Business

Because Tim Kreider‘s writing is the gift that keeps on giving, I’m writing a series of posts in response to several issues that he raised in his op-ed in the New York Times called “Slaves of the Internet, Unite.” In Part 1, I discussed how trading free work for exposure isn’t always a con: Sometimes it’s just how the business works. In Part 2, I discussed some of the economics of pricing mental labor. In this third part, I’d like to discuss some of the other people involved in art besides the artist.

Kreider is upset that the artists don’t get enough credit:

This is partly a side effect of our information economy, in which “paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them. The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.

(Dude, publishers have been contemptuous of their artists since long before the internet was invented. See, e.g., the history of rock-and-roll.)

As for the word “content,” the internet revolution was changing many aspects of the publishing process — marketing, production, distribution — but it was not changing the intellectual process of creating the artistic content: The internet didn’t do much to make writing, composing, or performing any easier. Thus content creators were relegated to a small part of the discussion because they weren’t part of the new revolution.

I now contribute to some of the most prestigious online publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989.

So why does he keep writing for these publications if it pisses him off so much? Or think back to that band he was talking about earlier, with the venue owner who wanted them to perform free for the exposure. I can understand how that’s frustrating, but bands still perform for free. Why?

Probably because they have to. The delivery system certainly isn’t the only thing that matters, but it certainly does matter.

If it weren’t for the venue owner, that band would have to rent a hall, buy advertising that appeals to potential concert goers, hire people to do sound and lighting, maybe hire a bartender and waitresses and buy some booze, figure out how much to charge for tickets, hire someone to work the door, figure out how to handle the money and pay everybody, and so on. Even then, they’d still have a hard time bringing in a big enough crowd to make money, unless they had been putting on these concerts long enough to establish a reputation for bringing in good bands.

Artists may not like being relegated to “content creation,” but unless they can do all those other jobs, they’re just one part of a system for selling art. None of the other work is easy, and all of those people work hard too, and they want to get paid as much as they can, which means that managing expenses is a challenge. And the audience doesn’t want to get ripped off either, so it won’t be easy to get them to part with money for tickets. Chances are, if bands tried to put on their own shows without the help of promoters and venue owners and managers, they’d probably lose more money than they make. By comparison, working for free is a bargain.

The publishing industry used to be the same way. Perhaps nobody but Stephen King could write a Stephen King novel, but he wasn’t the only person doing hard work. Other people had to copy edit the manuscript, design the book layout, hire the cover artist, typeset the book, print the books, transport them to the stores, and stock the shelves. And if they wanted the book to sell, they had to buy advertising and arrange for promotions. All of that work costs a lot of money and takes skill and knowledge, and none of it was optional. If we judge by how the money was paid out, the author wasn’t even doing the majority of the work: Authors’ royalties were rarely more than 15%, with the rest going to pay everyone else involved in the process.

But these things can change, and Kreider doesn’t care for that either:

Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

That’s a funny thing to say, considering that we’re publishing more books and music than ever before. By reducing publication costs, the digital revolution has opened up the market to a lot of smaller artists, bringing much more variety to the market.

I’m a huge fan of Linda Nagata’s science fiction, but in the more traditional publishing environment of the late 1990’s she was unable to sell enough books to make it worth her while, and she dropped out of sight for a few years. But with modern ebooks and print-on-demand technology, the publication process is a lot cheaper, and Nagata has started publishing her own books. She has a lot more expenses these days, but she gets to keep a lot more of the gross. And I get to enjoy reading her new stories.

Another example is Toni Dwiggins, the self-published author of the Forensic Geology series (Badwater and Volcano Watch). Her books are far off the bestseller list, but they are very much the kind of stories I like to read: Mystery/thrillers set against an accurate scientific background. A lot of bestselling authors sell many times more books than Dwiggins does, but just because she has fewer readers doesn’t mean those readers enjoy her work any less.

While visiting her website as research for this post, I discovered that Dwiggins has released a new novella in the series (Quicksilver), and I am just as thrilled about that as I am about books that get a lot more publicity, such as Michael Connelly’s new Mickey Haller novel. However, under the old publishing model that Kreider is mourning, I probably wouldn’t be able to read Quicksilver, because its narrower appeal would have made it unpublishable. That would have been unfortunate for both Toni Dwiggins and for me.

