You wouldn’t walk into a store and walk out with a New York Times without paying for it, would you?
Tim Kreider has a brilliant piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times called “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”. In it, he perfectly describes the situation that many “content providers” on the internet, writers like me, Amy, and LOLGOP, and my wife, photographer Anne Savage deal with on a weekly basis: people asking us to provide content for them for free.
People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. [...]
I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing. I have to admit my empathetic imagination is failing me here. I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.
I will freely admit that writing beats baling hay or going door-to-door for a living, but it’s still shockingly unenjoyable work. I spent 20 years and wrote thousands of pages learning the trivial craft of putting sentences together. My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.
Early in my writing career, I did provide free content in order to gain further exposure. Even today, I cross-post my stuff to Daily Kos from time to time. What has changed is that the stuff I put up a Daily Kos is stuff I want the rest of the world to see and react to and they have a larger audience than this blog has at the moment.
But when Huffington Post Detroit launched last year and asked me to be a contributor and when one of the major news outlets asked me to write a couple of pieces a week for their news site, I turned them down. Why? Because they wanted to make money from my writing but weren’t willing to pay me for the “privilege”.
I can’t tell you how often Anne and I are asked to give our stuff away. Anne, in particular, is trying to establish her career as a photographer. She’s built up quite a portfolio of material, photographed for the White House and President Obama (yes, they paid her), and is recognized internationally. People love her photos. And for good reason: she’s outrageously talented. But, as Kreider points out, they don’t love her photos enough to pay her for them far too often. There are just too many people out there with digital cameras willing to give their photos away just to see their name on a website somewhere and free-but-average trumps paying for quality most of the time on the internet.
Kreider has this advice for up-and-coming “content providers”:
I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.
I concur with his advice with one caveat: If you can get something tangible from the exchange, go ahead. There are times when the exposure is worth it. You have to make that determination for yourself. But always keep it in your mind that when you give your material away, you risk being seen as putting a $0.00 price tag on your art and if YOU don’t value it any more than that, others probably won’t either.
My strong feelings on this are precisely why all of the contributors at Eclectablog are paid, even if it’s far less than I wish I could and that I think they are worth.
One more thing: if there are artists and creative types whose work is important to you, reward them for it. When we run fundraisers here at Eclectablog, the $5 donations with notes saying, “I just wanted to do something even though I can’t do much” are just as important to us as the $100 donations. If we don’t support artists and writers and photographers, some day they may not be there for us. And that would be a tragedy of monumental proportions.
Thanks for reading.
H/T: My good pal Abby C.
UPDATE: From Scopedog in the comments, here’s video of Harlan Ellison on this very topic back in 2007. It’s positively brilliant:
Also, so you can have the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” brainworm in YOUR head, too ; )