many more girls around the country. Hell, around the world, if we are going to think big. To do this, I have to engage writers, proof-readers, website designers and probably other people who I haven’t even realised I need, and these people should be paid for their contributions. 

Creating Jump! Mag did not happen overnight, it has taken an awful lot of unpaid work to get it this far, and when we go on to develop it further, I will make no apologies for making money out of it. If it is not possible to run as a profit-making business, then it is not viable. And if it is not possible to make a profit while paying for contributors, then it is not viable. 

I have spoken to others who work in a similar sector, and are finding that many have had similar experiences. When they have talked of their intention to make money out of the provision of educational or creative content, the response has been at times quite negative. 


Would you criticise a plumber for sending you a bill when he fixed your leaky tap?


Then why the criticism of those in the creative industries who wish to make money from their endeavours? 

 We are not talking about a scam, a nefarious get-rich-quick scheme, but the creation of a website, an article or a book that takes a lot of time and effort. I have witnessed friends on Twitter spending months to write, edit and produce a book, which they self-publish and sell for pennies. Sometimes even free. Why do we not value the work that they have put into creating that book, unless they have been lucky enough to find a ‘proper’ publisher? 

A week or so ago, a very talented photographer asked on Twitter if the price she was thinking of charging for a photography course was too high. The resounding response was, ‘No, it is too low. Don’t sell yourself too short’. Perhaps the problem is that when we price a course, we think we are asking for payment for the 3 or 4 hours that we are teaching. We are not. We are asking for payment for the years of experience, the weeks of preparation, the days of advertising, the hours of paperwork that follow such a course. 


If we do not value our own work, then how do we expect others to put a value to it? 


Part of this may be due to the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ which is so wonderfully described by Phyllis L. F. Rippeyoung, Ph.D.  an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Ottawa  here. Imposter Syndrome is not confined to academia, and is absolutely rife amongst writers. I cannot count how many blogs I have seen linked to with a self-deprecating comment such as:


‘This might not be of any use to you, but I wrote this blog post’

‘It isn’t very good, but if you want to read my blog on this’ 

‘Here is some nonsense that I scribbled down earlier’

‘A bit of a rambling stream on conciousness from me today’ 


and so on and on. I want to scream BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, but that would probably make them even more hesitant about sharing their work.



If we believed in ourselves, and were more confident in demanding fair payment for services rendered, would we find that we received payment.

 Or would we simply find that others were willing to do the work for free? Are we helping to create the problem by offering to work for nothing?


Of course we all do work that does not pay in monetary terms. The blogs and campaigns that I have been involved in for Mumsnet have not brought cold hard cash, but they brought the opportunity to go to Africa with the Gates Foundation and IRP. The blog posts for the Gates Foundation blog, Impatient Optimists, were unpaid, but they gave me credibility and confidence as a writer.

I find that while I enjoy writing for Impatient Optimists, I have to fit it in with other commitments, and so I haven’t been able to write as often as I had hoped. It is partly the reason that I am determined to be able to pay for articles on Jump! Mag, because in doing so, I will be more able to rely on contributors to deliver an article when I want it. As wonderful as the voluntary contributors are, I am reliant on them having time to write for me, and of course they are going to put my request to the bottom of the pile if there is paid work to be had.


The real problem is that the lack of payment is desperately bad for journalism. I have met incredibly talented writers and journalists who have to subsidise their income with menial jobs because they simply cannot make enough money in their profession to pay their bills. Journalists who spend a lot of time and money researching articles, only to find that their work is not valued.

We want quality journalism, but we are not willing to pay for it, and as long as there is a stream of enthusiastic amateurs willing to fill the gaps, the media outlets are not going to pay for professionals. From here on, I see a steady stream of reblogged and recycled articles, with little original thought or opinion.

I see fiction writing going the same way, with the stream of self published authors accepting the risks, and accepting low sales prices in the hope that they will be discovered. Value your work and sell it for a decent price, I want to scream. Don’t give it away. 




Was nix kostet, ist nix wert. 

What are you worth? 




