Shakespeare got to get paid, son*

On November 5, 2010 by Eden M. Kennedy

Last week a national magazine asked me if I’d write a short piece for both their print and online versions that would include quotes from my readers on the topic of pregnancy. The day before it was due I thought, Hmm, I wonder how much they’re planning on paying me for this? (I’m known for my guilelessness and trusting nature.) (No, really, it’s true.) Surprisingly, National Magazine revealed that they intended to pay me in “blog hits” — links to my site(s) from their web page. I perceived no malice in their request, their rationale was merely that I wasn’t writing that much anyway, that most of the piece would be quotes culled from my not-terribly-vast-but-highly-intelligent-and-also-stunningly-attractive readership, and that being in their magazine would get me noticed.

Despite their poignant logic, my next thoughts were as follows:

1. Okay, but I’ve spent nearly ten years building that readership, which is why you’ve even heard of me
2. Taking surveys is work
3. Writing funny-ish intros to online surveys is work, too
4. Despite the fact that some other bloggers have done this exact same assignment for no pay, Alice and Liz would kill me if I undervalued myself like that

And then, of course, being me, I started to overthink it and wonder if I should pay people for using their quotes. But I’ve been quoted, both with and without attribution, and no one ever paid me for it, so I’m pretty sure that when someone offers you a quote you’re actually not supposed to pay them, because paying them implies that they’ll say whatever you want, and that in a Free Country we only pay attention to people who speak for free, unless they’ve been flown in at great expense to address a roomful of executives while they eat lunch. (In this spirit, I’ll be glad to take anyone whose quote ends up in the final article out for coffee as thanks. Really.)

In the end, I told National Magazine I was terribly sorry but that I don’t write for “blog hits,” and guess what, they came back and said they could pay me. But the fact that at least two other well-known bloggers before me had done it for free led them to believe that (1) they could low-ball me, and (2) bloggers with substantial built-in audiences are still are worth less than people who Write.

Have you seen Alice’s new site design? It’s brilliant and I love it for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it is clearly the Internet home of someone who writes in all kinds of different venues, and being a blogger beloved of God is but one aspect of her talent. Danielle did the same thing earlier this year and blew the Internet’s mind. They’ve certainly made me wonder what it would feel like to be less of a dork online.

A long time ago I edited a start-up travel magazine that had no budget for writers. It sucked responding to every query with the news that we could only pay writers in trade — 1,200 words would get you a free weekend in Cabo (airfare not included, but once you got there everything was taken care of, plus spa treatments!). Most professional writers understood and said they’d check back when our budget increased; writers with no clips were thrilled for the trade, and for the incredible amount of attention I paid to their stories. (Some would probably have preferred I didn’t go through endless Maxwell Perkins-like rewrites with them, but I had a lot of sublimated literary ambition to work through.)

I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore, fuck. What is this, National Blog Posting Month? Damn.

I’ll let you know if the article comes out, they may read this and politely kill the whole thing.




34 Responses to “Shakespeare got to get paid, son*”

  • You put so succinctly why we should not undervalue our talents and write for free for bigger publications. Thank you.
    Blog hits are nice, but they don’t buy my bacon.

  • Now I wish I’d given you a better quote. I love coffee!

  • If they do kill it, it’s their loss. You did the right thing. Writing is writing, regardless of the medium.

    • I mean, of course I get that you pay a Susan Orlean more than an Eden M. Kennedy for a lot of reasons, including quality of work and that they sell more magazines if someone famous is writing in it. But even if their pay scale is different for different writers, the idea of being a nobody working for free just made me feel sad.

  • Hm… I don’t know if this is going to be the right thing to say, but I feel like from your site you are a person of many interests, one of which is writing, which you do stunningly well. The new finslippy is like advertising for a writer who writes in different venues. It feels crisp and professional, but it doesn’t feel very human. I guess as more blog writers go the route of either writing for copy or writing for trees, that’s how it will increasingly look and feel, but gosh darn it, back in my day we walked uphill both ways in the snow and we were happy to believe there was a connection, not merely between producers and consumers, or even between writers and fans, but between humans.

    I definitely think you should get paid for what you write for other people. Anything you write for other people. And I think you should get paid to write whole books, many many times. Sometimes I think about the story about you getting pulled over when your friend had a water gun, and I go all over panic-attacky, because you are such a fine story-teller I am sure that it actually happened to me.

