Thursday, August 12, 2010

This may come as a shock...but I make my (so-called) living this way.

Not a week goes by that I don't get a request from someone, usually at a second-tier magazine or online publication, who wants to reprint in full—for free—something I've published elsewhere. Usually they'll offer to "give me credit" for the piece, even going as far as offering to mention my book or other major works in my bionote. How very generous of them. Who could possibly refuse?


What makes people think a writer's work product is any less proprietary, or of any less unique and enduring value, than, say, a painter's? (And though one doesn't mean to sound presumptuous, when I say painter I'm thinking "Van Gogh," not the guy who freshens the walls in your living room. Though him too, in a way.) I figure this has to be related to that hoary and wholly mistaken notion that writing is "something anyone can do." I guess people don't quite get, for one thing, the idea that the words on the page are merely the visible manifestation of a much larger process. The countless hours spent slaving over a hot keyboard. The infinite revisions, the hours of pondering over timeless questions like "hmmm...semicolon, ellipses or dash?"
Just as important, there's the worth of the intellectual content. If I craft a thought that's sufficiently fresh or well-put to make an editor decide he wants to showcase that thought for his own (paying) audience...isn't that worth something just on the face of it?

Clearly in today's digital era, when a few simple mouse-clicks can instantly convey words from one place to another, leaving little or no trace of their true origins, it's easy to see why some readers would think that words are, well, just words, to be used or abused as one sees fit. OK, I get that. But how can people in my own industry fail to grasp why my words, once rendered, should have ongoing value to me as their creator? I've actually had editors say to me, more or less, "You've already done the work, Steve. Why do you need to be paid again?" They make it sound as if, by asking for reprint money, I'm doing something unethical, underhanded, illegitimate; that if I were a nice guy, I'd just let 'em have the piece for nothing: "Oh, what the hell, here ya go, they're used words anyway, I don't need 'em anymore."

Sometimes instead of offering nothingcall this variant 1athey'll offer some absurdly tiny percentage of the piece's presumed original worth; not uncommonly as little as $50 or $100. (If you're laughing as you read that, you shouldn't be. You should be shedding a tear on behalf of the writers of America.) A publisher of an esteemed British journal once offered £90 (about $135) for a Playboy piece that had earned me $8500. He made it sound like I'd be crazy not to take it.

But the topper had to be the request that came through a few years back from a major fraternal organization that publishes an in-house magazine. This is an organization well-known for bringing in top-name speakers to inspire the rank-and-file. So when the editor mentioned the princely sum of $75, I was tempted to say, "Tell me something: If you were having Tommy Lasorda come in to make a speech
say, to explain to your membership that the key to success in life is that 'you gotta want it'would you ask him to do that speech for seventy-five bucks? I mean, let's face it, you're gonna get the same speech he's given dozens of times before, right? They're old words..."

Folks, those of us who do this, do not do it as a public service (although it may seem so, even to us, when we reconcile our bank statements).
It's almost impossible to make a living
I'm purposely omitting the word decentfrom the monies we get from selling things the first time around. To have any hope of staying afloat, we have to wring maximum value out of each and every word we write, and that means asking for (and expecting) a decent return on our writing investment in each and every case.


RevRon's Rants said...

Well, you've really hit on something close to our hearts here, Steve. Unfortunately, and as you certainly know, bursting into messianic rage upon receiving such a request isn't the best career move. Doesn't mean we haven't ever done it, because sometimes, it's simply necessary. In most cases, we politely show them the cyber door.

What really irks me is when folks like Joe Vitale* ask people to write material for his use and offer them no payment beyond the "privilege" of having their name appear in one of his exalted works. Here's a guy who makes his own living writing (well... rehashing fir the most part), brags that he gets $15,000 for a sales letter (which nobody with any experience in the field would believe), yet he actually gets offended when someone wants to charge HIM or one of his joint-venture buddies a fair price (We've observed this first-hand). Oh yeah... he's also been known to run "competitions," where artists submit designs for his projects in hopes of being the "winner," who gets paid a hundred bucks for their original work, along with (sometimes) the "honor" of association with him. IMO, such practices are even worse than editors trying to get writers to donate "used" content. The editors who do this are absurd, but for a writer to hold other creative people in such contempt is, IMO, the pinnacle of arrogance and unethical in the extreme. Sadly, there will likely always be sycophants willing to slave for the chance to share his alleged spotlight. A high price for 15 seconds of his 15 minutes.

* I know we pick on Vitale a lot. It's because we know the man pretty well, and not just the mask he wears for his audience.

