Last week, The Bookseller carried an interview with Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson warning that writers should not contribute free work to popular websites in order to gain “exposure.” Robinson holds that that by doing so they are devaluing the efforts of those who write for pay, and the promotional efforts may not even be effective.
The rest of the piece was dedicated to demonizing Amazon and Google, but Nate Hoffelder at Ink, Bits, and Pixels has already done an excellent job picking apart those claims and the motives behind them, and I see no point in duplicating his efforts. Instead, I’d like to take the concerns about free writing, and the discussion of them in the “#FutureChat” Twitter conversation that followed, at face value. Might there be something to that?
Does Cheap Drive Out Expensive?
The idea that cheap or free work drives out more lucrative work is not so far-fetched. We’ve seen it in action at least a couple of times already. The proliferation of digital cameras has led to many ordinary people being able to take enough photos to become pretty good at it, which meant they could sell their photos cheaply to stock photography companies, which in turn meant that professional photographers suddenly found they couldn’t earn as much for their expertise.
Closer to home, many independent publishing advocates have cheered on the rise of agency pricing, because the more expensive traditional publishers make their e-books, the more consumers will turn to indy-published works as more reasonably-priced substitutes.
We’ve even seen this exact controversy erupt before, in 2011 when the popular blog The Huffington Post was sold for $315 million to Amazon, upsetting all the bloggers who’d previously written for the site for free. The $105 million lawsuit by those unpaid contributors was thrown out (and the dismissal upheld on appeal) in 2012 because they had known going in that they weren’t going to get paid.
Even now, plenty of popular sites still offer the ability for people to publish unpaid works for wide exposure. HuffPo, Medium.com—even major sites like The New Yorker and The Atlantic don’t pay anything for unsolicited submissions.
As I said in the #FutureChat conversation, it’s about fifteen or twenty years too late to get upset at people writing for free on the Internet. That’s how long blogs have been around, after all. But to be fair, Robinson’s complaint isn’t so much about people blogging for themselves, but blogging for commercial entities that profiteer on their work. Robinson declared:
“People write on Huffington Post, they write for Goodreads, they write for Medium.com: valuable sites owned by big tech companies that make a lot of money for those companies. Writers choose to write there for nothing and to provide content for nothing. That’s another issue, and that is something that writers are doing deliberately.”
Robinson said The Authors Guild would not advise any author to stop writing for publications, but argued that an article by an author on a website may not lead to book sales. “I don’t know that anyone has figures on sales that result from this kind of writing (for free),” she said. “Everyone says, ‘get your name out there’, but does that really translate to connecting to the hard mental presence of the book? We want writers to recognise what is happening, to be aware of this trend, that writers themselves are contributing to the idea that their writing doesn’t deserve to be paid for.”
She might have a point in theory. Why should these sites pay any authors if they know they can get others to work for free? But out here in the real world, it makes next to no sense, because there are enough writers willing to work for free that the ones who demand money will simply be shown the door.
After all, anyone who paid attention in school can write. It’s not as if it takes a license (apart from poetic license!) or specialized equipment. If one writer should demand payment, the web publisher need not look very far to find plenty of “scabs” who will do it for nothing.
The other side of the coin is, where should these people write instead? There are plenty of opportunities for non-traditional authors to self-publish their work and get paid for it these days. But what such alternative exists for the average blogger?
The Themestream Dream
From August 1999 to April 2001, a site called Themestream attempted to monetize blogging. It started out paying contributors the ridiculous and princely sum of a dime per hit, later on slashing that to five cents and then two cents. Like all the boom-era dot-coms who couldn’t figure out a way to make money, it burned through its capital and imploded within a year and a half. (Another dot-com with similar problems was the ad-supported site Wowio, which had notable trouble paying its contributors in 2008.)
During that time, I actually made several thousand dollars from my writing, including getting a couple of articles Slashdotted. (Somewhere I have a photocopy of my first paycheck from Themestream, which I intended to frame and hang on the wall, as the first time I ever got paid for writing.) It paid for my first car. Also, the articles I wrote about the Palm Pilot led to Jeff Kirvin asking me to contribute to his “Writing on Your Palm” blog, which later led to my writing for TeleRead.