    • I hear what you’re saying about a professional look creating more of a distance between the writer and the reader, but when you’re in the zone between wanting to connect with people who get you, and wanting to be taken seriously by people who can raise your profile to a national level and make it so you can write for a living, you have to walk a fine line. I think Alice is doing it really well.

  • That drives me mad for you. Writers already get paid crap and this whole idea of “paying” with added hits has only been on the rise in recent years. Why should we have to beg to get paid … like every one else in the world? I’m glad you stood up for yourself, because really, you stood up for writers everywhere. A few people make that trade and soon editors only look for those people. It’s a real struggle. Thanks.

  • When people write for my regional print and online monthly magazine, I pay them. (Unless it’s an unsolicited personal essay or opinion piece, for which different rules apply. But I pay a reasonable amount, given the local market, for freelance writing assignments.) I’m a professional; I value the work of professionals. I don’t hire people who can’t work to professional standards. National Magazine probably has a contract for freelance writers with assignments. The contract would spell out what the standards are, what you’re to be paid if the piece runs and if it doesn’t. A ballpark figure I’ve heard for stories involving research and travel is $1/word for a Vanity Fair or the New Yorker. Consult fellow freelancers for the vast area in between $1 a word and “blog hits.” The next time an editor offers you an assignment, calculate what’s involved and tell them: “That’ll be $100″ or “I work for 50 cents a word,” or whatever you think is appropriate. If you’re in the ballpark, they’ll negotiate with you. But make sure you talk money right at the beginning, because misunderstandings (as you’ve seen), don’t work in your favor. Blog hits, my a**!

  • Good for you, good for you, good for you! And shame on them for basically making the argument that doing the research for what you write – however you do it – doesn’t count as work.

    (Love the link – your “revenge” T-shirt is the one I wear when I am writing what I really want to write, and “Shakespeare” is the one I wear when I have to make myself put my ass in the chair because I promised to write something for money.)

  • As you say, you’ve spent years building your audience. And you put skill and talent – not to mention TIME – into your writing. Magazines put money into developing readerships and acquiring good content (the latter a key element of the former) – it’s not unreasonable that, when they turn to you for assistance in these, THEY PAY YOU REAL MONIES.

    I, personally, also accept beaver pelts, but I’m Canadian, so.

  • a long time ago in graduate school, I started to edit someone’s ridiculously long dreadfully bad dissertation, for free, and a professor of mine said “Why isn’t your skill with words and syntax worth paying for?” UH…WHAT? But she was right–and I charged that person what to me seemed like the exorbitant fee of $75 and a few beers…but it seems like the same thing: just b/c anyone can slam words on a page, doesn’t make that person GOOD at it, dammit. No money, no funny, basically. Which could also work in the sex trade, I guess. Just b/c everyone has sex doesn’t mean that everyone is good at it. Just saying.

  • I don’t worry about getting paid, or people stealing my content, or being taken advantage of….I just do what I do. I feel like this is what made my real life business successful, so I applied the same philosophy to my writing. Not that anyone is knocking down my door….)
    When I clicked on Danielle blog, I immediately felt like a potential content thief. Who needs that kind of negativity. Oh well, I don’t always understand Dooce blogging approach either. It could be me.
    Please, understand I think writers deserve to be paid. I think its wonderful to be clear about the worth of your time and the value of your work. I just don’t think its worth over thinking and I would never pass on an opportunity that made my heart sing, because of money or because of the fear I was being taken advantage of. . .
    But then again, I could be all wrong. It happens all the time.

    Congratulation of the offer and the strength to ask for what you wanted.


    • @Katybeth, I don’t think it’s wrong to give away work for free. That’s what I do here and that’s what we did with Let’s Panic, which ultimately became something bigger, but we gave it away on our terms.

  • Hmmmph. I know lawyers who get paid $600 to crank out a will, power of attorney, etc. that simply requires you to change names. Coming from this background I got offered my first internet writing job–$15.00 to write about my early mistakes as a lawyer. Son, in order for me to destroy my professional credibility, I’ll need ONE MILLION DOLLARS. I didn’t write it.

  • So, if you’re a dork online, that must make me Queen Doofus…aka Queen of the Doofi. Dork and doofus alike, however, should not work for free. Just sayin’.

