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In a Huff: why writing should be paid

I was just thinking I haven’t rageblogged in ages, and feeling happy that I have my Twitter feed curated to be interesting and challenging but not aneurysm-inducing, and then this comes along.

It seems this quote was said by the editor of the Huffington Post UK (who is not the tweeter)huffpo


I have a lot of things to say in response to this. Most of them are two-word phrases ending ‘off’ or ‘you’, but let me try to be a little more articulate.

I don’t know anything about the Huffington Post’s payment to writers, never having written for them. I do know they ‘broke even’ on $146million revenue in 2014, and there has been speculation that it may be sold for $1billion. Apparently it’s not turning a profit because of investment, but this is a huge site bringing in huge amounts of money through advertising revenue. They are not unable to pay writers. If they don’t, one can only assume it’s because they don’t want to.

This is not an unusual state of mind. The Twitter account @forexposure_txt quotes the many and varied ways people have of asking other people to give their time, skills, experience and talents for nothing.

exposure 3

Our society has a general idea that content, knowledge and creativity should all be free. Free: it’s such a glorious word, isn’t it? Free, free as a bird! The creative heart should be free to sing, and the creative mind should be free to imagine. And the creative work they produce should be free to anyone who’d like to use it for their own profit on an advertising-festooned website.

Let’s just look at that quote, shall we?

We know it’s real… It’s not been forced or paid for.

‘Real.’ That’s the holy grail, of course. We want writing to be genuine and real and heartfelt; we despise the false and the fake. The opposition here is clear: either writing is ‘real’ and from the heart, or it is ‘forced’ and thus insincere. And what could cause someone to write in this ‘forced’ and fraudulent way?

Well, the nimble coupling of “forced or paid for” shows us that. The villain here is greed, of course, sordid financial considerations. Writing, according to this, has either literary worth or financial worth but not both. In fact, assigning financial worth by paying writers negates the potential worth of what they write. Because if it’s paid for, it’s not real. Instead of writing because your Muse compels you, like a proper artist, you’re just doing it for filthy lucre. You sell-out scumbag.

Let’s be honest: if producers don’t pay people to write, then the people writing are the ones who can afford not to be paid. Which, as with publishing internships, means that the people who can get ahead are the ones with money. The rich parents, the lucrative day job, the well-paid spouse. When producers don’t pay for content, it privileges the voices of the wealthy.

That all seems rather at odds with the internal memo from Arianna Huffington quoted here for a HuffPo strand saying they should:

start a positive contagion by relentlessly telling the stories of people and communities doing amazing things, overcoming great odds and facing real challenges with perseverance, creativity and grace.

You know what’s a real challenge for many people? Paying their rent; feeding their families; keeping afloat. You know what makes that harder? Not being paid.

I face the challenge of my monthly bills with ‘perseverance’ because I keep writing in the face of people who pirate my books and pay me puny sums for hours of work. I face it with ‘creativity’ because creativity, writing, is what I’ve got to sell. But I’m fucked if I’ll face it with ‘grace’ when someone who’s probably on six figures tells me that the very act of putting value on my work makes it intrinsically less valuable.

The thing that actually makes writing forced for many authors is the knowledge that you have to jam out another thousand words, meet that deadline, do that goddamn article, somehow wedge another book in this year because otherwise you aren’t going to earn enough. It’s not the act of being paid that leads to soulless writing for profit: it’s the fact of needing money in the first place.

Paying authors lets them write. It doesn’t make them less genuine, or less hungry (except in the actual literal sense, obviously), or less heartfelt, or less busy. It just makes them able to live and thus do their job, ie writing. In which it is exactly like the salary paid to the people who edit magazines and websites that ask writers to contribute for nothing, which I assume they don’t turn down because they’re keeping it real, man.

And you can trust me on this. After all, I wrote it for free.


KJ Charles is a full time writer and freelance editor. Rag and Bone is out from Samhain on 1 March.

20 replies
  1. Julie D.
    Julie D. says:

    This is such an excellent rageblog, with some really impactful arguments.

    This Tweet is so ridiculously stupid, I can’t even believe that anyone in publishing would dare to utter it. I’d really love to ask the editor if Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is not “real” due to the fact that the he was commissioned to do the work. Is the work of Pulitzer Prize winning journalists less valid because they were paid for their features? I mean, I could vomit out a million examples of incredible, valid, authentic expressions of art, through every medium, that were paid for. By his reasoning, that makes them fake? Wow. *insert “Your argument is invalid” meme of your choice here.*

    “if producers don’t pay people to write, then the people writing are the ones who can afford not to be paid. Which, as with publishing internships, means that the people who can get ahead are the ones with money. The rich parents, the lucrative day job, the well-paid spouse. When producers don’t pay for content, it privileges the voices of the wealthy.”