Dimension Skipper said...

Not trying to raise hackles as I get your point, Steve, and don't disagree in principle, but...

Would it perhaps be more analogous to ask what they would pay for a DVD of Mr. Lasorda giving his speech? There'd be no direct interaction, no travel or personal inconvenience to Mr. Lasorda. As you say, the work of the speech would already be done, the transaction would be for purchase and licensing use of the storage/playback media.

Yes, Playboy paid $8500, but presumably that amount took into account all your time, research, whatever, the real leg work of the piece. Whether $50 or $75 or whatever is a fair price, surely you can't expect subsequent buyers to come up with anywhere close to $8500 for a (now non-original, or rerun) piece...

It's sort of similar to when some new technology emerges and early adopters pay through the nose to be the first with the new cool gadget. But as time goes by, clone devices emerge, the prices drop and before you know it you can get for $200 (essentially, anyway) what first cost $1000 (last year).

When you write a book, the publisher pays you an ungodly amount of money (right?) for all your time and effort (legwork) in investigating, researching, writing, and preparing the book. But in the end the readers purchasing the book only plop down their $8-$30 (depending on format) for their own personal copy of it, that's all.

Another parallel?... royalties. A writer writes a TV episode. He may be on staff for the show or it may be a one-off farmed-out job. Either way he gets paid mostly for the original work. After that there may be some residual checks in the mail for subsequent airings wherever/whenever, but those rates hardly match the original payment, it's more a matter of quantity at that point, how many times the program airs, a rough measure of its popularity. (Or at least that's my understanding. I could be wrong.)

Thoughts? Am I way off the mark here? I'm really just saying that I think I can see both sides of the issue. However, I can't speak to whatever the norm is (or used to be).

Again, not wanting to raise hackles, but just throwing this stuff out there "thinking out loud".

Last... What about the artists featured in your jazz corner? Do you take time to only post those vids which have been personally approved by the artists for recording and upload for free online use? (Not saying you don't... Maybe you do. In fact, probably you do. But I'm just asking the question because only now does it occur to me given the context, so I think it's a little bit relevant.)

Btw, I think it's about time your more regular and better commenters should share in your immense under-the-table profits from SHAMblog! (Since I'm sure you're secretly raking in the dough somehow.) Don'tcha think?

(Wink wink nudge nudge)

Steve Salerno said...

DS, on a busy day (I have to make more money, after all), a quick reply in place of the longer one you deserve. One point in particular leaps out at me.

In most cases, the original market and the secondary market don't overlap. So Playboy's readers "consume" the piece, and then an entirely new market consumes the piece, both markets sharing the same first-read experience. Why shouldn't the editors of their publications pay me similar sums? This is an especially pertinent question since, in my view, your nuts-and-bolts assessment--where you talk about writing in terms of man-hours and printing supplies and such--seriously undervalues the "intellectual property" considerations in place here. In this conception of writing (which, to me, is the proper one), the eventual whole is worth significantly more than the sum of the (workmanlike) parts.

Oh, and publishers don't pay "ungodly" amounts of money to most of us. They pay what probably sounds like a lot in 9-to-5 terms, but if you spread the sum out over the course of the enterprise, it's peanuts, really, unless your last name is something like Grisham, King or--dare I say it?--Byrne.

Dimension Skipper said...

Well, the choice of the word "ungodly" was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps should have better indicated that, but felt the parenthetical "right?" was sufficient.

I didn't mean to give the impression of discounting the value of the intellectual concepts. I'm a lifelong reader of science fiction which is almost entirely built on the concepts, the what ifs.

But my main point was that I just felt your analogy to Lasorda was slightly flawed and bringing in the DVD aspect, to me, makes it more on point. Whether or not you agree and whether or not that affects your view on the matter... I don't know.

(And I'm not trying to change your view as that would imply I think I'm "right" and you're "wrong." I would never presume to do that in an area where obviously you're the one heavily invested. To be perfectly honest I'm still not even sure where I stand on the matter myself. Just trying to understand better and maybe in some small subsidiary way point out how someone else may see it slightly differently... Plus I'm sure some people just take the attitude of "Hey, it can't hurt to ask...")

It seems to me that as often happens in the real world what we're essentially trying to do is definitize the gray levels between the black and white endpoints. There's the initial payment/impetus for the original work and distribution of it. And at the other end there's the consumption by the public of said work post-distribution. In between are (perhaps various?) strata of re-distribution to other potential audiences (major and minor, overlapped or not).

