And now a word from our sponsor

Said sponsor being me, that is. I own this site, pay all costs, and derive most of the benefit from the labor that generates its content, though it would be pretty silly of me to invoice myself.

That said, I could invoice myself, if I wanted to, because the work that I do writing posts for this blog has a real cost. Take that post I did a little while ago on feminization, and the fear thereof, in epic fantasy. It took me about four hours, spread over several days, to write that post — and it’s not my best work because that was me rushing the thing; I’m busy working on Reaper right now, so didn’t want to lose too much writing-time to blogging. I wasn’t entirely happy with the result, either, which was less coherent than I wanted it, but it served its purpose. (I think this guy actually did a better job of articulating what I was trying to say.) And that purpose was to bring eyeballs to this site, which it did — 3000+ of them, specifically, per Google Analytics. Well, technically that would be 6000 eyeballs, unless a number of those unique visitors were cyclopses… but you take my point.

Those eyeballs = marketing, and that marketing can potentially lead to sales. That’s why any author blogs, after all, aside from our narcissistic conviction that all our words might be entertaining, not just the neatly-packaged ones. If one percent of those 3000 people decide to buy my book, that’s 30 sales I didn’t have. It’s more complicated than that, actually — 30 people who like my book might tell 30 more to go buy it; some of what I post here has its own income stream (that story has sold elsewhere); and so on. But that’s the simple way to look at it.

Marketing costs. In this case the monetary cost is minimal — I pay a little to maintain my domain name, a little for server space — in comparison with the whopping huge cost of generating content in terms of time. And for a writer, time is very much money. The four hours that it took me to write and revise the feminization post, and the additional two hours that I spent on moderating and adding my own comments — well, that’s pretty much a full day of writing for me. On a good day I can do 2000 fresh words, or revise maybe a half-chapter’s worth of material. At that rate it takes about 100 days for me to write and revise a novel. (That too is way more complicated, and longer in real terms, but let’s go with 100 for calculation purposes.) Let’s say I make $20,000 off that book (using the average advance for a multiply-published fantasy author, which I guess I qualify as, and adding a little extra for the hoped-for royalties over the book’s lifetime). That makes a day of writing worth $200 — which means that a day of blogging costs me that much in delayed (or lost, if the book is late enough) income. I recoup some that cost through the book sales that the post hopefully generates, but probably not all of it. And every day I spend writing blog posts (or something else — interviews, reviews) equals a day added to that 100. So for those of you who are mad that The Kingdom of Gods won’t be coming out ’til October, this is why. As a new author, I have to market myself, and that time has to come from somewhere.

This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but I raise all this to make a point. There’s been a lot of chatter on the internetz lately over the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL for a whole lotta money — a fact which highlights the value of the work HuffPo’s freelance bloggers have contributed to the site. HuffPo, however, does not pay its freelancers. They get “exposure”, sure, and that is worth something. Exposure is marketing. But I have to wonder whether the benefit for those bloggers, in terms of additional articles sold for cash or regular jobs landed or whatever, is worth the cost of the work they’ve done. Especially given that they seem to have considered the work worth nothing but that marketing, or they wouldn’t have given their work to HuffPo for free… but a lot of them seem to have changed their minds now that they’ve seen the monetary value of their labor writ large.

When I first heard about this, I was annoyed. They gave away their work for free to a commercial site — why the hell are they surprised that site has made money off their work? I thought. I don’t believe there are no circumstances in which a writer should give away her work for free — I just gave you some examples of when I do it — but I do think that any writer who does so needs to accurately gauge the cost involved, and make sure she benefits as much as the freebie recipient. That was when I stopped being annoyed and started feeling sad, because I realized most of these angry writers hadn’t accurately gauged their work’s value. They sold it for nothing because they believed — still believe — it’s worth whatever other people tell them it’s worth.

