On Working For Free and (My) Hypocrisy

Writing NotesAmong the Amanda Palmer-centric areas of the intertubes, there’s been a lot of furor about Amanda Palmer asking musicians to play local shows with her band for (essentially) free.  This has set off triggers for several of my writer friends (including my girlfriend) for quite a few reasons (IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE BELOW)… but I think one of the biggest reasons for the annoyance is that as writers, we’re tired of seeing our efforts devalued.  The next two quotes (as well as the third) come from “Business Advice From Writers To Writers“, which I put together last year.

Ask questions and learn to parse the advice you’re given. Learn the business as well as the craft. If I wanted to write just for the love of it, I’d just put my stories on my blog. My time and work are worth pay, not just the promise of “exposure.”  – Maurice Broaddus

Exposure is a word pertaining to nearly dying of cold, not a useful way to make a living as a writer.  – Tobias Buckell

These are very, very true.  Money flows toward the author.  In an industry where “professional” rates are essentially unchanged for over three decades, where the efforts of writers are devalued, demeaned, and taken for granted, where scams are sometimes hard to distinguish from legitimate professionals, the idea of working simply for “exposure” is kind of a non-starter.

Except I’ve done work for free.  I don’t striate my fiction sales in my bibliography by how much they’ve paid – but I can assure you that only one of the flash fiction bits got paid anywhere near a pro rate (the one to Daily Science Fiction).  But I’ve written fiction – on request – for free and for exposure before.  And I will again.

Don’t be afraid to try something new – audiobooks, bookmarks, book blog tours, serializing, etc. Don’t hesitate to stop doing what doesn’t pay off.  – Daniel Coleman

I wrote “In the Time of Dragons” for the Origins anthology last year (as part of the deal for participating in the Library and having table space), and I’m obligated to write another story for them for next year.  I also wrote “The Burning Servant” for free for Mike Stackpole’s Chain Story.  I ended up selling audio rights to “The Burning Servant” to Pseudopod (who did an awesome job with it), and that has given me a greater degree of opportunities and  respectability.  Being part of the Library at Origins got me introduced to a whole bunch of fans – and also to other peers (and more opportunities) than I wouldn’t have otherwise had.

I made a decision about how much value the exposure, opportunities, and experience would be worth. 

At the time and place I made those decisions, it was worthwhile from a career and financial perspective.  I reserve the right to make a different decision further on down the line – either because there are more demands on my time, or because the value of the exposure, opportunities, and experience do not seem worth it.

I keep emphasizing the experience itself.  Not “experience” in terms of practice, but “experience” as in “I had this cool experience”.  Don’t forget that economics is a stand in for subjective valuations of “worth”.  In an essay explaining why she would play (again) with AFP for free, cellist Unwoman says:

On any given night, would I rather be playing with one of my top-10 favorite current musicians, or hanging out at home? Or buying a ticket, merely watching the show, wishing I were on stage? The answer is obvious for me.

I can understand that.  I sold one book at a particular convention this year.  I had a really bad sales experience there the year before.  But I got to hang with a lot of really cool people (when I wasn’t sitting at a table) and my girlfriend had a lot of fun as an attendee.  So am I going to go back as a vendor?  Um, no.  Is it possible (even probable) that I’ll go back as a panelist or attendee?  Absolutely.

If Neil Gaiman were to invite me to write a short story for an anthology, for free, and read it on stage with himI would sign that contract in a heartbeat.  Even if I made my full-time living writing, even if I had to scrimp and save to make it happen.  Hell, I might even pay to be a part of that.  Because I’ve been a big fan of Mr. Gaiman for going on twenty years now.  That experience would be worth it to me.

Thirty four people thought it was worth $5k to host a house party (essentially private concert).  Four people thought it was worth a thousand dollars to simply have a donut with AFP before a show.

A thousand bucks?  For a donut before a show?   Um… no.  Not for me.  But it was a totally fair price for four people, because for those four people, there is no substituting that donut for a donut with anyone else, ever.

To close with one more quote from Unwoman’s article:

 A musician who only wants to play paid gigs? That’s valid too; neither of us is more serious or righteous than the other.

IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE: This is addressing the actual offer AFP made. There’s a whole separate bit of serious and valid critique and criticism about the phrasing of the offer and the nature of AFP’s response to critique about the offer, which I am not addressing here.

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