I Don’t Work for Free. Please Don’t Ask Me.
I really didn’t want my next entry to be a rant. I fear I might be coming off as negative. 😉
But this subject just keeps rearing its ugly, venomous little head, and if I don’t do it now, it’s just going to sink its nasty needle-sharp teeth into my cranium and gnaw away until I’m gray-matter hamburger. So forgive me.
It’s the whole “we don’t really have a budget for content/photos but we’d like you to donate your work to us anyway” thing.
Drives me fucking nuts.
I’ve never been able to fathom why anyone and everyone thinks they can get into publishing in the first place. It seems to be one of those things where skills and experience have no bearing on the decision. I have no background in plumbing, so to date I have never woken up with an uncontrollable impulse to plunge my head under the sink and rip out a few pipes, because really, how hard could it be?
But publishing a magazine or a website? It’s Mickey Rooney territory. “Hey, we’re show folks … we can put on a show in the barn! Sally can dance, and I can tell jokes, and Mom can sew all the costumes. It’ll be swell!”
And then they proceed to launch a magazine (or website, or whatever) with absolutely no editing skills, only the most rudimentary grasp of the language, and zero emphasis on quality content. There are three typos on the cover alone? No matter, it still looks SPIFFY, doesn’t it! We’re so proud. Advertise with us.
This total lack of journalistic training results in a complete disregard for people who produce content, and almost invariably, nothing allocated in the budget for said content.
Photographs are free, after all. You can get ’em all over the Interwebz. The photographers won’t mind, because we’re giving them (wait for it) … Valuable. Exposure. In Our Fine Publication.
(More on this in a moment.)
And editorial ….? Well, we’d like you to write for us of course, because you are well-respected and clever and we have read your articles and we looooooove them. Look how honourable we are being, asking you to write something original instead of stealing your content from said Interwebz and running it sans permission. (Oh, wait, we did that too. Oops.)
We would like you to write for us for free because (choose one or more):
a) we’re a struggling little start-up and if you’re nice to us, maybe we’ll be able to pay you something sometime in the dim, dark future if we don’t fold first
b) we’ll give you a byline and what fantastic (wait for it) EXPOSURE it will be for you
c) we’ll barter you some ad space or give you a free subscription or something else equally worthless.
d) we’re a non-profit (but we’re paying our editor, our production team, our printer, our marketing agency, and a host of other people, including the plumber who had to rip out the pipes under the sink in our office because we wouldn’t touch that stuff with a 10-foot pole).
Ohhhh, who hasn’t sung this refrain to me? Most recently, I was approached by a start-up which is going to cover all the sparkliest and most luxurious elements of the horse industry. It plans to attract ads from Ferrari and Rolex and cover high-goal polo and multi-million-Euro warmblood auctions and such … and it isn’t paying its writers.
So, um, I’m supposed to somehow sneak into the sponsor’s tent at Aachen in my ripped Walmart jeans and my beaten-up Blunnies with the soles peeling off (only because the Prada is at the cleaner’s, you understand) in order to interview the latest royalty who has purchased six showjumpers for the Beerbaums?
Cuz hey, I was gonna be there anyway …
I’ve had requests that are even more insulting than that, actually. A few years ago, a local lawyer who was enamoured of Canadiens (the horse breed, not the Habs) decided to launch a slick, glossy magazine celebrating Canadiens at work, at play, and in provocative poses (or something). I encountered her at a trade show and she was positively ecstatic to meet me, gushing that she had read my books and my articles and how WONDERFUL it would be if I were to write for her fantastic magazine.
I gave her my card.
Two days later, she e-mailed me, gushed a little more, and then offered me what she clearly considered an unparalleled opportunity. If I would like to sell a few full-page ads for her new effort, then I would be welcome to write about the advertisers.
Once a writer, now re-classified as a “content provider” (sometimes with gratis ad sales, apparently) with all the appeal and value of an intestinal parasite.
(My friends say I suffer from low self-esteem. Hmmm.)
This has been the evolution of the publishing business. I dabble in photography, but I have many, many friends who are Real Photographers, and I know the world of hurt that has resulted from the digital revolution. Where once, a photographer’s skill was valued, now anyone can plunk down for a professional-quality camera body and some decent glass, and get publishable images — if one isn’t too fussy about composition and such. Photoshop is your friend …
And likewise, where journalism was once a respected profession, now everyone’s a bloody blogger. (Gawd, including me.) “Citizen journalism” is free, and it amazes me how many people apparently have time on their hands and are tickled enough to see their names in print, to contribute it, no matter how inaccurate, badly written, or flogging-an-agenda it might be. It’s free, so by gum we’re a-gonna run it!
All of which makes we professional content providers, I guess, look rather cheeky to be expecting to get paid for what we do.
On the photography side, here are a couple of blogs which tackle the subject even more frankly than I’m doing right now. Please have a look — they’re well worth reading.
Tony Sleep’s “We Have No Budget For Photos”
and Mike Spinak’s “When Publishers Request Freebies”
Though photogs have been particularly outspoken on this issue, you could pretty much insert the word “writer” wherever you see “photographer” in any of these articles. Or “graphic designer”, “illustrator”, or just about any creative content provider. The issues are essentially identical.
So please, launch a magazine. Sew the costumes, hang the curtains, pass out the playbills. But have the sense to hire a director who knows what he/she is doing, and create a budget which allows you to fairly purchase the content you’re doing to need to earn you that Tony … er, Pulitzer. Otherwise, don’t bother.
And please, pretty please, don’t plead poverty to me when you come, cap in hand, to my doorstep, all obsequious and ingratiating. I could teach you a couple things about poverty. Sheesh.