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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Getting paid.

This is off-topic for beer, cider etc but I thought it went here rather than on my seldom used other blog - it really goes out to other bloggers and people who enjoy writing about beer - and people who are interested in doing business with them/us.

Discussions on writers getting paid for their work seem to be coming to a head in the media at the moment. A couple of weeks ago Philip Hensher raised the subject when he was branded 'ungracious' for daring to ask for payment for something he was asked to write. A couple of days later, I was shocked to read about a science writer being called a whore when she politely declined to write a piece for free. (Which raises another subject - I doubt the same language would have been used if she were a man.)

Last night on Twitter, Boak & Bailey and Zak Avery were discussing an email that has done the rounds that essentially asks bloggers to give consultancy services for free for a big beer brand - so we're not even talking the old language of 'exposure' here, they simply want to gather expert opinion without paying for it.

I have an alarm that goes off about this kind of stuff now. It starts clanging when people ask if they can 'pick my brains' about something. If I'm lucky, they offer to buy me a pint in return for information which, if I'm any good, could eventually lead to a major profit opportunity for the company asking.

It's not a cut and dried issue. We live in an age where content is increasingly expected for free, where a generation simply doesn't see why they should pay musicians or filmmakers for their work. Our society increasingly assumes that economic value is the only form of value worth talking about, yet paradoxically, creators of cultural or artistic value are expected to go, "No, you're fine, I do it for the love, I don't care about money, that's for squares, man."



Writing is now my full-time profession. I worked two jobs for years to build up my skill and reputation to a point where I can just about scrape a living from writing. It's a much less lucrative job than the last one, but I love what I do, and that makes me very lucky, I know.

But I still have to make a living. Some weeks I'm ferociously busy, travelling around the country, doing events, writing stuff, and I get to the end of the week and realise I've done nothing for which I can raise an invoice. The bills and mortgage still need to be paid, and I am currently the main breadwinner in our household. I know some professional writers who can make as little as £200 a month, some months. During such dry patches, you'd be better off on the dole.

What we do must have some worth, some value, otherwise people wouldn't ask us to do stuff for them.

Of course, bloggers write for free every time they blog, and this somehow creates the expectation that we'll do the same for someone else's website or publication or brand. We'll do it for love, or for that seductive but non-nutritious drug, 'exposure'. This expectation that we'll write for you for free because we'll write for ourselves for free has unsavoury parallels with those seedy blokes who see a girl 'put out' for one of their friends and therefore think that she's 'easy' and will oblige them in the same way. Maybe the girl was into your friend and she's not into you. And anyway, at all times, it's her decision.

Different bloggers have different motivations. For professional journalists (no superiority implied there, I just mean people who make their living from writing) a blog can be a shop window that gets you more paid work, a place to put ideas that don't fit anywhere else or that publications won't buy, or a place to try out different stuff stylistically, to be more personal, more experimental. Citizen bloggers with other jobs who do this for a hobby have their own reasons. But just because any of us write for free sometimes, that shouldn't come with an expectation that we'll be happy to do it any time for anyone.

So here's what I reckon: collectively we need to alter the establishing perception that it's OK to expect a writer/blogger to do something for free. It's OK to ask. But in most cases, I'd like to think that writers and bloggers will politely decline. And that this demurral will be accepted with good grace. This needs to become - or remain - the accepted norm.

Occasionally there might be a cause or an opportunity where after giving it some thought the writer might say, 'You know what? I'm really interested by this. I'll happily do it for free because it's something I believe in/am excited about/might allow me to get to meet Vanessa Feltz/Eamonn Holmes.' (I did a bit of telly once where I got to be interviewed by Peter Purves! Dreams can come true in the strangest ways.)

But if, as in the examples quoted at the top of this piece, you are offended by a polite refusal (and our end of the deal should be that refusals are always polite) then screw you. Especially if you are asking in a role for which you are being paid handsomely yourself.

If a publication/organisation is asking a writer/blogger to do something from which they expect to make a profit, the writer/blogger deserves a cut. I can't believe that even needs saying.

As bloggers, we give content away to our readers. That is a choice we make. It is not the same as giving content away free to brand owners/brewers, agencies, beer judging competitions, and other publications or websites. Especially if they are going to profit from it. The expectation that we will do so has to stop.

For more on this issue, you could do a lot worse than read this manifesto by Barney Hoskyns, and this piece in the New York Times (thanks to James Grinter for the link.)

15 comments:

Jake Perks said...

Good post. I know several photographers who face the same problems.

Here's a piece of comedy that might resonate:
http://www.27bslash6.com/p2p2.html
(Warning: contains swearing, probably similar to the words that go around your own head when asked to produce work for free)

John Medd said...

I couldn't agree more Pete; the fact that you're being asked in the first place automatically assumes your views (and your subsequent copy) are of merit; from the Latin meritum - due reward. I write mainly for personal pleasure these days, but when I pitch an idea for publication it is on the understanding that money will exchange hands. How can it not? You don't take your car in for service and tell the mechanic that you won't be paying him but you'll certainly give him some favourable reviews.

Neil, eatingisntcheating.blogspot.com said...

