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.