  • I have nothing insightful to add on this topic–I blog for free, mostly so my mother knows what I’m up to. All I have to say is, I’m glad it’s November, and I get to read Fussy every day. Your posts make me laugh out loud. And I NEED a “FUSSY, we’re not happy until you’re not happy” shirt ASAP.

  • Undervaluing yourself, yes. I’ve written a few magazine articles for free just to build my resume, but it never felt good to just hand over work for nothing.

    I can see how newer bloggers are keen to do the same thing – submit work in exchange for blog hits to build their resume – but paid blogging is still sort of unstructured enough that people don’t know what to charge. Maybe.

  • I think there’s always going to be work you do for free (or for very little). Literary magazines don’t pay, or they might give you a tiny stipend. But you need those publications to gain credibility as a fiction or creative nonfiction writer. Or sometimes you do something as a labor of love. I edit for a literary magazine for nothing, because I love it, and I want to support them.

    There’s a big difference, however, between that kind of work and commercial writing. I don’t think magazines intentionally prey on bloggers, but I do think they undervalue their work. And I think some bloggers undervalue their own work as well. The fact is that magazines pay writers. Bloggers are writers. Bloggers should be paid. And national commercial magazines pay $2/word, not $1. Sometimes much, much more, if you’re a big name, or you’re writing the cover feature, or your work entails travel and research. Most of us, though, would be at the $2/word mark.

    If you’re starting out, you should know that. You might get paid less at the beginning, but once you have a couple of clips, and you’re writing original work for them, you should really ask for $2/word. That’s just standard.

    Whew! Sorry to rant on your blog, my friend.

  • Go Mrs. Kennedy!

    I feel like I’ve gotten an increasing number of requests lately for content in exchange for “exposure” or “hits” or sometimes really vague benefits like “a chance to connect with the community through this endeavor.”

    It’s frustrating when the response is (as it often is) “well, so-and-so blogger did it for free.” To which my own response should be something really funny and clever, but usually it’s just me forwarding it to Her Bad Mother and Mir with a note that says ARGHHHHHHHH.

  • Besides, getting paid with “hits” sounds very violent. Better to have money.

  • I love this post and I hate it. Love it because it is absolutely true, hate it because I’m constantly trying to find that line between over- and under-valuing myself, and I want to believe that those I’m looking up to have figured it out and are blazing a path for me.

    When I’m moving from one level to the next in my exposure, I tend to give a “freebie,” driven by flattery and the hope that no, really, this will be the one that pays off in blog hits! (The fact that most of my ads pay by the view and it occasionally works doesn’t help sort things out in my head.) But when they come knocking again the pay negotiations begin. When it doesn’t work and they move on to the next blogger on the list, I shrug to the world and say “Eh, their loss.” But between you, me, and the internet, it just sucks to see someone else writing the piece that I wanted to write.

  • Ooh, this makes me ANGRY. So angry … angry both for you as a writer, but angry also at the legions of bloggers who’ve sold themselves and their readerships out for free packets of laundry detergent, firmly establishing a low standard. I’m assuming you’ve read this:

  • I think there is a vast difference between writing on your own blog for free and writing for a national publication for free.

    I’ve written for various print publications before, though smaller to medium size ones…so would my rate go from 25-50 cents a word to “traffic” if someone approached me as a blogger?

    I would venture to say that if they are interested in you because you are a blogger who has attracted an audience and following, that should mean you are worth MORE than a writer who has no such following.

    And you know what has an even higher market value than quality writing? A list of real people who will respond to your query. Companies pay big bucks for surveys.

    They came to you because you are a blogger who has a built a community–they have writers, who presumably know how to get sources and how to use HARO, should they just want an article. They also have contacts at companies that do surveys as well, and probably pay a hefty fee when they use them.

    Good for you for standing up for yourself, your work, and the value of your audience.

  • You may already have caught wind of this story, but as I listened to the blogger’s account on the radio on Friday, I thought how it has some parallels to the issue you describe above. It seems to be the bottom of the slippery slope of magazines expecting not to have to pay bloggers for their work.

    The end of the editor’s response gall’s me. I’m not sure how theft of someone’s work could ever be considered a favour.

  • As far as getting paid goes, it depends very much on the magazine. If they are some do-gooder mag, a start-up, a non-profit, etc. then I could see writing without pay.

