When has good writing become such a cheap commodity that people seem reluctant to pay for it?
I still remember the first piece of proper science writing I ever did. The year was 2003, the place was Amsterdam, and my situation was bewildering: on the dole in the aftermath of an imploded start-up biotech company, I suddenly found myself with so many hours in the day that I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them. I worked on my second novel. I wandered the streets and canals and surveyed the houseboats moored along the River Amstel, each with its own tidy garden on the adjacent embankment. I frequented cafés and tea rooms, stared at sunflowers, starry nights and nightwatches in various museums, searched for jobs in several countries. As spring turned into summer with no appropriate situation appearing, I saw an advertisement for a free conference in Utrecht about the dire situation of women scientists in the Netherlands. Bored and acting on a whim, I contacted the editor of the Dutch edition of Science’s careers website (the now defunct Next Wave) and asked if he’d consider a brief wrap-up of the event – no charge. He enthusiastically agreed, and a few weeks later asked me to report on something else. The third time he wrote to commission a piece, he said with typical Dutch diffidence that as I wrote better than most of his freelancers, he’d better start paying me. I was thrilled with the idea that I had progressed so far, and soon began to seek out further paid work – nothing prestigious or fancy, just solid bread-and-butter wordsmithing.
This low-key state of affairs went on for a few years, but escalated when I started working for a scholarly society in London. Although my job was to oversee their four peer-reviewed journals, the organization also had a respectable trade magazine whose editor was happy to train me in bona fide journalism and eventually accepted regular news pieces from me. Of course I didn’t get paid, because I was on salary with the society, but I didn’t mind because I was learning a new skill from a very experienced team. It was stimulating to work to such short deadlines, to scan press releases, to interview scientists, to learn the fine art of teasing out the opposing view. One of my investigative pieces got picked up by the Telegraph and from there trickled into the Metro and a few other outlets, which made me enormously proud. Meanwhile, on the non-news front, I was writing for serious money for other clients in my spare time. I didn’t need the cash, but it felt good to be earning on the side, even though I had to pay an accountant to help me discharge my now rather complicated tax obligations.
This was around 2006, when blogging was just starting to take off – or, at least, to filter into my late-adapting consciousness. I started blogging myself in 2007; although my free time was gradually getting swamped with paid extracurricular activities, I was happy to blog for free because, frankly, it was a blazing relief to be able to produce copy without the well-meaning interference of editors and subeditors. (I don’t wish to denigrate the profession, as I’ve been an editor myself, but there are times when you want to cry when your perfectly crafted paragraph is butchered into a stream of simple sentences forced together with no thought to logic, orderly transition, rhythm or – god forbid – beauty.)
Somewhere between then and now, amateur writing and citizen journalism became a thing that professional news outsets suddenly seemed to desperate want a piece of – although not, of course, at the going rate. Some ask for free copy; some pay a token. Fair enough, if you consider that amateurs are not professionals – but what if they’re as good or better as those on retainer? The lines have definitely started to blur. I myself am a strange hybrid mixture – the part-time journalist who’s been jobbing for money for the past eight years. Only now, my financial situation has become such that this extra income is actually necessary; in parallel, requests for my writing and appearances have steadily increased, meaning that the time that I have to write for money (including my own novels) has dwindled alongside.
I was inspired to ponder all of this last week when a prominent, high-profile, healthily-for-profit journal asked me to write a piece of front matter. When I asked if there would any remuneration – a fairly reasonable request, I would have thought – he informed me that there wasn’t (fair enough), but that none of their other scientist authors had had an “issue” with it (not quite so fair). Perhaps the jibe wasn’t intentional, but between the lines I read You, unlike all the other suckers we’ve roped into writing this column for free in a sphere traditionally populated by well-paid freelancers, are unbelievably greedy even to have inquired. Who do you think you are? Don’t you know you’re lucky to even have been asked to sacrifice your academic time in this way to increase the value of our journal so much that we can raise subscriptions even further? How, I wondered privately, would that editor respond if I asked him to do a half day’s worth of editing for free?
Yes, I was angry by this sense of entitlement, even if the comment was entirely innocent, and yes, I turned him down (although on the entirely true grounds of over-commitment). Of course scientists have always been asked to contribute to journals gratis – the primary articles themselves, as well as scholarly reviews, perspectives and refereeing. And this, I think, is not so bad, because such activities can be cited in our CVs and enhance our professional standing. But asking for unremunerated front matter is starting to stray into the territory of taking the piss. Not all journals get this wrong – Nature, for example, pays the freelance rate for news and comment, no matter who has authored it, and the broadsheets too are very aware of what good writing is worth. Writing for free to develop a portfolio and reputation is a great way to start out, which I highly recommend, but after a certain point, you need to start demanding your due.
This problem, I suspect, is a reflection of a society-wide reluctance to pay for certain types of creative content. A friend of mine who wouldn’t think twice about paying £12.50 to see a movie once asked if she could borrow a copy of my novel (£8.99) instead of buying her own – when I declined, she asked if it was available at the library. Others feel they don’t want to pay for films and music and instead obtain pirate copies. It is the same psychological reason why at the scientific society where I used to work, the journalists with PhDs were paid about half the salary of people in PR, marketing and business development who possessed only an undergraduate degree and years’ less experience. The subtext? Science and writing are for dabbling and “fun”; Human Resources is a serious profession worth paying for.
*Clarification added: I should have stressed that there are still times when I write for free – when it’s a good cause or non-profit organization; when the company in question has done something nice for me in the past; when the gig will help me reach a brand-new audience. And sometimes, it’s just when someone has asked very nicely and hasn’t made me feel like I have no right to say no.