On not paying for work done.

Typewriter keyboardI still have the aforementioned oddly fever-ish condition, so I’m not likely to be of much use today, but I wanted to say this:

A kerfuffle arose yesterday when a writer blogged about being offered to publish in The Atlantic Online in exchange for zero dollars; you, gentle reader, may or may not recall that these were the precise circumstances under which I wrote for The Atlantic Online, twice, about Troy Davis.

In his blog post, Nate Thayer sounds righteously annoyed, and I can’t say that I blame him. Work deserves recompense, full stop. I will confess to a small shudder of annoyance when the editor with whom I worked at The Atlantic told me that she couldn’t pay me, and I was honestly grateful for the tone of regret in her email — because though I was willing to accept zero dollars in exchange for my hard work, work deserves recompense, full stop.

I will also note that though I was pleased and quite proud to appear in The Atlantic, the fact of that byline has opened no doors, nor has it led to a single offer for paying work — when editors talk about the value of “exposure,” I can only hope that they’re ignorant of what a chimera that is. (It might have been the reason that Robert Wright knew my name, and thus may have played a role in our collaboration for The Atlantic during the recent war in Gaza, but I approached him and volunteered to work with him, knowing ahead of time that his publication wouldn’t be able to pay me and shrugging off his evident discomfort with that fact).

The fault is not with The Atlantic, though. This is a system that exists across platforms and across readership levels. Working in the creative fields has never been a path to wealth, but during the last decade or so, with the advent of an increasingly nimble internet and increasingly mordant outlets saddled with increasingly desperate business models, working in the creative fields hasn’t even necessarily been a decent way to keep yourself in rent and tacos. This has been especially so since the summer of 2008, when the cratering of print media presaged the cratering of the entire world economy.

The problem is so big, and reflective of so much social malaise, that I don’t know how to even start getting my brain around it. On the one hand, you have the consumers of culture who think they should never have to pay for anything (“information wants to be free!” or some such codswallop); on the other hand you’ve got corporate-owned producers of information and art that are more interested in paying CEOs and big shareholders than in paying the people who produce the information and the art; on the third hand you’ve got the rolling introduction of entirely new modes of information-transference that no one really knows how to make a living off of; on the fourth hand you’ve got editors and managing editors who are really struggling to tell important stories without the budget they honestly need; on the fifth hand, you’ve got an entire economy predicated on the rich getting richer while everyone else struggles to doggy-paddle; and on the sixth hand, you’ve got the producers of content themselves, those writers, photographers, reporters, artists, etc and so on, who do need to pay bills but for whom the product itself can sometimes feel even more important than bill-paying.

A few years ago I decided that I would never work for free again, with exceptions for cases wherein I felt that the story was more important than my taco budget — such was the case in all the work I prepared for The Atlantic, for instance. I have not stuck entirely by that decision (The Hairpin, which I presume makes some money, didn’t pay me, for example; Feministe, which I’m assuming does not, didn’t either), but in every case in which I’ve broken my word to myself, I was consciously taking a chance that in allowing my work to be undervalued, I might advance my career. In twenty years of occasionally taking that chance, I can think of exactly one case in which that proved true (not any of those mentioned here).

Aside from the obvious ethical implications of asking people to work hard in return for literally nothing, however, there is the not inconsiderable issue of what this means for your talent pool: I can occasionally write for free (and, indeed, can regularly write for peanuts) because I have a spouse with a good steady income. If I did not have said spouse, or said spouse were unemployed, or also a creative, I would be SOL. I can’t help but feel that a model that excludes people who cannot afford to not be paid isn’t a great one for expanding our knowledge base.

I don’t know how to fix this, and I do not blame the editors who have solicited or accepted my work without recompense. I think it would be a step in the right direction if publications could institute a system whereby such work could at least receive a small honorarium, as a kind of good-will nod to the fact that it’s actually not right to pay people nothing, but I understand that even $50 a pop would add up pretty quickly. The argument could be made that if you can’t pay people, maybe you shouldn’t publish — but again, that’s not on the editors. And when I hand over my copy for free, I know exactly what I’m doing.

So anyway. I don’t know how to fix it, and if I ever again have the chance to publish something that really matters to me in a prestigious publication that cannot pay me, I will take it.

But can we all, at the very least, admit that it’s wrong?


  1. As a writer, I couldn’t agree more. With my fiction, I’ve often written for free in order to build up my bio. I’ve also written articles for free, if I felt that the message was more important than the money. However, not getting paid for my writing sometimes causes me to undermine my own worth as a writer when I’m offered pay. Instead of asking for more, I’m thrilled to get something. That’s not to say that there haven’t been writing assignments that I’ve been generously compensated for, but they just don’t come as often as I’d like.

