Author interview Creative Process

You’re a writer – What is your time worth?

Over the years I have discovered that people, for many reasons, give their services or creative products away for free, or for too little. Social Media sites quite often feature rants about this situation. Someone might contact you and say; we want your whatever for our whatsisname. If the creative person says what it will cost, the other party then claims to be aghast and offers some sort of low-or-no-value promotion in lieu of compensation.

When I think about these situations, I have to ask: Why should anyone in their right mind expect anyone else to work for nothing?

No-one should work for nothing.

Why would anyone work for free? Everything worthwhile has a price. Everything. Freebies are freebies because the costs are hidden or because they are worth nothing. (The best things in life are free but they are not owned by anyone.) Real skills, real time spent, and real experience have monetary value. Your time, Creative Person, has value. Doctors get paid, retail workers get paid, the person who approached you gets paid or pays themselves. Everyone who does something gets paid. When you’ve done the work, you should get paid.

That’s how economies work: labour in exchange for payment – even if you are in a Socialist or Communist state there is compensation. The only work that doesn’t get paid is slavery and unpaid volunteering. (Are you a slave? I hope not.)

Everyone’s time has value.

Your time, Writer, Artist, Poet – has a cost, either for hours worked, or materials, or for the retention of your services, or for a final product. Why would you not tell whoever wants you to do something, what it will cost? Why would you go ahead and do it, if you know you won’t get paid? You should rather regretfully decline.

“I’m not doing it.” (Liev Schreiber’s character in “Ray Donovan”, 2013)

Sometimes people doubt their own worth. They think what they do is not good enough to be worth money. Or they may think they will do it now and persuade the other party to pay them later, which never happens. Or they may be so desperate for work that they convince themselves that it’s OK and that it “builds experience”. Or they just don’t know what to ask for and are embarrassed to negotiate.

It’s your responsibility to find out what to charge – and to say so. Professionals have industry rates – they know what to quote in an estimate: the second thing lawyers say after “pleased to meet you” is likely “our hourly rates are…” Other people work at upfront union rates or minimum wage. If you are not in those categories, and you probably aren’t, you have to figure it out by yourself, and it’s not the lowest rate you should be identifying. It’s the rate that reflects your worth. They say that the value of art is solely determined by what the buyer thinks it’s worth – and that is entirely random. It might be how fine art sales work, but that doesn’t make it rational or reasonable. Nope. Nope. Nope.

The value of art, like anything, is a complicated calculation. The worth is the combined value of the doer’s qualifications, expertise, experience, level of effort and risk, time, materials, exclusivity – plus that extra thing: how good they are at it. What you get paid should be enough to compensate for your costs, and to leave profit on the table. (Here is a detailed article about how to price your art.)

If you then do state what your work will cost, and the other party is disdainful or bullying, remember that it is your skills and talent that they want, not vice versa.

“I’m a writer, you monsters!” (John Turturo’s character in “Barton Fink”, 1991)

Author Damon Brown has a sensible take on this problem. He says that it is not as simple as money changing hands, and there are other options for compensation, but you must be compensated:

No matter the circumstances, you should make sure you are being honored and compensated for what you bring to the table. As Ellison says, no one is doing you any favors by working with you. And if they didn’t think your work was worth anything, then they wouldn’t be trying to work with you in the first place.”

 Damon Brown, entrepreneur and author of Build from Now (@BROWNDAMON) in Understand Why You (and Other Creatives) Are Undervalued, on, June 29, 2018, retrieved Nov. 18, 2021

Harlan Ellison said: “Pay the writer.”

Below is a very satisfying video of author Harlan Ellison being outraged about this very situation. Ellison (May 27, 1934 – June 28, 2018) was a famous and lauded Speculative Science Fiction author, known for his writing for the original Star Trek TV show. He wrote prolifically – more than 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic book scripts, teleplays, essays, and a wide range of criticism. He had a reputation for being outspoken and landing himself in hot water. But in this instance, his anger was justified.

The video dates from 2007, and is now still relevant and true. He might have been throwing a wobbly about a DVD, but today the same would apply to any medium, online or physical. The close-captioning transcript is provided. It’s not word-for word, but close enough.

