Wrote for Luck

Over in the Spectator, Nick Cohen writes of an encounter with the Mumsnet site editors, who asked him to do an online chat in Kentish Town. When he asked about the fee, he was told that ‘Webchats are actually something Mumsnet often charges for, because they’re such an effective way of promoting things; they tend to get many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of page views’ – in effect, this was a pay-to-play gig, where, as Nick says, ‘Mumsnet charges writers and actors or their publishers and producers for the privilege of providing content for its website’.

A cultural change has taken place in the 2010 arts scene, where writers and artists are expected to provide content free of charge, for schools, workshops, literary festivals, magazines, academics, publishers’ websites, universities – for any and every media and any and every event where writers have to invest time and effort and money to be there. Authors are starting to get hacked off with this – there’s a piece by historian Guy Walters here, another by the novelist Amanda Craig here. The rationale is that by providing free content, writers are getting exposure, which at some point down the line will translate into actual cash, thanks to the generosity of the arts organisation which has allowed the writer to work for nothing.

If even established authors are scrabbling for coins, think of the unknown young creatives who are expected to undertake long unpaid internships to get into the delirious professions. My favourite intern story concerns the independent publisher Dalkey Archive, which prints bad books of laughable obscurity. Around a year ago, when Dalkey was moving its base to London, the press put out an advertisement for publishing internships, which is worth quoting at length:

The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who: have already demonstrated a strong interest in literary publishing; are very well read in literature in general and Dalkey Archive books in particular; are highly motivated and ambitious; are determined to have a career in publishing and will sacrifice to make that career happen; are willing to start off at a low-level salary and work their way upwards; possess multi-dimensional skills that will be applied to work at the Press; look forward to undergoing a rigorous and challenging probationary period either as an intern or employee; want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.); know how to act and behave in a professional office environment with high standards of performance; and who have a commitment to excellence that can be demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. DO NOT APPLY IF ALL OF THE ABOVE DOES NOT DESCRIBE YOU

Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.

When challenged on this by Laurence Mackin of the Irish Times, Dalkey director John O’Brien described the advertisement as ‘a modest proposal. Serious and not-serious at one and the same time’ in an email exchange that apparently began with O’Brien ‘pointing out that the advertisement was written in a manner he viewed as appropriate with Irish literature: that of Swift, Joyce  Beckett and, perhaps most pertinently, Flann O’Brien.’ If only some of that playful wit and erudition could find its way into Dalkey’s published titles.

Perhaps it’s the British way that finds it vulgar to ask for money, even for a job well done. But money is never just about money. Paying your staff well is the same as saying that they are worth something. Paying staff badly or not at all is the same as saying they are not. So why does anyone bother working for free? Nick explains:

For a handful, the gamble of working for nothing or paying for the right to write may pay off. They could be the one in a 1,000 who becomes a superstar. Inevitably, the majority of those taking the risk will be the children of rich parents. Not all, I accept. You can work in a fulltime job and write in your spare time, as many novelists do, and newspapers don’t just recruit from the moneyed classes. But when I look at the young people starting out in journalism around me, they are overwhelmingly from the upper class or upper-middle class. Only they can take out loans for university and post-graduate degrees, and then work for years for little of nothing. I doubt that my younger self could afford to be a journalist today.

This has been a contentious issue for some time and the soul searching is getting ridiculous. With sentimental exceptions (doing a free reading at your mate’s spoken word night is fine, as long as they buy your drinks) you should not work for free. Don’t take on an internship, don’t do free work for arts organisations, and if you know arts organisations that expect free labour from artists, then don’t use those organisations, don’t use their services, and tell your friends why. Without free labour, the culture will change.

In the meantime, I like to amuse myself by flagging down black cabs, asking them to drive me to random places in the city, and then, when it’s time to settle the fare, telling the driver that ‘I’m not actually paying you for this journey, as I am a well known blogger, online celebrity and bon vivant, and think of the exposure you will generate from having me in your cab.’ The reactions are interesting.

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2 Responses to “Wrote for Luck”

  1. Benazir Says:

    I agree with this entirely and I think the mumsnet thing sets a very dangerous precedent. However I think there may be another small exception: podcasts that are produced for free or for very little, like Little Atoms or The Pod Delusion. I think it would be a bit mean to ask for a fee from them despite the fact that they have an international audience, in theory.

    I guess it all depends on the profit margins or size of the host and the ease with which the host can be reached.

  2. twentysomethingpoet Says:

    “Inevitably, the majority of those taking the risk will be the children of rich parents. Not all, I accept. You can work in a fulltime job and write in your spare time, as many novelists do, and newspapers don’t just recruit from the moneyed classes. But when I look at the young people starting out in journalism around me, they are overwhelmingly from the upper class or upper-middle class. Only they can take out loans for university and post-graduate degrees, and then work for years for little of nothing.”

    Argh the latter with university is so frustrating. Departments that don’t understand why not getting funding means you can’t stay on the course, and that sometimes, no, you can’t just go ask someone for money. You can’t even get a job to help with the fees anymore. There aren’t any jobs, let alone ones that pay enough for fees.

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