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.
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?