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Nate Thayer’s Argument and the Getting Paid to Write Conundrum

Updated Again at the Bottom

I somehow missed the brouhaha over Nate Thayer’s piece yesterday due to Snowquester. (An explanation: Washingtonians cannot function when white stuff falls from the sky.  We cannot function when there is even the chance that white stuff might fall out of the sky.  This image pretty much says it all.)  Luckily, Anjali summed up the situation well with a single blog post, linking to a lot of the coverage about his statements on the state of freelance writing.

Thayer is correct: writers should get paid for their work.

I don’t think that the Atlantic was wrong to ask for free writing any more than it would be wrong for any organization — from my children’s school to the March of Dimes — to ask for people to volunteer their time and services.  It’s also never wrong for anyone to say, “sorry, can’t” when it comes to volunteering, and they shouldn’t get a guilt trip for taking a pass.  I am asked to write for free all the time*.  Sometimes I say yes because I have the time and want my ideas to have exposure.  Sometimes I say no because I don’t have the time.


Thayer conveys in the email exchange with the Atlantic that the reason he can’t make a living as a journalist is because of the Internet (tagging his post with “Internet media ethics“) and the practice of online magazines peppering their paid content with unpaid content.

I am sure you are aware of the changing, deteriorating condition of our profession and the difficulty for serious journalists to make a living through their work resulting in the decline of the quality of news in general.

And here is where I can’t agree with him that this is the fault of the Internet, or that the Internet has contributed to the inability to writers to make a living.  Because here’s the fact about writing: it is pretty much impossible to make a living off of writing.  It is true in the same way that it is pretty much impossible to earn your entire salary through acting or music or painting.  And now add in the idea of keeping that fine arts salary going not for a few years but for a lifetime, and you have found the proverbial needle in the haystack.  There have always been journalists who have had to supplement their writing salaries through other means such as teaching.  In other words, there have always been struggling journalists; the Internet didn’t create that.

There are millions of people who want to be writers.  This has always been true, and the Internet hasn’t created that fact: it has revealed it.  Instead of writers silently writing books that never see the light of day in their homes or scrawling in paper journals that their dream is to one day publish a book, writers now very publicly and very visibly take that desire onto the Internet.  So we can now see just how many people have secretly always wanted to be a writer.  In a much smaller way, reality television has given us insight into just how many people also harbour dreams of being a rock star or an actress or a chef when you see the auditions for shows such as American Idol or Chopped.  So there are millions of us — possibly billions of us — who would love to make a living in the fine arts.

Out of those millions, maybe a couple thousand will get a taste of their dream**.  Let’s call this the 1000th level.  These people will get to write AND teach.  They’ll get to act AND wait tables.  They’ll get to sing AND work in a factory.  They’ll do something to pay the bills AND they’ll get a bit of money from something that fulfills them.  I know a lot of writers; in fact, the vast majority of my friends work in publishing or writing because that is what happens when you attend an MFA program.  And out of all of those friends who have published books, all of us pay our bills by doing something other than writing for a paycheck OR we have a partner who earns enough to make being a full time writer feasible.  I’m talking about writers who have 8 books under their belt and have sold the movie rights for some of those books.  They are still doing something else to pay the bills, more often than not, teaching or editorial work.

So out of those thousands who get to publish a book or appear in a movie or play a concert, all but perhaps a hundred are getting their money from another source in addition to their fine art position.  But let’s say that 100 are lucky enough (let’s call this the 100th level) that for the time being, their entire paycheck comes out of their fine art position and they can afford housing, food, clothing, and health care all on the payment for their book or acting gig or musical work.  Those are the people that you know about.  Those are the writers you know well and the actors you recognize when they have a guest spot on a television show and whose album you maybe even own.  Those are working artists.

And then out of those 100 people, maybe 10 keep that going for years and years and years.

And that’s the way the fine arts world works.  It’s not based on fairness.  It doesn’t reward the people who have been in the game the longest with the jobs.  Experience doesn’t always get you chosen.  It’s somewhat about talent.  It’s mostly about whims.  It’s sort of about what fits at the moment.  And that’s the sad fact about this sort of work, and it’s why we chase it: because it is so hard to get that it feels so meaningful when we do get it.

