Saturday, November 2, 2013

Kreider on Creativity and Economic Slavery

Last week, the Twittersphere collectively convulsed when essayist Tim Kreider published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled "Slaves of the Internet, Unite!" His main complaint was that:
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. "Unfortunately we don't have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors..." is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

A familiar figure in one's 20s is the club owner or event promoter who explains to your band that they won't be paying you in money, man, because you're getting paid in the far more valuable currency of exposure. This same figure reappears over the years, like the devil, in different guises — with shorter hair, a better suit — as the editor of a Web site or magazine, dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it'll offer. "Artist Dies of Exposure" goes the rueful joke.
If you've done the writing thing for any time at all, you'll probably find yourself nodding in aggrieved accord with Kreider's essential complaint: Putting words down on paper doesn't command the same amount of respect or recompense as other jobs. That's fair enough, but Kreider marches beyond such uncontested ground to level his guns at more doubtful targets. The World Wide Web got a fair amount of his ire ("The Internet seems like ... an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again"), as did capitalism (which allegedly traffics in "the pitiless dictates of self-interest").

In response, a cavalcade of new allies rallied around Kreider while freshly drafted foes began returning fire. Michael J. Martinez (The Daedalus Incident) tweeted, "Demand fair payment for writing. Value your skill, your time, your craft, your colleagues, your own self." Freelancer Steve Huff shared a similar, if somewhat more profane, response: "Short version: f--- you, pay me." But tech scribe Mathew Ingram noted how it's a basic fact of reality that, all things being equal, an increase in supply always leads to a decrease in price. Scholar Deen Freelon failed to grasp how one could compare voluntary content creation to the violent compulsion inherent in slavery. And Victoria Strauss of the author-advocate group Writer Beware urged cautiousness and selectivity when writing for free rather than blanket condemnation.

For my part, I've been on both sides of the divide. It's no fun to pester recalcitrant clients for payment or be begged to edit book-length manuscripts for the price of a pizza. Yet it's a delight to draw down a substantial paycheck after pecking at a keyboard for a few hours. Opportunities exist, and unlike Kreider, I find the market more ally than enemy. Capital follows value, and I plan to provide as much of it as possible for clients and editors alike.

(Picture: CC 2013 by Haya Benitez; Hat Tip: @JRVogt)


Scattercat said...

I feel like at least offering some sort of token payment as a goodwill gesture is mandatory. You might not have much money, but you can afford to give your writers five or ten bucks as at least an earnest of good intent, ne?

Loren Eaton said...

I'm in general agreement that a minimum token payment is a Very Good Thing. There are a few prestige markets that I'll submit to, but usually I want at least a fiver for my efforts.