June 06, 2012

Funny Story...

In case you guys haven't heard—and I'm shocked that I haven't seen more news of this—there was a major coup last month that struck at the very heart of the publishing industry. Indie publishing juggernaut McSweeney's was forced to capitulate to the demands of its contributors.

It all started when their website, Internet Tendency, launched a competition soliciting new material on spec, as they tend to do. For a writing contest, it was pretty standard. If they liked your submission, the contest announcement went, you'd get the chance to publish not just that but a regular, bimonthly feature on the site, for a full year. (There was no monetary prize.) If you lost, well, too bad. But wouldn't that shot at glory be worth it, for the hours you'd have to spend producing a solid piece of custom-made McSweeneyalia?

The answer, surprisingly, was a furious, resounding: NO! "Fuck you, McSweeney's," read one angry tweet. "This contest is insulting." Twoth another: "l love @mcsweeneys but you shouldn't trust anyone who doesn't pay you what you are worth/only offers you exposure." Finally, it seemed, the writers were standing up for themselves!

And things only got better. Soon, a flustered McSweeney's had added the promise of a $500 cash prize, to go along with their offer of a year-long publishing contract. Still no dice: "$500 for 24 columns? Pls do not enter this 'contest'," continued the Twitterverse. By the end of the day, McSweeney's had cancelled the competition altogether and issued a sheepish apology.

What a victory! What a call to arms! No longer will writers allow publishing giants to exploit our creativity. No more will we accept "getting your name out there" or "putting McSweeney's on your resume" as valid reasons to produce work that, assuming it gets past the slush-reading intern, will line the pockets of other people while giving its creators little if anything. The revolution is at hand!

Except, actually, writers had nothing to do with this. The contest was for comic strips, not columns, and the iconoclasts were graphic artists. ("Iconoclasts" pun not intended, but pretty good in retrospect.)

My first reaction to this whole story was actually along the lines of this graphic artist: quit your whining. If you want to make bank for your creative work, you have to pay your dues first. Even Susan Orlean wrote for the Boston Phoenix before she got the New Yorker and the book deals and the screenplay options.

But my second reaction, as you might have gathered, was increasing sympathy and outrage. The angry graphic artists are right, of course. Contests like this really are kind of bullshit, and honestly McSweeney's is a tame offender considering most literary contests with similar stakes require an entry fee on top of the work on spec. And yet, what's sad is that—and you may well have had this reaction while reading the first paragraphs of this post—it's hard to imagine writers rallying like this against any publication, least of all McSweeney's. It's even harder to imagine a publication like McSweeney's caving.

Indeed, what's striking about the site's apology is how little, among all their kow-towing to the angry cartoonists, they stop to acknowledge how shittily they treat writers. Out of 260 words, a mere seven, in a comma-delineated parenthetical clause much like this one, were devoted to the current state of freelance writing:
We launched this idea with only the purest of intentions, to find someone whose work is unknown or underappreciated. We’ve done something similar for the past three years with our columnists and had great good fortune in being introduced to writers we never would have known otherwise.

What we didn’t know, but should have found out prior to launching our contest is the tradition and practice of “no spec” work for artists, designers, cartoonists, and other visual artists, and that contests of this sort are sometimes used for the purposes of exploitation, which couldn’t be further from our intent.

In prose writing, particularly in today’s day and age, while we all wish things were different, much of the work is done on “spec” and we made a very bad assumption that it would be the same in this case.
Well gee, guys, it's awfully swell of you to say that things stink—but if you're not going to start paying writers fairly, who is? Holtzbrinck?

I don't mean to suggest that McSweeney's hasn't done great things for the publishing industry, and for writers, and for schools, and for the community. But it seems like a dangerous precedent to admit that contests of the sort they run—hell, business models of the sort they run—can be "used for the purposes of exploitation." If it's exploitative to ask graphic artists to produce work on spec, why is it not exploitative to ask the same of writers? Are we not also creative individuals trying to make an honest living doing what we love?