I have never been under the impression that I will always be paid for my writing though I would love it if I got paid to write for the rest of my life.  I am grateful whenever a publisher buys a book because I know that it’s not a given.  I’m grateful that I have a great agent who believes in my work and supports me; I’m not owed that and I’ll always be somewhat in awe that she took a chance on me (and hopefully, I am paying back that chance over time and making it worth her while).  I’m grateful that I can get writing work, and I don’t mind that I also have to take on non-writing work in order to make enough money to add to what I receive from writing to make a feasible salary.  And I’m extra grateful that Josh works extra hard so we can float.

I think I’m a fairly talented writer — at the very least, other people have told me that, so it’s those people’s fault if I think that — but I also know that there are A LOT of fairly talented writers out there, and it’s incredibly frustrating because not everyone will get a chance to advance down to that 1000th level and earn some money for their writing.  I will likely never advance to the 100th level, and certainly not to the 10th level, in earning not only a full salary from writing but a lifetime salary from writing.  It’s a fact of the field I’ve chosen to pursue: the competition is fierce and even reaching success does not mean I will be given the chance for another success.  Sometimes all we get is the one book and a “thanks for all the fish.”

Nate Thayer is a talented writer, and I feel his frustration when he says:

“I don’t need the exposure. What I need is to pay my fucking rent. Exposure doesn’t feed my fucking children. Fuck that!” he continued, adding that he can’t even afford to get online. “I actually stick my fucking computer out the window to use the neighbor’s Internet connection. I simply can’t make a fucking living.”

He’s correct that journalism is vital.  Quality journalism is vital, and digging into what is truth and disseminating correct information is vital.  But it’s all an art.  And like all art, we all want to do it, but few are going to be able to feed our children on it.  I should know because I’ve been trying for years, and four books later, I still can’t make it work.  Except by supplementing.

This is something that was drilled into me during my MFA program.  That just because I was getting this degree, it didn’t mean that I was guaranteed a writing career.  It was meant to give me a leg-up to that writing career by teaching me the skills necessary to have that career.  But I knew looking around my program that while we all wanted to be writers, while we were all good enough to get into a writing program, some of us would not get to be paid writers.  And that knowledge sucked big time because we all did a lot of work to get into the program and did a lot of work while we were there.  But none of the fine arts rewards hard work.  But without doing the hard work, you can’t build the talent and get the exposure.  What I’m saying is that there is no business like show business like no business I know… except all the other fine arts including writing.

So yes, writers should get paid.  Everyone who does work should get paid.  That is a truth.  But not everyone is going to get to be a writer.  And that is a truth too.

And no, not everyone who has a blog wants to be a writer, but raise your hand if you secretly (or not so secretly) harbour a desire to get paid to write.

* And sometimes I write on this blog, which I always do for free, though I have BlogHerAds, so I get some money.  And I’m incredibly grateful to BlogHer for those ads because unlike a lot of other ad companies, they pay based on page views so I always get compensated for my space.  BlogHer has paid out $25 million to writers since 2009.

** I’m making up these numbers.  But I think we all know that the vast majority of writers, actors, and musicians will never be famous or make it into People magazine or get to go to the Oscars.  There are nearly 130 million books in print.  Can you name even one million writers?  There are 5,075,983 people listed on the IMDB database.  Can you even name 1000 actors?


Sort of lost in all of this is the fact that we’re talking about freelancing.  There has never been a golden age of freelancing.  Was there a golden age of journalism, for staff writers at news organizations?  Absolutely.  Can I point to plenty of people who have supported themselves with a staff position, writing exclusively for the Washington Post or The New Yorker?  But when was it a freelancer’s golden age?  Freelancing, by its very nature, is a trade off of freedom in lieu of stability.  Freelancers have always scrambled for work, and some have gotten steady work but most of us pitch articles and have some taken and others not.  What we get in return is the ability to write for a multitude of places, whereas a single publication may not have a great enough need for our expertise.  But that comes with the price of not having a consistent paycheck.  Of course, many would rather have a staff position than freelance, but again, there are many more writers than there are positions to fill and money to pay them.

