The Blockhead’s Market

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Samuel Johnson

Arianna Huffington is being sued by some of her former unpaid bloggers. Jonathan Tasini and the other members of his class action against her complain that they created the value of the Huffington Post with their unpaid writing, and she then sold it to AOL for $315M. The bloggers, of course, got none of that money. The plaintiffs want a cut, at least $105M.

It’s an interesting argument. I’ve been through something like the HuffPo situation, on a much smaller level. For more than twenty years, a bunch of musically inclined members of a Jewish on-campus congregation put together approximately 30 hours of High Holiday services every year, gratis. For most of that time, the congregation made its services available to all comers, gratis. But after a change in rabbis, a ticket charge was instituted. Okay, we who provided the services were graciously allowed to attend all the services (even the ones we weren’t singing in) without buying tickets. Great. But aside from that, we weren’t offered any compensation for our work, even though by that time we had gotten good enough at what we did that almost all of us (6 or 7 people) had turned down paying High Holiday gigs out of loyalty to our congregation. Needless to say, we abandoned the old crowd, and without actually saying anything came to regard the rabbi in question as the liturgical equivalent of Jerry Reinsdorf (for breaking up our Dream Team.)

Huffington’s argument is that the bloggers agreed to work gratis, and that their contracts included absolutely no mention of any compensation if the superblog was sold. They knew what they were getting into, and did it voluntarily. Presumably they did it because being in HuffPo gives a blogger a really great platform to spread her ideas, and is really good for her reputation (and often, for her publishability in paying markets.) But, whatever the reason, they got what they had signed on for and were entitled to nothing more.

The market for writing has undergone some striking changes since I last earned a fair sum of money on the side as a free-lancer. Back then (late ‘80s, early ‘90s), most of the mags I wrote for let me keep the rights unless they paid me (and sometimes even then.) There were a couple of local publications that didn’t pay and also kept the rights, but it was easy enough to succeed as a free-lancer without doing business with them. Apparently that is no longer the case. Unpaid writers are now routinely expected to give up the rights to their work. What hasn’t changed is that one is likely to make a lot more money free-lancing articles than putting out a book with a smallish press. My daughter did that, and got less in her advance than I made in a year of free-lancing at roughly the same time. (And, like most book authors, she never saw any money beyond her advance.)

Since my years as a free-lancer, one other interesting event has happened in the world of writing: Ted Kaczynski. Remember the Unabomber? The guy who blew up several people, some of them fatally, to induce the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish his manifesto? Admittedly, he is now doing life in a supermax federal prison, but he may well consider that a fair price to pay for getting published in such august papers. (I didn’t buy the Writer’s Market for that year, but it seems reasonable to assume that it did not include a piece on the Kaczynski method for getting published.)

Anyway, the advent of the blogosphere has changed everything. Here we are, drudging away free, gratis, and for nothing. So far as I know, AOL has not offered to purchase Alexandria. If it did, I really don’t know how I’d respond. Because blogging has changed the economics of writing. It was sort of headed this way anyhow, but now there seems no mistaking it: the blogosphere is worth more to its writers than to its readers. If there were any real logic to The Market Economy, we writers would be paying you readers for logging on here. Getting published, even in this rather obscure corner, is worth more to the writer than reading is to the reader. If I had to pay to blog, I wouldn’t be able to, at this phase in the Wired Family’s domestic economy. I would be doomed to waste my sweetness on the desert air. Dunno about the rest of y’all.

Tasini’s argument cannot be totally written off. He and his colleagues really did create the value that lured AOL to buy HuffPost. Arianna probably could have single-handedly produced a product of similar quality, but she would have had to give up sleeping and eating to produce anything like the same quantity. Quite possibly, the opportunity to sell at such an amazing price had never occurred to her, at least in the earlier days of the blog, so she cannot necessarily be blamed for not mentioning it in her contracts with writers. But that argument cuts both ways. Huffington was under no obligation to advise her writers of such an unlikely event, much less offer them any portion of the possible profits. But on the other hand, the writers had never explicitly renounced such profits, either. Tasini’s legal argument is known in the trade as “unjust enrichment”—like what happens when a hotel valet finds a suitcase full of money in a just-vacated room.

But if Tasini wins, two things will happen immediately: HuffPo and most other major blogsites will find a way to charge their readers; and they will adopt the same kind of contracts print mags already use for their free-lancers, which grant them minimal payment no matter how well the mag sells.

But don’t worry, gentle reader. Sooner or later, logic will win out, and we will be paying you to read us.


2 Responses to “The Blockhead’s Market”

  1. sigaliris Says:

    Hello, wiredsisters all. This seemed like a strangely a propos place to come and thank you for your kind comments on Alexandria (which I have ways of knowing about even though I didn’t sign on personally, mwah ha ha) and to take advantage of your equally kind offer to come over and mess up your nice blog here. ; )

    My problems with the management of Alexandria have nothing to do with payment, since I’m accustomed to being paid very little for what I write, even when I’m supposedly writing for money. The one thing I require in lieu of cash is a certain minimum level of respect from the people I work with. Which it became evident I wasn’t going to get in our fair virtual city, alas. I’m saddened by this. But then again, Alexandria isn’t HuffPo. . . .

    I’m baffled by the economics of writing and publishing. I’ve been anticipating major changes for many years now, and we always seem to hang on the edge of the wave, never actually breaking into the new paradigm. I still think it’s going to happen soon, but I don’t know how it will come about.

    Distribution is absolutely the crux of the matter. In print publishing, the major publishing houses control distribution. If you’re not with them, it is very difficult indeed to get your work sold to the book buyers and thus placed on the shelves of the big chains. HuffPo was the agent of distribution for its writers. Without that platform, the most excellent blogging would be seen only by a few. So Huffington deserves profit for having put the engine together. And yet, it seems counterproductive to expect writers to work for nothing but the glory. How are they supposed to go on producing if they get no financial reward? I guess the problem with writing is that there are so many of us writers. We can be replaced. There’s always another young eager beaver who will be willing to supply free content in hopes of someday being famous. When that generation burns out in a couple of years, they can move on to the next. Writing is something we seem to do because we have to. Until the day comes when we seem to have to NOT write. I guess they figure they don’t have to pay us because we’re CRAZY. They may be right.

    • wiredsisters Says:

      Distribution is absolutely the crux, you’re right. My daughter’s book got lousy distribution (partly because it came out right AFTER the Christmas book season, how dumb can a publisher get?) A friend of mine who has self-published a couple of children’s books has actually done better, by farming out various aspects of distribution to specialists in those areas, and doing for herself only the creation and production of the actual physical books. As time goes on, more such specialists will undoubtedly emerge, just as free-lance editors and proofreaders have, now that most publishers cannot be bothered to keep them on staff. And yes, we write because we HAVE to. I am told that people keep asking more famous writers where they get their ideas. If somebody ever asked me that, I would have to say “How do you keep ideas AWAY long enough to eat, sleep, and do housework? That’s my problem.” And, I suspect, the problem of most writers.

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