FOR FREE OR NOT FOR FREE, THAT IS THE QUESTION
Okay, I know I promised this blog post last week, but sometimes life gets in the way. Better late than never, though—right?
Anyway, the idea for this topic came to me after a post that I put on one of the Writer’s Boards earned me an embittered “tongue lashing” by a few fellow writers. Writer's Boards can be brutal at times, even though (I thought) their primary purpose is to offer mutual support, encouragment and amicable networking opportunities. Just me being naive again, I guess.
Here's the gist of what happened: My editor and friend, Catherine Rudy, runs a very small independent publishing house called “Wolf Pirate Publishing.” Catherine is one of the most gracious, philanthropic, and munificent people I’ve ever met. She shares her time and considerable talent generously with others and has a genuine love of literature. She has a quick wit and a somewhat sardonic perspective on life, and her skills as an editor are, in my opinion, unmatched. Like many small publishers, her business has floundered amid the crashing waves of economic turmoil. Still, her passion for literature and her desire to promote talented writers and their work, has not waned. Although her publishing endeavors have fallen a tad short (or perhaps because of that fact), she has decided to defy the odds and undertake a very unique venture called “The Wolf Pirate Project.”
In brief, the Wolf Pirate Project offers authors of contemporary literature a real opportunity to sharpen their skills, polish their work and perfect their craft while providing writers and readers a unique forum by which to connect and interact. The idea for the Project (a non-profit endeavor) arose from Catherine's genuine desire to encourage literacy and bring readers and writers together in an appreciation of literature as a worthy form of art. The Project hopes to accomplish this goal in part through creative writing courses and through its writer’s workshop (the latter designed to take talented writers through the entire pre-publication editing process—this is the workshop that shaped TURN OF THE SENTRY into a publishable novel). The Project seeks to encourage reading skills and help to promote reading as a viable form of entertainment in a society that has largely lost touch with the simple pleasure of a good novel. A love of reading develops early in life, and consequently, the Project seeks to focus on young (middle grade) readers, helping to foster a genuine passion for reading by providing material that will inspire and engage them, rather than bore them to tears. Towards that end, the Project is developing a reading text book which will (hopefully) be used by middle grade students and young adults.
Which (finally) brings me to the point of this blog post. Catherine is seeking submissions for inclusion in the textbook. She is looking well-written short stories of all genres. The catch, however, is this: since this Project is a nonprofit (charitable) endeavor that is just now being launched, there is no money available to contributing authors. In fact, Catherine is operating at a loss in order to get this project up and running, shelling out a good deal of money from her own pocket to see it through. Many people find this incredibly hard to believe (i.e that someone would care enough about a charitable project that they’d be willing to lose money on the deal) and when I posted a request for submissions, explaining that this is a non-paying project (although the author would get full credit for the story, retain all rights, and hopefully receive some positive exposure), Catherine (and yours truly by association) got blatantly accused of “taking advantage” of talented writers by refusing to pay them for the work that they do. Some of the comments got downright nasty.
Hmmmm….interesting. Apparently some writers don’t feel that they should contribute their writing—the sweat of their brow, their product, their primary source of bread-and-butter—for “free,” nor did they believe Catherine and The Wolf Pirate Project are on the up and up, suggesting that perhaps they are hiding buckets of money in the back room, looking only for slave labor that they can later cash in on.
It’s natural that people, writers included, want to get paid for the work that they do. Hell, I do. Writing is often hard and tedious work. It's my craft, my trade, my vocaton—of course I hope to earn money doing it. But aren’t there times when a writer should consider contributing their talent towards a worthy cause without the expectation of monetary compensation? Isn’t it, to some degree, our responsibility to do so?
I was a lawyer for 17 very long years before retiring to pursue my more peaceful existence as a writer. For two of the states in which I was licensed, it was a requirement for every attorney to log in a certain number of “pro bono” hours—that is free legal representation purportedly for the good of society. In the state where it wasn't a requirement, it was a very strong suggestion. In
Alas, I’m afraid that many in our society have a bit of selfish streak that prevents them from engaging in this kind of overt "sharing and caring." At the risk of sounding like my mother, I see a lot of the "what's in it for me" mentality reflected in our younger generation. I’m not even talking about our teens and preteens so much as I talking about the 20-30 something crowd. And I've seen it among my colleagues to an alarming degree. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places or meeting the right people, but as a "for instance," 9 times out of 10, when I talk about the mission work that I do with my church (i.e. spending my own time and money to fly to Louisiana to help strangers rebuild their houses, or spending a Friday afternoon serving lunch to homeless people in my area), I get the most puzzled looks along with some version of the question, “what do you get out of it?” Not everybody, mind you—some people get it. But many do not. And it is this same attitude that causes some writers to go ape-shit on me when I suggest that they actually submit one of their stories for use by a nonprofit project without getting paid.
Maybe I’m totally wrong. Maybe every author should demand top-dollar payment for each and every quality piece of writing they produce. Maybe, as some of my critics have pointed out, it is attitudes like mine that keep writers trapped in the cycle of slave labor, where they routinely don’t get paid nearly enough for the work they produce. Maybe I’m just too naive and altruistic for my own good, and it is people like me that are perpetuating the problems so prevalent in the literary industry and perhaps even society as a whole.
Or maybe not.
I don’t know.
But I do know that I have never woken up at 3 a.m. unable to sleep worried that I’d given too much away “for free;” to the contrary, I wake up wondering if I've done enough. Money, in my view, offers only a fleeting illusion of security and while it may be a necessary commodity to live in this world, there is oh, so much more to this life than the “almighty dollar.” And if I resign to only give of myself—my time, my talents, my writing—only in exchange for a few pieces of green paper….well, that’s what I really consider “slave labor.”
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
P.S. I apologize if this Blog post is “too long” for your taste (yes, I have been criticized for that as well), but writing is my most comfortable mode of communication, and I wasn’t aware of any regulations limiting the number of words I choose to use to express my opinions. Thank you for sticking with me, though—I hope it was worth the extra cup of coffee.
PSS: If you want to read more about The Wolf Pirate Project, and explore the workshops and creative writing offerings that are available, visit their website at http://wolf-pirate.com/