We talk about this a lot. Why is it so acceptable to ask people to work for free? It’s the subject that’s at the heart of a lot of Facebook rants and Twitter storms and, more recently, the New York Times opinion page. You’ve probably read “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” by now. It’s made a lot of rounds. Tim Kreider’s arguments and advice are sound. The fill-in-the-blank response at the bottom of the piece is useful and explains why you can’t afford to forego pay. It’s also similar to the replies I’ve sent plenty of people in recent memory. Mine are typically “Sorry, I can’t afford to work without pay” or “Sorry, I can’t afford to do the job for that amount.”
It’s a simple, and sort of obvious, response to people who give us line after line about how they can’t afford to pay us or can’t afford to pay a remotely reasonable amount for the work. And, for a lot of us, it’s the truth.
Of course, technically, I do write for free. I use Twitter, Facebook and this blog for that. It’s part of my personal marketing plan, if you could call it that. I’ve self-published work. I’ve also written things to trade with people. That’s why this blog has a cool banner. Very occasionally, I might do a favor for a good friend. Outside of those exceptions, though, there needs to be a monetary payment.
I used to write for free and I’m glad I did it. Without those free gigs, I wouldn’t have had the clips necessary to get paid work. Back then, I could afford to write for free. I had a day job. Now, writing pays my share of the bills. It funds future projects. Occasionally, there is a little leftover to make a small purchase, maybe a dress at Target or something. It’s a tiny income, at least by big city standards, but it’s one that’s derived from doing the thing that I love and I’m proud to have been able to achieve that.
If you have a way of paying your bills and see writing gratis as a means to an end, that’s great. It’s a choice I made and it’s a choice you might make too. But, if you write to support yourself and you can’t afford to work for anything less than $$$, tell people that.
Employers tell us that they can’t afford us all the time. That’s why layoffs happen. That’s why freelance gigs fizzle. There were budget cuts– again– or whatever. Now you’re working more for less, or not working at all. So why do we have such a hard time saying the same thing? Are we scared that we might miss a good opportunity? Or, do we fear that others might think of us as entitled brats who refuse to pay our dues?
I think it’s the latter and we’re responsible for that part of the situation. We do that every time we accuse people of being “sell-outs” or “shameless self-promoters.” We do that every time we drop that stupid Fight Club line about snowflakes. We knock each other down and, in the process, we knock ourselves down too.
Molly Crabapple wrote an essay for Vice called “Filthy Lucre.” It’s about artists and money or, more importantly, why money matters when it comes to making art. I re-read it every once in a while so that I can refocus. Money and art are intertwined. So are money and writing. Crabapple notes that her art show wouldn’t have happened without money. In the same respect, my small writing business can’t run without money, let alone grow. What we earn helps us reach the next levels of our careers. That’s why, like Tim Kreider, I can’t afford to write for free.