Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Writing for Free, Reading for Free: The Economics of Academia and Publishing Today

Academics entering the media world tend to move from one exploitative arena (low-wage academic work) to another (unpaid freelance writing). But writing must never be an act of charity to a corporation. Ask for what you are worth—and do not accept that you are worth nothing. Insisting on payment for your labor is not a sign of entitlement. It is a right to which you are entitled.

Medium -- a new iteration of publishing/sharing writing/writing for free. Medium offers us all an audience because praise should be pay enough (though now, apparently, they are paying some writers decently). Medium was founded by Evan Williams (also, a liquor), who also founded Blogger (write for free -- for yourself and your friends), and has been in charge (possibly a founder? multiple stories abound) of Twitter (write for free, briefly, to the world, your friends, and clients). On Here and Now recently, Williams was asked about his new venture, and he described the year-old platform as providing journalism and stories to a wide audience who just can't find it elsewhere, apparently. He also emphasized the ability to share one's writing with the world, which writers just can't do elsewhere, apparently. Those darn editors and gate-keepers -- I thought that the internet was supposed to have knocked them down already? Williams evaded the interviewer's question of what void he was trying to fill, explaining that, really, this was a longer twitter. However, what he is actually replacing is the curated, edited magazine.

Medium allows you, the reader to curate , and filter so that you are following particular writers or particular topics. Very useful. Rather like Google Reader allowed you to aggregate content. It allows the author to associate their writing with other writing in similar topics. I can see the benefits, but I don't see how this can pretend not to be a web-substitute for the magazine. Especially with the title "medium" (which is a bit arrogant, perhaps -- there is no longer a media, just a singular medium?), and the purchase of long-form host/platform Matter, it seems like the mags are clearly in their sites. Not to mention the hire of GQ's editor and the frequent publication of professional journalists (some of whom actually do get paid..... but it's not guaranteed -- like all else in this contemporary world of words, you do the work for free and then hope.)

So, you (me), the Joe Schmo author, don't get paid, but if you keep trying, you can accumulate a portfolio of writing so good you should have gotten paid for it. It's as if we're pretending that publishing as a business doesn't exist. And that the companies hosting the words aren't getting paid by investors, or eventually, by some other system (ads, subscribers, etc -- the same way publishers always got paid). The only way this is an improvement is if you actually think you'll be able to exchange cultural capital for actual capital in a quicker or larger way than you could before, when companies had to pay to publish your work, or you went all Emily Dickinson, hoarding your poems for the future.

But folks like me who are academically trained are used to thinking of our writing as something we do for free -- for pleasure -- for the sake of it. For seven years, I researched and wrote for free (or got writer's block for free) while I was paid to teach, or to build a website, or to grade papers. But, you might argue, the university paid for your tuition. For what classes? I took 1.5 years of classes, and spent the next half-decade in a  cubicle or at my home office (ahem, my dining room table). And what about those of us who luckily end up skating along the tenure track? Their pay, one could argue, is for both teaching and writing. Again, that's after how many years of apprenticeship and reams of paper (MBs of pixels? I dunno) produced for the chance to one day get paid for what you already giving away.

Open access advocates are already disrupting (shiver -- that techno-utopian word) the traditional academic publishing world -- which I think is actually great, since academics were already writing journal articles for free, and then journals were selling them to libraries. I'll write a whole 'nother post on that. But in any case, the increased numbers of former grad students trained to see their writing as valueless and who have been pushed out from/left the academy means that there are only further hordes of trained, willing writers swarming the potential outlets for their writing, willing and able to give their work away.

We'll see how Medium shapes up. And Matter. And all the other new inventions of ways to distribute good writing to the hungry masses. But is this just another way for the money to get concentrated at the top, and to leave the writers hungry, so hungry they'll keep eating scraps, and shoe leather when there are no scraps?

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