How to deal with freeloading publishers: Look to ‘Goodfellas’

When I got started writing for newspapers and magazines, I did it for peanuts. Not literally legumes, but CDs. I was writing reviews for a tiny paper in Boston called The Beat, which was essentially done out of a basement and given away free in stores, and if I got a free CD out of it — and sometimes free admittance to a show — it probably boiled down to around $10 of merch and so forth so in a way I was getting paid … right?

The Beat did eventually pay in metaphorical peanuts, and I was thrilled to take home an extra $25 here and there, and eventually worked myself up to the level I'm at now — getting $1 per word, more or less, depending on who I'm writing for. Often, that's just how this stuff works: You write for pittances or freebies, and then you got some clips and self-respect and you move up the ladder, getting paid better with each rung. Never a lot. Never a ton. But enough that it was worth doing and sometimes paid the rent (not always).

We all know the Internet changed everything for writers and publishers alike; words are every freaking place on the Web, and a lot of them say nothing and cost nothing — it's not like I'm writing this blog for compensation. But the ones that are actually asked for by legitimate, for-profit organizations are worth money — and should be paid out accordingly. That sounds fair, right? I mean, you ask someone to do something involving writing, your company makes money or burnishes its prestige, you should pay for the work?

Not if you're Random House's new Hydra imprint.

And not if you're The Atlantic.

Caveat: These are very specific situations. I'm not trying to say Random House and The Atlantic pay no one. But based on John Scalzi's take on a contract issued to a Hydra writer, someone over at that imprint is trying to weasel in on e-book publishing through a back door, by pretending its parent company doesn't earn billions — yes, billions — every year. In fact, they're actually assuming a writer would like to pay for the privilege of being associated with Random House so badly that they'll overlook a $0 advance and the requirement that they pay for the setup costs and all but sign away copyright.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic has what it appears to now be claiming as a rogue editor who asked a freelance writer to shorten and repurpose a previously-written article to put on their site. The intimation is that the writer would benefit from Atlantic's 13M monthly online readers. Meanwhile, the Atlantic would look awesome with a piece they liked and didn't have to cough up for.

Non-freelance writers might not see the harm in this. But even if Atlantic hadn't asked the writer to change anything, and simply asked for a reprint — they still should pay for it. It's the principle of the thing: This is an original creation of mine you would like to use to help benefit yourself. That means you owe money.

Fuck you, pay me. Sing it, Ray Liotta.