Back in June 2009, I wrote a series of posts about the value of our work as writers and artists, prompted by yet another corporation offering "exposure" instead of payment. As I said back then, exposure is fine, and all of us who create art of some sort make choices in what we want to offer for free and what we feel deserves payment. I blog here for free, and I've blogged elsewhere for free, but I've also written articles and stories for which I wanted to be paid. And in all cases, I wanted the publisher to understand that I value my work at a certain level, and that it is my choice to decide if I'm willing to allow my work to be used for free.

So I was interested when I heard the news that AOL was buying the Huffington Post, because part of the Post's business model (from what I understood) seemed to be based on getting people – important people – to provide content for free, as that would lead to exposure and more sales of their other work. I wanted to blog about what the sale of the Post to AOL meant, but I simply haven't had the time.

Now I don't have to.

N.K. Jemisin, author of the Inheritance Trilogy, has an excellent blog post today, And now a word from our sponsor, in which she discusses some of those very same issues that I wanted to explore. If you're a writer or artist who earns part of your living from your creative work, or if you're a consumer of content who wants to support those creators, I encourage you to read what she has to say.
Reading back over my previous discussion about valuing creator's work properly, I've been pondering the correct way to ask someone to provide something for free. Specifically, I've been thinking about the request I had received to allow a nonprofit to reprint a story of mine in exchange for exposure. And I asked myself, if they knew from the outset that they couldn't offer me any money at all, was there a way they could have asked me that would have led to my agreement?

I already noted that I would have been more amenable if the man who made the request had started by asking me what I would charge as a reprint fee, or if he had said that they didn't have a lot of money but had offered me a token sum. That would have acknowledged from the outset his understanding that my work had value to it. But then I thought of one other approach he could have taken. I can't be sure this would have done the trick, but I think I would have been receptive had he said the following:

"I'm sorry to say that I can't offer payment. Would you be willing to donate your work?"

I would have been a lot more comfortable with this kind of request. Why? Because the original "offer" implies that "exposure" is a valid form of payment. But the request as phrased above makes it clear that the publisher understands that the work has value, simply by using the word "donation." And it implies a level of respect for the creator and the work that the offer of payment by exposure does not.

Of course, that mostly works if the asker is running a nonprofit or a charity, and if the writer can afford it.

Writers do donate things all the time, such as signed copies of their work or the chance for a person to appear in a book, to charity auctions. But people need to keep in mind that just because someone is a writer doesn't mean that they can actually afford to make donations. The writers who can are usually ones more famous and better off than I am, and yet there are a lot of people out there who seem to think that if you're a fiction writer you're automatically very well off, even if they don't see your name on the Times bestseller list.

I wouldn't be surprised to see someone like Stephen King on an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy, trying to raise money for a good cause (and if Wikipedia is to be trusted, King did in fact appear on the show to raise money for the Bangor Public Library in 1995). But most of us who are writers would rather appear on Jeopardy for our own benefit, so we can avoid missing our mortgage payments.

If you do approach a writer for a donation, and you're turned down, you ought to be gracious about it. When I was just starting out, I got an email from some school asking me to make a donation of a personal item for a charity auction. (These requests are a lot more common than people realize.) I emailed back, explaining that I was a teacher myself (low-paid, of course, as many teachers are) and had agreed with my employer that I would only make such donations for my own school's auction. The other school's representative emailed me back indignantly, saying that he had never heard of such an arrangement and casting aspersions on my moral character because I wouldn't part with one of my possessions to help them out.

You can be sure that I crossed that school off my list of places I would ever help out if I found myself in a position to do so.

So let's go back to the question of Google and the artists that spurred these articles in the first place. Would it have been better or more appropriate for Google to ask the artists to donate their work instead of offering exposure? I would say no, that Google isn't in a position to ask artists to donate their work, for the obvious reason. Google isn't a charity; it's a company that makes a large profit every year and is looking to increase its own profits with wider distribution of their Chrome browser. In the end, I return to the point I made at the beginning: if Google thinks that the artists' work has value, they should be willing to match that value with payment.
When I first wrote about Google's offer of exposure to the artists, I didn't think I'd be writing about it again for another two days running. But as I keep thinking about the questions of how much creative work is valued and how much it should be valued, more thoughts I want to share come to mind.

Today, I want to discuss the concept of an option, which is relevant when a writer is contacted regarding the film or television rights to a story or novel.