That’s not nothing, and it’s not $315 million. Publishers deserve to make money for their work, too, and HuffPo’s staff did some of the work that brought value to the site. (And I have some thoughts about how much the site might be overvalued… but that’s for an economic analyst to break down, not me.) Any writer who’s agitating for “their share” of the sale money is still using the wrong measure for the value of their work. We’re not selling widgets. A strict objective exchange of cash for words produced, or even articles produced, doesn’t make sense. The only measure of value that does make sense is a measure that has meaning to the writer. For me, it’s value for my time, with a baseline of “enough to help me stay out of poverty”. For some, it’s something more intrinsic — maybe it’s the best thing they’ve ever written, and they won’t sell it for less than its weight in gold. Maybe they expect to be paid in public adulation — many fanfic writers work on this principle, rightly or wrongly. Most writers’ organizations use a living wage, or something at least symbolically representing that; SFWA, for example, sets “professional rate” at $.05/word. Not nearly enough to live on, but at least roughly equal to the average first-novel advance in the field (see Buckell’s survey again), assuming a 100K-word work. The bottom line: all these measures are appropriate because they’re chosen by writers themselves. The danger for a writer in using some externally-ascribed measure of value for her work — instead of her own internal sense of worth — is that most people who aren’t writers know diddlysquat about writing. Most of them will treat it as worthless, because anybody can throw words on paper… but I promise you that if I throw a jumble of 100,000 random words on paper and try to sell those to Orbit, I’ll get laughed out of their very nice offices, and probably before I can mooch a good haul from their bookroom. And a few non-writers will treat writing as worth far more than it is, because when they think “author”, they think “lucky hacks who make bajillions writing wizard schoolboys”.

The actual value of writing, or any art, lies somewhere in between “worthless” and “bajillions”. But if the angry HuffPo writers had internalized a sense of their work’s worth, they wouldn’t have needed a $315 million sale to tell them it was valuable.

There’s a lot more stuff I could unpack here — like the fact that despite everything I’ve just said, I think those writers are damn right to point out the hypocrisy in Arianna Huffington’s refusal to pay her writers. And the fact that it’s high time the freelancers of the world fought back against the kind of rampant exploitation that this whole situation exemplifies; I’m a member of the Freelancers Union, and I sure hope these HuffPo writers are too. And the fact that in light of the revolutionary spirit that seems to be sweeping even the US (video), it’s nice to see writers engaging in a little collective action. I wish them luck.

…Buuuut, this article is rapidly approaching the point where its cost outweighs its benefit, so I’m gonna shut up here and get back to writing stuff that pays.

13 Responses »

  1. Thanks for the mention of my blog (I’m ‘this guy’). Your’s was very inspiring and really got my brain-pistons pumping.

    BTW: My wife just finished “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” — she picked it up from the library after reading your blog entry. She could not put it down…stayed up all night to finish it and survived on coffee at work the next day. We’ll probably have to buy a copy so I can have my turn and she can return the library book (which has requests).

    Suffice to say…writing a good blog works for marketing your work.

  2. Part of the problem is that our culture doesn’t recognize artists as businesspeople. You’re supposed to be either romantically starving in a garret or living the life of a Hollywood celebrity.

    Another part is that I cheerfully paid ten or fifteen bucks (however much it was) for each of your novels, and there’s a well-established system for doing so… but if you wanted to charge us, say, a nickel to read each blog posting you made, it just wouldn’t be worth the effort to even try to collect. Clay Shirky wrote about the futility of online “micropayment” systems ten years ago, and I have yet to see anything disproving what he wrote.

    Dean Baker, in The Conservative Nanny State, suggested that the government give everyone a $75 “Artistic Freedom Voucher” that they could distribute to artists who agreed, as a condition for taking the money, that all their work would be in the public domain. I’m not sure I like that particular plan, but if “smaller government” were not such an article of faith even among Democrats, we could hope for some movement to bring the how-artists-pay-the-rent problem out of the eighteenth century.

  3. There’s no single equation that works for a writer giving it away these days. Probably never. We cobble the pay out of a complex and confluence of opportunities. Sometimes the published work is the business card that opens other doors. In all cases, particularly now, it’s really really really difficult and complicated.

