In a New York Times piece entitled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” writer, Tim Kreider, revisits a theme common amongst writers — particular writers now of my age-vintage — that they do not like being asked to contribute pieces for free. His argument is two-fold. First, why isn’t it a breach of appropriate social norms to ask for something that takes work for free? After all, it would be repugnant to ask for many services — like hairdressing — for free? Second, in making the ‘free’ ask, people often claim that there will be a benefit — exposure — but that exposure really isn’t worth that much.
These arguments are not new but Kreider uses it to call for action:
So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.
Woah. Hang on a second non-economist! This is like a proclamation to the Department of Justice to go after you for price fixing. After all, would you think it acceptable for a book retailers to get together and say, “don’t give those eBooks away for low prices, charge something more”? OK, bad example, what about a hairdresser asking other hairdressers to charge more to their customers as you charge more to yours? Now we are on safer ground.
I suspect Kreider thinks of his ask more in the collective action that might accompany a labour union and he should look no further than his music counterparts in the content provision business to see how that might be done. But let me put all that aside and think about the market here.
It is time to get wonkish — a word which here means clear. Normal workers would rather not come to work than come to work if they could still get paid — that is, on net they have disutility of work. For many writers, that isn’t the case and they like writing and would write even if not paid but not necessarily if no one would read what they have written. Thus, if someone brings you an audience, your utility from writing actually goes up. The larger the audience, the more likely you will work for less or even pay to work! On that score, you should be happier to write for the New York Times than some local outlet. Hence, why a local outlet used to pay you more.
The problem from Kreider is that the opportunity cost of his time has changed since his 20s. If he spends time writing he can’t spend time earning in some other way. That means his family doesn’t get as much income and starving becomes less enjoyable. So Kreider has a higher opportunity cost than people in their 20s. That means, to command some pay, Kreider’s writing actually has to be that much better than the 20-somethings. Not surprisingly, the competition has heated up. If an outlet can ask someone do something for free, that is going to be the starting point to a negotiation. If Kreider doesn’t want to write on those terms, he just shouldn’t.
Moreover, he is doing 20-somethings no favour by imploring them to say “no” more themselves and insist on a fee. Guess what, when you have to pay you may as well pay for the seasoned guy. Kreider now will get a price he can accept but that means the 20-somethings get nothing. No exposure, no experience, no pay. This hardly seems like a noble endeavour now, does it?
In fact, Kreider has it all wrong. What he needs to do is get the 20-somethings more occupied? He needs to refer to them, smaller jobs that take tons of time. That way they cannot be relied upon by those who might pay to actually deliver. He needs magnanimity not collusion. Suck up the 20-something’s time and raise their opportunity cost.
In any case, there is something more. While exposure can be a self-interested reason to write for free, the other reason is social obligation. It is this that people successfully use to appeal to me to do something like speak or write for free. To my mind, as soon as someone appeals to how you will get exposure they know they are out of social contract space and into market contract space. So refuse and refer those ones. But for ones that make a good social argument, things might be different. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get paid for such things but it might help you sort out your own feelings about what you do and what you do not do.