It’s all part of the recent explosion in our ability to customize our lives: We can customize our Facebook page, our mobile phones, and our T-shirts. My local grocery store has five types of potatoes, twenty types of meat, and fifty types of wine. The local cineplex has 18 movies, my television has 100 channels, and I have millions of songs at my fingertips for download. And now thanks to the vast explosion of low-cost publishing, I’m no longer stuck with just a handful of highly-marketable authors. I can customize my reading by choosing from millions of published books.

As it turns out, Dwiggins is giving away the ebook version of Quicksilver for free. That’s just the kind of thing Kreider was complaining about, yet as a self-published author, Dwiggins has near-complete control over the price of her books — no one is making her work for free — so she must have made the decision herself. I emailed her, and she was kind enough to explain:

[…] It kind of boils down to: “I should be paid for my work” versus “How do people find my work?”

I sure want to be paid for my work but the reality is that there are well over a million ebooks available now, just in the Amazon store. One of the side-effects of easy entry to ebook publishing is that a lot of people are doing it. So the question becomes, how does one author get one book noticed?

For instance, you mentioned you noticed that Michael Connelly and I both had new ebooks out. […] By giving Quicksilver away for free, I get it on various lists that get it noticed by…people like you ;) I’m not a name like Connelly. People who haven’t already found my books and want to read more would never go searching for a Toni Dwiggins book. I need to shove my book under as many noses as I can. And then, if they like what they read for free, the theory is they’ll go on to pay for the next books in my series.

Not dissimilar to the free cheese samples at the grocery store.

In other words, she did it for free because — Kreider’s dire warnings not withstanding — she wanted the exposure. And I got a free copy of Quicksilver out of it.

I’m willing to believe Kreider when he says the new publishing reality is bad for him, but I’m not convinced it’s a problem for the rest of us. Just because successful artists like him are not doing as well as they used to is not a sign that the system is broken. They may be losing out, but other people are gaining. Authors like Linda Nagata and Toni Dwiggins get to sell books, and people like me get to read them.

I’m writing a series of posts in response to several issues that author Tim Kreider raised in his op-ed in the New York Times called “Slaves of the Internet, Unite.” In Part 1, I discussed how trading free work for exposure isn’t always a con: Sometimes it’s just how the business works. In this part, I’d like to discuss some of the economics of pricing mental labor.

Kreider laments:

I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing.

The difference is in how the price is established. If people asked him to give them a commercial product, they would be asking him for something that he paid for himself — something which, in fact, they could buy themselves at the exact same price. That’s not much different than asking him for money.

Asking Kreider for his writing is different: First of all, Kreider is the only source of Kreider’s writing, so they can’t just buy it from a store; they have to ask him. Second, writing costs Kreider almost nothing out-of-pocket, so it’s not like they’re asking him for the equivalent of money. Third, and most important, the value Kreider places on his time is entirely up to him, and there’s nothing preventing him from setting the price as low as he wants.

Pricing creative labor is a lot like the confusing process of pricing airline tickets. Having paid maybe $100 million for an airplane, the airline wants to charge enough money to earn a good return on their investment. And once they schedule and staff a flight, they’ve already committed to the cost, so they want to make as much money off it as possible. In an ideal world, they’d like to fill every seat with a business traveler paying the full $1000 airfare on his company’s expense account.

But seats on a flight are a perishable good: Just as spoiled fruit can’t be sold at any price, once the plane leaves the terminal, the value of every empty seat falls to zero. That’s why 10 minutes before takeoff the airline will be happy to sell those $1000 seats to standby passengers for $75. As long the airline recovers the small cost in food and fuel for adding an extra passenger — maybe $50 for a coast-to-coast flight — anything else is money in the bank.

Accomplished artists like Kreider are in a similar situation. Kreider has made a large investment in his own human capital. He’s spent 20 years  building up his skills and reputation, so that 1000 written words from Kreider are a valuable thing, worth a lot more on the market than 1000 words from the rest of us. And just like an airline, he now hopes to put that investment to work for him so he can earn a decent income, selling his words for as much as possible.

On the other hand, whether he’s writing for pay, writing for free, or staring blindly at the wall of his dentist’s waiting room, each hour that goes by is an hour that he’ll never get back. At any given time, Kreider will be best off financially if he does the thing that pays the most. So if he’s got an opportunity to do a writing job that will earn him $1000, it would be a financial miscalculation for him to spend the same amount of time doing anything that pays less. On the other hand, on a day when he has no paying work anyway, he loses no income by writing for free. And like an empty seat on a plane, he loses the time whether someone is paying for it or not.

