mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)
mabfan

The Value of Our Work

As a freelance writer, I frequently find myself concerned with the question of how much a particular piece of writing is worth. In general, the market sets the rates for writing, usually offering a few cents a word for a piece of fiction and more than that for a piece of nonfiction. We tend to expect a professional website to offer something reasonable for the use of our work, even in the Internet era of quick links and frictionless copying. My basic rule is a simple one; if the magazine or website is making money by selling advertising or access to their content, then I should be given some sort of payment for generating that content in the first place.

Even if the site isn't making money on its own, if it serves as a loss leader for a company, I'd also expect to get paid. For example, if a TV network sets up a website to attract viewers, even if that site loses money on its own, overall the site is helping them with their bottom line. I would expect to be paid for whatever I provide them, just like they pay studios for the programs they broadcast.

So I was intrigued by this article I read in the New York Times this morning: Use Their Work Free? Some Artists Say No to Google. Google has invited dozens of prominent artists to contribute work that they will feature on their new Web browser, Chrome, and when some of the artists asked how much they would be paid for their art, the answer was nothing. Google released a statement in which they said that while they don't usually offer money for the use of the art in the browser, they feel that they would be giving the artists an opportunity to display their work in front of millions of people.

In other words, no money, but think of the exposure!

How I have come to hate that word.

A few years ago, someone whose name I won't mention wanted to reprint one of my stories in a booklet that a nonprofit organization planned to distribute to a variety of synagogues across the United States. I had passed along the story at the request of a mutual friend, and he was so excited by the story that he really wanted others to read it and be as moved by it as he was.

But when he asked if he could reprint the story, his first words were to tell me that he wouldn't pay anything, but he could offer me "exposure." It rankled me to hear that. He wouldn't consider not paying the costs of printing the booklets or distributing them, but when it came to the content, he didn't seem to grasp why it was so wrong to offer no compensation at all.

The irony here is that in this particular case I really didn't want a reprint fee, just respect. Had the guy approached me and asked what the reprint fee would have been – or even if he had said something like we don't have a large budget for this project but I can give you $10 – I would have replied thank you for asking, but for your cause I'm willing to let you have it for free.

This is not to say that I wouldn't write something and offer it for no charge. I've written for fanzines before, and I would never think of charging them for an article, because that's not how the model works. (Also, fanzine editors make it clear from the outset that they're not a paying market.) I don't get paid for my blog posts, obviously, as this blog is my communication with friends and fans. (I do keep a small link on the side of the front page to a PayPal button, because I don't want to deny someone the choice of making a donation if they'd like, but I don't push very hard for donations.)

And this is not to say that I don't write for "exposure" sometimes. The difference, though, is that when I write for "exposure" I'm doing it on my own terms. I'm choosing to provide articles or stories for friends or for partners, and usually there's an added quid pro quo that is no one's business but my own.

What bothers me most of all is that people who believe their own industry is of value often think nothing of asking writers to provide work for free. Or think we should be happy if our work gets distributed without permission. A few months ago, a friend of mine who is in one of the professional fields suggested that I should be happy if a story of mine got copied over and over on the Internet and earned me millions of readers. After all, isn't that what a writer wants, to be read?

Well, yes. But a writer also wants to be paid. Does a lawyer offer all of his or her services for free? Would a doctor be happy to not draw a fee and simply treat people without payment?

Would you be willing to do your own job for no payment?

I think the executives at Google who made this offer of "exposure" to artists need to answer that question for themselves.
Tags: personal, the value of our work, writing
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