    YES! This is a tremendous point and really illuminates yet another way that unacknowledged privilege shapes our world and perpetuates itself.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      That’s the thing that really gets to me. When art is free, only the rich get to make and work in art, and everyone else can just stay in their place and keep their thoughts to themselves. Blech.

      • Rita L.
        Rita L. says:

        There is a more insidious thing that happens when a large organization refuses to pay. Other blogs and places that publish also refuse to pay or begin to pay ridiculous amounts such as my recent experience trying to get a writing gig and I found I was bidding with folks who were willing to receive $25 for 2,500-word research articles.

        I love your last paragraph. It is so true. Beyond that, people like my daughter who wants and needs to write will not be able to make a career of it because there will be no place that will be willing to pay for her efforts. Yes, she is willing to get a day job and will to write on her off hours, but to learn the craft she needs to get published and validated for her efforts through royalties and advances.

        Art isn’t free. There have always been patrons supporting the arts. Always.

        I’m insulted by the idea of “real” being free. Good writers put their hearts in their work be it non-fiction such as what I write or fiction. The payment keeps us alive.

        Thank you for your rageblog.

      • Miranda Kate
        Miranda Kate says:

        I too find that websites like Upwork don’t help writers/editors or any creatives to get paid well, as people will work for a pittance, and so no one will offer more.

  2. Jess Faraday
    Jess Faraday says:

    OMG very well said. Does it have to be *unpaid* to be “real”? Isn’t “miserably paid” real enough? (Can I do it until I need glasses?)

    If I try to plot out what I’ve earned writing against the time it took to write it, it makes my pay when I taught public school look downright extravagant. Does Ed Caesar give away his labor for free? From his haircut and suit, I doubt it.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Maybe we could do some kind of graph, plotting reality against reward, and find the exact pittance that would allow writers to just keep alive while still producing the maximum amount of heartfelt sincerity. Like the way they calculate optimum conditions for a battery farm.

  3. Carole-Ann
    Carole-Ann says:

    Spot on, old chap !! (Sorry, but I’m sure many in your books would recognise my enthusiasm) 🙂

    You are performing a service for me, the reader. If I want to read your books, I fully expect to pay for them. That way, I value your effort and experience, and I reward you for ‘doing a good job’. I get the entertainment; you get paid for it.

    Offering something for ‘free’ (in my mind) devalues that thing. [Greeks bearing gifts, etc] I question why so many people (who write) offer their products freely. Do they not respect their work? Do they not value it? What is the reasoning for producing something, but not accepting payment for it as their due? I’m befuddled. I pay up every time – usually direct from publishers so you nice authors get as much Royalty as possible 🙂

    On the Huff Post aspect: – I’m surprised. I know Cat Grant writes for them, and she is not a person who would do it for free! So, is there some ‘he says/she says’ aspect? Who is telling truth, or who is diverting us away from the truth? I don’t know; but I would agree with your “F**k you” and “F**k off” responses everytime 🙂

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I am told they have a two tier structure of payment, presumably based on whether people can be persuaded to work for ‘exposure’. Spit.

      Free can be a powerful tool. I give away free stories to reward loyal readers and let people try my work without pirating it. But it’s very much a conscious marketing decision on my part and I resent it when people take that decision away from me.

  4. Sarah Madison
    Sarah Madison says:

    I love this post. It’s insightful, enlightening, and utterly on point. Kristen Lamb has been writing a series of posts recently on the ‘culture of free’, she cites the Huff Post, as well as Oprah (for inviting a singer to perform at an event for the ‘exposure’), and the general idea that not only is free somehow better but it’s what we deserve. Bravo.

  5. Jayne
    Jayne says:

    ALL OF THIS. But have been sidetracked from my general outrage because this:

    Let’s be honest: if producers don’t pay people to write, then the people writing are the ones who can afford not to be paid. Which, as with publishing internships, means that the people who can get ahead are the ones with money. The rich parents, the lucrative day job, the well-paid spouse. When producers don’t pay for content, it privileges the voices of the wealthy.

    There is, rightly, a lot of discussion around the lack of diversity in publishing and this lack is not only one of race but one of background. Let us never forget Richard Charkin’s comment:

    “It is a market driven by supply and demand, like any other. Publishing is full of Emmas but lots of these Emmas happen to do a very good job”

    Have to go now before my head explodes…

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Absolutely. Intersectionality includes class. And as for claiming publishing jobs are market-led when the market is so clearly rigged in favour of ‘Emmas’… JFC. And all those Emmas (note: female) are being paid a sodding pittance for probably, yes, doing a perfectly good job, and all the people who aren’t Emmas and might actually do just as good a job or better in more interesting and useful ways are wiped out. Bah, bah, bah.