My parents…put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.

In order to perform the lobectomy procedure, the pulmonologist would need to rent time in an operating room, rent a bunch of specialized medical equipment, hire an anesthesiologist, maybe a surgical assistant, two or three nurses, purchase consumables, run lab work…and whatever else you need for major surgery. So of course she can’t do it for free — it costs a fortune even without her labor.

But if you do work that has a low out-of-pocket cost — writer, musician, photographer, lawyer, programmer — you have little to lose financially by working for free if you’re not foregoing paying work.

I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.

I will freely admit that writing beats baling hay or going door-to-door for a living, but it’s still shockingly unenjoyable work.

That’s unfortunate for him, and it leads to one of the things that rubs me the wrong way about his article: He seems to have a contemptuous attitude not only toward people who ask for free work (understandable at times), but also by implication toward people who are willing to do free work.

The fact is, however, that a lot of us get enjoyment out of our work. It’s not exactly a crazy good time, but the human brain seems to be wired so that when we learn a useful skill, we enjoy the chance to use it. We get a rewarding feeling of accomplishment out of doing something we’re good at. So, if it costs us nothing, and we enjoy doing it, why wouldn’t we do it for free every once in a while?

Not only do I write this blog for free, I’ve done software development to support it. Last year, when I moved this blog to WordPress (Part 1, Part 2), I probably did about $10,000 worth of programming at my consulting rate, but I didn’t lose $10,000 by doing it. And in addition to porting the blog, I felt the rewarding sense of a job well-done: The port went really well.

Last spring I helped a friend set up a WordPress blog for free. At my consulting rate, the work I did probably would have cost about $1600, but that doesn’t mean I lost $1600 by doing it for free: He would never have paid that much for a website, and I did it in my spare time when I wouldn’t have been earning money anyway. I enjoyed the chance to use my skills to help someone out. I’m not saying I’ll work for free just for the sheer joy of doing so, but show me a project that’s interesting, and I just might take it up.

On the flip side, I’ve benefited from the effects of spare time and enjoyable use of skills by others. Years ago, I asked science fiction writer Joel Rosenberg to contribute to this blog for free (I didn’t realize he was a published author when I asked), and he joined me here for a while, writing several dozen posts. I don’t know exactly why he did it, but I assume that spare time and enjoying writing had something to do with it.

More recently, law clerk Marilou Auer has been proofreading some of my posts for me. I’ll post something, and a few hours later she’ll email a list of suggested corrections. I do this blog for free, so I couldn’t afford to pay her commercial proofreading rates, but she tells me she does it to keep up her mental agility.

Over the years, several lawyers I know through the internet have offered advice for free, presumably for similar reasons. (I’m not naming them because I suspect I wouldn’t be repaying their kindness by boosting their placement in a Google search for “free lawyer.”)

All of this free work irritates Kreider:

So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle.

And that kind of contemptuous attitude irritates me.

Update: Part 3 is up.

A while back, a lot of people were linking to author Tim Kreider‘s op-ed in the New York Times called “Slaves of the Internet, Unite.” Despite its apparent reasonableness, it bothered me for some reason. It took me a while to figure out why (and then a while to find time to write), but I think I can explain.

Kreider’s complaint starts reasonably enough:

Not long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.

I understand that. People with useful skills, especially if they’re artistic or creative, get a lot of these kinds of requests, and it can be very annoying. Some of the people who ask will be professional and courteous because they understand they are asking for a favor, but a depressing number of jerks will make absurd demands with a pain-inducing air of entitlement.

My own software engineering skills don’t attract too many such requests. I usually work as part of a team, and our projects take weeks or months and have budgets of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s not the kind of work that lends itself to personal favors. And most of the people who need software developed on that scale are familiar with how the business works, so they don’t ask for freebies. When they do, however, it tends to come in the form of a suggested business partnership: “I’ve got this great idea for a website. You build it, and we’ll split the income.” That only works if the idea is actually a good one, and if the would-be entrepreneur actually has business skills and connections, and isn’t a lunatic.

So I understand where Kreider’s coming from, but I think he’s underestimating the value of what’s being offered, especially to artists less established than he is.

A familiar figure in one’s 20s is the club owner or event promoter who explains to your band that they won’t be paying you in money, man, because you’re getting paid in the far more valuable currency of exposure. This same figure reappears over the years, like the devil, in different guises — with shorter hair, a better suit — as the editor of a Web site or magazine, dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it’ll offer. “Artist Dies of Exposure” goes the rueful joke.

