In October 2015, Wil Wheaton, well-known for his brief turn as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation and as a celebrity blogger, created a stir when he declared that he had turned down an offer to write for the Huffington Post. He refused, according to him, because they had declined to pay for his work, in keeping with their policy of reimbursing writers with "exposure" in lieu of payment. Wheaton refused, and went public about his reasons. As he put it then: "The company can absolutely afford to pay contributors. The fact that it doesn't, and can get away with it, is distressing to me."
The story went viral, drawing responses from fellow writers and commentators. The Houston Press's Jeff Rouner declared that Wheaton had inspired him to also refuse to write for HuffPo. Salon's Scott Timber wrote, "When 'free' becomes the way creative work gets assessed, it undercuts the market for everyone, famous and obscure alike."
HuffPo has been targeted over its compensation practices for writers for years. Before Wheaton's complaint last year, the most famous protest happened in 2011, after HuffPo was sold for $315 million. A group of bloggers, irate that founder Arianna Huffington did not offer them any part of the $315 million deal, demanded that she fork over some of the cash (she didn't).
I've been a freelance writer for more than 15 years. I've been asked, twice, by HuffPo to be interviewed on my views. I've refused both times, making it clear that I don't support their use of free labor. I can't reconcile fighting inequality and injustice with supporting the domination of a site that so clearly devalues the work that goes into writing.
In general, even when I'm approached by non-HuffPo reporters, I make a point of asking if they're getting paid. It reduces the scope of places where I might be interviewed, but as someone who barely makes it as a freelance writer, I cannot bring myself to support the practice of writing for free.
Still, as much as I dislike HuffPo, I know it's the easiest target out there. It has a number of easily identified elements: a multimillionaire founder, a highly public sale, editors like Stephen Hull who declares that he is actually proud to not pay writers, and so on.
But wander further afield into the world of publishing, and it becomes clear that it's not just the big bad meanies like Huffington and her cohort making life miserable for writers and devaluing their work. Rather, lots of publications, across the political spectrum and in a range of sizes, consistently treat writing as a mere hobby. Sadly, lots of writers, including some prominent ones, rationalize little or no pay as the inevitable cost of "making it" in the business.
The problem goes beyond the usual suspects
While Huffington Post is a highly visible site and serves as the most obvious example of the exploitation of writers, there are in fact lots of other, less remarked-on places where similar practices run rampant. Medium, founded by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, along with Biz Stone and Jason Goldman, is also a successful site that draws the consistent attention of media commentators. Its model is to not pay the vast majority of its writers, reserving pay for a select few, mostly well-known journalists and writers.
It's easy to carp on sites like HuffPo and Medium because they're owned or run by wealthy people. But even leftist sites don't pay even though the left is, in theory, committed valuing and rewarding labor fairly. Somewhere along the way, the commitment to ending inequality and ensuring equitable wages for work became dissociated from the world of publishing and writing, where writers are seen more as hobbyists or as people who write because they can afford to.
When even "leftist" sites exploit and demean the labor of writing, it's inevitable that the rot will spread deep. The contradiction is that the resulting inequality for writers is often in plain sight — most websites will state that they don't pay or, by not stating terms of pay, signal that. But non-payment for writers is often translated as something that advances the "greater good."
Take, for instance, outlets like Guernica and OpenDemocracy. Both are left-oriented, are structured as nonprofits, and fundraise for money. But the money they raise goes toward a few upper staff members, and they rarely pay their writers. OpenDemocracy's website lists approximately 34 editorial staff members, and states that its volunteer writers collectively turn in about 60 pieces a week.
In a panel presentation, Guernica's (paid) publisher Lisa Lucas snipped about those who dared to complain about not being paid: "The lack of graciousness, the entitlement writers feel to become angry about the marketplace [...] writers actually need to check it a little, because so many of these editors are making nothing. At what point is editing not art? The identification [of quality work], the nurturing; you would never tell a midwife that she should work for free because you're the person giving birth."
Lucas is also reported as "saying many of her contributors don't mind working for free, that many of them are well-paid elsewhere and consider it ‘a donation' to gift their work to Guernica."
