Maybe Money And Literature Don’t Mix

Nate Thayer, a well-respected journalist, has published a blog post roasting the Atlantic for asking him to provide a summary of a recent article for the Atlantic website for free. He didn’t like that idea very much.

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free. Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken.

A lot of support has rolled in for Nate Thayer, and against publications that dare to ask writers to write for free. Another Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal has tried to explain the digital editor’s side of the story, only to be torn into by Wonkette, which accuses Madrigal of “man-splaining”.

It’s a pretty funny debate so far — well, that’s what happens when writers and editors get in the ring! But the implications of this argument can be serious, and I know that many of my own friends feel very strongly about the necessity of payment for writers. It’s not a position I always agree with myself.

I’m all for writers getting paid, and as a writer, I enjoy getting paid as often as I can. But sometimes the relentless drumbeat against publications that rely on free writing (like Atlantic, Huffington Post and thousands more) begins to feel like oppressive groupthink. It also may transmit a wrong-headed message to young wannabe writers who are trying to figure out their short-term and long-term plans.

I write a lot, and I guess that means I’m a writer. I mostly write on this blog, but I have occasionally written for other publications for payment. I’ve also written for publications that said they would pay me and never did, and I’ve also written for other publications for free. It was all fine with me. I’ve always been glad that anyone wanted to publish my words.

I’m not indifferent to getting paid for writing because I’m wealthy (far from it), but because I made a life decision a few decades ago to support myself as a software engineer. I work long hours in an office to bring in my paycheck, and I write in the mornings and at night. Sometimes I write when I’m at work — and sometimes I spend my nights working for my day job when I’d rather be working on my own stuff. It’s a very tough grind. But I’ve been keeping it up for decades, and it works okay for me.

I know that full-time writers who scrape by with a thin diet of magazine/website assignments, book contracts, grants, teaching gigs and occasional cubicle temp work are suffering just as hard as I am to make their livings, and they also need all the support they can get. Well, these professional writers do have my support, but that doesn’t mean I should disdain publications like the Atlantic or Huffington Post that rely on unpaid writers. They play an important role in the literary ecosystem, and deserve as much regard as publications that pay. Any piece of writing is more or less valuable based on the work itself, and not on the payment structure behind it.

I also don’t want to encourage any young literary wannabe to ever depend on getting paid well by websites and magazines, especially if they think their checks will fund their apartment shares in Brooklyn. The writing game is a hell of a game — nobody should show up at the table with a short stack. The biggest problem with the idea that writers should always get paid for their work is simply that it’s so far from the actual reality of how writers work these days. We all write for free a lot.

Do I think writing should be a profession? Of course, and I wish it could have been my profession. But there are also plenty of good reasons why a writer will write for free, and I don’t think writers who choose to do so should be belittled. Also, Nate Thayer did a good job of stirring up a lively discussion about the economics of writing, but his unwitting correspondent Olga Khazan, Global Editor at Atlantic Magazine, was not well-served by his blog post about their conversation.

An editor should not be afraid to ask a writer to write for free, so Thayer’s “I’m insulted” routine will cause some discomfort. I prefer to think that writers and publishers and editors, professionals and part-timers are all in this together, and hope that we support each other in many ways.

Another problem I have with the current emphasis of payment for writing is that it assumes the broader principle that money and literature should mix. In fact, the best writers never are and never have been high earners, not in Shakespeare’s time and not today. To emphasize the commercial aspect of writing is to buy completely into the rut of capitalism, the idea that money itself is important. I have never wanted to live as if money were important, and I prefer to search out ways to not buy into the rut of capitalism.

If I think about my favorite writers of the last hundred years, I see that most of them supported themselves with day jobs. T. S. Eliot was a banker and then an editor. Franz Kafka was an insurance agent. Jack Kerouac was a hobo. (I think being a hobo should count as a day job; it sure is hard work).

I guess it sometimes feels like we writers are all hobos, in one way or another. Hobos for love, for the regard of our peers, and for money too.

9 Responses

  1. 1. Atlantic doesn’t publish
    1. Atlantic doesn’t publish literature.

    2. Atlantic is run by a corporation, Atlantic Media, with nearly 50 million dollars yearly revenue.

    3. Any corporation with such a revenue stream that tried to not pay workers whose work contributes to that revenue stream would be criticized or vilified by The Atlantic itself and its philosophical brethren.

    4. Occupy Atlantic.

  2. I’m currently employed
    I’m currently employed (though lord only knows for how long) as a low-level magazine editor. Prior to this, I worked as a freelance writer. Prior to that, I was a staff writer. So I guess I’ve inhabited all the relevant areas here, except, of course, for the role of “well-paid writer.”

    Anyway, I would put it like this: Most of the best writing I’ve done has been done for free, because it’s writing that I just feel a desperate need to do – novels, stories, furious essays, appreciations, love letters, etc. This is the writing I produce due to some imperceptible burning within me, the erratic artistic impulse that lead me to develop my writing craft in the first place. I hold out some sort of hope that I’ll eventually get paid for this kind of writing, but I’m not holding my breath.