Spoken like someone who is already enjoying success in his field. Good for him. But for a great many beginning artists, their biggest concern is not how much they’ll get paid, but whether anyone other than their friends and family will ever know their art exists.

Also, while people may people tell you you’ll get “exposure,” they’re also offering something more valuable: Proven experience and references. Your band may rock the house, but club owners don’t just want bands that rock, they want bands that rock reliably. If they book you for two nights in the third week of next March, they want to know that you will show up, on time, and in good condition to perform. If you’ve got a string of performances behind you, paying or not, it helps to prove you can do that. (And it also proves how large of a crowd you can draw.)

It’s not just new artists. Some fields are so diverse that even veteran artists have to do free work to get attention and prove themselves. For example, Chicago-area photographer Jim Jurica has been earning money in the fast-changing photography business for 10 years, he’s a contributor to iStockphoto, and Getty, he’s an editor and photographer for Glamour Model Magazine, and runs his own BeautyLook Magazine. When he started making the move from stock photography to glamour, he spent a lot of time working for free with models from Model Mayhem until he built up a good enough portfolio and list of contacts to get steady work.

Jim told me that despite his paying work, he still does unpaid work all the time, as do the models he works with.

It is generally standard practice in our industry that magazines pay nothing, or next to nothing… We do it for the publicity. And yes, people get excited about publicity and hire us as a result.

Like many in the model photography industry, I’ve gone through the usual progression from trade (unpaid) photo shoots in the beginning, to nearly all paid work now. But I still do trade shoots, when it is beneficial to me. Perhaps it’s a new model whose look I would like to add to my portfolio. Maybe it’s a client I am interested in, and posting some shots from their fashion show makes them notice me. The trick is to make sure the balance of favor is in fact…balanced.

Still, he agrees there are people who try to take advantage:

There are too many out there who use the term “exposure” to gain advantage over new, up and coming talent who should be getting paid. Or those who get stuck in the “Trade Shoot Trap” of endless portfolio building. Our industry is very, very small and once you’ve established your reputation for always working for free, it becomes nearly impossible to start asking for money.

On the other hand, he also gets free work from others:

I haven’t paid a makeup artist out of my own pocket…ever. They work with me for free because they want my pictures, or they want to do a free shoot to prove they are good and reliable, and then I refer paid jobs to them.

Ultimately, you have to establish your track record before you can trade on it:

There are endless streams of new models, new makeup artists, new photographers, etc. Some of them give up nearly as soon as they’ve started… Me? I’m not willing to put some new makeup artist in front of a paying client, if I haven’t worked with that makeup artist first. So we do test shoots to prove ourselves.

(Jim is also the guy who took the picture of me that I use on my about page. And yes, I paid him.)

Kreider does seem to understand how this works. After all, he has written this piece as a New York Times op-ed, which pays — and here I quote NYT Op-Ed editor Trish Hall — “peanuts.” He also gives away a whole bunch of his The Pain comics on his website, where he asks for donations. Having mocked people for thinking he’ll value exposure, he then exposes his work for free and asks for donations.

I have more to say in Part 2.

This seems to have been the week for bashing marketers who send silly email messages in the legal blogosphere (although Brian and Scott don’t really need a special week for that), and I need to exercise my brain on the new blogging software, so I think I’ll do a little bashing of my own.

I received an interestingly self-refuting email a few days ago from a salesman named James:

Hi Mark,  I am inquiring about a full time sales position covering California. My 10 years of experience selling software and consulting services in Western US could generate two or three million dollars in new revenue in 2013.

He goes on to make his pitch:

Independent lead generation has enabled me to develop a sales funnel rapidly.  I offer a demonstrated track record of success selling to decision makers and early adopters. I live in San Francisco. My monthly salary requirement is $9,900 per month for the first three months and $5,800 per month thereafter.

Furthermore, he attached his resume, and it describes him as an

Accomplished sales executive offering a reputation as an unrelenting force in demand generation, and a proven track record identifying paying customers and closing deals. Sought-after for strong research skills and an ability to efficiently engage the top prospects across a broad geographic territory.

Tell me, James, if you’re so good at generating leads and identifying paying customers, why are you trying to sell to me? My consulting business is mostly a one-man operation. Why would I possibly need a salesman for $10K/month?

Furthermore, I shut that business down and returned to full-time employment over a year ago, which James could have discovered with his “strong research skills” by checking public records to see that my state registration has expired, or checking my company web page, or even — God help us — glancing at my LinkedIn profile.

