Check out Tim Kreider‘s piece in today’s New York Times about being asked to write for free. This is a gift from heaven. Eight days ago I passed my seventh bloggiversary, and I will soon be writing my 1000th free post. It has been a little over four years since I moved over to the Chronicle of Higher Education, where I continue the Tenured Radical tradition of writing for nothing.
Most bloggers write for free, actually. Want a blog at the Huffington Post? Have your publicist, or your sister posing as your publicist, call them and ask. They will be happy to publish you — for free. They need content, you need exposure. It’s a deal!
Here’s the news: bloggers who make money do so either by writing self-help books based on their blogs and/or by pushing products, which is called “monetizing” your blog. Mommy bloggers push baby products, travel blogs take resort ads, food blogs push….well, you see where this is heading, right? Ann Althouse, who pays the bills by teaching constitutional law at Wisco, makes her pin money through traditional banner ads and by being a gateway to products sold at Amazon.com.
But when people whose only paycheck comes from writing are being asked to write for free, it’s clear that the publishing is shifting, and the economic environment along with it. Aside from his regrettable title (“Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”), Kreider makes an excellent point: assumptions about the value of writing have spiraled downward as the venues for writing have expanded. Internet sites are also often run by very young people who are using most of their money to support the platform and know perfectly well that they can’t always get good engineers, or enough server space, but they can always get writers. Where would you put your money?
Unfortunately, for guys like Kreider, who have spent a lifetime becoming who they are, in some cases, the writing doesn’t even have to be that good, and there are plenty of college kids raised on internships who are happy to scab for free in the hopes of getting a break. I mean, if Hannah Horvath can bullshit her way into an ebook contract, who can’t? Right?
The proliferation of publishing opportunities, particularly on the web, coupled with the rise of virtual “platforms” (in other words, the idea that an enhanced web presence pays itself forward in professional advancement and book royalties) means that the price of a given article is hovering around “$00.00,” Kreider writes. “People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.”
It’s true. Of course, academics are used to writing for free because if we don’t, we lose our day jobs. (When was the last time JSTOR sent you a check?) This is my only excuse for the fact that, some years ago, when I was helping to put together the articles for what became Doing Recent History (2012), I wrote to Rick Perlstein and asked if he wanted to contribute to the volume. I mean, why not? He’s smart, funny, a great researcher and writer, and one of my favorite historians to just sit down and read. Here’s why not: he pays the bills with his writing. He wrote me a very polite note that more or less said that.
Lesson learned. But why am I a volunteer? (Note to fans: those banner ads are sold by the Chronicle, not moi.)
One outcome of gratis blogging is that I don’t always write for free anymore. Sometimes people offer to pay me upfront, sometimes I raise the thorny subject myself (if Althouse can sell chocolates…..) My accountant told me a couple years ago that I had to start squeezing some money out of people, otherwise the Internal Revenue Service — despite the fact that I must write in order to advance professionally and get raises, on the off chance they are being offered — would reclassify my writing as a hobby.
Now that’s a sobering thought. Reclassified by the IRS as hobbyist? I think not.
So when people can pay, I ask them to do so. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, even when they say they will. I never hold lack of funds against people especially, as Kreider points out, when they have other good qualities, such as being young or daring or giving me access to an audience I would not otherwise have. But as historian Deborah Gray White once said to me in another context: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” It is irrefutably true: now that I ask, more people send me checks. I am perfectly willing to scale a piece of writing, or a visit, to someone’s budget. If the budget is zero, and I like them, and I happen to be in the neighborhood, why not?
This leads me to a second point about writing for free: friends of the Radical might notice that my productivity has gone through the roof since I established this blog. (Check it out.) It’s all calculus. As I write more, I write better, more people know about me, they ask me to write things, and I write even more. I have more opportunities to write for a variety of different publications than I did seven years ago. More importantly, I am more attuned to audience than I once was, which means my academic writing is better than it used to be too. Writing more also meant that I got a new job, which is different from my old job and better paid as well. This job has taken me to a city where people really do get money to write and when they don’t, the exposure from being published is boss-level. My friend Stephen Trask, who is a composer, once explained to me that being able to call himself a New York artist made a huge difference to his career, and I would say that’s right. On. The. Money.
Finally, there are very few places I go in the university world where a range of people — librarians, administrators, faculty — don’t know me, and I must say that trudging away on books and articles produces this result for very few scholars. You can be at the top of your field and, depending on your employment perch or specialty, be virtually unknown to most academics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! as Jerry Seinfeld would say:
But since I’m not Tim Kreider, it’s nice to be well-known for something.
Takeaway point: while it isn’t something to aim for, writing for free leads to a surprising number of opportunities to write, and speak, for pay, and more attention to my scholarship than I might otherwise have received. And here’s the bonus: the people I meet. I actually get what most academics want: people ask me out to play more frequently than they ever have, I learn stuff from them, and as a result, I have more things to write about.
And so it goes, as the Tenured Radical launches the eighth year of publication.