For those of you not in the business, let me give you a simple definition of an option. Writers usually do not sell film or television rights to their work outright, because there's always the chance that the person who buys those rights won't end up being able to make the film or TV show, and then you can't sell the rights again because someone else owns them. This actually happened to Isaac Asimov. Orson Welles expressed interest in his story "Evidence," and Asimov was so thrilled by the thought that Welles was planning to make a movie out of the story that he sold Welles the rights. Welles never did make the film, and when Asimov optioned the rights to the collection I, Robot years later, he couldn't include "Evidence" as part of the deal. (FYI, Asimov's I, Robot never got made; the Will Smith movie is a different animal entirely.)

So when "Hollywood" comes calling, the standard custom is that you don't sell them rights outright, but rather, you sell them the option to try to develop the property as a film within a certain period of time. Options payments are much smaller than the payment for rights, so it also benefits the producers, as they don't have to tie up a lot of their money in your work. And when an option is sold, the agreement signed by both parties includes a payment schedule and explanation of rights that will be sold should the option be "exercised." If the producer is able to sell the film to a studio, then you end up with a payment for the sale of the film rights, and that's the end of that.

(There are other details, of course, such as whether or not you're holding onto literary rights to your work, whether you get a percentage of licensing, etc. But those are mostly irrelevant to this current discussion.)

Now, believe it or not, I do get emails and calls from Hollywood, asking whether the film rights for various stories of mine are available. Fortunately, I have a lawyer to handle those details for me, because some of the time, the people calling want to purchase what we would call a "free option." You can probably guess what that means simply from the name, but just to be explicit, a free option means that the producer wants the right to try to develop your story as a movie for some period of time, but doesn't want to pay for the privilege of doing so.

I can see situations in which a writer might be willing to grant a free option. For example, if the producer who wants to develop the property is a close friend who is just starting out, and if you're a writer who is just starting out as well, it might make sense to grant the free option. Or if the producer can show some emotional investment in the work, you might be willing to let them have a free option because you think they will do right by it should the movie get made.

But I see two issues with that offer. The first one is that if the producer doesn't pay you anything for the option, they have less incentive to try to get the movie made. Giving you money is their investment in the property, and it's only by selling the final film to a studio that they're going to get their money back. So if a producer has a free option, where's the incentive to move forward on the project?

The other issue is that movie rights usually cannot be sold non-exclusively. In other words, I can't sell the film rights for one of my stories to (say) both Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, as they're competing studios. (Well. I could try, but I would be laughed at.) So during the time that Joe Neoproducer has a free option to my story, its rights are tied up, and should Stephen Spielberg come knocking on my door, I wouldn't be able to sell him the option. I'd have to wait until the option with Joe expires. And I doubt Stephen is going to wait around that long, given that the rights are tied up with Joe.

But overwhelming both of those issues in my mind is again the concept of the value of my work. So if someone comes to me wanting a free option, I have one question rattling around in the back of my brain: if you feel my work has value, then why aren't you willing to pay for it?

My friend Robert J. Sawyer discussed this in his own blog two years ago, in the post Film Options. I like how he describes the concept of a free option:


I've got a lottery ticket; you want me to hand it to you so you can hold onto it until such time as the drawing is held. If it's a loser, well, then you'll give it back to me. And if it's a winner, then you'll make a small payment to me.


Exactly. If you think my story has value, and you think you can develop it and sell it to the movies and make a ton of money doing so, you should be willing to risk some of your own money from the outset. After all, you're asking me to take a risk as well.

Come back tomorrow, and I may have more to say on the value of our work.
Yesterday I wrote about getting paid for creative work, and sifting through the comments I realize that there is a point I'd like to make clearer or address better.

To start with, I want to emphasize that my main point was not that doing creative work for free or for exposure is wrong. As I said yesterday, I've done some creative work for free myself, and I even have a friend who is doing pro bono creative work for me (although I did offer payment for it, and would be willing to pay, if she wanted).

My main point can best be illustrated by the following story.

In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov told of the time a woman of his acquaintance asked him if he would take on some volunteer project for the community. From what I remember, Asimov said he would have been fine doing the project, but then the acquaintance went on to say that she would have asked Dr. So-and-so, but Dr. So-and-so was a very busy man.

And that statement stopped Isaac Asimov cold. He was incensed that just because he was a writer, this acquaintance assumed that he wasn't busy and had plenty of time. What bothered him was her unwarranted assumption about his life as a freelance writer.