How to judge whether those intermediate levels fall more toward the original side of the spectrum or more toward the level of "loaning or giving a book to a friend" is the hard part.

Thanks for you thoughts... I'm honestly interested in whatever you have to say on the issue and any of the other sort of possibly related scenarios I brought up prior as to whether they may be in any way similar or completely different.

John said...

Unless it's a work-for-hire project, as a freelancer you're not just a writer; you're also the rights holder.

So, would Steve the rights holder object to the small fees associated with reprint rights? I'd think not. Steve the writer has been paid for his work and the extra 100 bucks for Steve the rights holder is really no different than Playboy paying 8,600 instead of the 8,500.

Best Regards,

Dimension Skipper said...

Took me a lot longer to find this than I'd anticipated...

In mentioning science fiction, I recalled having read of one of the "newer" authors—I generally read older... (i.e. and alas, authors more my own age these days) ...more classically styled genre authors—essentially allowing and encouraging his novels to be freely downloaded. Trouble was I got my "newer" authors mixed up and spent too much time virtually rummaging around under the wrong one.

I realize there's a gulf of difference between a science fiction novelist and a non-fiction journalist. My only intent is to highlight a notable alternative viewpoint in the same general subject area of intellectual property and the measured/perceived value of such...

So it turns out the author is Cory Doctorow (whom I've never read word one by with the exception of quoted bits in reviews or articles). From his site bio page which I linked under his name just above...

"His novels are published by Tor Books and HarperCollins UK and simultaneously released on the Internet under Creative Commons licenses that encourage their re-use and sharing, a move that increases his sales by enlisting his readers to help promote his work."

Here's an article he wrote for Forbes in late 2006...

Giving It Away (December 1, 2006)

"Most people who download the book don't end up buying it, but they wouldn’t have bought it in any event, so I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience. A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book--those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They're gained sales. As long as gained sales outnumber lost sales, I'm ahead of the game. After all, distributing nearly a million copies of my book has cost me nothing."

. . . .

"There are two things that writers ask me about this arrangement: First, does it sell more books, and second, how did you talk your publisher into going for this mad scheme?"

"There's no empirical way to prove that giving away books sells more books--but I've done this with three novels and a short story collection (and I'll be doing it with two more novels and another collection in the next year), and my books have consistently outperformed my publisher's expectations. Comparing their sales to the numbers provided by colleagues suggests that they perform somewhat better than other books from similar writers at similar stages in their careers. But short of going back in time and re-releasing the same books under the same circumstances without the free e-book program, there's no way to be sure."

"What is certain is that every writer who's tried giving away e-books to sell books has come away satisfied and ready to do it some more."

Finally, here's the brief relevant Wikipedia section.

Steven Sashen said...

For $10, I'll repost this on my high-traffic blog. Email me and I'll give you the PayPal address to use.

Steve Salerno said...

DS: Sigh. I knew this was going to be one of those posts that sucks the energy out of me and plays havoc with my best attempts to stick to a schedule.

See, I'm talking principle here. Yes, I know that visibility has its inherent dividends. But indeed, that very reality has too long been used as a pretext for denying writers their rightful due. For example, many (if not most) middling op-ed pages and lesser trade magazines fill their column-space with unpaid contributions from corporate PR departments or fledgling writers who are seeking to (a) make a name for themselves and (b) build a clip file for use in their eventual assault on larger, paying markets. But when writers accept that bargain, they are saying in essence (if not in pointed fact) that their writing is worthless. And that drags down the market as a whole.

When I ran the American Legion Magazine in Indianapolis, I can't tell you how many novice writers would contact me and offer to provide their services for free in exchange for a byline in my 3-million-circ magazine. I never took anyone up on it, even though it would've helped my bottom line to do so. If a piece was worthy of being published, I paid the writer his/her fair wage. If the piece wasn't worthy of being published, I wouldn't publish it for free.

But many magazines do make such bargains with writers. They offer writers (especially younger ones) little or nothing, and their standard line to anyone who protests goes more or less like so: "Hey, there are 50 writers just waiting to take the deal if you don't want it. So take it or leave it...and let me know by 5 o'clock so I can get somebody else." They act as if the words are entirely interchangeable, with any one writer's phrases as good or as bad as anyone else's, even though they know very well that this isn't the case. Because young writers know the lay of the land--the kids I taught in college were desperate to see their name in print--they knuckle under. That, again, depresses the pay scale for just about everyone.

Do you know that there are major magazines today paying exactly what they were paying back in 1990, if not (in some cases) less? Do you know that a pay rate of $1-a-word is still considered "decent" pay (albeit the lower rung of decent pay) in this business...even though $1-a-word was also the benchmark figure when I started sending out manuscripts in 1981?

