Updated on February 25, 2015
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?