At the end of last month, the former child star and current internet celebrity Wil Wheaton wrote about an attempt by The Huffington Post to repost one of his earlier blog posts – for free, of course. The blog post where he outlines his disappointing encounter with The Huffington Post (a company valued at over fifty million US dollars) soon became yet another flashpoint in the ongoing debate about the remuneration of writers in the digital economy – a debate that has already seen the creation of initiatives such as Australia’s (somewhat moribund) Pay the Writers, the Who Pays Writers in Australia? Tumblr, and, in the States, a Google Docs spreadsheet with crowdsourced data that aims to bring transparency to the otherwise murky state of affairs that is writers’ pay.
Everyone except the most flagrantly freeloading of publications, it seems, agrees that something needs to be done about the parlous state of writers’ pay – but what, exactly? This is where a crowdfunded start-up, WordRates, comes in. The service aims to ‘disrupt’ writers’ pay rates by publishing a comprehensive (and crowdsourced) database of magazines’ word rates and payment times, as well as writer reviews of their experiences with editors. For those writers who are willing to pay, there are perquisites: a feature called PitchLab, where a team of mentors help writers hone a pitch and find a publication in exchange for a 15% commission across the lifespan of the story, and a premium membership that allows writers to access editors’ contact details and contract comparisons that will help them negotiate the best rate.
As the discussion generated by Pay the Writers demonstrates, any initiative that aims to improve the lot of writers will soon encounter some thorny dilemmas. Just who counts as a professional writer, and whose lot should be improved first? Do we focus on the online outlets such as The Guardian’s digital branch and Junkee that publish thousand-word ‘hot takes’ at $100–150 a pop? Do we instead agitate for better rates for more established writers publishing long form work for mastheads with high cultural cachet? Or do we start with improving the lot of young and emerging writers, who often write for free or for very little money, churning out listicles and other cruft? And where do writers who do not work in the dominant forms of the new media economy – poets, writers of experimental fiction, academics – fit in?
No single service could support the needs of such a diverse cohort, and, to its credit, WordRates does not pretend to be all things to all writers. It makes plain its commitment to a certain understanding of the writer’s role on the front page of its PitchLab: ‘We believe that writers deserve to be middle class.’ WordRates’ founder, Scott Carney, expands on what this means in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review: he distinguishes between ‘subsistence writers’ who make their income from many small stories at low rates, and the middle-class writer who ‘grow[s] actual useful, interesting writing’ and pieces together their income from a smaller number of better-paid (and longer) works. It is presumably this latter kind of writer – or the kind of writer who aspires to be the latter kind of writer – who makes up the market for WordRates’ services.
Carney’s goal is, at first glance, a laudable one – who, after all, would want more bad writing to be inflicted on the world? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all make a living off writing long, carefully thought-out pieces of prose that have been burnished to perfection through an intensive editorial process? Yet WordRates’ own stated ambition of being ‘a Yelp! [sic] for journalists’ complicates its objective – after all, has anyone in the restaurant industry ever claimed that Yelp has been a force for good in that sphere? Yelp has been the subject of several class action lawsuits alleging extortion from its advertising team, and its reviews are notoriously susceptible to astroturfing. Rather than shedding light on the quality of the services its members review, Yelp has become a platform for the exchange of vast sums of money in an attempt to game its ratings. The businesses providing those services foot the bill, either through membership in Yelp’s $300-per-month advertising program, or paying an external agency to astroturf its Yelp page with positive reviews, or providing free goodies to the self-described ‘Yelp Elite Squad’, or simply by spending extra hours monitoring and responding to its reviews. Why would anyone want to inflict a similar burden on an already struggling publishing industry?
More to the point, though, WordRates does not – and indeed cannot – address the fundamental issue that has corroded writers’ and freelance journalists’ wages across the world. The disruptive technologies that have emerged from Silicon Valley, built on the infrastructure of the internet, are vast destroyers of value. Whether it’s Airbnb and accommodation, Spotify and music, Uber and taxis, or The Huffington Post and writing, much of the money made in technology has been predicated on the wholesale destruction of former industries and their replacement with something cheaper and more precarious for all parties involved – except those mediating the transactions between consumers and service providers, of course. Even the language we use to talk about services reflects this seismic shift: writing, music, visual art and video is now ‘content’, a mass noun the purpose of which is, like kapok stuffing, to fill infrastructure and provide value for those who control the platforms on which it is distributed.
All writers are more or less complicit within this system – I can’t currently think of a single writer I personally know who doesn’t feel obliged to maintain a Twitter profile, and who therefore has donated their labour to add value to a private enterprise. Certainly nearly every jobbing writer in Australia has accepted rates that are well below those recommended by the Australian Society of Authors or the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance. (Let me know if you find someone willing to pay $925 and up for a hot take or a listicle – I have any number of feelings on many subjects I’d be happy to divulge for that sum.) No matter how well-intentioned, then, a service like WordRates can only help a small number of relatively established journalists shore up their incomes in the face of a relentless assault on the value of all kinds of content. That’s a noble goal, but it leaves untouched the broader structural problems that drove the creation of the service in the first place.