Featured Image 


  • Joanne Mallon

    It’s a tough one isn’t it? I fear that our children won’t have the choice to become professional writers because it seems to be on a fast track to becoming a non-paying/hobby profession. Personally I think you can tell a mile off which publications pay professional writers and which are padded out by enthusiastic amateurs. The quality is totally different. However, for many sites amateur writing seems to be good enough. And I’m sort of OK with that on sites where nobody’s making any money (in fact Kids Blog Club, which I run, costs me money). But for sites where you’re asked to write for free in order to line somebody else’s pockets – such as The Atlantic in the example above, or the Huffington Post – it just seems morally wrong.

    • Lynn C Schreiber

      Yes, absolutely agree with your point about the sites who are making money being morally obligated to pay their staff.

  • Little Me

    I think that doing a bit of work for free, to help set up a project like Jump! Is perfectly acceptable, but that once these sites, or print magazines are running at a profit they need to pay their writers and other people who contribute to their success. The Huffington Post is disgraceful as far as that is concerned – the quality of writing is excellent, and people made a lot of money from it, but not the writers themselves. That is unfair.

    There is a certain expectation that writers need to build up some kind of portfolio so it is difficult to decide whether to try and insist on payment or not. Experience is valuable, and a start to a career.

  • Little Me

    Oh I completely agree that Imposter Syndrome exists and plays a role. I think in the UK particularly we are so encouraged not to boast or to be seen to boast that we don’t have enough confidence in what we are good at and undersell ourselves as a result. Good writing as well as other creative activities is subjective so it is harder for us to place a value on what we do. However it is a problem in the corporate world too – it is very hard to ask for a payrise for example. Took me years to get up the confidence to do it.

  • Christine

    I totally agree with you that where profit is made, the creators of content need to be recognised, and that is done financially. As a musician, I have struggled for years with this. I would make music for my own pleasure with no audience. However, if an audience is paying someone, shouldn’t it be me as well as the promoter, venue, etc? You would think I hated the creative arts and churned out boybands to see the reaction I get for this opinion though. When I teach music, no-one has a problem paying for my time, and that’s way easier than crafting a performance. I can’t get my head into the role of ‘writer’ though, because I’ve never been paid for content, despite lots of blog subscribers and feedback from people who enjoy reading it. There is an step of self-deifnition I just haven’t got the balls to take!

    • Lynn C Schreiber

      That is really interesting. Is it because a musician is in some way proven – you can either play the instrument/sing or not.

  • Dennis Michael Tiffany

    I’d like to make an observation, although I am not sure how this will be received. Beyond the notion of whether a writer is worth his salt, I am continually debating the question as to what composites a writer, a true writer, as opposed to someone with the marginal talent of throwing a couple words together in some coherent fashion, and being paid for it. What writer qualifies as a hack and what writer does not?

    I raise this point because the publishing world is inundated with literary fodder from innumerable of sources, people who, for one reason or another, have decided that being able to write a shopping list qualifies them to be writers. Now, in all fairness, there are many. many respectable writers out there who have no gotten a break. But that’s my point. So much that is not redeemable from an aesthetic point of view is being force fed to the reading public to the degree that the very fabric of what was once regarded as a meaningful and respectable profession is now being regarded with something akin to bemused amusement. Even I am not immune to regarding with suspicion someone who claims to be a writer, because what used to be regarded as a moral and noble calling is now, in this age, something else. And it is heartbreaking.

    I oftentimes wonder that if Charles Dickens were to somehow be transplanted into the 21th Century, how would his writings be received? Would the reading, writing, and publishing community recognize his work for the greatness it displayed? How would D.H. Lawrence be received? And for the record, I dismiss the notion that art is subjective: no child can draw like Picasso.