In Lucas's words, I hear a contempt for writers who want to make a living as writers. Clearly, she understands the value of writing — presumably, she wouldn't be a publisher if not. But I don't understand why the value doesn't require literal monetary compensation.
And her words point to the unspoken class hierarchy that often reigns in the publishing world, one where only those who can afford to write for free or very little are able to do so.
The practices of places like Guernica and OpenDemocracy cannot sustain writers who want to work as writers, and such practices are emboldened by a large group of writers who volunteer their labor for free.
If, instead, writing were more widely seen as paid labor and not as a hobby, we might start asking hard questions about not just whether it is paid but whether it is paid well. I'm often asked how much writers should expect to be paid, and why. My response to whoever asks me that question is that they should take their living expenses into account and then consider how many $50 to $200 checks (standard pay for freelancers who write for online publications or smaller magazines, and usually on the low end) it would take them to pay for all that.
And I tell them to keep in mind that checks are often late, even long after pieces are published. When all of these conditions are factored in, it becomes clear that the publishing industry gets away with conditions that would be considered grounds for litigation in most other workplaces.
Yet, to date writing is considered a mere hobby, and awful pay, combined with issues like non-payment, is rampant in the publishing industry. If, as Lucas says, there are people who simply donate their work, the question has to be asked: Why? What possesses anyone who even halfheartedly claims to be a writer to willfully sabotage their fellow writers' careers? What does it mean when even leftist writers, writers who aggressively advocate against the exploitation of workers elsewhere, nonetheless become scabs in the publishing world? What does it mean for them not to recognize that their free labor actually contributes to a system of exploitation of others?
"You don't do it for the money"
When I was 13 and in Calcutta (now Kolkata), one of our teachers at the exclusive girl's school I attended asked us all what we wanted to be. I was, as I recall, the only one who responded that I wanted to be a writer. Not a journalist, or a poet (a choice that would have been looked upon as delusional but worthwhile in a city that reveres poets), or even a professor, but a writer.
Even at 13, I understood the slightly perplexed look our teacher gave me as I responded. There were future artists and graphic arts designers around me, alongside the scientists and economists, and all of them actually ... did things.
But even in a city that still loves books with a passion that will never dull, actually wanting to be a writer or simply declaring that one wanted to write, as opposed to creating poetry or exposing government misdeeds via journalism, was tantamount to an admission that one didn't have much of a sense of purpose.
It was in the second year of my master's degree that I found myself with a graduate colleague in the library, who began talking about her father's record of publication and how much he had published. My ears perked up, and I asked, "How much do they pay?" She laughed, not contemptuously but with the sense of imparting a life lesson: "Oh, no, they don't pay. You don't do it for the money."
"You don't do it for the money" became the inevitable mantra of my graduate career. All of us graduate students (there were very few adjuncts at the time, if any) traded our graduate labor for tuition and a stipend in a department that serviced the entire university's undergraduate population, which had to fulfill several writing requirements.
What sustained most of us was the idea that this was a temporary situation that would end with tenure-track positions, which, in the boom years of the late '80s and early '90s, were seemingly assured to us.
"You don't do it for the money" was the rationale behind the graduate student labor that went into departmental journals where everyone was unpaid, compensated with the perks of contacts, editing and writing experience, and the cachet of being associated with an academic journal.
"You don't do it for the money" was a way to disguise the gendered nature of our labor, in an academic world where teaching was inherently devalued in large part because it has historically been the occupation of women.
"You don't do it for the money" was the reason so many of us stuck on and struggled in adjunct jobs for years.
"You don't do it for the money" was even the reason I finally left my adjunct position in the English department at University of Illinois Chicago. Having spent an all-too-brief spring break trying desperately to get some writing of my own done, while teaching three undercompensated classes every semester, I finally realized that I wasn't able to do what I most wanted: write.
I didn't leave because I wasn't making enough but because I wasn't able to write. But slowly, without an actual income — even a meager one as an adjunct — my structural supports started to crumble, and writing for pay meant actually writing for the money.
