How much is writing worth, really?

Money makes the world go round, and it certainly is the topic in everyone’s minds now that I’m trying to make a living with my writing. And though people generally get a bit dicey about asking “How much do you make?” when you work a “real job,” somehow I time-and-again get the “But how are you going to make money?” question from old friends and new alike. I can understand why people ask it, but the truth of the matter is that, when you’re starting out in a writing career, you have to accept that there are multiple ways to be paid for your work, and money isn’t even always the best one.

I’ve had this conversation multiple times since Wil Wheaton wrote his article about the Huffington Post offering him “exposure” for publishing his article on their website. The idea that a site like Huffington Post, a giant website with tons of traffic and ad revenue, would dare to think that they could get away with offering a famous, established celebrity like Wil Wheaton offering “exposure” instead of money is laughable. Wil Wheaton is a nerd icon. Wil Wheaton doesn’t need your exposure. Seriously, I can visualize the scene in my head: Wheaton opens his email and sees the request from HuffPo, responds asking for the amount he’d be compensated, and when he opens HuffPo’s reply he just smiles, thinking: “Damn, am I going to get hella traffic for the post I write on this.”

Now, I don’t really think that Wil wrote the post specifically with any unethical or unscrupulous intent, but let’s be honest: all writers think our writing is valuable, nay, invaluable. And many of us dream of one day putting aside the “day jobs” and working full-time as writers, living relatively comfortably based on the merits of our imaginations and verbal finesse. So when the former Wesley Crusher writes “You can’t pay your rent with “the unique platform and reach our site provides,” it validates us. Finally, a champion for our cause! If we all just band together, we can stretch our creative wings and fly to the motherland of financial prosperity and freedom!

Here’s the thing, folks: we’re not Wil Wheaton, most of us won’t be Wil Wheaton, and to play the game as if we’re Wil Wheaton sets us up for early failure. Let’s be clear, though, the point he was trying to make on Twitter before he wrote the blog was valid: we deserve to be compensated.

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We all deserve compensation for our work, and that stands regardless of our aptitude, experience, or fame. Some compensation works outside the realm of dollars and cents though, and can lift careers much further than a portion of a rent payment. Exchanging goods/services, receiving mentorship, and industry connections can all benefit in ways that a check in the mail can’t, and sometimes those are worth more than the amount we’d have been handed otherwise.

I’ve been writing professionally as a game journalist for five years, and if I only took jobs where I was paid money for my work I don’t think I’d be nearly as far along as I am right now. Getting published in any form for an outlet is necessary to start your career, and the more work you can learn to create on a deadline, the more effective a journalist you can become. But I’ve learned over the years that there are good gigs and bad gigs, and they’re not automatically classified in one pool or the other based on the number of dollars you get from them.

I’m no world-famous writer (yet), but here’s my advice: when you’re first starting, take jobs that will grow your potential over your pocketbook. Yes, in an ideal world you get both, but I find that when you’re new in the field, there’s no guarantee the people you work with will respect you or your time, and the respect will work wonders for you in the long-run. I’ve taken jobs that paid me money, but offered me little-to-no professional development, and my career stagnated as a result. In contrast, a “nonpaying” job I took with an editor dedicated to helping me grow created in-roads for me to be on radio to talk about games, set up interviews with national news correspondents, sent me to trade shows, helped me get in to industry-exclusive events, and even subsidized some of the costs for picking up my game hardware. I might not have gotten any of those things if I’d turned the job down just because those benefits can’t pay my rent.

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There’s usually someone willing to give you money for your work, but many of them are trying to help themselves at your expense. I found this on my Facebook newsfeed today: for folks who’ve lost their ebooks to the neatherealms of Amazon, they can trade all of their worldwide rights to the novel, forever, in exchange for $50-2000. It’s the equivalent of a Writer’s Cash for Gold: bring us your writing, we’ll evaluate it, and pay you a fraction of what it’s worth because we’re looking to profit off of it. Given, I understand that we all have bills to pay and sometimes money gets tight, but how does selling your work to a place like this improve your future prospects of writing professionally? Just look at the phrasing in the ad: “Let’s be realistic.” “…if you’re lucky.” “No virtual dust…just cash for your work.” As Neil Gaiman would ask, does taking that deal put you closer to the mountaintop of your goals, or further away?

The appeal of “always get money for your work” plays into our hatred for our day jobs. As someone who’s spent countless hours hating day jobs of various shapes and sizes, I can sympathize. And this isn’t even a segue into some sort of “don’t quit your day job” speech because I saved up money and did just that, and though I don’t know when I’ll start getting the financial return I want, I know I’m a hell of a lot happier. But working on the premise that the only valuable work you’ll do will somehow line your pockets sells you short of great opportunities that don’t spend.

Writing IS valuable, make no mistake, but YOU choose the value of your work by picking when and where you publish it, and for what return. Wheaton’s right about payments of “exposure” alone: they’re cheap and insubstantial, and they let the publisher out of doing anything for you. In case I haven’t driven it home: Don’t take jobs that offer you “exposure” in lieu of real payment, but remember that “real payment” extends beyond money. Keep the day job if you have to, build up the bank roll, do what you have to so that you can be open to opportunities that truly benefit your future career. Nobody gets to make the rules about what you do for work and what you get paid for it but you: make you’re being paid what you’re worth.

-Josh

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5 thoughts on “How much is writing worth, really?

  1. I also think, journalism wise, it’s a different ball-park: Wil Wheaton is talking about a very specific type of writing, where if they’re not going to pay you, it’s definitely not doing.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jesse!

      What type of writing do you think he’s referring to? To me, it seems like he’s talking about any sort of writing that could be part of a career or professional development… Though my examples pertain to my experiences in journalism, I think the lessons could be applied to all sorts of professional writing.

  2. Great sharing. When I write, I don’t think of profitability. In fact, I believe if you put your heart out, someone out there will appreciate your words.

    • I think that’s a great way to approach the act of writing itself, Kally! There’s tons of writing that can benefit others, and that’s a good motivator to create something in the first place…if you’re not looking to start a business, and just trying to share your perspective, then hopefully just getting started and being honest can bring a lot to light, both for yourself and others. Thanks for commenting!

      • You’re most welcome!! I am starting a business of my own but I don’t believe in short changing my readers and write just because of profits. If people who likes my work, they will genuinely approach me for business opportunities. đŸ˜‰

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