Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Freedom is Just Another Word

A writer friend of mine pointed me to an NPR interview with NYT writer David Carr about the benefits of writing free content, which he has done in addition to his paid work for NYT. (The catalyst for the NPR story was the recent sale of HP to AOL for a ridiculous sum). In the piece, they also mention Carr's piece in NYT on the same topic.

In the summer of 2009, I wrote a very long blog post called Why It Sucks to Be a Writer. In that rant, I decried how people were offering me, in exchange for my writing not for money but for a CHANCE FOR EXPOSURE! And I further noted that the next time I want exposure, I'll hop up on the bar and take my shirt off. In fact, I actually do write for free for the Austinist -- a weekly column that is often in the Top Ten most read list, which is to say I drive traffic to the site for free. So you could say I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. Like many double speakers, I rationalize-- in this case, my rationalization goes like this: While Austinist is based on a site that started as Gothamist, it is very much locally run, lovingly put together by a group of passionate Austinites. I liken my contribution to being on par with hosting a KOOP radio show, an effort made out of a combination of my love for the medium as well as my love for this city.

But it's not all selflessness. Hardly. I also use my column as a chance to cross market. In my tagline I often mention upcoming workshops and camps, both of which generate a decent portion of my annual income. In that sense, I suppose I could argue that each column is one very long advertisement for myself.

When other sites have asked me to write for free, I have mostly balked. But Carr makes the point that Facebook is packed with what is, in essence, free content which draws in bazillions of readers who are then exposed to all the advertising.

As free content grows, the price I can get for my work drops, another point Carr examines. One guy he quotes likens this model to feudalism and I think that's a good analogy. Why should the people who own and profit off these sites buy the cow when the milk is free, right?

I find, in my own work, things continue to shift. Recently I was hired to write for a major website that pays-- compared to most-- outrageously well. I could, if they would give me just four assignments per month (posts of just 500 words) make enough to live on comfortable. On the other hand, I just created a document of about 6000 words that netted me $1000. Yes, that's fucking insane. But I tried to ignore the word count-- and the pennies per word it amounted to-- and look at my bottom line, which is a massive monthly mortgage. You know, you do what you have to.

In my writing classes, I try to help my students consider ways to get their work published for pay. But I always always emphasize how increasingly difficult this has become. So, in a sense, this is also me talking out both sides of my mouth. I do encourage them to start (or continue) blogging to at least have the satisfaction of putting their words out there. And/but is anyone reading blogs? I hardly read blogs and I write about six of them (for self, for others). Partly, I am so busy producing content that I have little time to consume it. More to the point, a combination of too many choices and way way way too much crap writing finds me avoiding blog reading more often than not. And lately, I've gone practically Luddite, at long last attacking the teetering stack of-- gasp-- BOOKS by my bedside. (I augment with lots of audiobooks but that's a comparison to examine at another time).

So, is writing for pay going away for good? Well, of course not. There will always be the mega bestsellers who make millions. And there will be some websites-- at least I hope-- that continue to pay some money. But this whole constant shifting has left me confused about "being a writer for a living." At a dinner party not long ago, a writer friend of mine, contemplating whether or not to write another book, voiced hesitation simply because, "Why bother just adding more to the existing heap?" I argued the point that his thoughts, words, and stories contained a unique element that makes them as important as everyone else's writing (more important than some, in fact). But at the same time, I totally understood what he was saying. After having six books published and four rejected, I find myself at an odd crossroads: Writing books is what I DO. To simply stop writing isn't an option. But then, how often do I find myself trying to come up with a book idea based on marketability vs. "just" a topic for which I feel passion?

It's almost unavoidable. Last week in this space I tore apart the book Poser for being, to my mind, totally contrived. That bugged the shit out of me. But maybe it's because I have my own fears around doing the same. Is pure writing for writing's sake a thing of the past?

Ah, that's where we circle back around. The answer to that is NO. Blogs, which in so many ways have destroyed the ability to make a living writing, also do allow us the ultimate freedom to write what we wish. They call to mind my favorite Dolly Parton quote, "I had to get rich before I could sing like I was poor again." This, I believe, a reference to the gorgeous, stripped down bluegrass records she has released in the past decade or so. She couldn't do things her own way, once her Big Persona was established, until she reached the point that money didn't matter any more--she has enough of it. Now she can do what she wants.

This no-more-pay-for-words thing that's going around is a perverted echo of that quote. I never did get rich enough to write like I did when I was young-- with abandon (and, I humbly admit, unintentional pretension-- wait, can pretension be unintentional?) But since I'm not getting paid much anymore, well, what the hell, I no longer have to come up with clever pitches for women's magazines.

But then, I do have to find other ways to support myself. I perform a LOT of weddings toward this end. And I teach writing-- is that ironic? Fraudulent? Am I perpetuating the myth, in these writing classes, that my students can fulfill that dream to have a book published? I worried about that a lot when I decided to start offering workshops on a regular basis. Now I don't worry about it. I make it clear, even before the first class begins, that we're not primarily in the room to learn how to write for publication/pay. We're in the room to learn how to put our stories down in words, and to polish those stories. Some show up to put their stories down in an effort to heal from wounded pasts-- and that, I know from personal experience, is a real and priceless thing. Beyond all that, I remind myself that no one is being forced to sign up, and anyone who wants can leave at anytime.