And that's what bothers me about Google's approach to the artists mentioned in the article. It's the assumption that of course an artist would be happy with exposure as payment. Because it's not Google who gets to make that decision – it's the artists.

In the end, I'd go back to Google and anyone else offering naught but exposure, and ask them this – who exactly do they think is going to pick up the slack and pay artists if word gets around that they'll work for exposure? At what point would Google consider an artist's work to be of value? (As [livejournal.com profile] sethg_prime noted in the comments, Google surely paid Scott McCloud to create the online 39-page comic book introducing Chrome to the world. If McCloud's art is worth paying for, why isn't everyone else's?)

Expectations need to be set accordingly.

(As an aside, there's a fascinating chapter in the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely about social norms, and how we keep them separate from market norms. Ariely has placed an excerpt from that chapter here, and I encourage everyone to take a look.)
As a freelance writer, I frequently find myself concerned with the question of how much a particular piece of writing is worth. In general, the market sets the rates for writing, usually offering a few cents a word for a piece of fiction and more than that for a piece of nonfiction. We tend to expect a professional website to offer something reasonable for the use of our work, even in the Internet era of quick links and frictionless copying. My basic rule is a simple one; if the magazine or website is making money by selling advertising or access to their content, then I should be given some sort of payment for generating that content in the first place.

Even if the site isn't making money on its own, if it serves as a loss leader for a company, I'd also expect to get paid. For example, if a TV network sets up a website to attract viewers, even if that site loses money on its own, overall the site is helping them with their bottom line. I would expect to be paid for whatever I provide them, just like they pay studios for the programs they broadcast.

So I was intrigued by this article I read in the New York Times this morning: Use Their Work Free? Some Artists Say No to Google. Google has invited dozens of prominent artists to contribute work that they will feature on their new Web browser, Chrome, and when some of the artists asked how much they would be paid for their art, the answer was nothing. Google released a statement in which they said that while they don't usually offer money for the use of the art in the browser, they feel that they would be giving the artists an opportunity to display their work in front of millions of people.

In other words, no money, but think of the exposure!

How I have come to hate that word.

A few years ago, someone whose name I won't mention wanted to reprint one of my stories in a booklet that a nonprofit organization planned to distribute to a variety of synagogues across the United States. I had passed along the story at the request of a mutual friend, and he was so excited by the story that he really wanted others to read it and be as moved by it as he was.

But when he asked if he could reprint the story, his first words were to tell me that he wouldn't pay anything, but he could offer me "exposure." It rankled me to hear that. He wouldn't consider not paying the costs of printing the booklets or distributing them, but when it came to the content, he didn't seem to grasp why it was so wrong to offer no compensation at all.

The irony here is that in this particular case I really didn't want a reprint fee, just respect. Had the guy approached me and asked what the reprint fee would have been – or even if he had said something like we don't have a large budget for this project but I can give you $10 – I would have replied thank you for asking, but for your cause I'm willing to let you have it for free.

This is not to say that I wouldn't write something and offer it for no charge. I've written for fanzines before, and I would never think of charging them for an article, because that's not how the model works. (Also, fanzine editors make it clear from the outset that they're not a paying market.) I don't get paid for my blog posts, obviously, as this blog is my communication with friends and fans. (I do keep a small link on the side of the front page to a PayPal button, because I don't want to deny someone the choice of making a donation if they'd like, but I don't push very hard for donations.)

And this is not to say that I don't write for "exposure" sometimes. The difference, though, is that when I write for "exposure" I'm doing it on my own terms. I'm choosing to provide articles or stories for friends or for partners, and usually there's an added quid pro quo that is no one's business but my own.

What bothers me most of all is that people who believe their own industry is of value often think nothing of asking writers to provide work for free. Or think we should be happy if our work gets distributed without permission. A few months ago, a friend of mine who is in one of the professional fields suggested that I should be happy if a story of mine got copied over and over on the Internet and earned me millions of readers. After all, isn't that what a writer wants, to be read?

Well, yes. But a writer also wants to be paid. Does a lawyer offer all of his or her services for free? Would a doctor be happy to not draw a fee and simply treat people without payment?

Would you be willing to do your own job for no payment?

I think the executives at Google who made this offer of "exposure" to artists need to answer that question for themselves.

December 2016

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