Valuing the Work: Writers and Chasing Our Way to the Bottom

For reasons various and sundry, I have a lawyer I consult with on Intellectual Property matters. Anyone who knows my publishing history can probably figure out why.

I got an invoice yesterday for $72, a charge for the time it took them to read and respond to an email of mine about a particular matter. I was not at all outraged or whatever by this – merely bemused. All we have on this earth is time, really, and when you take up people’s time, there’s a charge for it. What I found amusing is how many of us, as writers, don’t value our time at all. The value of our words themselves, words we spent hours and hours and weeks and weeks and months and months and years and years worth of time on, are, we feel, often worth nothing. Very few writers would charge you $70 for a blog post, let alone $70 for responding to your email (I seriously need to start charging for responding to email!).

Folks who don’t understand why things cost so much are generally not familiar with the anecdotal Picasso story. When asked to draw a sketch by a fan, Picasso handed it over to her and demanded $5,000. Affronted, the fan said, “But it only took you a moment!” To which he responded, “No, madam. It took me my entire life.”

The truth is that to construct a 140 word story or a 300 word marketing email or a 180,000 word novel doesn’t just take the actual hour or three or 850 or whatever of actual writing time. It also took all the time leading up to that – it took the long, rigorous years of active practice. I wrote over 1,000 marketing emails before I got good at them. I’ve written millions of words of fiction just to see four books in print. I’ve attended many workshops, and spent nearly twenty years submitting stories to magazines and critiquing others’ work. At this point in my life, I spend anywhere from four to twelve hours a day writing – day job projects, emails, blog posts like this one, short stories, essays for hire, freelancing projects, and, of course, novels.

g_imageBut when I invoice my work, or request minimum payments for certain types of fiction in the novel writing world, I still wince. Here I am with all these sunk costs in my novel writing, and I’m stuck with the casino deal – if the work sells a lot, I make more. If the work sells nothing, I make no more than the advance (my advances work out to something like $2 an hour of actual writing time, often less, and don’t take into account that 20 years of apprenticeship at all, nor research time). This is, in truth, no way to make a living. This is why so many writers die poor.

I’ve only recently started putting minimums into place for certain types of work. I have taken my last $50 essay job. Even at only an hour of work, that’s about half what I charge as a freelancing rate for corporate work, and I need to stop undervaluing what I do.

This is probably one of the hardest things for writers to do, especially writers in genre, as we’re asked to do so much unpaid or underpaid work “for the love of the genre” or “for the community.” The writing I do here, on the blog, for myself, is for the love of the community. It’s all free. I make nothing on it. But it allows me to speak my mind, to turn random events into narrative, and so serves a personal purpose for me; I find blog writing intensely cathartic.  I don’t run ads on this site, and I don’t even have Amazon affiliate links up any more, so I’m not really selling anything except awareness that I and my work exist, I suppose.

But it’s writing I do for my own profit, not for someone else’s.

Once we get to the point where we’re doing things for someone else’s profit, for someone else’s gain, once someone else is making money off your labor but you aren’t (or are making very little) you have to sit down and do the cost/benefit game. Are you being part of the problem, by taking on unpaid work? Are you helping with the race to the bottom in writers’ wages?

Say what you will about H-wood having a writer’s guild, but the guild ensures bare minimums for certain types of work.  I’d love to see something similar in SFF someday, but certainly am not holding my breath. I’d like to say much of the issue is that most people can’t tell good writing from bad, so hiring bad writers for less means little to them. But Hollywood has to pay good writers and bad writers the same minimums.

We are a long way from anything resembling a writers’ union, and that means that there will forever be folks at the bottom willing to work for free, and folks at the top only getting paid because they can bring eyeballs to pages or sell lots of copies themselves. Your worth goes up with your fan base, I think, more than your skill. Which is… special in itself, in this biz. Your time is only worth the fans you bring with you.

Ug. Now this is getting depressing.

Long story short: writers, charge for your work. Charge real rates. You have a real profession. As someone who writes corporate copy and charges corporate rates, out in the big, bad marketing world folks understand that the right words, the right stories, can move mountains. But out in fictionland, your slog from “person with the ideas” at the bottom of the chain to active participant in the story on up through other media is going to be a position you must fight for.

And one you must value first, before anyone else will value it.

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