Updated Again:

I think the other major problem here is that journalists receive work based on their writing capabilities and not their scruples.  Sure, there are some journalists who have built careers and become trusted voices because we know how ethically they work AND they happen to have strong writing skills.  But we can’t know or measure someone’s scruples; so the most ethical people — the ones we want reporting the news — are not always the people who get the job.  Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Jonah Lehrer… if there is anything Doctor House taught me, it’s that people lie and even the news needs to be read with a grain of salt due to that fact.  I trust for the most part what I read from vetted sources because I have to trust somewhere.  But if we’re going to give journalists the all-important job of truth-telling, we should be choosing our writers not based on writing skills but based on ethics and the ability to put aside their personal agenda.  And how do we measure that?


1 persnickety { 03.07.13 at 5:57 pm }

This is one of the things I have been thinking a lot about this week – I can recognise that I don’t want to be a published fiction writer- but I would like to be able to publish non-fiction.
I also like to draw and embroider, and if I thought I could actually make a living…

And on the snow- queenslanders are like that with rain- they cope with an afternoon thunderstorm fine (sun before and after) but days on end of drizzle is the apocalypse and they just shut down. It’s so weird to those who have lived in rainier climes.

2 YeahScience! { 03.07.13 at 5:58 pm }

Well, I can speak to this as a freelance journalist myself, who was once on staff at a major daily newspaper (for 6 years) until they downsized and I got axed… I think your point about it being fine for the Atlantic to ASK him to write something for free is true, but not comparable to a school asking for fundraising help or the March of Dimes asking for donations. The Atlantic is a FOR PROFIT company; it has at least SOME funds to pay writers for their work. Also, while writing itself is an art, journalism (especially hard news reporting) is also considered a craft — one that is often honed through years in a post-graduate journalism degree. I wouldn’t put most bloggers on the same par as, say, a Columbia graduate who knows how to write a proper lead, how to conduct a proper interview, how to attribute quotes properly, etc.

Anyway, I agree that “the Internet” isn’t really to blame for this, and I certainly don’t think he needed to react the way he did (especially with so much cussing, yeesh!) because it’s possible to make a living as a freelancer (I’m living proof)… but I do think it was slightly insulting, on the part of The Atlantic, to ask this guy to file a major feature, with research/interviews/etc, for nothing.

3 Lollipop Goldstein { 03.07.13 at 6:06 pm }

It was insulting, but the person was also pleasant about it and told him it was fine to take a pass too.

See, but here’s the thing with my kid’s school — they pay some parents to be para-educators, doing the exact same work they ask me to do for free as a volunteer. They help out in the math class and I help out in the math class, and they get paid and I do not.

It definitely is a craft, but so are all the fine arts. Everything you essentially audition to do also has a craft component where learning the skills builds or supports the talent.

4 Lollipop Goldstein { 03.07.13 at 6:08 pm }

Though, yeah, they were asking for A LOT of work on his part for nothing. I think they should have assigned an intern as he pointed out. Curating is very different from asking someone for free content. Curating places the work on the publication.

5 Greg { 03.07.13 at 6:12 pm }

Maybe an update is in order. Thayer is making bigger news today.

6 Anjali { 03.07.13 at 6:19 pm }

You’ve given me even more to think about here, Mel. But I agree with YeahScience! on what I think is one of her points…Journalism is a profession, not just a craft. Which to me, makes things different.

My second book (a novel) is on submission with my agent. The chances are good that it won’t sell (the first one didn’t)– and though it’s hard to accept– I CAN accept it because many writers and artists don’t get published or get a show at a gallery. They just don’t. But Nate Thayer is an expert on Pol Pot. Not many people in the world have his level of expertise. Lots of freelance writers, like Thayer, research and immerse themselves in an environment to become experts on a subject, and bring that subject to the world. It requires a very different level of expertise, in my opinion, than writing fiction or a collection of essays. And I think it should be recognized with payment commensurate with the work.

Before the digital revolution, freelance writers were paid appropriately. Many could support families on their income. They were paid their worth. They earned it. I hope someday, in the future, they are compensated what they’re worth.

