Sunday, May 10, 2009

Writer, still think you should work for nothing?

I'm talking to myself again, posting a motivational speech to keep myself on track as a working writer. With everybody and her grandmother plus cousins online "writing," I think some professional writers are getting shafted, being conned into thinking they should work for nothing for the sake of "exposure" in a competitive market. While I'm by no means making a ton of money, I decided years ago that I was done working for nothing.

When more hookers hit the streets does sex become free in the redlight district? If sex addicts who put out for free took up a corner on the stroll, how long would it be before the professionals dropped by to give 'em a beat down? No pimp or madame is going to advise hookers to provide her services or product for free in hopes of making a name for herself. Even the pimp-less hooker knows without pay she's only the village slut.

I like using sex for sale as analogy because sex is a human need. Some people need sex almost as much as they need food. Among the literate, the written word is like food and sex.

I've always wanted to be a writer and sometimes my blood boils when people disrespect the work of writers from copying and pasting long passages of a writer's work elsewhere without permission to telling writers "I know we're not going to pay you but think of the exposure." So, I appreciate this Harlan Ellison rant. It's a clip from Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a documentary about the writer. The clip is called "Pay the Writer."

I suspect some people would toss Ellison into Dickipedia, but that doesn't change that he's correct that writers should get paid and that amateur writers make it hard for professional writers because they, who think that writing is a hobby, can be duped into giving up their writing for nothing. Ellison is a speculative fiction writer, prone to writing weird or provocative pieces about the future or alternate worlds. Speculative fiction writers have two particularly hard rows to hoe: 1.) In general nonfiction books are easier to get published. The industry perception is fiction in general is riskier. 2.) "Reality-based" fiction, meaning no extraterrestial aliens, time travel, or magic, is easier to sell to publishers, at least it used to be.

Some people loathe science fiction, fantasy, or anything that resembles a Twilight Zone episode, and so publishers rarely assume speculative fiction will be a best-seller. Sometimes speculative fiction is viewed as a red-headed stepchild of "serious" fiction.

Think about it, even on TV what's hot? Reality TV. Despite being scripted and not reality at all, Reality TV is overtaking traditional TV stories with fictional characters.

Nevertheless, Ellison's been successful with not only speculative fiction books and short stories, but also teleplays and screenplays about the world as we don't know it. Therefore, it's not shocking that he has a warrior mentality when it comes to getting paid for his work. I imagine when he started out he got his share of rejection slips like the rest of us and probably has stories to tell about bad deals with big publishing houses and studios.

In his 70s now, the writer or his representatives recently sued Parmount studios over a teleplay for one episode of the original Star Trek. His press release says the studio failed "to account to, or pay, Mr. Ellison for the merchandising, publishing, or any other exploitations, of the famous teleplay, from inception to date."

Can you have Ellison's backbone before you have his resume?

If you're new to writing, then starting out writing a few pieces for nothing makes sense because sometimes that's the only way you can get clips, but once you have your first check, you should avoid ever working for free again unless you've got dibs on a great royalties or residuals package. In that case, you aren't really working for free, especially if the project is a success, right? I fall down in this area because I chicken out on negotiating for more money, but this too shall pass.

My exceptions to getting paid for my work are similar to the exceptions hookers give when they don't charge for sex. If you're family, or a "close" friend or a business partner, I'll write for you for free. I'll write gratis for a small nonprofit or a nonprofit with no budget that I really like, or, as the mood strikes me, post my own work on a social media or writers' website to build contacts without being paid. Free is for the people you love.

With the talk lately over building a platform for your writing, I've been more focused on buckling down and rebuilding my web presence than chasing down work because I want to write books more than articles, but I'll get back to chasing dollars for shorter pieces soon. I had a growing web platform that I started building in 2003, but I dismantled it when I moved to New Orleans and realized I needed to look for a job.

While New Orleans can be wild, Louisiana is a very socially conservative state, and my chance of finding work could have been hampered by some of my more sensuous poetry as well as some of my some of my political views. So, when times got tough, I shut down blogs and took many of my website pages offline knowing that people Google you these days before hiring you.

That was then, this is now. Unless I slam up against a major financial catastrophe or a great work-at-home writing job falls into my lap with good health benefits, I'll be working hard to be a freelance writer and novelist only with the possibility of teaching adult community classes being a back-up. I like the freedom of working from home, pursuing stories that interest me, and creating fictional worlds that I hope will engage others. However, I may write some local stuff on low-scale because it gives me an excuse to ask people in my area questions and to be nosy, which keeps me from becoming a hermit. But work for free? No, that's out!

I found the Harlan Ellison clip while surfing Jane Friedman's Writer's Digest blog, "No Rules." And she found it surfing Twitter.



le0pard13 said...

Studios and/or publishers, being corporate entities and having enough lawyers on the payroll to enforce such, never dream of not charging for work product. Ellison's take regarding this is true to that. The manner used is just Harlan being Harlan--like it or not. I happen to agree that writers should be paid for what they write. Especially for the great ideas that authors put down on paper (or now electronic file) over the years. And Sci-Fi is a highly under-rated genre. Good post, VP.

Vérité Parlant said...

Ellison's a pistol, isn't he?

le0pard13 said...

Oh, yeah. I don't think the words hold back and Harlan Ellison have ever been used in the same sentence with regard to that author ;-).