Of course, my writing for Kirvin and my early contributions to TeleRead were free, but it was fun to write and get people talking. Later, David Rothman was able to start paying me, which led into NAPCO paying me the same rates they pay their other contributors. Which was nice, but not exactly something that would let me support myself—and nowhere near the sort of rates someone like Ms. Robinson would want to see writers make, I’m sure. (Not to mention that’s now over.)
My last couple contract gigs as a technical writer paid me $30 an hour. I’m not making anywhere near that as a blogger (at those rates, this piece alone would be “worth” at least $60!), nor am I ever likely to, unless one of the big commercial blogs should want to hire me. (Not that I mind! I’m still doing this largely for fun.) The money just isn’t there. The big commercial blogs like HuffPo might rake in the dough because they have literally millions of hits. Smaller blogs…more sort of don’t. (Update: And even the “big” commercial blogs are struggling. Re/Code just sold itself because it was “only” able to attain 1.5 million unique views per month—not enough to suit its advertisers.)
I expect this is a consequence of the ad-based economy that underpins much of the Internet. Ads don’t pay very much, and they annoy people enough that some simply block them out altogether. Print magazines historically paid better rates, but then, print magazines had paying subscribers, could charge more for their ads, and could only publish a fraction of submissions regardless. Without much money coming in, blogs can’t pay much money back out again.
It would be nice if there were a Themestream equivalent now—a blogging site that would split ad revenue from page views directly with bloggers. Sure, bloggers can set up their own blog and cut their own advertising deals with Google or whoever, but it’s a lot of technical effort for someone who just wants to write. And a site with crosslinking and search/discovery tools might be able to cut better advertising deals.
If such a site exists now, I haven’t heard of it—and given that it would be trying to promote itself as widely as possible to gain both readers and contributors, I would think I should have by now. Given that someone should surely have tried it in the fifteen years that have passed since Themestream, I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not likely to happen. Even if it did, Ms. Robinson would probably be disappointed with the pittance in salary it earned most people. Dot-coms know better now than to throw money around willy-nilly, and fractions of a cent per page view simply don’t add up very quickly,
Blogging for Other Reasons
So, unless you’re lucky enough to be one of the staff writers for a major blog, you’re probably not going to earn your living by blogging for blogging’s sake. So how can you earn it with blogging? Whether Ms. Robinson likes it or not, promoting something else is about all that’s left.
In the modern publishing era, as traditional publishers cut back on their promotional efforts for anyone except their superstars, and self-publishers have nobody but themselves to rely on for promotion, blogging and social media are pretty much all you’ve got. Successful writers like Michael Stackpole give presentations about how to do it right.
Many writers have their own promotional blogs, and nobody’s paying them for writing they do there. Posting the occasional piece to a commercial blog with wider exposure wouldn’t cost them anything more than posting it to their own blog, and might just broaden their reach considerably.
But this is not to say that making money either directly or indirectly is or should be the only reason, or even the most important reason for writing on the Internet. This is the mistake Ms. Robinson makes, and there are enough people with other reasons for writing to make it unlikely this will ever change. If you feel blogging for free or cheap is beneath you, that’s all right—the next person to come along won’t.
Plenty of people blog, LiveJournal, tweet, post to Facebook or other social networks, or write fanfic or original fiction for no reason beyond the sheer enjoyment of reaching out to touch the rest of the world. Immense works of popular reference, such as Wikipedia (and all the dedicated fan wikis it’s spawned) and TVTropes, have been built on the back of collective unpaid labor. Even professional writers such as Mercedes Lackey have been known to write fanfic in their spare time.
And it’s thanks to all this content that the Internet is such a wonderful time-waster, full of more information than anyone could read in ten lifetimes. And, at least since the onset of the Eternal September, it always has been. This is why Ms. Robinson’s plaint against writers writing for free is effectively pointless.
In conclusion, I don’t think we really need to worry about free writing making it harder for professional writers to find paid writing. That ship has long since sailed. On the bright side, it’s probably not any harder for writers to blog for pay now than it was five years ago. But it’s no easier, either, because there is no paid venue that can substitute for all the free and cheap blogging out there, and there probably never will be.