7 mrs spock { 03.07.13 at 6:28 pm }

I guess I am one of those at the 1000th level. I’ve been so, so lucky to get to do pieces for OBOS, and I hornswoggled my way into being the writer for many of the corportae blog posts for the company I work at. But that is all squeezed in over and above my 40-45 hour a week day job as a nurse for an insurance company, and the degree I’m working on is a nursing degree to make me more marketable as a nurse because, let’s face it, there is no writing job I will just stumble into now that will pay me $65K a year with room for promotion. I squeeze novel writing into a few bleak weekend hours, but I will take what I can get. When our mortgage is paid off in 5-6 years- thanks to my nursing career- maybe there will be room to drop part time and write that nonfiction book about state psychiatric hospitals and the current mental health system, but the truth is, my current work is teaching me so much about that subject matter, that it would be foolish to leave it now.

8 Lollipop Goldstein { 03.07.13 at 6:31 pm }

Absolutely — becoming an expert in something takes time, and that time should be compensated. Though I would argue again that all the fine arts fall into the same confines of profession.

I wonder though how many people who wanted to be freelance writers REALLY were paid appropriately and could support a family on their salary prior to the digital revolution. We say this, but can we support that statement?

I say that as someone who started writing before the Internet exploded, and I can tell you that I couldn’t break into translation work even with my translation degree, nor could I support myself on freelance writing. Nor did I know anyone who did who didn’t also teach.

9 Lollipop Goldstein { 03.07.13 at 6:38 pm }

I also have to take issue with holding journalism up as a profession that requires skills and education and novel writing as simply an art that can be done by anyone and their mother. BOTH forms of writing require the writer to learn specific skills. Good writing also usually requires the person to have studied writing in some form, whether they specifically got a degree in writing (journalism or MFA) or mentored. I think ALL writing should be compensated: from books to articles to copy for shampoo bottles. But I also think that a lot of people want to get paid to do something that love (writing) and very few will get paid at all and an even smaller percentage will actually be able to live off of the money they receive.

Sorry, he obviously struck on something I feel passionately about. And my goal would be to remedy the situation and get more people compensated for doing something they love. Get more people into that 1000th level.

10 Stacy @bklynstacy { 03.07.13 at 7:36 pm }

This is brilliantly considered and parsed, Melissa. No surprise, of course, but still, I love it all. And am sharing it with all my friends who have been lucky enough to be supported by magazine publishing for so many years. I always knew I was lucky. I just didn’t know how lucky until very recently.

11 Anjali { 03.07.13 at 8:29 pm }

I have writer-friends who, once upon a time, used to support themselves and their families OK with freelancing. They’d write big-time articles for big-time outlets, and make $1,500 and more per article. It was a budgeted life, to be sure, but they were paying their bills. And I know of a few journalists who quit or turned down staff jobs at magazines or newspapers because they could, once upon a time, make more money doing freelance. This would have been a while back, maybe 10 years ago? Definitely before the digital revolution.

And I certainly didn’t mean to imply that novel-writing could be done by anyone. It’s damn hard work, that takes years of honing a person’s skills. But I think journalism , whether online or in print, is a valuable skills set and one that contributes too vitality to society to have it reduced to peanuts in pay. And I worry that by paying its writers so little, we’re losing something in how we receive information.

12 loribeth { 03.07.13 at 8:32 pm }

I think you’re right, Mel, for the most part. I have a few friends who freelance, and although I haven’t seen their chequebooks lately, I don’t think they make anywhere near as much as they would, say, on staff at a newspaper or magazine. Some of them freelance because they were downsized out of salaried jobs, but others do so because they like the flexibility.

I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a writer. As a kid, I thought in terms of writing books (since I loved to read them). By the time I got to jr high, though, I realized that not too many people actually managed to make a living from writing books… so I started thinking about journalism. (This was the age of Woodward & Bernstein, after all!) I did my arts degree & then went to journalism school. The extra year at J-school cost my parents a fair bit — I think they wished that I’d been a teacher or something a little more practical, and done my writing in my spare time (as you mentioned). I worked for a year as a reporter on a small-town weekly newspaper before I got married, & after a year of unemployment & temping at clerical jobs, I lucked into a job in the corporate communications department of one of the banks my dad had worked for — and I have been writing for a living ever since then. Not quite the writing I dreamed about growing up — corporate communications as an industry was in its infancy then — but I have written stories for the employee newsmagazine, letters and messages from executives to employees, speeches, video scripts, reports and other corporate publications. Maybe it’s not the novels or journalism I imagined in my youth — but it pays the bills (and comes with that increasing rarity, a defined benefit pension plan, lol). I’ve been there almost 27 years now (eeek).

