[blog action day] the pen, the sword, and the checkbook

Let’s try this on for size. The Power of We, huh? Let’s look at the issue via the New Yorker, for starters. From an article about Amanda Palmer misbehaving yet again:

“As a society, we’re supposedly committed to the principle that workers, the poor, those struggling to get by, deserve a share of the wealth for practicing their craft. But we also believe that investors and owners deserve returns on their equity. What we gloss over is the irresolvable contradiction between those two things.”

The short version of what happened: Amanda Palmer raised $1.2 million via Kickstarter to fund her next project, then turned around and asked musicians in the cities she was going to hit to open for her for free. Well, beer and hugs. So basically free if you’re a struggling new act.

The conflict is nothing new among freelancers. How much are we meant to charge for our time and talent? In order to make a living, the number’s got to rise; fair compensation isn’t if we’re still starving for our art. If the market decides that what we have to offer is not worth a living wage, the same as any other labour, do we offer it regardless for what we can get — exposure? Pennies on the dollar? Love of the art?

I edit for my friends from time to time. I do that out of love, not just for writing but for writers. The depth of my involvement with the text varies. Mainly I’m working with people who are good enough that I only have to skim for egregious errors. I don’t charge these friends. Where I do charge is where the connection is not solid enough to warrant such a favor. Putting myself in the shoes of a prospective opening act for Ms. Palmer, I’d have to be an established friend of hers in order not to devalue my work by performing for free.

When I devalue my work, I devalue it for other freelancers. “Hey,” a writer can say to an editor, “Cass is doing this work for half of what you charge! I’m going to her from now on.” On the one hand, more work for me. On the other, in order to remain competitive, other editors now have to lower their rates. If I undercut them too badly, assuming I am doing the same or comparable work at the same or comparable proficiency, I’ve just driven the market value of that work down.

Any writer worth her salt understands the value of an editor. I’m not just talking about the professionals in publishing houses. I’m talking about the ones who roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, correcting mechanics, questioning word choice, asking for clarity. As someone who has done this for years in various settings, let me assure you that it is hard work. Let me also assure you, as someone who’s read work that comes out of publishing houses with no or bad editors, that the work is necessary in order to produce writing worth reading. I lose respect for writers who let what appear to be early drafts hit the market. I lose even more respect for publishers who aren’t a bit upset by this.

It is therefore not that hard for me to lose respect for musicians who can pay opening acts and supporting musicians — but won’t. Or didn’t intend to, in this case; I gather Ms. Palmer has since adjusted her plans. As the article says, it’s one thing to swap favors among friends. It’s quite another to offer unpaid labor. It hurts the laborer and it hurts the workforce. You are still part of a “we” as a freelancer, whether you’d like to acknowledge it or not. In order for your work to be worth anything in a capitalist society, you must learn to balance competition with justice. Undercut your fellows today, starve tomorrow. Allow yourself to be seduced by intangibles and the tangibles you require to survive will forever remain out of reach — perhaps for more than yourself. “Workers of the world, unite” is more than a communist maxim. It’s how we maintain a fair free market. If you can be paid, be paid! Better to be thought a little ruthless than to let your work become worthless.

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