    Also, a literary journal, as Alice mentioned

    If they are a for profit magazine, then of course they should pay writers. I think the pay is scaled to the magazine and what it’s about though. I know people who write for national magazines and make barely anything–but the magazines are political and they have a political message they want to put out.

    There is nothing about writing without pay that undervalues a writer. Academics write without pay almost always. (They get paid for books, not for academic articles.) You can be the biggest hotshot in the world of academia (i.e., not much of a hotshot in the larger world but quoted in the NY Times twice in your life or something) and not get paid.

    That’s not a great example because professors are paid–just not by the journals they write for.

    I’m just sort of blathering now so I’ll stop. I suppose I want to defend the idea of writing without pay, which is clearly unnecessary but I also drank too much coffee and am procrastinating.

    • Exactly, a magazine with money should be negotiated with differently than one without, and the writer’s status plays into that as well. In this case, I felt like I had enough weight to ask to be paid, and the magazine had the budget to offer me something. Not a top rate, but something appropriate to the job.

  • I once made my living as a writer, and now I hire writers for freelance assignments regularly.

    As a writer I had a for-profit rate and a non-profit rate. I was flexible from those two points, but it helped to have those established. And once I had a decent clip file I never, never worked for free. I did not work in academia or with literary journals. I take the point that those are different, and there are probably other exceptions.

    I think you can work for blog hits or soup or money or hugs, if you’re so inclined. Just get what you want established up front. I was always very uncomfortable doing that, but I think it’s important if you want to be treated like a professional.

    I compensate my writers well. At least I think I do. It’s important to pay, because it’s the right thing to do. But also because I need people to hit their deadlines and do their edits and all those other things that pros do.

    I don’t even want to start on what the content farms are doing to both sides of the writer/editor relationship.

  • My mantra about writing on the Internet is as follows:

    Information wants to be free, but my writing wants to cost money.

    It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.

  • I only bring this up because I haven’t seen much discussion about it yet (although that could be because I love the rock I live under). I think that there is a difference between quoting someone for an article and “crowdsourcing” the bulk of a piece. I don’t think that it was overthinking at all that you paused to consider whether you should be paying the people who are sharing their stories. The logic about not paying sources is totally sound, but sources, for whatever reason, can certainly embellish or fabricate for free. That’s why there is fact-checking, multiple sources, etc. And we believe what people say to be true because the publication has earned this credibility. I really think that there is a fine line here. I’ve thought this often when I see journalists or marketers doing crowd research on Twitter or other online communities. In some cases I think that instead of journalist/source model it’s closer to an editor/anthology model or a researcher/focus group model where both sides are often paid or compensated for their time and contribution. I think this is an issue that will probably come up more as it becomes more commonplace.

    • What I did definitely had a focus group aspect to it, but are all focus groups compensated for their time? I guess it depends on how much time is asked of them. In this case, it varied for each person, probably anywhere from ten seconds to several minutes, depending on how much they put into their Tweets. I was certainly up front about saying it was for a magazine and *I* didn’t offer any compensation, so each person responding should have been aware of that. I don’t fee like I have a legal obligation to PayPal everyone $2 per word for their Tweets to me, but I still might try to do something for the people whose words end up being used, because I’m weird like that.

  • Just to be completely clear (ack) I didn’t mean to imply that you were anything but above board in this case. I just thought it was interesting that you had a moment where you thought maybe you should pay them because I’ve had that thought that in other (very different) instances that I’ve seen online. There has been so much great debate about compensation for bloggers vs. “serious” writers (of which this post is another example) and I’ve really appreciated it both as a blogger and a freelancer. I think that there should be similar debate about where the line is with crowdsourcing and in what instances people should compensate or be compensated for it. It’s a totally new and powerful thing that was an unplanned, unforseen use of social networks so it’s not a surprise it’s such a gray area. And if you did offer to PayPal the contributors whose tweets you used? Wow, that would be an interesting precedent. Although clearly there is no obligation to do so. Personally, I would probably take you up on the coffee instead. ;)

  • Can I just say that I’m sad that blogrolls are going away? Am I the only one who still wants to go to type in the address of one blog and find links there to lots of other blogs?

    I know, I know, it’s so 2003. But I don’t like feeds and readers and such. Somehow that takes out something I enjoy. I want to go to a site and find new content, not have it pushed at me.

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