A couple of years ago, my mom actually said to me, “I guess the writing thing turned out OK after all, eh?” lol

13 Lollipop Goldstein { 03.07.13 at 8:34 pm }

I’m scared of that too, Anjali. That when we don’t place a high value on the work, the work will disappear. And when we don’t know what is the truth? Or what is happening in the world? How will we know what information to trust? What has been vetted?

14 GeekChic { 03.07.13 at 9:43 pm }

I was a professional musician in a past life (my health ended that career) and that field is certainly a combination of luck, talent and hard work. I could definitely make a living at it but no one would have heard of me (classical oboist doesn’t make the headlines).

I get paid quite well now to do freelance work as well as salaried work in the IT industry but IT is not nearly the same thing as writing or other fine arts so freelancing in that arena isn’t nearly so fraught (at least, not yet).

As for the Nate Thayer dust-up – I’m like Anjali in placing more… importance ( ? value ? something ?) on journalism than I might on fiction simply because it acts as a check on government and corporations. If society is unwilling to pay for it then the “news” will be bought by someone who is willing to pay….

15 a { 03.07.13 at 10:22 pm }

Maybe the 24 hour news cycle has lowered the standards for journalism. Wait – what am I talking about, MAYBE? For sure, it has lowered standards – although we often have talking heads stumbling through nonsense as they try to create information in a breaking story, there still have to be writers to put the stuff on the teleprompters for the most part. Plus, internet aggregating sites who pull content from all over only require “writers” who can summarize the work of others and post links. All this leads to journalists who are asked to merely deliver things quickly…accuracy and excellence are secondary considerations. The Daily Show just had a bit on the lack of work available for investigative journalists, because the corporations aren’t interested in paying for the work to be done.

Now, I’m not a writer, but I am an American citizen who was raised on the idea of freedom of the press. So lowered standards are a problem for me. Paid freelance work is the only way to follow through on challenging stories.

Is it wrong to ask the question? Not really wrong, but it is a little insulting to ask for free work.

16 Lollipop Goldstein { 03.07.13 at 10:24 pm }

But journalism can’t truly be a check on government and corporations because most of our major publications are owned by corporations! Plus you have newspapers that act like big business, owning dozens of smaller newspapers. Listen, you have to trust something, but still.

17 persnickety { 03.07.13 at 10:30 pm }

One other thing I noticed- the reason the editor(?) couldn’t pay him was NOT because they had a policy of not paying for type of work (which though wrong would at least be consistent) but because she had “no money left in the budget for freelancing” . That is even ruder than just not paying, it is saying that you do consider that the work is worthy of payment, but you are hoping to score it for free because you have poor money management skills. If you have empty space in the issue, and you need to fill it but don’t have money- that is what staff writers/interns/back catalogue should be there for.
I write technical industry specific articles as part of my job. I beleive in the past clients of my company have approached us about reusing the articles we write, and generally the answer is only if they are prepared to pay (generally no).
There is this weird perception that once something is written and published and paid for it can be had for much less, or free.
oh there is a blog post now about value, and cost and what we are willing to pay vs what we truly value. hopefully even this comment will remind me by the time i get home from work…

18 Amy { 03.07.13 at 10:48 pm }

Raising my hand. Yes, it is a dream to get paid to write, if only simply for the acknowledgment of any talent I believe I possess. One thing I do remember reading in a management class. Money is not a motivator (long term). Maybe writers prove that. Because I have not made a dime but I can say I truly love it and look forward to that part of my day and dream about being published or noticed.

19 Justine { 03.07.13 at 11:35 pm }

Great conversation here.

I have known freelancers over the years, before the digital revolution really exploded, and they always seemed to be struggling, to me. Paying bills, but just barely. They spent a lot of time hustling, and not as much time as they’d like writing.

I ‘d love to be paid to write. There’s something about being paid that validates my work … and I confess, that’s important to me. While I agree with you that there are thousands of good writers out there who want to be paid, and that the way in which some seem arbitrarily anointed by the universe to make a living from their writing (however small) isn’t necessarily fair. But it’s realistic.

