“So here’s the thing about the Internet setting you free, right? The Internet can set you free, but it can also set free those who may want to exploit you for your work.”
Manjula Martin has been thinking about how writers make money on the Internet for, in Internet years, a very long time. She launched Who Pays Writers, a crowd-sourced Tumblr of the rates that various on- and offline publications pay, in 2012, and a year later cofounded Scratch Magazine, an online magazine about the relationship between writers and money that she later shut down — it was profitable, but not profitable enough.
Many of the themes that Martin has been mulling over come together in her new book, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which includes essays from writers like Choire Sicha, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Weiner, and Roxane Gay to “confront the age-old question: How do creative people make money?”
I pulled quotes from some of my favorite essays in the book to spur a discussion with Martin about the economics of writing online, the things we hate about Twitter, and how business changes at Medium reflect broader problems with how writers are paid. The book, like our conversation, paints a realistic-rather-than-rosy picture of writing online. “The election happened right before this book came out, and there is definitely a feeling of, like, God, if we thought it was hard to get paid before, just wait,” Martin said. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, was actually fun and interesting and not a downer. I hope it spurs the people who create content and the people who pay for it to think about new ways to do things.
“True or false: Writers should be paid for everything they write. Writers should just pay their dues and count themselves lucky to be published. You should never quit your day job. You’ll know you’re successful when you can quit your day job. Writing is an art, not a business. Writers should be entrepreneurs. Digital technology has destroyed the market for writing. The Internet will set us all free.” [Manjula Martin, p. xi]
In any given moment, one can fall anywhere on that spectrum, and one can move around on it. But I think today I am definitely more toward the end of the spectrum that is showing that digital technologies have helped companies devalue our labor. So here’s the thing about the Internet setting you free, right? The Internet can set you free, but it can also set free those who may want to exploit you for your work. It’s like a giant free-for-all, catch-all, venue.
And so I think we’re at a moment right now — culturally, not just with journalists or other types of writers, but in general, it definitely seems like technology is having a moment where it has discovered that pushing people toward gig-based labor and away from the securities of more traditional types of jobs is a way to make profit quickly. Or if not to make profit, at least to satisfy the gaping hunger for content that the Internet seems to have at the moment.
I can say, generally, what the Medium thing has confirmed for me is my suspicion that people who start a media company because they think it can become a new kind of tech company have a responsibility to actually understand the business models that exist in the media right now before diving in head-first and offering to pay writers when, maybe, they actually don’t know how that works. It’s weird in this day and age to start a company without a viable business model — or, really, even a viable product — and then treat it like a startup and keep pivoting and pivoting and pivoting. At a certain point, companies have to take responsibility for actually being good at what they’re doing.
Medium’s just one example of companies like that. The combination of venture capitalists and media companies is very interesting, and so far, I think, has not yielded much that’s new, in terms of figuring out how to keep media companies economically and financially stable.
I don’t want to put it all on Medium — this is a funny thing that happens when there’s fetish for quote-unquote disruption across many industries, particularly in our industry, where you have to really understand what it is you’re disrupting if you’re going to disrupt it. Disruption is not always a good thing. I’m not saying the old way was the best way. I’m just saying it’s so shocking to me — I mean we’re probably, what, a good decade, maybe, into VC-funded media companies? And people are still acting like college students about it. College students would probably even be more responsible about it.
At the same time, the Internet has loosened up things for writers. You can live in a lot of different places now and still work online, and it doesn’t matter what city you live in, necessarily. I think social media, which we can talk about more, has been really wonderful for people finding community in some ways, but in terms of people’s labor, it’s a problem.
“If likeability equals profitability, I’m probably headed in the wrong direction. Not only am I incapable of keeping my niceness veneer consistent, I’m also increasingly not in the mood to do the work it takes to seem perpetually likeable in person…Being an extremely social, sociable, accessible person should not be the price of being a professional writer, but for women it almost always is.” [Emily Gould, pp. 146–147]
“I have a particular animus to the social-media world because I feel as if the kinds of writers I care about are just temperamentally not very good at that.” [Jonathan Franzen, p. 266]
Franzen talks about how he hates Twitter and it’s so horrible and not a good discursive place for writers to be. People like to mock [Franzen] a lot, I think, in digital circles, but I actually think he’s kind of not wrong, in many ways. I think that Twitter has been a wonderful place, particularly for women writers, people of color, queer and trans people — people have been able to find communities on social media that maybe they haven’t had access to elsewhere.