  6. Elin
    Elin says:

    *nods* Anything that can possibly be viewed as a pastime or a hobby is open to this kind of stupid assumption. I once made a series of six paintings for an author of historical books who wanted illustrations for a lecture. He’s still using the paintings in his lectures and even reproduced some of them in a book. He sent me a copy. I made the mistake of asking him to pay me what he thought the job was worth and received the princely sum of £5 for about 50 hours of work. I won’t make that mistake again.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I don’t even know what to say to that except I hope he spontaneously combusts. £5?! JFC. It would have been less insulting to refuse to pay at all. What a tosser.

  7. Avalon
    Avalon says:

    I see this attitude all the time on the deviantart of some of my favourite artists. They have taken to Patreon *gasp the horror* in the thought that artists should be somehow PAID for their work. As soon as they’re not churning out what the entitled masses expect, then they are greedy, selfish, whores. This comment (and the ones below it, are just examples

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I can’t even look at those. There are people who shriek about how much they love an artist, but as soon as they’re thwarted in what they want (free work, story going in X direction, whatever), it’s “Dance, monkey, dance!”

      • Anne Ferrer Odom
        Anne Ferrer Odom says:

        I was so pleased when my daughter was shopping for shirts for Christmas presents, and she realized that the store where she was shopping was selling shirts with fan art on them but not crediting or giving money to the artists. She did some hard research to find out how to buy directly from artists (Redbubble was her choice), and I was really proud of her for doing that. She recognized the importance of all this because she loves the work on DeviantArt, and she just couldn’t stand the thought of them not getting compensated for their work.

        As a parent, it’s so easy to berate yourself for perceived mistakes. When things like this happen, I cherish them, because it’s clear evidence that our values are carrying through. As she grows older, maybe she’ll even gain the confidence to fight the “all should be free” sentiment in those forums.

  8. Rita L.
    Rita L. says:

    I design websites and write web content for a living. I constantly run into clients who want the work but refuse to pay. In my early days, yes I would do a design and implement a website for a small business or non-profit for very little but my husband pointed out exactly what you all are saying: how can I value the time it takes to do the work if I undercut myself by offering it for free. The market is already saturated with “brothers in law” and “friends” with single courses who say they can do the work. Do my 25 years of experience mean anything? Nope. Right now, I cannot find any work because people have so undervalued the effort and art as to pay as little as $100 for 100 hours of work.

    I just had to quit a job from a guy who said if I develop the website and edit his authors for free now, I’ll get exposure. Hell, I don’t need the exposure and again, my husband pointed out that the guy doesn’t value my work if he won’t pay me.

    By the way, I used to write computer books and the royalty structure was outrageously sided for the publisher’s benefit. I never did make any royalties because they took the cost of remainders out of my pay. Thank goodness for the Author’s Guild and Freelancer’s Union.

  9. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    It’s not only the writing itself. I’m sure you saw the stuff recently with Philip Pullman making a stand about authors not being paid to appear at the Oxford literary festival, and others. As he points out, everyone else providing a service to the festival, whether it’s a caterer or the owner of a venue, or the cleaners, gets paid. But the authors – some of them famous, whose names actually attract the paying customers to the event – aren’t considered worthy of a fee.

  10. Janice
    Janice says:

    Note that all of my experience is with non-fiction. I find pay a reasonable amount vs pay a tiny amount vs write for free varies a great deal depending on the type of writing. Most major sites with technical articles stopped paying some time ago and expect you to write for exposure. More specifically, they expect you to be paid by a company and then get the name of that company out there by writing interesting articles in a related field (note I did not say promote the company or its products and services directly). The last time I had a regular freelancing gig for a tech site I got paid at the level of an honorarium, basically a token that was about 15% of what I got for ghost writing home improvement articles even though I am experienced at tech and know very little about home improvement. Both dried up because they thought they could get cheaper content. Previous freelancing gigs did the same even though they barely paid at all. However, almost across the board, non-technical non fiction paid at a much higher rate than technical pieces. The exception is reviews; tech and sometimes travel reviews tend to pay a little while most places with book/music/movie reviews expect you to be happy to get an infrequent freebie.

    If there’s a topic you particularly like to write about these days, the best way to get paid to write about it is to find a company that does something related to that and get them to pay you to write stuff for outlets that don’t pay a penny for the content. That’s tough, much tougher than getting someplace to buy a particular article used to be, but that seems to be the way things are evolving. I wish it weren’t so; I miss the variety of being able to write a few reviews and a few tech articles and some random other stuff and most of the time I’m not looking to do this type of writing full timr. I never did it for the money (and did a lot of those honorarium gigs) but I hate that I’m expected to do it for free if I want to do it at all these days.

    Note: my day job is technical writing so I am paid to write a totally different type of content for companies aimed directly at their customers; all of the above applies strictly to freelancing/article submission.


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