With you and Anjali, though, I worry about competition for writing, and what it does to quality. If so many people want to write, and some are willing to write for free, then how do we know what’s good information? Is published information then merely the information that costs the least to the content provider? It’s a slippery slope.

20 Lollipop Goldstein { 03.08.13 at 6:33 am }

Justine, I don’t know how we know what is good information. I mean, Jonah Lehrer looked as if he provided good information… until he didn’t. So did Stephen Glass… until he didn’t. I usually trust the NY Times to give me correct information… though I’ve read their IVF coverage and know the inaccuracies there, so it makes me wonder about the rest of the paper sometimes.

21 KeAnne { 03.08.13 at 8:07 am }

Our increasing inability to tell good from bad information is exactly why we need librarians 🙂 I think that writing-good writing-is a hugely undervalued skill even as it is revered. It’s like we want to punish writers even as we put them on a pedestal. The ability to write was one of the most amazing developments in human history, yet how many celebrated poets and authors died in obscurity and poverty? Why do we treat writers so shabbily? Is it because there is something divine about good writing that attracts and repels at the same time? Sorry to get spiritual there.

Speaking of quality journalism, UNC’s student paper got in major trouble this week for an inflammatory, racist article on crime spilling into Chapel Hill from neighboring Durham. Though the article appears to have been edited (finally) to remove some of the most offensive parts, if this is what journalism has come to, we’re in trouble http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2013/03/durham-crime-crosses-over

22 Chickenpig { 03.08.13 at 9:13 am }

This dude sounds like he suffers from ‘special snowflake syndrome’. Gah! Everyone wants to make a living at what they love. Hardly anyone does, and fewer people get paid what they’re worth. I am an artist. I sold my first piece for $50 when I was in High School. I went to art school. Then I switched to art history because HELLO I needed to get a job straight out of college to pay off my student loans. Stephen King had to do some G-d awful jobs to get by and to feed his kids. But he stuck with the writing and got people to buy his stuff. Nate Thayer needs to suck it up. One in a million artists can live solely on their work while they are alive. And most of them spend the lion’s share of their life barely making it. And very, very few of those people are women. Because behind a whining artist like Nick Thayer, there is usually a woman helping to pay the rent and take care of the kids. Tabitha King is an excellent writer, but how many books has SHE had a chance to right? Don’t blame the internet. A lot of writers blamed Charles Dickens for the dumbing down of the public, too, because he published serial novels *gasp*. Thayer needs to get over being a special snowflake.

23 MinnieK { 03.08.13 at 7:09 pm }

This is a great conversation. I worked for (what was then considered) a major metropolitan newspaper for 5 years. Although we were owned by a for-profit corporation, the attitude in the newsroom was one of atonomy and checks and balances and the Great Ideals of Journalism. Please note my use of the word “was.” While I am no longer there, many of my friends still are, and even in the 2 years I’ve been gone, the atmosphere of the newsroom has dramatically changed. I will never go back to journalism. I may write something one day. I was telling a friend of mine recently that I feel that “writer” is my base personality – that no matter what I do, I am a writer. But I am not defining writer as a paid, published, writer. Although that would be nice too. I mean, I’d be pretty happy at the 1000th level.

I think Thayer’s cursing of the internet was a bit much. Shit has changed, but it’s up to freelance journalists to adapt. Can’t find narrative work? Do corporate. Half (or more) of freelancing is selling yourself and finding new markets. If you wanna freelance fulltime, you’ve got to look at it as a sales job with a side of writing. I do know people who successfully freelance fulltime, but they have not limited themselves to traditional print products or clients. And they surely wouldn’t throw such an outspoken fit about a potential client.

24 GeekChic { 03.08.13 at 9:45 pm }

I concede that the press (particularly in the U.S.) is often owned by corporations. Perhaps that’s my Canadian side showing because I’m used to the concept of crown corporations – something that simply doesn’t exist in the U.S.

CBC is one of many crown corporations and that type of corporation (owned by the Queen, shielded from government intervention and direct legislative oversight) as a media company makes it a useful critic of both typical business and of government (and of her majesty). Is the CBC perfect? No, of course not – it has funding issues and it has biases like anything run by human beings – but it’s not your typical media company either.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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