Anytime this week or next week works for me if you wish to have a 30 minute phone conversation. Thanks for your consideration.

James _____ (xxx) xxx-xxxx [email protected]

Despite the silliness of sending this to me, I’ve decided not to embarrass James by publishing his full name. As far as I can tell, he’s not making any kinds of unethical claims, nor is he an internet marketing douchebag. He’s offering to do the hard work of selling product in a territory. If he has a web site or Facebook marketing page or even a LinkedIn page, I can’t find it. Also, note the charmingly quaint AOL address.

Actually, it seems likely he is himself the victim of some internet marketing douchebag who sold him a list of email addresses of “owners of tech companies in the midwest who are hiring sales people.” I emailed him to ask how he picked me, but he never responded, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve been meaning to write something about the recent criticism of Apple’s use of the Foxxconn factory in China, but now I don’t have to, because my co-blogger Rogier has just posted a great piece about it over at Nobody’s Business. So go check out The iPhone owner’s guide to liberal hypocrisy.

I guarantee that it is far more interesting than my obligatory post on the State of the Union below. Also, way shorter.

I’m holding in my hand one of those “Sorry We Missed You!” cards from the Post Office. It says they’re holding a certified letter for me. From the IRS.

Update: It turns out they just want money, and not a lot of it. I need to do a little research, but I’m pretty sure sure I’m going to send it to them tonight, and worry about whether I really owe them money some other time.

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy they’re talking about tongue-in-cheek questions to ask when the interviewer asks you if you have any questions.

The Conspirators are all lawyers or law students, but some of the questions would be good for the rest of us:

  • “How would you describe the atmosphere here — Is it more like a labor camp or a slave ship?”
  • “I heard there was this guy who came here and only billed like three hours a week. They say it took the firm two years to kick him out, and they gave him a nice bonus to leave, too. Is that true?”
  • “Is it as bad as they say?”
  • “How many partners here are still on their first wives?”
  • “Is the firm’s suite at Wrigley or Comiskey?”
  • “Will I be allowed in the same room as a client? How about if there’s a client walking down the hall, can I take a look-see?”
  • Look at them quizzically. Then lean back, look up into the air, stroke your chin, and pause for a long time. Then sigh deeply. Repeat until they interrupt.
  • “Say I have a “friend” who’s embezzling money from the law firm where he’s a summer associate. Is that so bad?”
  • “What’s the absolute fewest number of hours an associate can work, and still not get fired?”
  • “Is that your wife, or your grandmother?”
  • “Is that your wife, or your granddaughter?”
  • “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”
  • “How much errors and omissions coverage do you have?”
  • “Am I expected to check my Blackberry at 3:15 a.m.?”
  • “There’s not a drug test or anything, is there?”

Here are the ones I suggested:

  1. Will the size of the book shelves in my office depend on my title or on the number of books I need to do the job?
  2. If you move a department with four executives to a floor that has five executive-quality offices, does some lucky staff member get the good office or do you remodel it back to the lower quality level even though that costs more?
  3. If you can’t afford to remodel the office in question 2, do you move the copy machine in there rather than give it to a non-executive?
  4. Hypothetical question: If there’s not enough money in the budget for more filing cabinets, but meanwhile we’re buying another company, can we have their filing cabinets?
  5. Everyone working in this office has a college degree and has passed a background check. If I go to the restroom, will I find that the toilet paper is inside a gadget that allows you to pull the paper out the bottom, but requires a key to open, because you don’t trust your employees with unlocked rolls of toilet paper?

(Yes, all based on something that happened, but not necessarily to me.)

Glenn Reynolds’ wife is home from the hospital six hours later than expected because of all the paperwork. Over at Three Men And A Blog The Doctor is using this as a reason to complain about all the paperwork too.

As for me, I don’t mind the paperwork so much. In fact, I kind of like it. You see, for the past few years I, my wife, and many of our friends have been earning money developing software and providing services to handle it all.

God Bless HIPAA.

Modern customer relations can be pretty strange. My wife bought a Dell laptop a few years ago, and that model turns out to have some problems with the batteries. Some unforeseen interaction with the charger can cause them to overheat and catch fire. It’s only actually happened once, and no one was hurt, but there was a class action lawsuit that has now reached a settlement. She just got a letter from Dell with the following salutation:

Dear Settlement Class Member and Valued Dell Customer:

Only in America.