If we are all “Slaves of the Internet” – How do we Break Free?

In the October 26, 2013 issue of the New York Times Sunday Review, Tim Kreider wrote a poignant article on the difficulties, if not impossibilities,  of making a living as a writer in this highly competitive, zero pay world of on-line publications.

Slaves of the Internet is a wake-up call for anyone who believes that having  a career as a writer, columnist or “published author” means what it did once upon a time.  When so many are so willing to “give it away for free”, and so many who are so willing to offer zero compensation, or non-monetary incentives for words to fill their magazines, websites and ebook readers, is there anyway in this modern age for writers to make a decent living? Here is an article I wrote more than ten years ago for my monthly column “The Road To Riches”  which answers that question, and a lot more:

When Do You Know It’s Time To Turn Pro?

On the road to riches, you must first travel down a bumpy dirt path and pay tolls before cruising onto the freeway to fortune. The writer’s highway is paved with endless unpaid assignments and publishing opportunities that do much to feed the ego, but little to feed the body.

Unless you’ve won or lost something big, slept with, stalked, murdered or know someone who knew someone who did, getting paid big bucks for your words is as difficult as, well, getting paid big bucks for your words.

Thousands of dollars were awarded to Monica for playing the President’s harmonica, (as I’ve often told my husband, I’m sleeping with the wrong Bill) and she never wrote a single page in her life. The lone survivor on that island tv show just received a huge advance for his story, and California’s former insurance commissioner, who was forced to resign before he was arrested for misappropriation of funds, just announced his plan to write a book about his…dishonesty?

But for the rest of us honest, hard working writer folk, we have to pay our dues the traditional way: write-send-reject-resend-repeat, until we receive that one small piece of paper that tells the world we’ve made it: a paycheck. Now, at last we can call ourselves “professional” writers. Or can we?

Do you remember the last time someone asked you what you did for a living and you replied “I’m a writer.” Their next comment was, most probably something like “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write.” or “I’ve started a book” or “I’ve been thinking about writing a book,” and I’m sure you’ve heard many other similar comments where you’ve had to smile through gritted teeth.

Can you imagine hearing the same response if you’d told them you were a lawyer, or a heart surgeon? Pause for a minute and substitute any other profession into the comment line and it would sound something like this:

“Oh, I’ve always wanted to do heart surgery.” “I’ve been thinking about taking the bar exam.” Yet, when people hear that we’re writers, they seem to think that anyone can do it, even them! But what’s worse, is that a number of publications also feel the same. Why should they pay us, when there are so many writers who would and do work for free?

The National Writers Union notwithstanding, this is a major dilemma for writers and authors, especially in this new electronic age of cyber ezines and the Internet. They offer us international exposure instead of cash because they can, and many of us are happy to take it, because the carrot they dangle in front of hungry writers it just too hard to resist.

We all know the familiar tag line. “We’re a small publication, and can’t afford to PAY our writers, but we’ll give you a few free magazines to show your friends.” Non paying magazines and by-line only newspapers are a wonderful way to get started with your writing career. They give you credibility (not to mention a great ego boost), and motivate you to continue in this very difficult endeavor, especially if you’ve accumulated a large pile of rejection letters.

Clips are great to build your press kit, resume and reputation. But if writing is more than just a hobby, there comes a time when you’ll want more compensation than just seeing your name in print. You’ll want to see your name on a check. There will come a time when you’ll want to go Pro. And, that means a changed in attitude about where you publish, and more importantly, who you are.

It boils down to one question each writer must ask themselves: What is the value of my work? At what point in our career do we consider ourselves “professional” and ask to be paid as such, or simply continue to accept the great exposure offered along with the one or two free copies of the publication as payment for our services. Here are two specific examples.

Our local writers club sponsored a short story contest for members only which was announced in their July newsletter. There was a fee of $15.00 per entry, with a first prize of $500.00. For personal reasons, I was not going to renew my dues with this club, but for $15.00 I was planning on entering the contest, which had a deadline of September 22. In August, I received a renewal notification on my membership of $35.00 which I would have to pay in order to enter the contest. So, now I had a choice. Do I send $50.00 and renew my membership to an organization that I did care to join for the possibility of winning $500, or do I decline on principle? I passed.

Last year I submitted an article for the recently published “Chicken Soup for the Writers Soul”. The article was accepted by the primary editor and I received notification outlining the terms upon final acceptance and publication. The terms were a one-time payment of $300.00. Period. There were no royalty payments of any kind. Knowing how popular the “Chicken Soup” series is, I was amazed that they paid so little to the contributing authors, but again, there’s the question of exposure.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately) my article didn’t make the final cut, but a friend of mine’s did. She was asked to attend a booksigning promotion for the book at a local bookstore, where she signed book after book of which she received not one penny in royalty payment, or even traveling expenses. Was this a fair exchange, or was the publisher paying a small stipend to the authors while making thousands on the profit from the sale of the book?

I don’t have an answer, but I do have my own set of standards and rules that I will share. Some of you might not agree with me, but that’s what email is for, so please feel to send me your opinion. (robin_westmiller@yahoo.com.)

Number 1: I never enter any contests that require a fee.

Number 2: I don’t submit to magazines that don’t pay in real money.

Number 3: There are always exceptions to numbers 1 and 2.

Exception 1) If the contest is for an organization or charity that I would have contributed to anyway, then I consider it a donation to a worthy cause and not a fee. (In the case of the Writers Club, they do have a good organization and I had no problem supporting them as a group.)

Exception 2) There are a number of ways to receive compensation other than money. Recently, a small magazine publisher offered to put display ads in all his publications to promote my retail business and my novel. The ads would have cost hundreds of dollars, and are worth more in potential income than a flat one-time payment. In some cases the compensation in-kind can be of more value than the monetary reward, but that’s a judgment call and each offer must be weighed individually. The jury is still out on “Chicken Soup”.

Exception 4: If the publisher is a personal friend and does everything they can to promote me and my work, even though there is no monetary payment, the rewards are, again much greater than a mere one-time payment. But relationships such as these take time. You must first prove yourself as a professional writer, even if your only payment is a few free copies of the publication.

Writing is a skill and an art. It’s not just something that we do, it’s what we are, and it most certainly is NOT something that just “anyone” can do. We have value for our creativity and the hard work we do, and if we always accept nothing or less than what we deserve, then that’s what we will always receive.

This “road” is not for everyone who thinks they can drive, and the rewards and riches are not necessarily found at the end of the trip, but at every stop along the way.

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