    Be well, you. Love, C.

  4. It’s not impossible to put a value on the intangible but you make a good a shot of identifying the variables. How you quantify them. Ah, there’s the rub. To add my dime of effort to your marketing through this site, I have just finished The Broken Kingdoms and recommend it to all comers. For those who want to go behind the headline, here’s the unsolicited and unpaid posting:

    http://opionator.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/the-hundred-thousand-kingdoms-by-n-k-jemison/

    ETA from Nora: Spoiler warning, for those who care — David’s review pretty much summarizes the whole book, not holding back on most of the plot surprises. Just FYI!

  5. With the aplomb that only someone as ancient as I can muster, I apologise to all and sundry for posting the wrong link. It should have been:

    http://opionator.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/the-broken-kingdoms-by-n-k-jemisin/

  6. I think there are two primary issues here – one is that the freelancers gave away their work for free when it clearly had value because they either mis-valued it or chose to substitute their value (publicity, marketing, experience) for the value investors placed on it.

    The second, and perhaps more important here, is that the investors placed value not on the writing the freelancers (free writers?) created, but on the system of attracting free content and free writers. The value wasn’t on any particular content, but on the system of generating the content at little cost for the creation. And they were probably right. I bet that any creative content writers will be quickly replaced with others who will value as those in the first post did. And that’s what AOL and AOL’s investors bet on too.

    A colleague writes for the Huffington Post, and uses his presence there successfully to advance his non-creative interests – he’s both a cause activist and an independent business person. He valued it as a platform to self-promote his other, non-creative, work as well as his business. He derived the value he got out of it, and contributed another column just a few days ago.

    Great post, and great recognition of the value and cost of blogging! Thanks, I’m a brand new reader thanks to an already forgotten Twitter mention by someone I follow.

    James

  7. Seth,

    Yes, I agree wholeheartedly; the real problem here is a society (not just the US, though that’s where I live; HuffPo arguably serves any English-language reader on the web, but I imagine they primarily use US writers) that doesn’t respect or value artists beyond their freakshow entertainment potential. But I don’t know how to fix that; artists’ unions have really only been effective in places where their work has a substantial immediate consumer value — e.g. the writers’ strike in Hollywood a few years ago. And even the effort to organize writers will fail if the artists themselves don’t believe their work has value.

    That voucher idea makes no sense. What’s the idea behind it — to have the government support artists, but only the ones popular with the public? So then the government will end up paying the bills for Miley Cyrus and the like, while the poets and the independent musicians still starve? That would also encourage artists to deliberately be as shocking as possible just to get enough popularity to live on — far more than they do now. We’d be drowning in urine-soaked crucifixes in a heartbeat.

  8. James,

    Great point — I hadn’t considered the fact that what AOL might value about HuffPo is the very fact that they’re able to convince their content creators to work for free. Basically the $315 million is for HuffPo’s reputation, which is deemed to be so phenomenally enticing to journalists and essayists that they’re eager to provide the content that supports it. Maybe HuffPo’s sellers pitched it as the journalistic equivalent of the Open Source movement or Wikipedia, possessing a crowdsourced/contributor-led culture. But there’s now a danger for AOL: the very fact of putting a dollar value on that free content/labor destroys that whole open-source image. Now the creators seem poised to revolt and not only demand payment, but change the reputation of HuffPo — making it not an open source journalists’ paradise but an exploitative journalists’ sweatshop. I guess AOL will have to deal with that, if it doesn’t want its new acquisition to lose value. If they care that much.

    ETA: Edited for clarity!

  9. Well, AOL does have a history of seeing some of their investments go the wrong way…

    I’ll be interested to follow this story as it progresses. The cat’s out of the bag – people know the value. And now authors have to assess their interest in participating against new knowledge. I still think some will participate, others will stop, and still others will start newly contributing. And other competitors will spring up attempting to capture that value, or balancing both owner and author interests.

