You’ve probably seen Tim Kreider’s “Slaves of the Internet Unite!” already, either via the New York Times itself or one of the many online venues it was shared. If you haven’t, and haven’t the time to click over and read it now, it’s a rallying cry to creatives to stop working for “exposure”.
Kreider writes from experience:
People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.
He asserts that the only way to retrain those who think exposure alone is an acceptable mode of payment is simply to say no. “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,” he declares before offering up a polite yet firm example of how to dismiss such requests.
Kreider’s admonition touches upon a deeper issue that many creatives wrestle with: that their work is, in fact, worthless. As writers, we’re constantly rejected by prospective agents, editors and publishers; and even when we are given passage through the gilded gates of publication, a host of circumstances in and out of our control conspire to reenforce a feeling of shame that the work we’ve toiled over for days, months, or years is indeed worthless.
There has to be a shift in writers’ collective mindset.
We have to start by understanding–knowing–that our work has incredible value both to the culture, and the agents, publishers, and editors that have created a market for the content we create. Amazon understands this, which is why they’ve done what they can to undermine the existing power structure between publishers, agents and authors. From giving authors on demand access to their book sales via the Author Dashboard, to paying royalties on a monthly basis versus bi-annually, to cozying up to agents / bypassing publishers for new initiatives, to hosting new author contests with heftier than usual advances as the prize, Amazon’s initiatives have been all about destabilizing authors’ dependence on publishers. We have to know this for ourselves, and hold out for a situation that respects our worth rather than say yes to any offer of publication that comes our way.
But how to play hardball in real life? In this market? In this economy?
Kreider is right to point to unity. If we all say no, things will have to change. But the reality is, most won’t say no until we feel confident our livelihood will not be lost to others who will say yes. That will take time, or an organized movement. Perhaps the government needs to get involved. Federal and state laws restrict exploitation of unpaid internships. What do you think?
The ideal situation would be a balance of power that respects all the disciplines/players that collaborate to produce and disseminate quality creative work, and remunerates accordingly. Publishers, editors, agents, content distributors et al need us, and we need them–even in the age of self-publishing. As writers, we’re already acutely aware of this. It’s time the other side recognized their need for us too.