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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.


The key, though, is that it's the writer who should get to decide if the exposure is worth it to them. IMHO, no one should approach a writer with the offer of, "We won't pay you, but think of the exposure."

As for the specific example, that was so long ago that I'm not even sure if I had a web presence with an opportunity for people to send me money. And again, what bothered me was that the person who made the "offer" said from the outset that he wouldn't pay me anything. If he had said something like, "We'd really like to reprint it, but we have a limited budget. What would be your reprint fee?" that at least would have been an acknowledgment that I, as a writer, expected remuneration for my work, and that he understood that.
Again, though, the sticking point is being approached by someone who wants you to do work for them with the "offer" of no money but instead exposure. Honestly, it borders on the insulting.
I note for the record that doctors (and lawyers, I suspect, but my direct experience is doctors) are often asked to render professional opinions for free. I doubt anyone gratuitously shows you their [name of body part redacted] and asks what you think of the lesion thereon at parties-happens to me all the time :-)

As it happens, I actually don't mind giving advice. I also am paid very very well for the times I do work, so my perspective is likely a bit different (IMO writers are paid insufficiently. I'm sure you agree :-). It's easier to do a little work for free if you are paid Serious Money for the times you work for pay.
Personally, I try not to ask doctors or lawyers of my acquaintance for professional opinions, although it's possible I've slipped into doing so.

Again, the key point for me is in how you approach someone whose work you would like to use, as well as the relationship between the two. If a stranger asks me to do work for them for free, well, why would I? If a friend did, that might be a different story. I will admit that I have friends who have provided me with their professional services for free, but in those cases I have usually offered payment and been turned down, or else they had made the offer from the outset. (In either case, I usually try to advertise their work and get them paying gigs.)
Oh, hey, this [name of body part redacted] is acting up. Could you just use the magic of teh intarwebs to look at it via my comment and given me free advice how to fix it?
Harlan is one of the most staunch defenders of a writer's rights. I've got to see that documentary at some point.
He goes way overboard and shoots at totally inappropriate targets.
Dreams With Sharp Teeth; it's out on DVD.
The median market value of art (broadly defined to include fiction, graphics, etc.) on the Internet is zero. Possibly less, because some people pay hosting fees (or let their hosts collect ad revenue) from their work and never collect a cent from customers to make up for that. In some cases this is a sensible loss-leader strategy for the artist, and in some cases, well, "free" is a fair price for what you get. :-)

So Google understood perfectly well that when they were offering to host art on their browser for free, they would have plenty of takers.

On the other hand, when Google wanted to introduce their new browser to the geek world, they released an online 39-page comic book drawn by Scott McCloud. And you can be damn sure he didn't do that for free.
"So Google understood perfectly well that when they were offering to host art on their browser for free, they would have plenty of takers."

And those artists have the right to make that decision, of course. The question that comes to my mind, though, is if that exposure will actually net them any business. Even worse, will prospective clients approach them assuming that they'll work for free again or for cheap because they accepted Google's offer? It's a risk they have to take.

Another question that I really can't answer is what quality of work Google will get for free. In the article, artist Melinda Beck says that it would take her a week to create art to Google's specifications. And although Google said they would consider reusing work from artists' portfolios, artists usually receive a reprint fee for such reuse.
I assume that if Google gets any better-than-mediocre art from this program, they'll be lucky.

On the other hand, the value of the art to Google is pretty low--no matter how good the artwork, I don't think it will inspire many people to switch from Microsoft Internet Explorer to Google Chrome.
So, I do get requests for work for free, all the time. In fact, someone's coming over tonight to let me fix their machine. We'll see if I get dinner out of it.

Not to meniton that I host various non profits sites for free, and fix their issues, too.

Or that I'm even considering doing my *exact* day job potentially for Dreamwidth. So.. clearly, i'm willing to do some of my job for free.

Google should pay something for the project, but it's not like they're doing a bait & switch- it's for exposure / marketing. No pressure should be applied to the artists who are asked, but it's their prerogative to ask for free work.

Now- a few stock options wouldn't be out of place here... Or a few shares even :)
For the record, stay-at-home parents do their work for free all the time. And "emotional rewards," while satisfying, do not pay the bills, nor do they help you regain the foothold you left behind in the money-paying working world.

Almost everyone I know provides some amount of their paying (or would-be paying) work gratis to friends or friends-of-friends. This often occurs under circumstances where the recipient offers no compensation whatsoever - it is understood as part of the social contract that nice people provide a limited amount of expertise or labor for free with the expectation that at some point in the past or future they have received similar benefit.

This is not to say that writers or artists are any less deserving of compensation for their work. And it is certainly inappropriate to assume that because the work they do is "fun" (like being a stay at home parent) or meant for a large audience, they would automatically be willing to work for free or very little pay. Your underlying point is certainly correct.
stay-at-home parents do their work for free all the time

Yes, but stay-at-home parents get paid in biological fitness.

Also, most parents would not be willing to baby-sit a stranger's kids for free; there's a big difference between free services provided within one's community and provided to a stranger with no expectation of reciprocation.
Are you implying that parents who work out of the home produce less-fit children? If so, then society at large should give parents incentives to stay home (resulting in a more productive next generation). If not, then your point is moot - a stay at home parent is merely trading one form of (compensated) work for another form of (not-compensated) work.

Also, there is no guarantee that a stay-at-home parent is home with biological children.
If it were up to me, stay-at-home parents would be able to draw a salary for their work. I just don't know who would pay it.

The social contract you cite is most definitely different from a major corporation asking people to do freelance work for them. In this case, we bump against the difference between social norms and market norms, as described by Dan Ariely in his book Predictably Irrational. I've just linked to an excerpt in a second post that you might find interesting if you haven't read the book yet.
The other thing that bugs me about the exposure:

Most of the time the company is approaching the creator. This means that someone at the company has heard of you and knows you as a creator of content. Hence, you have exposure already. So, why offer something you already have (yes you could always have *more*). Companies often aren't going to come to LJ fanfic writer #24252 and ask to have that work 'for exposure'. Companies want something their fans will recognize (name and/or style) and so those people have already honed their craft.

It is one of the reasons that while my company licenses work of artists, we do so with payment and the understanding that we contacted them because we find value in their work and are going to pay them for it.

does a lawyer offer all of his or her services for free?

Prefacing this by saying, first, that I haven't read all the other comments and, second, that I've been away for three days and am a little behind in life in general, I will say this:

No, certainly not all of them, but in a comparable context, some of them.

I primarily practice in a couple of niche markets, either of which would be comparable, on a different but similar plane, to distribution to synagogues. Once or twice a year, for the past close to 20, I've made the following deal with the devil concerning my writing aimed at one or both of those niches:

YOU will outline your area of expertise in written form, and then speak at a public seminar for two to seven hours in a day on such subject(s), for negligible compensation. BUT. We will promote you and your practice expertise to every general practitioner in a 20-county area, and you will likely get referrals from them on account of our pimping you..

Has it been a break-even or better proposition? Not sure. But it does introduce me to at least 20-40 people a year who would otherwise not know me, any one of whom could refer something worth far more than my writing and speaking time. Even if they don't, I get good evaluations and I sense that I'm helping people understand some very arcane subjects in a better and more entertaining way. That along makes the deal one I continue to renew.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but that would be mine.
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.

So many people fail to get this point. I might very well donate my {labor, music, writing/editing skills} to a good cause, but not if you presume it instead of asking. My work, my decision. I try to be a generous person, and I certainly recognize the value of the intangibles, but it is the creator, not the beneficiary, who makes the final call. So ask, or try to persuade, but don't get greedy.

December 2016

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