Pay the Writer

September 27, 2019 11:03am
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I’ve really been enjoying this thread by Heidi Moore over on Twitter about writers getting exploited through low rates…

This morning it got me thinking about the days long ago when I ran Just Laugh because some smaller publications are starting to give her pushback for being called out because “they don’t have the budget to afford to pay writers any more.”

And I sort of get that to a point, however that point lies in a time almost 20 years ago when the publishing landscape was much different … and it’s for this same reason why when I tried to relaunch the site a few years ago, I just didn’t have the guts to ask people to write for free anymore…

When I first created Just Laugh back in 1999, I had just graduated from high school and was still living in my Mom’s basement. I worked the same job I had in school that paid me about $9/hour, and I built Just Laugh in my spare time to help distract myself from not having gone off to college right away like the rest of my friends had.

The Internet was still pretty new then, so Adsense and Amazon affiliates and all of these revenue options for small publishers just didn’t exist yet. I don’t know if we all just happened to be in the right mindset at the right time, but when I emailed writers asking to syndicate their work or publish something new for them, it worked for everyone at the time.

In fact, the site always had a slot for a 468×60 banner ad in the header, but it was perpetually filled by either house ads for our various projects or ads for random sites that I liked.

I never made a dime from it, and by the time advertising had become a thing, the site was basically defunct and the only place I ran anything was in our Joke Database which still never made enough to cover the $14.95 a month I spent on hosting.

I actually remember being surprised when I looked at the account years later and found that it had accumulated a couple hundred bucks in it, quite literally by making $1-2 a month for years and years on end! 😯

Anyways, I wanted to share this because I feel like today online publishing is very different.

Today it’s so much easier to build a website, and a following of your own through social media, and even earn financial support whether it’s through ads or merch or directly from fans via sites like Patreon.

Most creators don’t need a publisher anymore, and I can’t tell you the number of times during that attempted relaunch when I would come across writers and artists who I would’ve loved to work with, only to think two things…

  1. But I can’t afford to pay them.
  2. And their following is bigger than mine to the point that they don’t need me anyways!

It’s been a really sore spot as I’ve learned more about publishing in general over these years how lopsided the equation actually is for most creators, and how messed up it is for someone to take the lion’s share of your revenue and also not do as much for your own work as you could just do yourself.

You hear about it all of the time from people on the NYT bestsellers list, and yet people still scramble to make it there despite knowing that getting actual support from a big publisher like JK Rowling or John Green might is the equivalent of winning the lottery.

So it was interesting to read about several smaller publications fighting in support of their lower wages because they were doing the best that they could, and writers were grateful for their voice. 

One actually noted in its “expense report” that their expenses had gone up “because they had to pay for health insurance for their staff” … which is kind of the point that the whole thread is trying to make because a writer shouldn’t have to work for pennies so that their editor can have health insurance!!!

The thing is, I get passion projects. I really do.

Just Laugh was always very much a passion project for me, and I sincerely hope that the other people who helped contribute to what we did looked at it in the same way.

In hindsight, I actually had one squabble with a writer who thought that I was just using his work to sell merch, and despite having only sold I think one single mousepad the entire time, now as an almost-40 writer I can see a little better where he was coming from, and I would’ve been pissed thinking some cocky, 20-something was profiting off of my work and not paying me for it, too!

It’s for that reason why I think that it would be really hard to run a publication like that today because just like any other field, if you can’t afford to pay your writers a decent wage, you don’t deserve to take one yourself, either. Maybe if everyone is onboard with your mission, or it’s a close-knit group chasing a dream, but if you’ve got a budget of any sorts, there’s really no excuse to not be fairly compensating the folks who are literally putting the words on the page for your cause.

To put it another way…

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