Sure, there are a few writers who do command "ungodly" sums, even for mere magazine pieces: $10, $15, $20 a word. They are rarities. The average writer toils ultra-long hours for shit wages, to be blunt, and the reason why is that editors and publishers know there are so many more people who want to write than there are available slots. Talk about a buyer's market! This is also the reason why so many magazines get away with offering unpaid internships. And when I say unpaid, I mean that literally: nada. It's disgraceful.

Steve Salerno said...

And incidentally, John, I am well aware that I'm the rights-holder, which is why I exercise my right to turn down the vast majority of such requests. But I'll tell you something interesting: There have been a fair number of cases--not a lot, but enough to prove my point--where editors ultimately multiplied their original offer as much as tenfold, so instead of, say, $100, they paid me $1000 for republication rights. Since I don't think they'd make a deal that would drive them into bankruptcy, this clearly tells me they've got the money to spend, but they try to screw writers if at all possible.

What's that you say? It's just "salesmanship" at work? Well, that must also explain why I walk out of a car dealership that suddenly drops its price by $1000 or more. My customary parting shot is, "If you had that kind of leeway, you should've given me the better deal to start..."

Anonymous said...

You seem very arrogant. You don't get to decide what your precious words are worth. The marketplace does. If someone wants to offer you $50, then that is what your words are worth. It's a tough world out there. Suck it up.

Dimension Skipper said...

Sorry, Steve... Didn't mean to be an energy sucker. :-)

Again, I pretty much agree with you on the general principle. (Though I still take some issue wih the proposed Lasorda analogy as being not as precisely, well, analogous as it could have been.)

Cory Doctorow's views notwithstanding I think it's obvious that he and his publishing arrangement are a very small minority in the marketplace of the printed word. And AS such a small minority, I think his arrangement benefits from being just that... a minority setup. If ALL writers took his approach, then where would he (and they) be?

Doctorow's way of looking at it may be correct in that it makes him more money than it costs him, but that's only because the vast majority of the market still relies on the traditional print/distribution model of publishing. I think his arrangement works for him as a niche marketing strategy, but make that the overwhelming norm and he (and you) are living in refrigerator boxes under bridges if you still insist on writing.

As I said, I'm just trying to look at it from various angles.

I can also understand from your perspective (it being your life and writing your means of earning a living and all) how being presented with such an attitude a time or two too often can get annoying and trigger a rant.

I don't believe there's any personal insult intended nor indeed probably much thought at all given to the question of reprinting articles for little to no payment. I'm sure it's just a matter (on their part) of "can't hurt to ask..." The thing is, though, that just because there's no intent doesn't mean the insult isn't somehow there or can't be perceived to some extent, especially when faced with it repeatedly. And maybe that DOES hurt... at least a little... and builds up.

At any rate. I'll drop the thread as I think Ive probably offered all I can on the subject. I'll leave it to others (amd you) to further hash if they (and you) so desire.

Dimension Skipper said...

I know I said I was abandoning the thread, but I gotta respond to this:

...You don't get to decide what your precious words are worth. The marketplace does. If someone wants to offer you $50, then that is what your words are worth....
—Anonymous (August 12, 2010 3:32 PM)

Actually Steve DOES get to set his price. Well, at least in part. If Steve is offered $50, he's free to accept, yes... or decline and counter with a demand for $500 or $5000. After that maybe both parties can meet somewhere in the middle. If not, then no deal and both parties can seek what they want from still other parties potentially lurking out there.

THAT is the marketplace and how it works! (And I trust Steve to know his business much better than I.)

The very term "marketplace" implies, I think, a buyer AND a seller. A seller must try to set a fair competitive price for the sort of goods and/or services being offered. Charge too much and you won't be a seller ever! Charge too little and, well, there's no point to being in the business.

Wal-Mart sets their prices for jeans, but say they're an inferior product or just plain ugly. No one buys them and they just hang there on the rack until such time as WM realizes they gotta rollback that particular price (several times if necessary) to try to move'em on out and make way for something else, something better or more popular.

But that being said, while the jeans are still full price try taking a pair up to the checkout and offering to pay $5 for the $20 pair. Go ahead, try it and see what happens. I bet you don't get the jeans even though you're attempting to set the market price with your offer.

