Writing for free

by on March 8, 2013 at 1:44 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

The always-insightful Matt Yglesias discusses the benefits and propriety of writing for free.

I would add that I see the new “writing for free” model as changing in (at least) two ways.  First, high living costs make it harder to leverage the patronage of writers into significant impact.  There will arise new arrangements where newbies are offered 15k a year to go blog from the Yucatan, or somewhere else with low living costs but ok broadband.  Foundations or donors will pick up the bill and the newbies will consider the country to be an adventure not a burden.  The “winners” of these tournaments will end up with jobs similar to Matt’s.  Some people, especially those with “lender of first resort” parents, will manage to cover a Brooklyn lifestyle with the 15k.

Second, one’s choice of spouse will matter increasingly for journalism and also commentary.  The returns to a good marriage will rise.  Look for on-line writers to become slightly more establishment, slightly more romantic, and just a wee bit closer to the philosophy of Ross Douthat, minus the enthusiasm for a higher birth rate of course.

1 Enrique March 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm

To the extent that “writing for free” is a form of “peer production”, a good starting point for understudying the economics of this behavior is Yochai Benckler’s book on “The Wealth of Networks”

2 Troy Camplin March 8, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Writing is and has always been in the gift economy. One has to give away a whole lot of writing before anyone will be willing to pay you to do it. Only those who realize, at some level, that writing (the arts, humanities, and sciences in general) is in the gift economy will ever succeed at it, and in turn monetize it. What profit is in the market economy, reputation is in the gift economy. The better your reputation, the better the chance is you will be able to make money doing what you were once doing for free.

3 Ed March 8, 2013 at 2:38 pm

And I had always assumed that we would go back to pre-18th century days, when nearly all the writing was done by clerics and aristocrats.

Except for blog commentary, of course.

4 Bill March 8, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Re: “Foundations or donors will pick up the bill”

I guess you could say someone is willing to be a cheap hack.

Maybe there needs to be more disclosure as to whom is funding the writer.**

**This message brought to you by Bill, who is solely responsible for the content of this message.

5 Bill March 8, 2013 at 2:45 pm

If I could afford an editor, I would be able to decide if who or whom is correct.

6 Mark March 8, 2013 at 3:16 pm

I’ll edit for free, or for exposure. “Who” is correct, because the relative pronoun should agree with the verb (“is”) in the adjective clause. “Whom” is possible in an altered (and awkward) construction: “Bill, from whom this message comes to you, is solely responsible for the content of this message.”

7 Bill March 8, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Thanks. That was worth a Bitcoin.

Add it to my account

8 Ray Lopez March 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I will blog for expense money. I live in se asia and life is cheap there. I would edit Bill’s sentence to the active voice:

“Only I am responsible for this message”. Or, better and more trendy, “I’m Bill and only I approve of this message”.

9 Jonathan March 8, 2013 at 3:01 pm

I’m pretty sure this model is already in place at editor houses all throughout Brooklyn. I don’t know if this is so much an emerging trend or it’s something already occurring.

10 anon March 8, 2013 at 3:05 pm

I agree with Matt that free writing will remain a starting point of many careers. And I would even open it up more in the sense that the goal is not necessarily paid writing. Maybe it’s just a step in professional education. (Good writing pays off in almost all professions. And the sooner you figure out your writing issues, the better.) The definition of econ-bloggers-journalists-academics seems to be getting blurrier all the time. Evan Soltas, Carola Binder, Noah Smith, Miles Kimball, Tyler Cowen, Paul Krugman … even within that economist group there were all kinds of paths to free (and some paid) writing and I doubt any would call themselves a writer first. There will always be a steady source of grad students and junior folks who want a place to vent and semi-retired ones who need a place to share their wisdom…welcome Internet. Seems to me that writing will remain close to free, but those who edit and make sense of all the free writing will get paid.

11 Jon March 8, 2013 at 3:12 pm

For whatever anecdotes are worth, I have a good friend who’s planning good on moving to Costa Rica to start his writing career for precisely those reasons – cheaper living, decent internet access, and it’s”exciting”.

12 john personna March 8, 2013 at 3:45 pm

We had subcontractors in the Philippines with good connectivity. They did have to drive around looking for a cybercafe still up to meet a deadline during a hurricane … what a scene that must have been. I wish I could have been there.

13 Vladimir March 8, 2013 at 3:14 pm

We could also say that writing may increasingly be a second career. Take “Calculated Risk” as an example. An individual with expertise who is now retired can write niche journalism or commentary. Blogs make the entry cost trivial. Investigative journalism may go more in the way of being supported by advocacy groups– this is falls into the category of foundations that Tyler mentioned. As for the Yucatan–many young people in America will either study abroad or move back to a foreign country after completing grad school. It’s much easier to take the smart intern who worked for free and pay her a stipend for stories when she travels/moves back to Bombay.

