I’m a fan of Wil Wheaton. True, I didn’t love his character, Wesley, from Star Trek: Next Generation very much. But as the years have gone by, he’s established himself as a writer, defender of geeks and nerds, a supporter of tabletop board gaming, and advocate/inspiration for those battling depression. Last week he wrote of his experience with being asked to give an article away for free. His response raised my esteem for him even higher.
The gist of the piece linked above is that he wrote an article for his blog titled “7 Things I Did to Reboot My Life.” After it was published, the Huffington Post asked him if they could run it on their site. He asked what they would pay. They told him that they don’t pay their bloggers, but the writer will get so much exposure that it shouldn’t matter. Well, it mattered to Wil and he said no.
He didn’t say no because he necessarily needed the money. He said no because he believes that writers should be paid for their work. And he’s right. (And I’m not just saying that because I need money to keep the lights on, either.) I don’t tend to get on my soapbox about too many things, but this is one of those things that gets me riled up.
I’ve been watching for years as the work of writers has been devalued by content mills and blogs that don’t pay (or pay pennies per word). It’s to the point now that people balk when you ask for a fair wage for your work. “Why would I pay that? I can get someone to do it for free,” they say. Then I have to launch into my spiel about why the work is likely to be of lower quality and done by a person with a less professional approach. And then, since everything is a race to the bottom these days, the potential client says, “I’m willing to take the risk. I’m using the free guy.” Great.
I hate this. I hate it for myself and I hate it for my profession. Writing is work, just like engineering is work, or teaching is work, or construction is work. Writers have a skill set that we have spent years mastering. Many of us went to school for this. We run businesses and pay taxes, just like any other business owner. Writers sit down every day and go to work. Yet the feeling seems to be that anyone can write and that our work isn’t really worth anything. You wouldn’t dream of not paying your doctor, your accountant, or the guy who snakes out your drain, but it’s okay not to pay writers. No. Just, no. I understand a business wanting to save money, but there’s saving money and then there’s just being cheap.
Wheaton pointed out that the Huffington Post isn’t some mom and pop site. They are a muli-million dollar company. There’s no excuse for not paying their writers, other than being cheap. I can understand that a smaller site might not have the capital to pay for writers, but in that case they need to take it upon themselves to either make it a priority item in the budget and find more money, or learn to write better content in-house. If you’re running a business and you need content, be it blog articles, brochures, or manuals, you need to factor that into your operating costs and not refuse to pay the people who provide that content for you.
What makes me even angrier about sites not paying writers is that they seem to think that “exposure” is worth something to the writer. But exposure is a myth. Yes, on the surface it would seem that having an article on a site as large as the Huffington Post would be worth something. That’s a lot of eyeballs seeing your work and this is the carrot that non-paying sites love to dangle. But how many times have you looked at the byline of an article? Probably never. And if you have, I bet you haven’t also Googled the author to see if they have a website, or a book on Amazon. That’s the kind of exposure that would be worth something, but it almost never happens. People are just too busy (and don’t care) to look further. As long as the piece entertained or informed them, they don’t care who wrote it.
Sure, that particular article may climb to the top of Google’s rankings in a search for your name and it gives you a clip to show the next client (who, by the way, can guess that you weren’t paid for that article, will assume that you will also work for them for free, and will argue vehemently with you when you ask for money, thus continuing the downward spiral), but it’s not going to do anything to appreciably increase your visibility over the long term. (Unless by some miracle it goes viral and the media and agents beat down your door to find out what genius wrote that piece. Generally, though, you could save yourself a lot of trouble and just go buy some lottery tickets. The odds of the payoff are about the same.) On the other hand, the site has gotten quality content for free and is now selling ads attached to that content. Who’s the winner in the deal? Right. The site, not the writer.
And herein lies the bigger problem with writers working for free or penny wages. Sites and businesses are making money off of us, but we aren’t making anything. They attach ads to your content and make money. The better your content is and the more clicks it generates, the more money the site makes. When you really put yourself out there and write a high quality piece, you’re helping that site rake in the bucks but you get nothing. In any other field, the profit sharing is more equal. A plumbing company hires a top of the line plumber and pays him a solid wage. He goes out and does a great job, generating more referrals and business for his employer who, ideally, gives him a raise and the cycle continues with both parties profiting. Writing doesn’t work this way. You work for free, the site makes money, doesn’t return any of it you, and likely asks you to work for them for free again. In most places, this is called exploitation. In the creative world, it’s just called business. See anything wrong, here? I do.
This is why I no longer accept non-paying work, or work that only pays peanuts, unless it is a very special case. I no longer want to be part of the problem. I don’t want to be a writer that’s telling these sites and businesses that it’s okay to exploit writers and their work. I no longer want to encourage sites to get away with not paying. I no longer want to encourage this idea that writing isn’t real work, or that just anyone can churn out a quality article on a specialized topic. I no longer want to encourage the poor-quality, click bait articles that so many of these sites want.
I realize that I’m tiling at windmills. There are tons of writers who will take that free job, who will believe the myth of exposure, or who are thrilled at the prospect of seeing their name in print. As long as that is the case, nothing will change. But I feel better knowing that I’m not screwing things up further for the writers who will come after me.
There are some cases where working for free or very low wages may work in your favor or just be a nice thing to do (volunteer efforts for a non-profit, for example), but they should be considered special cases and you should be sure that what you’re getting out of the deal is worthwhile to you. (Maybe you barter to write a brochure for a business in exchange for free products or services that you actually need, for example, or you get to place a picture of your book jacket and a buy link next to your article rather than having just a simple byline.) Otherwise, you need to stick up for yourself and your work and demand to be paid a fair wage. Until enough writers do this and let clients and sites know that free isn’t okay, that writing is work, the profession as a whole will continue to suffer. Kudos to Wil Wheaton for stepping up. Let’s hope other high profile writers do the same.