This situation flared up again, when the Huffington Post contacted geek demigod Wil Wheaton and asked to republish a piece that he wrote. For exposure. You know, in case you didn't know who he was, or something.
|Huffington Post: An Artist's Interpretation|
So, here's the way things went down according to Mr. Wheaton's blog post on the subject. An editor from the Huffington Post contacted him, and asked if he would be willing to let them re-publish his article "Seven Things I Did To Reboot My Life". It's a solid piece, it generates lots of traffic, and it makes sense that the Huff Po folks wanted to get in on that. Wil said sure, that sounds great, what sort of payment are we talking about? Huff Po's answer included terms like "unique platform" and "wide reach".
Boiled down, the answer amounted to, "we're not going to pay you for it, but we're going to put it in a place where a lot of people are going to see it, and we'll make a lot of ad revenue from it."
The Literary Mercenary's Post-Engagement Breakdown
I made my feelings known on this issue pretty clearly over two years ago in my entry Professional Rule #1: Never Work For Free. However, because of the nature of this particular incident, I feel that more than a blanket statement about how creators need to pay artists the value of their work is necessary.
|Value will vary, based on work.|
All right, let's rewind back to the beginning of this sorry situation. We have an article that's been written by Wil Wheaton, who is a celebrity with a known fan base. That's important to mention because when you have someone that's a Name, with a capital-N, that person brings a guaranteed readership to the publication. It's why reality TV personalities and rock stars get book deals with no questions; publishers know they are going to move copies based on that person's name. So, we have the winning combination of a well-received article, and a famous author.
That's a solid one-two punch from Huff Po's perspective. If they can get the go-ahead to reprint this, they're going to see a jump in traffic. More traffic means more advertising, and more advertising means more money for them. In case you were wondering, the Huffington Post is valued at several million dollars. Also, in case you were wondering, they pay exactly $0 of that to their contributors.
Put another way, that's like Random House asking to republish a novel from Stephen King or George R. R. Martin, and then paying the author nothing for either the rights to the book, or royalties from its sales. In short, the Huffington Post is sitting on a mountain of advertising money that comes from the ads on their site, but when it comes time to compensate the people making that money by creating the site's content, the company line is, "you should just be happy we're putting your work in a place where so many people will see it!"
That takes balls.
Not just because you're telling your authors, who are making you money through their sweat, effort, wit, and audience clicks that you can't afford to pay them, even though you're a multi-million-dollar website. Publishers can set up whatever pay structure they want, and if you approach them as an author you're pretty much agreeing to play by their rules. No, this took balls because Huff Po knocked on Wheaton's door, said, "that's an awfully nice blog entry you've got there. Would you be willing to give it to us so we can make money off of it without sharing any with you?"
What Needs to Change
In a nutshell, authors need to get a slice of the pie.
My go-to example here is a platform like Infobarrel (if you're curious about what I write there, here's my archive). While it isn't as big as the Huffington Post, and certainly doesn't have the reach, what it does do is cut its writers in on the site's profits.
Here's how it works. Authors create content, and the content is then posted on the site. Infobarrel tracks the views, ad clicks, and all the other activity that goes on during the month. At the end of the month it splits the money each article made, keeping a portion for itself, and giving the rest to the author who is responsible for the traffic. So, if you join the site, write an article, and your post goes viral, generating millions of hits over the next month, then you are going to have your rent, food, and possibly a small vacation, taken care of. Not only that, but the site is also going to see a big influx of cash. In a situation like this, everyone wins!
There is, of course, no guarantee that using a site like Infobarrel, or Helium, or whichever other sites are still online, is going to mean money in your pockets. After all, there's no guaranteed way to predict whether your latest makeup tutorial, movie review, or explanation of the behind-the-scenes causes of World War I, is going to be a huge success. However, the more content you produce, and the bigger your audience grows, the more likely you are to bring in regular traffic that makes you, and the site, money.
|Paying authors will probably cut down on the number of Ocean's 11-style heist plans, if nothing else.|
There are, of course, a thousand different discussions branching off this main one. For example, should authors be paid up-front for their work, especially since there's no guarantee it will be a traffic magnet? Should authors with a bigger fan base or following be paid more, regardless of their skill? What, precisely, are we using as the basis for when authors are being taken advantage of?
Actually, I have a simple answer for that last one. If you want to take an author's hard work, and then use it to generate a profit, but you are not willing to pay that author in any way, shape, or form besides allowing them to sign their name to the piece, then you are exploiting that author. Pay them by the word, share your ad revenue, and by all means try to get a good deal on the work, but do not simply swipe it, post it online, and then roll around in the money like some kind of political cartoon.