Friday, July 3, 2009

Will free mean cheap?

I haven't posted for a while, but it hasn't been because I didn't have any ideas. I've had ideas that I wanted to share, but I haven't had the time or the energy or enough of either at the same time to pull it all together.

Today, I have a day off, and it's sunny, and I can think for more than five seconds at a time.

And time is the theme today. Time and money (just like the old saying).

One thing that got me riled up this week was a post on Seth's Blog. The post is about Chris Anderson's new book Free, which I guess is about the new economy where everything is free. (This is the upside or the downside of the Internet age, depending on how you look at it.). In this post, Seth Godin is responding to Malcolm Gladwell's comments about the book..

I'll confess right now that I haven't read Mr. Anderson's book or Mr. Gladwell's article, but one thing in Mr. Godin's blog post got me pretty steamed:

In a world of free, everyone can play.

This is huge. When there are thousands of people writing about something, many will be willing to do it for free (like poets) and some of them might even be really good (like some poets). There is no poetry shortage.

Always picking on the poets!

On the one hand, I agree that it's great that everyone can play, and everyone can get their work out. Everyone can share, and we all know that sharing is good.

But if everything is free, how does anyone get paid? Or is all this sharing in the status of hobby? Because at the end of the day, you probably need to eat. I know that I need to eat. So if everything is free, you need a day job or you need to be married to someone who has a day job or you need a patron.

If everything is free, there are no longer any professionals, and I guess that's what bugs me about the example: The assumption that Professional Poet is an oxymoron. I'd just been thinking earlier in the day that maybe as poets we need to respect ourselves a little more, be open about what we do, instead of mentioning it out of the corners of our mouths.

I could go on and on and on, but this is my day off from my day job and I'd like to work on some poems, so I'm going to try to get off my soapbox without tripping now.

Thanks for listening. Feel free to share your thoughts.


The Good Typist said...

I know where you're coming from. It's interesting, actually, because I am finally starting to come to a place where I don't feel guilty for asking for what my labor is worth, writing or otherwise--and I am talking in terms of cold, hard cash here. I did massage therapy and healing work for 12 years; work that I studied extremely hard to master and do well. I can't tell you how many times people tried to get me to lower my rates, or expected me to offer it for free or "trade" because it was healing work--there is some sort of prevailing attitude that it's wrong to charge money for that. My day job right now is working for a non-profit, which is very hard work, and I hear all the time about how people working in non-profits don't really need or want to earn much money. Baloney. I want to earn what my work is worth, and I refuse to apologize for that.

I think that it does undermine the work of poets and artists when there is the same attitude toward our work--the implication is that somehow it's easy or "just play", and that we're ripping people off or being immoral by charging fairly for what we produce. It ties in with the general resentment and suspicion people seem to have towards artists in this culture. For example, I can't tell you how many times I see an ad online demanding writing services for free.

I am really trying to make a change in my attitude with how I approach asking for money for my labor. A lot of it has to do with me being female, let's face it. There are a lot of cultural messages absorbed by women about how we aren't supposed to ask for much, and especially not money. It's still considered unseemly for women to negotiate aggressively on their own behalf. I recently had a friend request my content editing services, and she balked at my rate, which very reasonable. It really hurt my feelings, but I decided not to back down.

Maybe in relation to poetry, the answer is more education in general about the role and value of poetry in the culture. I don't's certainly food for thought.

Joannie said...

Good thoughts. I appreciate the suggestion that gender might be playing a role here, too. (Although I don't think it figured into that statement that got me initially riled. Then again, who knows?)

Louis Broome said...

It's almost always true in life, and is always true in business, that you get what you ask for. I learned this from my wife, who’s an HR director and a master at getting employers to give her what she thinks she’s worth. When negotiating the salary for a new job, most people don’t ask for as much as the employer is willing to pay. Her best practice, depending on a variety of factors - industry, experience, etc. - is to ask for 10% - 20% more than you made on your old job. If they simply give it to you, you didn’t ask for as much as they were willing to pay. If they come back with a lower number, refuse to budge. More often than not they’ll meet your number. This isn’t just about the money. It’s about knowing exactly what you, as an employee, are worth to a company – an exercise too few take on – and it’s about respect, which people often don’t get until, yes, they ask for it.

I don’t know from poets but I can tell you about playwrights. I’ve spent years trying to understand why very few playwrights earn a living and yet so many are willing to continue writing plays for little or no money. The number of US playwrights earning their keep is a very small number, I’m guessing five or fewer (consider August Wilson's final curtain). If you include playwright/performers, that number goes up by maybe a dozen. All of the other playwrights have a day job, usually teaching playwrighting.

There’s no money for playwrights because there’s no money in theatre – it’s not vital, there’s no serious money to be made by anyone. The playwright who wants to pay his bills writing plays must begin by coming up with a new business model. Otherwise, work in film or TV. I’m putting the onus on the playwright, and I’m putting my writing where my mouth...okay, that’s not quite right, but I am workin on a model that results in revenue.

If poets ever made money at any time in history, it’s because there was a functioning business model and a paying audience. Is there an historical precedent for making money writing poetry that contemporary poets can build on?

Joannie said...

Good points, Louis. I didn't know about the 10%-20% guideline. But I have hard time imagining it for poetry (what's 10% of 0? still 0). I know that I tend to feel so grateful when a publisher accepts a poem or asks me to read, that I don't think of asking to be compensating (they might change their mind!). That said, I've heard of other people who won't even consider reading for less than $XXX; I think they're living in a different world than I am.

Also, thanks for sending the link to the NPR story about Elizabeth Haukaas.

The quote

“[Artists] bring beauty into the world and help us understand the human condition, and isn't that worth as much as a mortgage-backed securities broker?”

seems especially relevant to this conversation.

I also think about other cultures where poetry is seen as a more integral part of daily living.

Dawn said...

I've been thinking about this post since I read it a few days ago - working for free would be ok with me IF the bills were free too i.e. free room and board ; ) Maybe we can just send IOU's like California.

Joannie said...

Dawn, I think you've hit that nail right on the head. If everything were free, everyone could do their best work for free.

Or we need that new business model.