You don't do it for the money. My first freelance gig paid 7 cents a word, and I was just ecstatic about seeing my work on the page. I was still an adjunct, so I didn't "need" the money. But I showed it to an acquaintance (I may or may not have run around showing it to everyone). She looked at it and said, "You got $25 for that?" And the that meant it was too much money.
Some encouraging signs
There are long and complicated histories about how and why writing became the severely undercompensated profession it is now, but one clear thread that emerges is the link between the worlds of writing and academia. In many ways academia breeds, nurtures, and fetishizes the idea of the writer toiling in a garret, uncompensated. Consider the sheer romance of the writerly life of the tubercular Keats, whose life was cut short by poverty.
Academia also breeds the myth that a true and dedicated writer will write no matter what (including tuberculosis, syphilis, consumption, or any combination thereof). And academic writing is not compensated, at least not in the conventional academic journal. The idea behind academic publishing is that it demonstrates one's credentials and an ability to converse with people in one's field. Adding pay to that mixture would seemingly sully the enterprise.
When I was among those organizing lecturers at the University of Illinois, one adjunct, furious at the thought of unionizing, asked if he was to think of himself as similar to truck drivers. It's only in recent years, when even tenured academics have been pushed to finally unionize in the face of stark budget cuts, that the concept of academic labor as labor has taken hold.
At University of Illinois, after years of seeing inadequate pay raises while administrator salaries ballooned, the faculty finally voted to unionize. But that has only spread slowly to the world of writing (though changes are afoot: Gawker voted to unionize last year, for instance).
As the adjunct crisis deepens and as academic programs see their funding slashed, more and more graduate students, adjuncts, and even tenured professors feel the need to branch out into the world of mainstream (non-academic) publishing. Many or most of them, granted the security of even minimal but steady paychecks as adjuncts, are happy to write for free or almost nothing —further adding to the dwindling rates of writers in general.
In a clear-eyed and cutting piece titled "Dying of Exposure," Aruna D'Souza, who left a tenured position to become a freelancer, writes about her decision and the realization that set in when she refused an offer to work for free:
After I had a chance to catch my breath and type out a reasonable but firm reply turning down the offer, the worry set in: the worry not only that I had given up an opportunity but also that my sheer outrage at this conversation was immature, childish, and naïve. But then it occurred to me that my anger wasn't the outrage of a child but rather that of a middle-aged woman who had been protected by the privilege of academic tenure from the realities of a changing marketplace for ideas. It was the outrage of someone who had graduated from college in 1991, when the possibility of making a living as a writer was not yet a pipe dream when newspapers still hired staff reporters, when magazines still paid their contributors, when publishing houses still took on B-list novelists, and when, even if one couldn't expect an easy life of it, one could cobble together enough to live on.
Had I become a writer then, instead of going to graduate school and becoming an academic, I would have been one of a dying breed, like one of the last generation of brontosaurus. Instead, now, at age forty-five trying to fashion a second career, I am like a pigeon who aspires to be a pterodactyl.
I do think the situation in most places is shifting. We may not be back to the days of the pterodactyl so brilliantly described by D'Souza but at least to those of the dodo. When it comes to writing, you get what you pay for.
Consider, for instance, Noam Chomsky, the venerable and prodigious leftist writer who often produces work for ZNet, an established leftist site. ZNet doesn't pay, so what it gets from Chomsky are pieces that simply repeat bits from his books; versions of these can often be found floating around on various other sites.
But ZNet continues to publish Chomsky, a lot, which means it's also making an active decision to not publish other writers whose work might differ from Chomsky and which might be, dare we say, more interesting. You might be able to get the views and writings of the world's preeminent antiwar hero, but is he saying anything new?
I have no idea what I would have been like as an academic if I had gone on to a tenure-track position. I'd like to think I'd get it if a writer friend (and, really, would I actually even have "writer friends?") had told me what I'd like to tell every academic who writes for free: You're not doing it for the money, but you're making it impossible for me to earn a living.
I'd like to think that I would respond with shock and instantly change my mind. I've actually had academic friends who have, in fact, changed their minds and continued to ask what they might do to ensure they don't perpetuate the cycle of exploitation. I'd like to think I might be as gracious and open to change as they have been.