But as the election season, has shown us, as Twitter becomes less of a safe space, and more of a hostile place, that conversation, and that discourse, is going to go away. I see more and more in my own feed — and obviously my own feed is highly curated to my own interests, and anecdotal — but it’s a lot of people talking about how they’re not having fun on Twitter anymore. On Twitter. Whenever I see that, I feel like it’s only a matter of time before that stops being the venue.
The other part of the equation is that Twitter is actually free work. Writers — and everyone, but specifically writers, because that’s actually our job — by being on Twitter, are writing for free, for a large company, that is theoretically making money off of this. I think it’s really important to remember that every time one goes on Twitter. [laughs] I’m not gonna tell everyone to quit Twitter, but I do think there needs to be a new thing, and we need to figure out what the new thing is, and I hope that people of letters have more of a stake in whatever the new thing is rather than just creating free content for some rando tech company.
Did you read the Lindy West article about leaving Twitter? It’s hard to say Twitter has been horrible for writers, because I, personally, have gotten a lot from Twitter in my career, and I know people, particularly more marginalized folks, who have found a real, actual community there. But I also cannot log onto that website without thinking that I am just working for free.
But it’s never really been proven that that works. I mean, it works in terms of, like — I’m doing it right now for my book, and I’m getting a lot of great interactions and great responses. The word seems to be spreading within my particular echo chamber. But I don’t know, actually, that tweeting about books sells books. It’s no different from any other advertising or marketing in that way; it’s not easy to prove.
For writers, journalists as well as novelists and such, there’s also the other question: Not only what is Twitter doing to us, inducing anxiety and worry and making us feel just emotionally bad whenever we log on. But what is it doing to our work? It’s distracting us and I personally feel it actually changes the quality of my work, and it changes the way my brain works, for a few hours after I look at it. I should maybe say that of the Internet in general, not just social media. I haven’t been on Facebook for at least five or six years, probably, and I’m convinced that it has not hurt my writing career one bit.
So I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before that happens with other networks. The Internet sets you free, but it also sets you free to, like, dive into a giant flaming garbage pile, and at some point you just have to decide not to do that.
And I would also miss it.
“Late capitalism is confusing…the grift economy is the fear, the gift economy is the lie, the gig economy is the reality, and the guild economy is the dream. But the big economy is still a mystery. The technological disruptions that swept us from one economy to the next, that facilitated the means to steal and exploit, are the same ones that prompted us to connect and to share. A job isn’t what a job once was — but what was so great about those jobs, anyway?” [Susie Cagle, p. 168]
Leaving aside print: I was looking at Who Pays Writers the other day — it’s been up since 2012 — and I caught myself looking at the rates and seeing a bunch of places that were paying $0.25 a word and thinking, “Ooh! That’s good! I think rates are going up!” and then stopping and realizing how sad that was, that I thought that was good. But I will say that in the past five years, I’ve seen [online] rates go from $0.10 a word to $0.25 a word. I don’t know if that depends on who’s reporting [to Who Pays Writers] the most — writers make different amounts — but it does feel like it’s kind of solidified around the $0.25-a-word mark for digital-only publications.
What I see on Who Pays Writers is that funding does make a difference — very briefly. Like, Fusion was paying big, big money to everyone — for a minute. We’ve replaced any sort of sense of security with a little bit of extra cash up front. That said, the amount of cash is still not nearly sufficient. Just because you pay slightly better than other people doesn’t mean you’re paying enough. Or well.
In terms of being a person who writes on the Internet…God, I don’t know, because what few staffers are left, they have some sense of job security but they work 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, it looks a little grim. I think the people who are making money writing online are also doing other kinds of writing online to make more money — copywriting, PR, which I think is ethically a very murky place to be at, and unfortunately, I think it’s one that people go to out of necessity.