So yes, Steve DOES get to set his price. And as long as his price is accepted often enough, then GOOD for him. The trouble, I sense, is that more and more he's seeing that current trends may be undercutting him, making sales, good sales, harder and harder to come by. (I'm just speaking very generally here, of course, and no absolutely nothing of Steve's particular situation, just extrapolating from the example.)

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. Steve doesn't seem arrogant to me in this case, he just seems frustrated.

Anonymous on the other hand seems to fit the arrogant shoe (if I may mix my hand and foot phrases) much better with his (I'm assuming masculinity) "precious words," "tough world", "suck it up" comments.

Sorry, Steve, I normally try not to engage other commenters too directly, especially rabble rousing anonymous ones, but sometimes ya just gotta point stuff out, right? Well, maybe not, but I did anyway.

Stever Robbins said...

Steve, I deeply, deeply, deeply feel your pain. Though I'm not a professional journalist, I'm currently writing a book's worth of free content "for the exposure" for some very highly esteemed publications. (This is all in preparation for my book launch.) I'm knocking myself out and continually praying that this mythical "exposure" ultimately translates into enough dollars to justify the expense.

Several big-name websites have discovered if you call it a "blog" instead of an "article," you don't have to pay people at all, even if you put them through the same editorial process they would go through for an article. Since their name is big in my niche market, I'm doing it.

I have a resolution, however, that as of 1/1/11, I stop doing things for the exposure. If my content isn't good enough to pay for, why would I want to keep trying to stake my career on it?

Stever Robbins said...

DS (Sadly, DS has abandoned the thread, so I doubt I'll see his response): I think metaphors are fascinating ways to understand these things. You seem to imply in your comments that creation of a completely original work is the part of the process that's valuable.

Why are investment bankers—who mainly repackage and remarket pieces of paper that represent a claim on what other people create—the highest paid jobs in our economy?

Steve Salerno said...

SR: I think we must make a distinction between what has value in our society--e.g. the activities of investment bankers, and any new info on Levi Johnston's sex life--and what should have value. I realize that the latter is a total subjective call, and I'm not presuming to know what should have value in a perfect universe. I'm simply saying that it's also a grievous error to look at our society, make note of the things to which we assign great value, and assume on that basis alone that said things are intrinsically valuable. Were that true, then there would be few human beings on Earth more precious than Alex Rodriguez. Is that honestly the case?

Dimension Skipper said...

Well, I abandoned it as far as making original unsolicited comments...

You seem to imply in your comments that creation of a completely original work is the part of the process that's valuable.

Why are investment bankers—who mainly repackage and remarket pieces of paper that represent a claim on what other people create—the highest paid jobs in our economy?

I'm not sure where or how I implied that. Honestly, I wasn't giving a lot of deep thought to what I was saying, so... I'm not saying you're wrong to have drawn that conclusion, but I wouldn't say it's an entirely correct one to draw.

First of all... What Steve S. just said (August 13, 2010 9:44 AM).

Second... Funny how Steve initially thought I was on the opposite end of the spectrum, that I was focusing too much on the nuts'n'bolts and tangible aspects of writing and dismissing the creative side.

The truth is I put great value on the creative process. As I said, I've been reading science fiction all my life. I think that certainly qualifies as a highly creative, imaginative endeavour from a writing perspective.

Third... Who says repackaging and remarketing isn't or can't be creative? Advertising is built on those concepts—how many ways can you come up with to try to sell a car, perfume, Chia pets...?—and while 99% of ads in all forms are mind-numbing dreck, there are always a few which stand out creatively and draw attention.

Fourth... I think investment bankers have to be able to analyze and understand a lot of data plus all the legal ins and outs of what they do. They provide a service, one that many people cannot do themselves through restrictions of time or resources. Are they worth what they're paid? Kind of doubt it, but I have no idea really.

Since you like analogies, here's one... actors. I've long been fascinated by the concept of acting professionally...

Q:"So what do you do for a living?"
A:"I pretend."

I don't think it's a stretch to simplify it down to saying that actors just do what they're told to do by A) the writer(s) and B) the director. Plus they have a wardrobe person to dress them, a makeup person to make sure they look just right, a hairstylist, not to mention lighting people, etc. But as actors their talent is that they can just, well, ACT so much better than the writer or director or anybody else involved could, so... value.

Is that "value" worth $20 mil a movie? Not in my mind, but obviously significant people disagree about that. (Not that any of that troubles me enough to stop me from seeing an occasional star-driven blockbuster.)

It's easy to oversimplify something and completely miss the essence.

Finally, I would say... there's value (monetarily) and then there's VALUE (humanitarily—not sure that's a word, but I'll go with it). Two different things.