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?
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.