Getting Paid to Write

How is it possible that so much of the ‘content’ we read each day online, so much of what changes and challenges and inspires and enrages and entertains us, is written by people who are paid nothing for their work? Did you know that nobody’s getting paid to write most of what you see on the internet?

As I’ve dug into writing more this year, countless people have suggested that I’ll soon be getting rich. Guest writer gigs, book deals, long hot showers of endless money, all are soon to come! Over and over again, people have asserted two things:

  1. Good writing pays.
  2. My writing is good.

And yet, when you dig, most sites say things like this: “we regret that we are unable to pay people who write content”.

Savor how deliciously passive that statement is.

We regret that we are unable to pay people who write content.

Often, we regret that is omitted, leaving only the simple assertion that the business model relies on a class of workers who are paid nothing. Who, if they were actually considered workers, would probably be illegal because they work at wages far below the legal minimum.

What’s the problem with unpaid writers?

There’s money aplenty flowing through these organizations. Ad revenue, when you have a site that gets a lot of traffic, can be pretty impressive. Membership-supported sites can also rake in a lot of cash. There are expenses, to be sure—but these are businesses, not charities, and it’s safe to assume that they’re making money if they last a few years. AOL paid $315 million for ownership of the Huffington Post in 2011. Yet there’s no money to pay their authors?

I work for an organization that couldn’t survive without volunteers, and I’ve done a lot of volunteering in my life. There’s nothing wrong with doing meaningful work for free, and sometimes it’s a beautiful thing to donate your labor and choose not to be paid.

But I think what chaps my ass is that these organizations exist to sell a product—‘content’—to readers, and secondarily to sell another product—access to those readers—to advertisers and data miners. They’re fundamentally engaged in commerce. They require writers to sign over all publication rights for the work they’re submitting, so the company can resell and republish the work at will. Yet they don’t pay for what they’re selling.

And then they hide that fact. Here’s a question:

How many of the sites you read pay their authors for their work? Do you know? Can you find out?

It’s usually tough to find out. The answer usually lurks in the tall grass of the submissions pages, if you can find those.

I think it’s dishonest. People tell me all the time that I should be making money from writing, and that I should do it for [pick your favorite site]. It’s clear that most folks believe writers for these sites get paid. I think it’s dishonest for the sites to hide the fact that they’re just publishing donated material. The sites should acknowledge the gifts, so that readers can offer gratitude where it’s due.

But they don’t.

And yet we keep writing. We write for free, for the thrill of sharing ideas and passing them to others. Many of us write in hopes that, someday, the money really will materialize. We keep writing, and we keep donating what we create. We hope.

But I’ve also seen people stop writing because the hope dies. It doesn’t pay, and people rarely say “thank you”. We live in a world that measures value in dollars and kudos, and when people offer neither, writers eventually move on to other work. And their ideas disappear.

I find myself not clicking articles people post when I know that they’re hosted on ad-supported sites that still don’t pay their authors. It feels wrong to be complicit in aggregating lucre for those at the top when those at the bottom earn nothing.

There’s a line from John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that comes to mind. One character, a double agent, ends up saying “I hate America very deeply… the economic repression of the masses, institutionalized. Even Lenin couldn’t have foreseen the extent of that.

I don’t know how we can have an online “content model” that actually pays people for creative work. But I think it has to start with acknowledging the truths about how our present system works.

And the truth is that very few people are getting paid to write.

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