Be like Harlan Ellison

Read it, and print it out and stick it on your wall or notice board, and do not give in to people who try to guilt or flatter you into doing work for nothing. Be like Harlan Ellison and clearly state your terms. Do not give away your work for free.

If you don’t know how to proceed, consult a lawyer. I have – it was worth every cent.

Warning: Clip contains swearing.

Try to listen to the message underneath the anger. Ellison verbalized what many people are just too embarrassed to express. As off-the-rails as he sounded, he had a very good point, a point that is still spot-on today.

Clip titled: “Pay the Writer“, from the documentary “Harlan Ellison – Dreams with Sharp Teeth”, directed by Erik Nelson. First screened in April 2007. Clip published by Nicholas Horton on YouTube, retrieved Nov. 18, 2021. The documentary contains original and archive footage of Ellison, and talking head segments from colleagues and fans including Robin Williams, Peter David, and Neil Gaiman.

“Pay the Writer”: Close captioning transcript (edited)

*Square brackets around blanks [__] indicates inaudible/unclear words Square brackets around words indicate replacement text for the sake of readability. Redacted swearwords indicated with *.

I get a call yesterday from a little film company down here in the valley and they’re doing the packaging for Warner Brothers on Babylon 5 which I worked on. I did a very long, very interesting on-camera interview about the making of Babylon 5 early on when Joe Straczynski hired me, and they want to use it. A young woman calls me and she says that, “We’d like to use it on the DVD, can that be arranged?”

I said, “Absolutely all you got to do is pay me.”

And she asked, “What are [we] going to pay [you]? She said, “Well, everybody else is just, you know, doing it for nothing.”

I said” “Everybody else may be an [ __ ] but I’m not.” I said, “By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing? Do you get a paycheck?”

“Well, yes.”

I say, “Does your boss get a paycheck? Do you pay the [__] guy – any guy – do you pay the cameraman, do you pay the cutters, do you pay them? The teamsters when they schlepp your stuff on the trucks? Then how don’t you pay me? How would you go to a gas station and ask: ‘Give [me] free gas’? Would you go to the doctor and have them take out your spleen for nothing? How dare you call me and want me to work for free?”

“Well,” [ she says], “it would be good publicity.”

I said, “Lady, tell that to someone a little older than you who has just fallen off the turnip truck. There is no publicity value in my essay, my interview, being on your DVD. If you sell 2000 million it’ll be great, and [even if] one of the people go, say, ‘Ooh, I really like the way that guy gave that interview, I wonder if he’s ever written a book, let me go and buy the book’ – there’s no publicity value.

The only value for me is if you put money in my hand, cross my palm with silver.”

And she says, “Well, alright, thank you.”

And she hangs up. I’ll never hear from them.

They want everything for nothing. They wouldn’t go for five seconds without being paid and they’ll bitch about how much they’re paid, and want more. I should do a freebie for Warner Brothers? [___] No, they always want the writer to work for nothing and the problem is that there’s g****** many writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something. They do it for nothing. They’re going: ‘Look at me, I’m going to be noticed.’

What are you telling me? Are they [worth] any less [than] the media? I think not. They just haven’t – nobody’s offered – to buy their work. So, I sell myself but at the highest rates. The highest rates! I don’t take a p*** without getting paid for it. I get so angry about this because you’re undercut by all the amateurs.

It’s the amateurs who make it tough for the professionals, because when you act professional, these people are so used to getting it for nothing, and for mooching, and for being able to pass off this [ __ ].  They don’t even send you a copy of the DVD. You know, you have to call them and say:

“Where’s the DVD?”.

“Well, it’s been obviously…well…you know…we know…you could go to the store buy it.”

“You send me the goddamn DVD now I’m going to come down to your office and I’m going to burn it to the ground,  how about that?

“Well, you don’t have to get mean.”

“Yeah, I do have to get mean about it. It’s been six months since the d*** thing came out.”

The cover of the DVD of “Dreams with Sharp Teeth”

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