Sunday, February 21, 2016

Musings on "pay the writers."

Distributors of creative content are notorious cheapskates. Back when I was in radio ("uh-oh, here she goes again..."), it was well-known that radio stations in Florida, say, paid less than did those in less salubrious climes. Station owners could get away with paying lower salaries because people would apply in droves to work in a place where they could go to the beach every day. There was even a term for it: We said these stations paid in sunshine.

So last October, when I heard Wil Wheaton had turned down an offer from the Huffington Post to reblog one of his posts, I wasn't surprised when I learned the reason why: they weren't going to pay him. The editor he spoke with couched it in these conciliatory terms: "Most bloggers find value in the unique platform and reach our site provides..." Translation: We pay in exposure.

Keep in mind this was Wil Wheaton the editor was talking to. Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Wil Wheaton, internet sensation, who plays a version of himself on the TV show The Big Bang Theory. That Wil Wheaton. HuffPo would have benefited from his "unique platform and reach" -- not the other way around.

The blogosphere blew up over it. And then the news cycle moved on, as it does, and folks simmered down -- until last week, when the editor of the HuffingtonPost UK, Stephen Hull, ripped off the scab. He has admitted that the UK site has 13,000 contributing bloggers, none of whom are paid. Why? Because it's more "authentic." Because that way, everybody knows the bloggers didn't give up their words for, you know, filthy lucre.

This from a company that might be worth as much as $1 billion dollars. So it's not like they can't afford to pay their bloggers. They just don't. And Hull says he's proud of that.

Needless to say, the blogosphere lit up again. Chuck Wendig has told everybody what he thinks of the idea, in his own endearingly NSFW way. Kristen Lamb has followed suit. Both of them are calling for a ban on linking to any HuffPo blogs until the company starts paying bloggers actual cash money for their posts.

And I agree with them. HuffPo is exploiting their bloggers. It doesn't matter whether I approach you with an idea for a column, or whether you approach me first; if I write it and you publish it, you have hired me, and you need to pay me -- and not in sunshine, or in your "unique platform and reach." My landlords won't let me pay them in sunshine. They're funny that way.

I part ways with Kristen, however, when she extends the "pay the writers" drumbeat to ebook sales. Why? Because now we're talking about two different ecosystems. Big publishers who hire writers need to pay them fairly for their work, period. But indie authors who are trying to get their names out there need to do what's necessary to disseminate their work as widely as possible -- and if that means writing a guest post for a book blog, or even giving away several thousand copies of their novel, then that's what they need to do. The first is a work-for-hire relationship; the second is a marketing strategy.

I've heard the arguments: indies ought not undervalue themselves; selling their work for a dollar is too cheap and giving it away is outrageous. I get it. I do. But you can't let your professional pride in your writing cloud your judgment. Nobody's going to pay five or ten bucks for an ebook by someone they've never heard of. If your book will only sell for a dollar at first, sell it for a dollar. You'll earn 35 cents on each copy. What do you think a publisher would pay an unknown author as an advance? $3,500? Then make it your goal to sell 10,000 copies. If you price your book at $2.99 instead, you'll make $2.09 per copy, and you'll only need to sell 1,675 copies.

Writers who get insulted over 99-cent price tags aren't thinking like content distributors, but that's what you have to do to sell books. As I said, content distributors are cheapskates. But one of the joys of going indie is that you get to pocket not just the writer's cut, but the distributor's cut, as well.

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These moments of bloggy sunshine have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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