I'll only do it for the money
In March of 2014, I wrote a piece titled "Scabs: Academics and Others Who Write for Free." In it, I argued that those who write without pay in places like Guernica or HuffPo, which can actually afford to pay but won't, are scabs, effectively taking jobs from the rest of us. D'Souza writes about the responses to the piece, which ranged from anger and defensiveness to a genuinely perplexed sense that writing for free meant "there could be a space for the exchange of ideas and the making of art that existed outside that of money — those who believed that we could all work to create that space and, in doing so, we would resist the totalizing effect of capitalism."
Such was, indeed, partly the response from Magnus Nome, editor in chief at OpenDemocracy, who objected, on the site, to my characterization of his workplace as one that encouraged scab labor. He wrote:
If oD would have to pay all its contributors, that financial burden would kill the organisation. That would lead to exactly zero new paid jobs for writers, but some hard working editors would be out of a job, and we'd have lost a platform that has published about 25,000 articles and sparked numerous debates since 2001 — on issues of human rights, inequality, war, economy, migration, democracy and surveillance amongst countless others.
Nome's rationale is eerily similar to that of Lucas devaluing the work of writers and pointing instead to the "hard working editors" who would, surely, have no work if there were no writers in the first place. But he also states unequivocally that to pay writers would mean depleting important work on critical issues like inequality and war.
What we see in Nome's response is a baffling refusal to acknowledge that, in fact, the economic inequality faced by writers who don't get paid is actually part of the same inequality that he and his cadre of writers, the sort so privileged that they work for free, are purportedly fighting.
Again, as in academia and the world in general, writing is divorced from labor, and the large number of people who don't have to write for money has meant an inability to even see how economic inequality manifests itself in a range of professions.
At the same time, OpenDemocracy has a paid staff. I found three open positions advertised on the site, including Nome's (he stepped down last year). Nome made £50,000.
The average salary in the United Kingdom, where OpenDemocracy is based: £26,000.
In other words, OpenDemocracy can and does fundraise for the work of its employees — just not for its writers.
The fact that the top staff members at two rather different publications, Lucas and Nome, should have such similar views speaks not to some conspiracy or cabal in the publishing industry (although such would not surprise me), but to a larger culture of devaluing writers' work. It also says a lot that there is little difference between Guernica, OpenDemocracy, and HuffPo.
We all pay for free writing
As I write this, I'm cautiously optimistic about the status of writing changing slowly. It has generally become more acceptable to discuss something like compensations and labor in the world of writing.
But at the same time, I see more and more people desperately looking for a foothold in the world of public intellectual life, the possibilities of which offer them escape from humdrum lives and mind-wrenching jobs, and they're willing to do anything to gain it. Everyone's a writer these days, often armed with little more than a laptop and the ability to put two sentences together, eager to become the next big writer.
Who can blame them when, all around, we see examples of writers becoming successes? Take, for instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most striking example of a successful writer today. Coates wrote for free for the Atlantic's website in a year when he'd been laid off and was finishing his first book. In a piece about his decision, he writes that he had only made $16,000 that year. Yet, he says, he made the decision to write for free because it would get him the exposure he wanted, and would allow him to break into a different sector of the world of publishing.
And for him, it worked. He has acquired both a MacArthur grant and the National Book Award, two of the highest honors this country confers on writers. This year, he moved to Paris to write about Paris, fulfilling the classical dream of writers everywhere. But this trajectory is quite uncommon -- rarely do writers make this kind of transition. And a tale of one writer's enormous success doesn't justify the exploitation of writers across the board.
Writers are asked to perform free labor in ways not required of even other creative laborers, as this hilarious video demonstrates.
There's also a decline in the quality of writing, not just in terms of the structural issues but in the sense that, increasingly, thought pieces are assumed to stand in for real analysis. This is bound to have political costs in the long run because readers become accustomed to doing little more than agreeing with opinions they already share with writers.