  10. My concern with Baker’s proposal is the reverse of yours: I’m afraid that under his system, as soon as it got out that an artist had reached the middle class, donations to him/her would fall off, because the donors would be seeing themselves as doing charity rather than rewarding value.

    Another proposal I’ve seen is for distributing the subsidy based on a Nielsen-rating-like system. Granted, this would continue to make Miley Cyrus and her ilk rich, but the independents would benefit by getting money in proportion to everyone who listens to their work, as opposed to everyone who pays directly, and they wouldn’t have to give up as much of their revenue to the institutions that maintain the distribution network.

    (One of Baker’s points in that chapter, BTW, is that Miley Cyrus is getting the government to pay her bills, in the sense that she is collecting rent off a monopoly whose terms are set by the government.)

  11. The New Yorker ran an article recently on AOL: the new CEO’s strategy involves buying up a variety of high-traffic blogs (including Politics Daily, Engadget, and TechCrunch) and new media outlets (such as Patch, a network of online small-town newspapers). So they’re not just interested in making a profit off of content that other people are willing to write for free.

  12. Hi Seth,

    I’m afraid that under his system, as soon as it got out that an artist had reached the middle class, donations to him/her would fall off, because the donors would be seeing themselves as doing charity rather than rewarding value.

    I doubt that. I think Baker is naive to assume that a) everyone would use their vouchers, b) that everyone would “spend” their vouchers based on artist quality rather than peer pressure, sexual attraction, or other factors, and c) that there would be anything like a normal distribution to support all the artists who have need. Normal distributions assume all factors save the variable (public interest) are equal; that’s just not going to be the case.

    Re a), the problem is that people are going to think of those vouchers as their money, even if the things can only be spent on supporting artists. It is their money — an income or other tax refund that they’ll resent because they’re not allowed to spend it the way they please. And they’ll resent the artists who, in their minds, are keeping them from using their money. So I think the vast majority of people will be inclined to sit on the vouchers unless and until they find an artist who gets them excited and wows them with crowd-pleasing antics and creative products. (That would be point b.) Very few artists can motivate an audience to that degree, and IMO the best artists do the opposite — they disturb their viewers/readers, and try to make them think. And consider the impact of race and gender and other factors: thanks to our history of “isms”, white males would have a much easier time appealing to the mainstream than any other group. These authors who most closely match the mainstream will probably get a surplus of vouchers, allowing them to spend some of this “upkeep” money on marketing — a necessary expense for any artist, but only some would have the cash to spare on it, and the rest would struggle without. So (getting into point c), all factors would not be equal. Some artists would have more money from the start — based on their skill at self-promotion, or their appearance or demographics, not their artistic talent — which would allow them to earn more money over time. Instead of a normal distribution, we’d end up with something like the Long Tail — a very few already-wealthy artists getting metric asstons of vouchers, far more than they need to live, while the thousands of poorer artists scramble for enough money to buy food. Basically an acute exaggeration of the system we have now. I can’t see how that would not happen, if nothing else changes about our society.

    I don’t get your point about Miley Cyrus. Granted, Disney gets massive tax breaks from the government, but how are their terms set by the government?

  13. The terms of copyright are set by the government. Because of the way those terms are set up, Disney can make a movie based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame without paying anything to Victor Hugo’s heirs, but if you wanted to make your own Steamboat Willie sequel, you would need Disney’s license.

    Opponents of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 nicknamed it the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” because it would prevent the earliest Disney properties from falling into the public domain for another 25 years. To get that bill through Congress, it was combined with a law that allows small bars and restaurants to play music on their premises without paying a licensing fee. I guess that’s good news for Miley the film star and bad news for Miley the singer.

    Anyway, whether or not you believe in any of the wild-eyed technohippie schemes for copyright reform, my point is that among the factors determining how writers get paid for their work are the market “rules of the road”, and those rules are not just a background to be taken for granted, but the result of political deal-making.