The Writers Who Aren’t Getting Paid

The argument over people writing for online media outlets without compensation has been going on for a long time, but it recently became more pronounced thanks to a highly publicized email exchange between freelance journalist Nate Thayer and an editor at the Atlantic website. TL;DR: She asked if he’d be willing to edit down a piece he published elsewhere so she could run it as an Atlantic blog post—noting, “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month”—and he strongly objected to that offer; to paraphrase his subsequent comment to an interviewer, exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

Over the next few days, it’s felt like everybody’s had a response to this incident. Another digital editor at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal, sympathizes with Thayer—having been a struggling freelance writer himself—but argues that, right now, the best business model online media’s been able to come up with is one that puts writers at serious disadvantage. “In most cases, even great reported stories will fizzle, not spark,” Madrigal writes, speaking specifically of the traffic those stories generate and the extent to which they sell ads. “They will bring in 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 visitors. You’d need thousands of these to make a big site go.” And who can afford to pay for, and publish, thousands of those stories?

“Even a small blog, with one person at the helm, is going to need, say, 100-150 posts a month,” he continues. I think this is debatable, but it’s definitely a model that’s out there for a certain type of news/issue-oriented blog, so let’s go with it. Next, I’m going to toss some numbers out here, rather than the specific numbers he uses: Let’s say a 250-word blog post is worth $40-50, and go up to $100-150 for a longer (500-600 words) piece, of which you’ll run one a day, and we’ll assume 20 publishing days to a typical month. If you relied strictly on freelancers, this could put your monthly editorial budget anywhere between $5200 and $9500—although since you’d be likely to set aside at least one-third of the blogs to be produced in-house, let’s say $3500 to $6300 a month. Can you guarantee your advertisers $6300 worth of visibility each month? And keep in mind: I’m just talking about pieces that are no longer than a typical magazine sidebar or, at most, a one-page article—we haven’t even come close to the longform journalism of which Thayer’s article would have been an example.

Madrigal explains the shortcomings with this model well, and as the conversation gets around to “well, what if we didn’t pay some of the writers?” he offers some justifications, including exposure—later in the week, in a separate Atlantic post, Ta-Nehisi Coates admitted upfront he’d accepted exposure in lieu of cash for his earliest appearances at that blog, and he was upfront about why it worked for him: “I could not convince editors that what I was curious about was worth writing about. Every day I would watch ideas die in my head… What the internet offered was the chance to let all of those ideas compete in the arena, and live and die on the merits. And [The Atlantic] was offering a bigger arena.”


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9 March 2013 | theory |

I Have Nothing to Say About Bookish

So finally launched in early 2013, only a year and a half or so behind its original target date, and various people have been weighing in with their judgments of how it turned out. I took a quick look, the night the site went live, but I didn’t really find anything that was both new to me and relevant to my interests, so as a “discovery engine” or whatever the popular term of art is these days (“recommendation matrix?”) I found it a bit of a wash. (Full disclosure: About a year ago, I had a meeting at Bookish, as part of a project I was working on for another company, and when I got there it turned out I knew a couple people who’d been hired on the editorial crew.)

Books Bookish Considers Relevant

Here’s a recent spread of “new releases” Bookish was promoting on its homepage shortly after the launch. If you’re interested in fashion and beauty tips, Paula Deen’s offspring, the “mega-selling” Jackie Collins, or an inspirational memoir from Michael Bolton, then Bookish and you are going to get along just fine. (The other book is a dog memoir, and though dog memoirs aren’t at the top of my reading list these days, I’ve read other books by Ted Kerasote—helped promote one during my brief foray in corporate publishing, in fact—and he’s really good on the subject and a heck of a nice guy, to boot.)

If you’re interested in “literature,” though, or any kind of fiction, you’ll have to dig a little deeper—and, as Chad Post of Three Percent points out (at devastating length), for many active readers “this site is 100% redundant and unnecessary.” Specifically, it can be seen as an attempt to recreate everything that’s great about Goodreads only with the priorities of corporate publishing as its animating spirit. And, as Chad asks, “Why would I stop updating the GoodReads account I’ve been using for years to try and recreate it on Bookish?” There’s no point.

(Although, truth be told, I’ve been kind of lax about updating my Goodreads account. But we’ll get into that.)

Now, I’m extremely fortunate, in that I don’t need Bookish to help me find interesting books to read, because I already have people in my life that I trust to give me reading recommendations. If Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, for example, suggests a novel like Vicki Essex’s Back to the Good Fortune Diner or Ellen Hartman’s The Long Shot, I can count on that book being top-notch contemporary romance. The flip side of this power dynamic, though, is that Bookish “needs” me, among other readers, to give it a bunch of book reviews and ratings to make its content more “robust.” (Actually, I suppose, readers like me are probably the last thing Bookish needs; Lord knows, if the corporate publishers behind Bookish dedicated themselves to servicing readers like me instead of the readers they do dedicate the majority of their resources to servicing, they wouldn’t be billion-dollar companies.)

As it happens, Mike Cane has already come up with excellent reasons not to share any information with Bookish, which dovetail neatly with my own main line of resistance—I’m tired of sites like Bookish making money off of my, if you’ll forgive the grandiosity, “literary expertise” when it could be generating capital for me. (See also: my declining rate of participation in Goodreads over the last year or so, as much as I enjoy the site.) I wrote about this back in 2011, and I’ve spent the last year coming up with some ideas and launching some projects of my own, like the Life Stories podcast and the enhanced Beatrice interviews for the iPad.

And that’s the real reason I don’t intend to engage meaningfully with Bookish as a consumer—not only does it not help me with the things it purports to help me with, the volunteer basis on which they’d like me to help them is a drain on my time and energy that I can’t afford. I do feel like I can do a lot to encourage people to discover some fantastic books and writers—but I’m developing my own agenda for that, and if corporate media outlets want to leverage my literary sensibilities, they can open their checkbooks.

7 February 2013 | theory |

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