Earlier this month, Nate Thayer, a freelance journalist and investigative reporter was contacted by The Atlantic
. The editor there wanted to re-use some of Thayer's posted writings; he asked Thayer to shorten the piece and to be willing to have The Atlantic use the shortened piece for free.
Thayer wasn't happy about being asked to work for free, and posted the editor's request along with some heated response, highlighting his career as a professional journalist not to mention his need to pay bills, feed his children and so on. In general, Thayer noted, "[I] am not in the habit of giving my services for free..."
Thayer's public scolding brought a number of responses, two of which I want to visit, and to draw parallels with other things here and elsewhere. First up, Cord Jefferson wrote a piece for Gawker, which brings up an important point: who's really paying?
When people work for free, particularly in businesses like writing, they are often able to do so because they have other resources they can draw on. A "day job" or friends and family can provide the financial resources necessary for someone who isn't able to get paid at writing to pursue that vocation. Crucially, external financial resources may enable someone to tolerate the zero- or low-wage situations that interns and freelancers find themselves in and that then lead them to the higher-paying or even salaried opportunities. Jefferson points out (I think correctly) that this unacknowledged dependence on outside resources leads to a self-selection process whereby people who have access to those resources (coarsely, to a rich family) get those opportunities whereas those who come from lower economic status are denied them. People in lower economic status are much more often non-white or single working parents - which is to say, women. Since they do not have the resource cushion to survive on the "work for prestige" rungs of the ladder they are thereby denied the opportunity that more well-off (and more often white male) people have. Thus the "work for free" regime acts to perpetuate racial and gender inequalities.
So far so good. Unfortunately the last two paragraphs of Jefferson's essay go off the rails as he chooses to misinterpret and attack Amanda Palmer and her TED talk. First of all, calling Palmer "wealthy" is almost certainly factually incorrect. But more importantly, Jefferson claims that Palmer's talk is promoting the ideas "...that artists should be willing to work for free." Say what? Certainly that's not how I or most other respondents I've read heard that talk, which seemed to me to be encouraging people to ask for things, including money.
Leaving aside the last two paragraphs, I also want to highlight the response from Ta-Nehisi Coates who happens to be Black and has the singular point of view of writing regularly for The Atlantic. Coates' reply column was titled 'Lucrative Work-for-Free Opportunity' and told his own story of receiving a similar offer to the one that offended Thayer. Coates was solicited by Matt Yglesias to write for The Atlantic in exchange for the greater exposure rather than for a by-the-word payment rate. Like Thayer, Coates was an established writer at the time and also like Thayer he was a struggling professional with bills to pay.
Coates took the offer, negotiating his ability to commit to what Yglesias wanted with his own need to publish his own things. He highlights the fact that this is common practice in the industry, but also calls Thayer's tactics (such as publishing private emails with names attached) into question. Yes, Coates says, it would be nice if the industry could provide more living-wage positions to alleviate the kinds of disadvantaged situations that Jefferson talks about. But it's also true that right now The Atlantic is employing more journalists than ever before.
Which leads to the point of this long-winded think piece: it's a continuation of our discussion of what it means to be an author in the 21st-century media environment. We've been conditioned to think of a "successful" artist as one who sells a million records or has a million followers/fans/readers/whatever. But if you price your offerings right (as Felix Salmon argues and I agree) then you don't need the superstar/megahit/blockbuster model to be successful. Palmer's Kickstarter gets mentioned for its dollar amount a lot - Jefferson highlights its dollar totals - but few people seem to notice that there weren't that many people backing it. A few tens of thousands. That's a highly replicable model - at least much more replicable than the blockbuster/megahit model.
The challenge is that making this model replicable requires new ways of business. As Palmer and others have said, this model works best if you are an extrovert. If you are comfortable asking for money, asking for crash space on tour, asking for a loaner piano to practice on, asking for a stage prop to be delivered, then you can move faster and get more done - at the 'cost' of intensive fan service. Not every author or artist is comfortable doing that, but that's OK. It's not a flaw in the model, it's a business opportunity.
Filling this need means we'll see the emergence of a new class of intermediaries. Just as many successful authors today have "web goblins" (as I think Neil Gaiman calls his Webmistress) or other staff who maintain their online presences, other artists are going to need social media intermediaries to handle that fan service. This is no different from the need authors have for traditional literary agents or performers have for tour managers. Performing is a business; people in business hire out the parts they can't handle themselves. Some of those hired people are called things like 'accountant' and some are going to be called 'twitter wrangler'. Shy performers (writers, artists) will have more need of these people than extroverts but that's not a fatal blow. Sometimes shy performers will have to get by doing things they're not good at because they can't afford to hire people, just like musicians starting out today often have to book their own shows.
Or maybe these artists will learn to ask, and somewhere within their few thousand fans will be someone who knows a club owner and can book a gig. That fan may even do it for free because, after all, there is something to be said for prestige.
(I am indebted for many of the ideas in this post to a fine group of savvy friends, many of them writers in their own regard. In no particular order thanks to JC Chatelain, Fred Barrett, David Weinberger, John Sundman, and Joe Mahoney. You should buy their books.)