  2. But if there’s an oversupply of intelligent, perceptive, writing by people such as yourself on subjects of interest, and/or an under supply of intelligent, perceptive readers who are so interested in important subjects that they will spend dollars on magazines and newspapers instead of other things, then the result is likely to be a price per word of $.00.

  3. thanks for this.

    The urge to create is sometimes stronger than common sense which tells me “You can’t do this for free unless you do something else to pay for your time.”

    I cannot imagine what it’s like to live as a writer and nothing else, because there is so much content competing with yours.

  4. Want2Know

     /  March 5, 2013

    Not to worry. Jeb Bush is hiring a team of speech writers.

  5. The biggest problem is not that it excludes people who can’t afford to write without being paid. The problem is that the pay is coming from the wrong place. Instead of coming from the publication, more and more it is coming from various interest groups.

    For example, news reports are increasingly quoting press releases instead of interviews, ie the paid writer is someone’s PR professional and not a journalist. Similarly, analysis is coming from advocacy groups and not from analysts, as people with an agenda are willing to pay writers to get published by other people.

  6. Imagine if writers went on strike for monetary compensation for our craft.

  7. Frankly

     /  March 6, 2013

    John Scalzi on his blog, Whatever, has a permanent post (to which I can’t find a link at the moment), answering people who ask him to write something for free. WHile it helps him greatly that he has several popular novels including best sellers what he says there is probably smart for anyone who hopes to make some income with their brain.

    I only wish I were a writer but I do make my living from what I know and what I can do with what I know so I am familiar with people thinking it is not of real value. Nobody would ask a carpenter to build a house for them for free simply for the “exposure” but they are more than happy to expect you to give away your talent for their benefit. These Huffington wannabes see their enrichment as your reward.

    Still, it is tough to get seen in todays cluttered landscape of stuff and you do have to try to decide if there are rewards to be had. That does not make it suck any less.

  8. I think you’re too kind to the Atlantic, Emily. They’re a for-profit institution, and the person who couldn’t pay you was undoubtedly paid herself. She’s not an amateur, she’s a professional—and so are you. If she’s not willing to pay for professional, she’s got no business asking for that work.

    • I should clarify: I pitched the first Troy Davis essay, and was told they would like to use it but would be unable to pay. Given my experiences over the last several years, I fully expected that when I sent off the pitch, and accepted it in advance, because I wanted the story to reach an many eyeballs as possible. I then asked if they would be interested in a follow up and she said yes, but of course, I knew I wouldn’t be paid. She did say she had reason to think she would be getting a better budget soon and I should try again in the future the hope that she could offer me better news at another opportunity.

      However, as I recognize editors’ hopes as being about as reality-based as those of freelance writers, I haven’t tried again. It genuinely breaks something inside me to be churning out material that means so much to me and to then feel as if I’m begging for people to give it a home. I hate it.

      But in this case, I made the pitch, knowing what I was probably getting into. If she were then to turn around to me and ask me to write something else, something new, for $0? That would have been a different story (in my mind).

      PS Another place at which I placed something for free encouraged me to keep pitching, and when they accepted a second piece (which I knew I wouldn’t be paid for) sent back a bunch of edits, which I incorporated, and then they rejected it. That made me want to burn down a building.

  9. Ack: edit: “If she’s not willing to pay for professional work, she’s got no business asking for that work.”

  10. CitizenE

     /  March 6, 2013

    Become a poet: 2 free copies 3 years from now and everything you wrote rearranged on the page. Then there is the case of a friend of mine, a painter and sculptor on small merit, who tried to create some “Abandoned Art” events at specific art events where curators loved her art but told her they were going to have to confiscate it if she deigned to leave it even for two hours and ask the police to arrest her. Wonderful art, but, uh, we have insurance issues, you understand. Still nothing beats being a poet.

  11. Here’s a thought: Imagine if, when you get asked by a major publication to write for free, they were required to put put a nice “tip-jar” graphic for you. Or even just a paragraph explaining why they could not pay you, and a link to a paypal account.

    What do you think they’d say? If they said no, would that change your mind about writing for free for them?

  12. CitizenE

     /  March 11, 2013

    You following the brouhaha on TN’s site about the Thayer incident. Really, the horde in its sturm and drang requires your serious science. Hero of the internets, Emily Hauser.

    • CitizenE

       /  March 11, 2013

      Excuse me, Emiley L. Houser

      • CitizenE

         /  March 11, 2013

        pls cross out that extra e, and this, head bowed in shame.

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