    How this relates to this article is simply that the reason writers are not taken as seriously as we would like is because there is no reason to take use seriously as writers, when all around us there are so many of us who are not, in fact, writers. I read an article written by a man named Nathaniel Bransford, who for some reason felt that he had the wherewithal to offer suggestions as to how a writer could become published. Frankly, his entire handling of the issue was offensive to me, and I expressed as much. I replied this way:

    “While much of this information is valid and useful, what bothers me is the total lack of reverence and respect for the craft of writing, and the cavalier attitude this “writer” appears to have about the work of writing and being published. Anyone who writes a blog or any other kind of editorial about how to find a literary agent, how to be published, or how to write anything other than a shopping list while at the same time using the word “cutiepatootie” in an effort to convey the opinion that he is an established writer to the point that such levity is appropriate is clearly someone you should not be listening to.

    Being published doesn’t make someone a writer. There are plenty of absolutely atrocious fiction and non-fiction publications that should not have seen the light of day, and yet there they are, little more than filler for every jailhouse library and bathroom in the country. The fact that Mr. Bransford has some publications to his credit in no way qualifies him as any kind of authority on writing, how to find an agent, or hot to get published. His flippant handling of the subject at hand only proves that he is little more than a sing-song hack whose resume resume is hardly first rate. Is he any kind of a serious writer? Does he devote hours upon hours agonizing over a work, second-guessing himself, looking for the elusive perfect sentence, weighing his words carefully, feeling out the textures of his words to find the impression that illustrates what he feels, sees, and understands? Hardly. He is to serious writing what Britney Spears is to serious music. No passion whatever. He tosses words into the air, and sees what comes down. And you can see this simply by reading this single blog. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people on the Internet calling themselves writers and pretending to posses this elusive knowledge of how to get published. Frankly, you could do a lot better.

    While technically what he has said here in his blog may be accurate, the final interpretation doesn’t touch anywhere near to the heart of the matter. The fact is that to be a published writer is secondary to being a writer. More thought should be given to what sort of writer you would like to be, or rather, what kind of writer you are, since writing isn’t really something you become, but rather it is a burden lain upon you by the powers that be and you cannot be anything else but a writer. A writer is born to write, and anything else comes secondary to that one very personal and intimate objective. The market is too congested as it is with people who think that just because they can string a couple words together, they should write for a living. Writing is an art form, and in just the same way a child’s drawing, for whatever reason, will never be mistaken for a Picasso, the likes of Mr. Bransford will never be mistaken for serious, genuine writers.

    There is no mystery to how to become a writer, or how to become published. You write. That’s it. The idea that you can publish a book that someone somewhere will be reading in the bathroom for lack of something better to read is not a novel idea. If all you want to do is put something out there into the literary universe to leave some indication that you were once here on this planet, you don’t need Mr. Bransford giving you instructions as to how this gets done.

    A writer finds a way.”

    Some points I made in my response to Mr. Bransford are the same as a few ideas I presented here because I found your article soon after reading this blog by Mr. Bransford.

    We can’t be taken seriously, as serious artists, because — Seriously? Who needs us? There’s always a hack out there willing to prostitute himself for free, just for the dubious distinction of saying he was a published writer.

    Is it really much of a distinction anymore?

    • Lynn C Schreiber

      The distinction comes when a writer is published by an organisation which makes money from using ‘free resources’. Not everyone deserves to be published, but if the company charges their readers, then they should pass payment on to the writer.

      Who decides which person gets to take the title of ‘writer’? I know many very talented individuals who don’t call themselves writers. I know writers whose work makes me bang my head against a wall. This article isn’t addressing the question ‘Who is a real writer’ as much as ‘If they are willing to publish my work, why aren’t they willing to pay for it?’.

    • Tee

      Writing has *never* been a noble or moral calling. It has always been done by hacks and nearly none of the current ‘greats’ made it to that status in their own lifetimes.

      But, as Lynn said, it does not matter if someone is a ‘real’ writer or a ‘hack’. What matters is that all creative work (and I’m a graphic designer *and* a writer) is hard and deserves to be compensated in the same way as others are, especially if what they are writing for is a money making endeavour.

      I volunteer for one publication as a writer and one organization as a graphic artist. But neither of those are profit making ventures.

      If they were? I wouldn’t work for them for free.

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