In Susie’s piece, when she’s talking about that, she’s talking about it as a freelancer. As a journalist, as a writer, you feel like you’re struggling so hard just to get to a place that’s even a baseline of what other people would consider normality when it comes to your work, in terms of job security, or pay, or peace of mind, or having a vacation. I do think there’s something really valuable in what Susie’s doing in that statement, which is questioning: Is that place of normality the right place to struggle to get to? Can we envision something that’s better or that works differently? Beyond [the question of] just having a full-time job, staffer vs. freelancer?
I hope we can. I don’t necessarily have the answers that will fix it. I think that is a very interesting idea of, like, if you’re a person who feels like you struggle just to achieve the status quo, sometimes you forget to question the status quo in and of itself. I think it’s valuable for everyone to do that, but particularly people whose job it is to ask questions professionally as a journalist.
The other thing I’ve learned from doing this book is: The election happened right before this book came out, and there is definitely a feeling of, like, God, if we thought it was hard to get paid before, just wait. While I do think that’s very scary and a lot of people are very scared about it, in terms of, like, you know, job securities and benefits and things that will likely be rolled back under the coming administration, not to mention potential suppression of free speech…I also think it can be somewhat clarifying, in some ways. I know a lot of writers, myself included, who are looking at what we’re doing with our careers and really questioning it and being like: Okay, shit just got really real. Is this what I want to be doing? Am I doing it in the way I want to be doing it? Am I putting out the work that I want to be putting out, and does the meaning of that work change when things take a giant step to the right in our country? And I think a lot of people are feeling that. Not just writers. I have a friend who’s an EMT and used to be an artist and they’re kind of like, you know, it’s a job doing good. It’s that kind of career crisis that I think a lot of people, particularly creative professionals, are having right now, due to the political climate.
“The Internet is no longer new; it’s old enough to drink legally. Writers whose work is published online should and must understand how websites work in general, as well as how the websites on which they are published work in the specific, so as not to be idiots. This particular pursuit of non-idiocy is sometimes referred to in journalism as ‘following the money,’ also known as ‘understanding the basic economic structure of the industry from which one earns a living, or hopes to.’ But to even speak to someone in advertising, you will need some background. They speak another language, with coded, dark, and impenetrable phrases.
Most websites, infamously, are supported by advertising. Boo, advertising! It’s so gross, right? Or…is it? What if everything you thought as a writer was backward? What if all the writing on websites was bad, and all the ads were really good? Well, that’s literally true at some websites.
Some sites are supported by hybrids of donation, subscription, affiliate marketing, and advertising revenue. It would be nice if writers started out by having a sense of what those things mean.” [Choire Sicha, pp. 175–176]
So, yeah. I think a lot of writers don’t really understand how different forms of advertising work, and I would include myself in that. What I think is really brilliant and useful about that essay is that, in a profession that is prone to lofty romantic ideals about what it’s like, it’s always interesting to actually find out what it’s like in detail. With the whole book, part of what I was trying to do was find out: Can we keep the romance alive? Young novelists wanna be young novelists and that’s great, young journalists want to save the world and expose the truth and that’s also great. Can we keep that alive but also not be really ignorant about our expectations of this profession? That’s not to be like, “Oh, you’ll never make any money, it’ll be horrible.” You can make money! But it helps if you know how publications make money. Any sort of edification like that is only of use to the people who are actually doing the work.
“There is a libertarian-hued rallying cry popular on the Internet that if publishers deserve to exist then surely readers will pay for them directly. This sounds wonderful, and is sometimes true, but not that often. It would be nice though, particularly because the ones who’ll suffer the most in the great consolidation and fallout to come in the world of Internet publishing will be writers. [Sicha, p. 182]
My experience doing Scratch editing was that people were really excited to pay us directly to sign into a website and obtain the information that we were giving them, but it actually just wasn’t enough money. It wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm or support, it was just that you would have to ask people to pay a lot of money if you wanted to fund actual journalism.
I also think that there’s something that makes me uncomfortable about displacing the responsibility from larger institutions and putting it only onto individual readers. That makes me feel uncomfortable. I think it’s generally something that Americans are somewhat fascinated by, charmed by — the idea of removing responsibility from institutions and delivering it into smaller units. It’s a little libertarian for my tastes; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, I just don’t think it’s the answer. I think it’s avoiding the responsibility of our society and our economy as a whole to figure out how to support the type of work that we need done.
You can buy Scratch here.