Caroline Hamilton is a research fellow in the Department of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne and has also worked as a freelance writer. Her latest book One Man Zeitgeist: Dave Eggers, Publishing and Publicity is published by Continuum. Caroline chats to Overland about her article ‘The Exposure Economy’.
How did you come to write ‘The exposure economy’?
I’m researching the working lives of independent writers and publishers at present and as part of that project I delved in to the blogs of many local writers. One issue which kept cropping up in some form or another was the problem of getting paid. Writers were keen to take on opportunities only to discover the work was unpaid.
As disappointing as that is, what really struck me, was that despite their frustration all these writers didn’t seem to think that the situation could be changed in any way. Writers were commenting about the situation on each others’ blogs, but there was little discussion of how collectively they might be able to find some better solution to their problem. It made me wonder about writers, about the traditions of their work practice and they ways in which those traditions are being challenged (for better, and for worse) in the age of digital media.
What you hope the reader will take away with them after reading your piece?
In particular, I hope that a few of those writers who have been grudgingly prepared to work without pay in exchange for exposure might reconsider their value; and how they can demonstrate their value for their peers. By no means am I suggesting that people shouldn’t volunteer their services! That’s the lifeblood of small independent operations. But, I do think that their needs to be a greater consciousness about volunteer labour.
I see a distinction between a small enterprise that operates essentially as a charity, and a larger operation that exists ostensibly to make money. Those big operations sometimes don’t pay their writers, promising them ‘exposure’ instead. Now, that’s bad enough, but small operations are starting to cite ‘exposure’ for their writers as a way to justify the absence of a pay cheque too. Exposure isn’t a reward that can be doled out to contributors make up for the fact that you can’t (or in the case of the bigger employers, won’t) pay them. When you think about other models of free work (like giving your time in a soup kitchen, say, or an op-shop) it’s fairly obvious that those participants are contributing because they value the opportunity to be part of a community. The economy is different there.
Exposure, or any kind of calibrated ‘payback’, is not a lure to those volunteers because volunteer work doesn’t operate according to that logic. Writers, and the organisations that want the content they provide, need to be clear about what kind of economy they want to operate within.
Where you are now with your writing practice?
Well, I’m an academic by trade, so my writing practice is fairly well defined. At present, because of my research into writers and publishing, I’m especially interested in writing about subjects that are of interest to the broader cross-section of the industry and the public: ideas about work life, creativity, the place of technology and the printed object in our lives.
The thing about these subjects is that they attract debate and, as a result of that discussion, there is an opportunity to have tangible effects in policy and creative practice. Being able to reach an engaged audience via Overland is a great opportunity in that respect.
I’m also in the process – along with a couple of colleagues – of developing a collection of essays to address some of the knotty issues that come out of this scenario of being ‘not quite professionally recognised’. I’m very curious about who is now called the ‘amateur’ and who ‘the professional’; the definitions for both of these seem to be changing rapidly …