I also teach kids' camps, and these might be the "purest" jobs I take. There is no agenda beyond having fun. There is no wondering, as I sometimes do when contemplating being a wedding officiant, how I can reconcile myself to being opposed to marriage in my own life and yet be perfectly okay with marrying others. (Aside: I don't really worry about that a whole lot-- I am hired to perform a function, and it's something I'm good at, so okay then, makes sense to me in that context.)

One thing I have been thinking about lately, regarding words for money, is simply asking readers to give me some. I have friends who start KickStarter campaigns to raise money to put out their CDs. I'm happy to support such efforts. I have been toying with starting a KickStarter page of my own, and saying, flat out: Look, I have an idea for a book, and another one for a screenplay. I have no idea if these things will come to pass and be "marketable" but I really want a chance to try, and my current work-forty-jobs schedule isn't allowing that. Therefore, if you enjoy reading my Austinist column, which I write for free, would you consider making a $5 donation? If I can get 1,000 of you to make a donation, that will afford me two months where I can put down all my hustling and job taking and just fully focus on my writing. So, what do you say?

I haven't been able to do this yet-- it feels oddly like passing the hat, begging for people to indulge my little pastime. I haven't ruled out the request yet either, and even had a sign from the universe that maybe it's the way to go-- just last week, out of the blue, a reader from Chicago sent me $50 just because she could. Another time, a reader sent a few bucks, noting that's what she'd pay for a newspaper. When I want to feel NOT like a beggar, I remember this excellent blogpost by Amanda Fucking Palmer saying why she has NO QUALMS about asking for money.

No big conclusions here. Just mulling this whole money thing, which has always been befuddling whether you're connecting it to writing, pyramid schemes, panhandlers, or the question "is it tacky to give money as a gift?" I often long for a society in which we can trade rocks and shells for the things we need-- I have an abundance of both, just as I have an abundance of words. But alas, rocks and shells-- and increasingly written words-- won't get you too far with the taxman and other wolves at the door.

So-- your thoughts on this? Do you provide free content-- either in the form of your own blog, or blogging for others? And if so, what's your rationale. And if not-- if you refuse to write for free but have been making a living off of writing, what are you doing now to support yourself?


  1. I provide free content as a way to build conversations with future clients at Mueller, and also so that I can get recognized when I'm at the pool. The blogging is quite dollar productive in that it enables me to earn money later, though I don't get paid for it. Plus, I like to write, which is the real reason I do it.

    I also write for free at other places where I don't want to cross market or anything - just for the heck of it.

    I like the feudal analogy, and would rather be the strip club than the stripper in terms of concept. That said, I just enjoy taking my clothes off. Does this doom me to stripperdom? Is it doom if I like it?

    Also, there's something to be said for quality over quantity. One free blog I write has over 700 posts and two readers, one self-promoting blog I write has 300 post and a stack of readers. One I enjoy more than the other.

  2. Hey Spike, I read David Carr's story in the NYTs and your amplification of it is educative. I have often said to myself and others, "The trick is to know what to give away and what to keep for yourself." It is tricky in the ever-changing media environment. My answer to your question, and I am not yet that good at it, is to be nimble as a writer. We have enormous leverage. And we are not trained to think that way. We may have more leverage with the publisher than we think, and leverage may be more important than currency, money. The money may come out of another "tap." But we gotta think about that in a business-like way. One of our key assets is copyright law which is written into the Constitution. Licensing of a copyright asset is useful and potentially lucrative practice. But it takes a different mentality than how most writers approach their work. Thinking about money is a good and healthy thing.

  3. i provide free content over the radio and a podcast/blog, and i get exasperated and despairing at times about how much work i put into it for how little external reward. i have a pipe dream of becoming an independent radio producer whose pieces get picked up by public radio programs and stations, which is particularly ridiculous when you consider that that market is small, poorly paid, and supersaturated with young energetic geniuses with much much more time and uncommitted resources than i have. and yet it is my dream!

    for you, i think a kickstarter project is an awesome idea. you'll need to be a lot less wishy-washy about it than you sound here, though. if the campaigns i've seen are any indication, if you want people (even your friends!) to actually give you need to pick a single exciting project and SELL it. you need to remind people over and over in every venue you have available (definitely including Facebook) that they have this opportunity to help make something cool happen -- i mean sure, there's probably a point of overkill with that, but it's much farther than you might think. people WANT to pitch in to make things happen. but they also want to be pretty convinced that things WILL happen, you know? your persistence in pitching will only reassure them of your resolve and seriousness about the project.

    also, feel no shame about passing the hat. the only other option any artist has ever had was to kiss the plutocrat's ass, and which is the more genuine and democratic?

    that's one pinchbottom's $0.02, which with this one-time discount of $0.02 will be costing each and every reader exactly $0.00. warm regards,


  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This post was passed onto me this week as part of a larger discussion on writing for sites such as I began as a blogger (and I heartily apologize for contributing to the devaluing of writing), but as you suggest, this gave me practice my craft, to put myself on the line and to express myself without hestitation. I am slowing gaining advertising income and slowly getting paid positions as a contributor at several other blogs. The online world is so transitory, I can understand why publishers don't want to pay much for a post that is front page one day and page 2 the next. As you also suggest, how much time can readers devote to all this content? Still, my bottom line is that I don't want my effort to support gigantic corporations such as AOL. I'm happy to share content with other bloggers, friends and writers, especially if they reciprocate back.