Like I said, McSweeney's is hardly the worst offender. Publications that expect work on spec and then give writers nothing in return beyond a (sometimes anonymous) publication credit are increasingly the rule and not the exception. Clips and "exposure" can of course be helpful in moving onto bigger and better things—witness Susan Orlean—but that, sadly, is not yet the rule, nor, I expect, will it ever be. I'd be interested to see what percentage of McSweeney's column contest winners, for instance, have since had much professional success elsewhere. Judging from how few of their columnists' names I recognize, I'd venture not many.

So why do writers keep bending over while the graphic artists stand up for themselves? (I apologize for the kind of mixed metaphor.) The obvious argument, I guess, is that there's a lower bar to entry for writers. Not that it's any easier to write a great column than to draw a great cartoon, but an editor can (a) more quickly spot a mediocre cartoon, and (b) more easily fix a mediocre column. So there are more people producing a lot more viable work, in the writing world, and supply and demand takes care of the rest. Why pay one guy $250 for a column when this other guy will do it for free? (Sorry, not for free; for exposure.)

I don't know if I buy that view of things, though, because while there might be more supply in prose, there's also a much bigger market. The real problem is, the market is now so big it's more concerned with generating new written content than with generating high-quality written content—and that devalues the product. Why pay anyone $250 for a column when everyone agrees that most original web content is shitty anyway, and any headline is only going to be on the front page for approximately 37 minutes?

And yes, okay, there are some websites—McSweeney's among them—that publish great columns at a leisurely pace, and some that pay their contributors fairly, and some that do both. And yes, okay, writers were doing work on spec long before the internet was around. But if the cartoonists can hold out for a better deal, why can't we? We forget, at the end of the day, that all these parasites who take our work and offer no compensation still rely on us, in the end, or they have no content. So why not withhold that content, and boycott the places who don't pay, and insist on our fair dues?

It's a scary proposition, of course, precisely because there are so many other writers out there—or people who think they're writers—trying to get exposure and willing to work for free. Surely, you're thinking, if I boycott non-paying outlets, they'll just get some other drudge to pick up the slack.

Well, maybe. But writers, let's be candid for a minute: if we started losing our unpaid work to other people, how much worse off would we really be? And how much paying work has all your free exposure actually bagged you so far? It seems to me that we have very little to lose, and no good reason to be so doggedly hanging onto it. If we put our collective feet down and demand what we deserve, maybe more people will start listening.

In fact, if McSweeney's sheepish apology is anything to go by, I'm hopeful that they're already beginning to realise that a significant change in attitude and practice is necessary, if we're going to start treating writers in a way that's ethical, no matter how "it's always been done":
We’ve come to understand and believe that the entire enterprise is a bad idea, poorly executed.

We have, therefore, decided to withdraw the contest. We apologize again for our carelessness and will endeavor to do better in the future.
I hope you will, McSweeney's—for everyone, and not just the cartoonists.


Postscript: I thought about submitting this column on spec to somewhere with a larger readership than my blog, but the irony was too overwhelming. I hope, instead, that if you've read this far and found it interesting—even if you don't agree—you'll share, tweet, re-post with attribution, etc. etc. etc. Let's spread the word, folks. We're all in this together.


Becca said...

Will I now need to pay to read this blog?

Claire said...

Absolutely. See also http://www.no-spec.com/

Andrew said...

Don't worry, Becca — I reserve the right to exploit myself.

Hayley said...

So you'd rather "work for hire" and lose your copyright?

Andrew said...

Generally you don't lose copyright for creative writing, even to paying markets; magazines mostly buy first serial rights. But whether you retain copyright for written work is kind of academic, anyway, since nobody is going to pay you for something that's already been published elsewhere -- and while we'd all like to think we'll get book deals one day where we can reprint our own work, I'm not going to quibble over an occasional work-for-hire arrangement just in case HarperCollins wants to sign me one day...

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