Tim Kreider’s Unstable Equlibrium

Tim Kreider in the NYT:

But they can get away with paying nothing only for the same reason so many sleazy guys keep trying to pick up women by insulting them: because it keeps working on someone. There is a bottomless supply of ambitious young artists in all media who believe the line about exposure, or who are simply so thrilled at the prospect of publication that they’re happy to do it free of charge.

… And it’s not strictly true that you never benefit from exposure — being published in The New York Times helped get me an agent, who got me a book deal, which got me some dates. But let it be noted that The Times also pays in the form of money, albeit in very modest amounts.

So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.

So … writing for (almost) free can get you an agent and a book deal and maybe laid. But don’t do it! I beseech you! Those of us who already have agents and books would like to get paid more!

I sympathize with this more than I can say.

Like Krieder, I am exasperated and dismayed to be asked to write (or edit) for free. It’s straight-up enraging to get this treatment from editors of flush for-profit publications. But in my (not representative) experience, academics are the worst perpetrators.

The academic model is that you secure a sinecure and then, within the context of that security, trade writing with other academics for “free,” though of course the main reason academics contribute “free” stuff is that it redounds to their academic reputation, which they carefully cultivate in order to secure remunerative job offers, raises, promotions and the like. Some academics seem not to consider that it is inappropriate to solicit articles or manuscript advice from nonacademic intellectuals/writers, who have no other source of income. I can and do forgive them but they really should know better. It’s flattering to be considered worthy, but the reason you’re asking me and not just anybody is the reason you should not expect me to give it away. If it’s worth something to you, how much? If your enterprise is not set up to directly pay writers, and the writer is not positioned to benefit from your field’s economy of esteem, it’s better not to ask. 

That said, as Kreider well knows, there’s no way to keep writers from giving it away for free, and thus no way to stop editors from asking. This is not a collective action problem with a solution. Not to say that a little stigma-mongering can’t help more established writers. Indeed, over the past couple years I’ve seen editors grow increasingly apologetic for offering shit pay, and that contrition probably reduces the shittiness of their offers on the margin. Still, the technological shift that has fucked over workaday writers is inexorable, and the shittiness is not about to abate.

It comes down to this, writers: either you’re offering something distinctive that editors are willing to fork over some dough to get, or you’re not. If no one will offer you real money for what you’re doing, the appropriate reaction is not to pound the table and insist that “it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless,” but to come to terms with the fact that the sort of writing you’re doing, like countless other worthwhile, spiritually rewarding endeavors, may not amount to a vocation at all. Maybe it’s a serious avocation. If you want to continue to pursue it, maybe you’re going to need to get a job.