Increasingly, as with the coverage of Halloween kerfuffles over costumes during very serious and longstanding campus activism over, say, widespread campus racism, we are more inclined to read and consume the politically palatable, the fun and easy stories.
What can we do?
Paying people more and in a timely fashion is really only the tip of the iceberg. That response often surprises those who expect me to emphasize pay over everything else.
I do want to be paid more, and I want there to be structural changes so that writers are paid not just better but in a regular and timely fashion, and have rights to claim when they're not paid and all the rest. As a writer, I would, yes, like the chance to earn a living from writing, without having to fly from one ill-paid piece to the next, wringing myself into mental and physical exhaustion.
But I also feel we're in the middle of a vast, arid landscape, dotted here and there with tiny little patches of grass and flowers, illusory mirages that convey a false sense of what publishing and writing really should mean. For me, it's just as important that we start thinking about and interrogating the structural systems of power that are part of the publishing world. Doing that means resisting the mindset of too many writers, who would have us believe that writing is magic and that they are all special snowflakes.
But writing as a profession is in fact determined by systems of power. Increasingly, we're convinced that one solution to ill-funded publishing is to have very wealthy people buy publications. Not long ago the news that Chris Hughes, the wealthy co-founder of Facebook, had decided to sell the New Republic, which he only bought in 2012, was making the rounds. All the buzz around a social media mogul buying up a part of what is considered "old media" has now evaporated into a hard realization that sustaining media — and the writing of which it is constituted — is about more than pouring money into it.
Ironies abound. Wheaton heroically wrote about refusing to write for free on HuffPo and, instead, moved his piece to Medium. But Medium does the same thing as HuffPo — it may have paid Wheaton, as it does a select few, but compensation for writers is not part of its general practice.
The group that tried to publicly shame Arianna Huffington into sharing her profits from the merger came up with a catchy name for its Facebook group: "Hey, Arianna, Can You Spare A Dime?" It eventually fell out of view.
I suspect its initially enthusiastic supporters (I include myself among them) realized that they weren't actually protesting any system of exploitation — one in which they had been participating — but were angry that the exploitation did not lead to some profits for them as well.
What hope is there for writers who want to be paid if writers themselves fail to note the contradictions in which their work appears?
Meanwhile, both writers and publishers continue to persist in the belief that writing is a gigantic hobby for the world's population, or that it is simply a creative endeavor meant to bring, perhaps, joy to others. They seem incapable of reconciling to the fact that what they call creative work is also labor and ought to be compensated as such.
But ultimately, here's why I knew, from the age of 13 and before, that I wanted to be a writer and nothing else, and I knew all this without articulating it the way I do now:
I wanted, and want, to write because writing is connected to what I want to see happen and change in the world. I have friends who work in prison abolition who work day and night on the issue, and some of them — like Mariame Kaba, who somehow lives without sleep — also write brilliantly about it. But I write myself into the world and out of it, I write my plans for the world every minute as I enter and reenter it.
Before and after and during an act or action, I am already writing about it in my head. I don't see a disconnect between writing about inequality and actually ending it. And that's why I'm constantly appalled at the ways in which publishers and editors like Lucas and Nome can somehow pretend that their devaluation of writers' labor is not also somehow a devaluation of the world itself, a perpetuation of the systems of war and inequality that they claim to want to correct.
It seems a huge stretch to state that, for me, writing is about changing the world. I am struck by how uncomfortable I am with the very idea of even saying that aloud. But my discomfort has everything to do with the compacted and dense history of writing, the myths and confabulations that have sprung up around it and forced it to survive as something precious, incandescent, luminous.
What I want instead is to bring back the idea of writing as something that has a muscularity and a will to bring about a different world. And if we are to do that, we need to understand it as both work and labor, and not pretend that to ask for payment is to be ungrateful about our place as writers.
Yasmin Nair is a writer, academic, and activist in Chicago. She's a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the Volunteer Policy Director of Gender JUST. Her work has appeared in publications including In These Times, the Awl, Electronic Intifada, and Maximum Rock'n'Roll. She is currently working on a book called Strange Love: Neoliberalism, Affect and the Invention of Social Justice. You can subscribe to her website to support her work.