14 Sam X March 8, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Very much true. I’m paid to be an editor in the day, and at night I do my own fiction / nonfiction writing. For a variety of reasons, I don’t really want to pursue formal publishing of my work nor do I want to be paid, but it’s easy to create a decent looking ebook. (My editorial experience also helps; I comb through my writing multiple times before publishing. Also, beta readers.)

15 Chuck Ross March 8, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Maybe less dramatic than Yucatan. Websites could pay content-producers to blog in places that aren’t New York City or Washington D.C.

16 john personna March 8, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Bad writing is too easy. The sheer volume of it, even up to the level of pretty good writing, is going to devalue the very good. In the pre-digital world there was a hard cut-off. Less than very good writing was not published, and so did not compete.

17 Kimberley Noble March 8, 2013 at 5:05 pm

As a journalist turned academic, I have observed to students and co-workers that there was a time (i.e. when E. Hemingway worked for the T.O. Star) when writer subsidized their literary output by working as journalists; whereas now, we subsidize our journalism output by working for universities.

18 Dismalist March 8, 2013 at 6:06 pm

John Stuart Mill had a day job running the East India Company, and T.S. Eliot had a day job in publishing. Wallace Stevens, the American poet, was an insurance executive: “At the time of his death, he was not only one of the leading poets of the English speaking world, but also the foremost American authority on surety bonds.”

Nothing new in writers having real jobs at the time they wrote. The internet makes entry much easier, but there shall be abundant exit.

19 Donald A. Coffin March 8, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Note that what Yglesias is talking about, really, is people who choose voluntarily to write for a public for free. One current mode for that is blogging. What I think a lot of people are objecting to is *commercial**, and presumably profit-oriented, on-line sites essentially making work-for-free their business plan. Including soliciting people to edit and re-submit things to them that have already appeared on-line. (I will note that while much academic writing (i.e., writing for professional journals) and other work (refereeing/editing professional journals) appears to fall into the “write-for-free” mode, it’s really being undertaken as a condition of employment/promotion/pay *increases.* So it’s not so much writing for free.)

20 ChrisA March 8, 2013 at 7:28 pm

I can just hear the complaints from the left; Shouldn’t the minimum wage apply to writers as well? As what about those rich people who can subsidize their children for years at cheap or free blogging so they can get the experience to become paid writers at the expense of poor children who will be forever shut out of the writing industry? How can that be fair? There should be government subsidies for poor bloggers.

The reality is that writers almost always wrote for free at the beginning of their careers. Who would pay for an unpublished novelist to write a novel in the hope it would be good? And a novel is much more of an investment than a few blogs.

21 Michael G Heller March 8, 2013 at 10:29 pm

It’s an interesting discussion this business of blogging-for-free. I thought about it often. I do suspect, however, that being paid for blogging does not necessarily improve the quality (no offense intended toward Matt Y). Nevertheless I recently heard of an excellent idea – the offer of an annual *stipend* to bloggers. It’s news to me (perhaps it’s common practice). Tyler’s suggestion of blogging from the Yucatan is unintentionally on the ball, because this stipend will be offered to bloggers recruited by the prestigious HAHR (Hispanic American Historical Review) to write on Latin American history. The stipend is only an annual $500. That would at least pay the fare down to Merida (where the broadband is good) or Celestum, Progreso, or Izamal (where satellite might be required!). And – just maybe — the stipend will rise over time with philanthropic contributions? HAHR should approach Carlos Slim who is currently trying desperately hard to improve his public image.

If HAHR focus their efforts on just one or two good bloggers (that would be my advice to them, for example me and somebody else) the stipend could conceivably eventually rise to the magical $15K mentioned by Tyler.

I’ve entered my name as a candidate because I’d love to blog LA history. It’s so reassuringly uncontroversial, pacific, and intellectual in the old style compared with the angry ideological Crisis economics and Crisis politics. However I fear I’ve left a permanent electronic record (like the scar on Pancho Villa’s left cheek) comprising frighteningly querulous, biting, intolerant if not insane commentary on the pages of, among others, Marginal Revolution. I’d seem (wrongly of course) to be too dangerous.

The HAHR link is here http://people.duke.edu/~asp14/hahr_blogger_fellowship.png

But remember guys and gals, you’re up against me in the competition.

22 the creator March 9, 2013 at 1:44 am

the last sentence is golden Cowen

23 Zach March 9, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Matt Yglesias had such a huge first mover advantage that his experiences might not be typical.

24 sp6r=underrated March 17, 2013 at 8:56 pm


What are the long-term consequences of structuring our economy on winner-take-all tournaments?

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