Yesterday I published a post on the Twin Cities Daily Planet, responding to someone who argued that writers shouldn’t write for free and that publications shouldn’t publish unpaid writing. The post was called “Why I’m writing this for free,” and it sparked a lot of responses—most positive but some negative. (“Because you suck and nobody would pay you?” asked a commenter on the Daily Planet’s Facebook page.) One reader sent an e-mail saying, “It’s all just a matter of how you value your writing, and whether you see yourself as a participant in an industry.”
Is this blog—which doesn’t pay anyone, editors included—part of an industry? Well, yes and no.
A conception of writing as “an industry” where writers are better off when they demand payment for their work is a fundamentally materialist conception—materialist in a Marxist sense. Marx believed that when you work, your labor produces a product that can be translated into money. If the money you make is less than the value your labor created, you’re being exploited.
If you think of writing/publishing as an industry in this sense, you think of a piece of writing as a product created by the labor of the writer. That product has value if people want to read it, and if something has value, than it’s worth money. If you give your product away, then someone is taking—or keeping—money that belongs to you. Solution: don’t write for free.
So why am I still writing for free?
In my Daily Planet post, I argued that for one thing, the act of writing and having your writing read has emotional and psychological value. It’s worth writing just for the act of writing, and the reward of knowing that someone cares what you have to say. (Unless they don’t, in which case, never mind.)
That said, I do think that publishing—even free publishing, like this—is an industry, and that value is changing hands. If you write something that people read, and value, and share, not only do you get a warm fuzzy feeling, you earn social capital and influence. That’s worth something in and of itself: it can help you get what you want, whether you want a job or whether you just want to get laid. We’re not publishing this blog to make money, but one reason we’re not selling ads or (lololol) charging for subscriptions is that we think that actually gives us a better shot at making money down the road, once we’ve built social capital and people care about supporting our project.
But there’s another thing we’re doing in this new free-publishing economy: we’re building value for all of us. The world is a better place because people write for free on Tumblr and Twitter, because people share ideas and make connections and are in general just happier to be alive.
Even Karl Marx himself understood this: he wrote for free all the time. He wrote plays, poems, and novels that went unpublished. He wrote polemics for radical publications, and he distributed manifestos. He and his friend Frederich Engels were the 19th-century equivalent of cobloggers: they worked together to write and publish their ideas, supported largely by income from Engels’s family business. Their goal? To overthrow The Man and end exploitation. They knew that writing and publishing for free was the best way to spread their ideas and connect with like-minded allies.
So I’m going to keep on writing for free. You may think I’m wrong, but if you want to change the publishing industry to look more like the one you want and less like the one that actually exists, you might not want to wait until someone pays you before you put your case in writing.