The Internet has gone haywire (Laura at Apt. 11D has gathered the links) over the past few days, over a critical blog post by a well-known, extremely talented writer named Nate Thayer, republishing his conversation with a new editor at The Atlantic, over an offer of non-payment for a revision of an already-published article of his.
I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts.
Various media outlets have weighed in, taken sides, and even hailed the benefits of “free writing.” There’s been at least some truth to every piece I’ve read, but it all boils down to this– you can’t make a living, or even some semblance of a career as a freelance writer in the digital age.
The posts are equal parts depressing (should all knowledge be free?) and discouraging (I am in the midst of a graduate degree in writing, after all) but they all ask one, crucial question– can the industry assign value to words on the Internet? Or is there enough free content online to reduce the value of even the most seasoned, award-winning writer?
Will there every be a working business model for online writing?
I don’t know the answer. I have only my own, individual experience. Which is to say that ten years ago I wrote for free, regional parenting magazines and was paid more than The Atlantic appears to pay for a typical, online article. For many years in between, I did write for free– essays for online literary magazines and unpaid anthologies– but ultimately decided that I wasn’t getting the exposure (a divisive, often-used term in the above articles). In other words, because I wasn’t writing for “big” publications, editors couldn’t care less about my bylines.
During this time, I ultimately concluded that if I wasn’t going to be paid for writing, I might as well start writing novels and chain-smoking. (But because smoking is disgusting, I decided against it.) Then, when I least expected, I did end up with a paying, regular freelance writing job.
What’s difficult to swallow, isn’t the fact that I can’t make a living as a freelance writer– I learned this lesson a long time ago. It’s the fact that not even the Big Guys– the international, mega-circulation publications– pay enough for a writer to make a living. That really, there’s no upward mobility for a freelance writer. There’s nothing to reach for the stars for. There’s nowhere to go but down.
That a writer like myself has to pin her hopes on something so astronomically unlikely, the odds similar are to winning the lottery– the sale of her debut novel.
How crazy is that?