Some good points Pete. I think one of your opening points regarding being invited for a beer to 'pick-your-brains' is similar to somwething I did for a now well established beer bar.

I met them for a few drinks, discussed beer, found out their ideas, gave suggestions. Obviously I didnt ask for paying. Then, down the line I actually ended up doing some copywriting for their new menus and even a bit of press release writing - which I was paid for.

Sometimes it's that promise of future work which is enough of a carrot. But when the paid work never materialises, which happens more often than not, it can feel like you're giving away too much.

Bryan the BeerViking said...

Hear hear! As a pro journo, I find it easy to turn down free gigs while still blogging the stuff I can't sell.

From the Viking side though I can see how hard it is for amateurs to resist - we quite often get invitations to do film or TV work "for the exposure", and many people love that idea. One has to keep reminding them: "Is the cameraman working free 'for the exposure'? Is the director doing this for free?" If yes - and it does happen, albeit rarely - I'll consider helping out.

As Neil says, if it (probably) leads to future work, then fine. But if all it gets you is a reputation for doing stuff for free (that someone else then makes a profit from), then perhaps not...

Bryan the BeerViking said...

PS. Jake, another comment that resonates here is Harlan Ellison's "Pay the writer" rant.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

pyo said...

You can't blame people for trying it on. I bet they have found plenty of people who will give them info/opinions for free.

Jeff Pickthall said...

A line to look out for is "do this one cheaply [or for free] and there'll be more work in the future." Run a mile.

Btw, Phil Hensher used to prop up my bar. He used to drink Anchor's Liberty Ale.

Cooking Lager said...

"do nowt for nowt and if thee do, do it for thee sen"

as someone older and richer than me once told me by way of advice.

Zak Avery said...

If the person who is asking me to work for free is also working for free, and doing something that interests me, then fine. Otherwise, in the words of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, fuck you, pay me.

Knowing that the same agency has copied and pasted the same email multiple times is rude. If, as pyo says, you can't blame them for trying, then you can't blame anyone for reacting badly to it.

I have more pressing things to do than carry out unpaid research for someone.

Drew Beechum said...

I don't come anywhere close to making a living at the whole writing thing, but I've got a few books out there and a few columns that bring in extra money that's very helpful. I still get asked to do things for free and it's always a case by case basis, but I take to heart some advice I was given years ago by Lew Bryson. When I was first starting out and before beer blogs were much of a thing, I asked for his advice and he said: "Don't write for free, when you do, you devalue what we do."

Chris Schryer said...

"Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for." — Mark Twain.

I totally agree that once you have your chops, payment is required. However, there is no way to get those chops, without writing for somebody for free. This is another angle why bloggers blog. A few hundred quality posts in, and you can reach out to a publication. On balance, you might get to write a weekly for a local newsletter, or else some type of free-content-driven site (like HuffPo). Even people who take journalism in school write tens of thousands of words for "free" (actually, they've probably incurred some debt to write them under a teacher's guidance), before they ask for a job with pay.

All that said, it is totally offensive to be approached by a company *asking* for free work. Hey big company, you know why you know I exist? Because I matter, and my voice and skills are valuable. So pay up.

Cheers, Pete. Great post.

Bailey said...

At certain times (e.g. when you have a book coming out...) doing things for exposure might make a certain amount of sense: rather than seeing it as working for free, you might see it as getting free advertising. A fair exchange.

Allowing your brains to be picked behind the scenes by someone who has never previously spoken to you, to whom you owe nothing, without payment and probably without even getting a hint of public acknowledgement... nope.

ofmustandmash said...

I'm nowhere near that interesting a writer and nowhere near getting used and abused. But it's clearly across the board, see here: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2013/10/wine_writing_income_continues.html

ofmustandmash said...

I am nowhere near that interesting and I do not attract this kind of of abuse... for now. But strangely this is another piece on wine writers remuneration that was published this morning: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2013/10/wine_writing_income_continues.html

Anonymous said...

As a sometime activist working with pub campaigners to save threatened local pubs, I have given my time and expertise in planning and heritage conservation matters freely (at the last count, about 3000 hours over three years*) to help out the impecunious doing it for love. After three years I have amassed a -frankly- unsurpassed expertise in this area. And now I expect to be paid for what I do. Rates for community groups are a fraction of my rates for commercial work, but even so, there are those who think that because they are doing it for free, so should I. There are even some commercial operations that see the £250k+ worth of pro bono work I've done for CAMRA means I should be prepared to work for them for nothing too, amazingly. Engaging a professional to do the job properly is to ensure that whatever is attempted stands the greatest chance of success. Otherwise, why bother in the first place? There are two campaigns in which I've been involved for two years or more where I continue to advise for nothing. Why? Because what they are doing has never been done before, and I value both the experience it gives me, and their faith in my ability to - in the works of Brewdog- 'walk tall and kick butt'. * I'd never seen Mark Twain's advice about three years and sawing wood but thankfully during those years several commercial operators have paid for my expertise on development projects so I shan't be scouring the small ads for jobs at the local sawmill any time soon. I won't, however, be taking on any new pro bono projects. Happy New Year Pete. Dale Ingram, heritage and planning consultant specialising in pubs and breweries. dale@planning4pubs.co.uk