    The writing I do get paid for, however, tends toward the ruthlessly technical, the exhaustively researched, the types of pieces generated through the late-night agony of “what can I possibly say about this topic that I never would have written about if it hadn’t been assigned to me?” This is writing done to satisfy a publication that is part of a large corporation, which has determined that this topic will generate pageviews, and therefore, revenue. My writing has a distinct capitalistic benefit here, like any other commodity. In truth, I’m sort of whoring out the skill I developed for much more noble reasons, but I’ve come to terms with that. In any case, this sort of writing is my day job, which I take to support my life as a writer. It just so happens that my day job involves being a writer too.

    I feel like too often we lump too many things under the blanket heading of “writing,” without qualifying what is being written, and why, and for whom. For example, tons of young writers out there would happily write a film review for free on their blog. That’s a beautiful thing, even if it’s killing the notion that “film critic” ought to be an actual career. But when you start asking people to do things like, say, writing a reported feature with specific directives on the making of that movie, which is then published in a for-profit magazine with circulation in the hundreds of thousands, which itself receives large amounts of money in the advertising from the studio that made the movie in question, and you ask them to do it for free, then it gets a lot sticker. And that’s just what’s happening. No one is passionate about doing in-depth reporting on a topic they didn’t choose in a context that allows little to no creativity. They do it because they’re getting paid to, or because they’re a very young person who hopes to get paid for it some day. Pretty soon, that latter category is going to be the only one that really exists.

  3. …the health benefits of
    …the health benefits of writing are my tangible reward. To not write would be a ruiner of my soul. I’ve been paid to sing songs I wrote. But never for a litetary effort, although I hold out hope for texico days and isner scoring method. Maybe one day. Two wooden oars parts 1-3 is a leadership fable, packed full of action and a shipwreck. However, at this point my stories and theories have no market and certainly no effort to create one has been explored. I guess that makes me a writer…this debate is all about what happens after the writing is done. I am indifferent, but I hope that nate guy’s family eats. His letter was well done, I thought…

  4. Funny you should mention
    Funny you should mention Kerouac, Levi.

    In his post-Road years, he shunned the mimeographs because of low-to-nonexistent pay and stuck with the big bucks. That meant he had to deal with conservative editors who were not so sympathetic to his experimental typos. But he also isolated himself (emotionally, literally and literary) from the new writers, new art going on.

    We all saw how that turned out.

    I think you’re right that established or, at least, talented writers should support their peers and upandcoming publications with a blurb or a short piece gratis. Though as TKG pointed out, The Atlantic is not upandcoming and has money to burn. She didn’t have to offer him a competitive rate for a 1,200 fragment, but should have offered something.

    Then again, there are plenty of downandout mags out there who solicit a piece only to reject, unpaid, after it was written for them. Wasting an author’s time. Then there’s editors who revise a writer’s charity without their knowledge.

  5. I went to the bookstore and
    I went to the bookstore and picked up the latest Atlantic. I told the people at the check out that I didn’t have to pay for it and would just take the magazine — the Atlantic is fine with this, I assured them. My taking it would increase the Atlantic’s visibility as a magazine and be beneficial to the Atlantic. I told them to call this editor and she would verify this for me.

    For some reason this didn’t work out well….

  6. Hah! Funny …
    Hah! Funny …

    Actually, a lot of people probably do steal the Atlantic.

  7. I have a degree in journalism
    I have a degree in journalism, worked for peanuts as a stronger at a major while in college for two years. When I graduated I applied there, but was told I needed to “cut my teeth” at a small paper first since they only hired people with at least five years experience. So, I went to a small paper for $12.50 per hour. I had to write 10 stories per week, plus one long feature. None of the other General Assignment writers like myself could fit that in 40 hours. We all had to work overtime, but we weren’t allowed to report any more than 40. I worked on the weekends as a waiter and made more in two days than I did in five days as a writer. Eventually I had to quit the reporting gig and got a job in the furniture industry, which I hate. Along the way I have written for many publications and rarely get paid. I blame it on supply and demand. There are a hell of a lot more people who want to be known as writers than there are readers looking for writers. Just look at the lit mag situation. Most people who write reviews are hoping only that in return, that person will review their work. It’s silly. There’s not a big demand for writing, but there is a huge demand to be a writer. Vanity pubs have only disappeared because of the internet and sites like or, so in some ways, there has been benefits too. Things have just changed, is all. Anyone can get published now, due to the demand, and the publishing industry leaders are now constricting, as we’ve seen. It’s comparable to our economy. A lot of people debate how the Dow could reach all time highs, yet the economy doesn’t seem as good as it was before the recession. Well, it’s just a different economy now. It’s not as credit based as it was before.


  8. I have been writing since I
    I have been writing since I was a kid, winning essay writing contests almost every year. I write when I am happy, sad, frustrated and mad. I love it. It is my passion. I tried making writing a profession and earn from it, but all I got were frustrations and disappointments. Now, I work as a crime scene clean up crew, it is my “day job”. I am still a freelance writer, I write part time and pick projects that I only want to write about. No gruesome assignments that pay cheap. My current writer status makes me realize why I loved writing in the first place. And yes, maybe, money and literature don’t mix.

  9. I always believe that the
    I always believe that the more you earn from your craft, the less it becomes an artform. The best creations are always born out of struggles.

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