It\’s called supply and demand

Creative people, especially writers, are a funny breed. We are the only profession I know of who work for free. No coal miner, nurse, shipyard worker, accountant, or any other person with bills to pay works for free. But, that is what writers are often being forced to do. And the consequences for creativity and democracy are dire.

If you count up the number of blogs there are some tens of millions of people who believe they can write and wish to write in the English language alone.

If you count up the income of all the places that could possibly employ writers in English it is some tend of billions of $. This isn\’t entirely accurate but at a rough guess if we divided all the income (leaving out publication expenses etc) into all those willing and capable writers then everyone would get $1,000 a year each.

Or, as actually happens, we\’ve a power law, with a few getting $500,000 a year each, 10 times that number on $50,000, ten times that on $5,000 and so on down to where most are working for near free or free.

The supply of writers at a living wage is rather higher than the demand for writers at a living wage is another way of putting it. And there\’s nothing new about that either. Been generally true since the dawn of mass literacy.

22 comments on “It\’s called supply and demand

  1. Creative people, especially writers, are a funny breed. We are the only profession I know of who work for free.

    I assume he’s never met a programmer then. (That’s not to say programming isn’t creative – it is – he just seems to imply that the relative complement of writers in creatives is the empty set.)

    There are plenty of programmers that work for free (along with working in a job – but I assume that’s what ‘creative people’ do when they aren’t getting paid to be ‘creative.’)

  2. I am inclined to agree that this “work for free” thing is getting a bit out of control, but as Tim says, it’s a supply and demand thing. Me, I take the general view that if you can’t sell your created work, it’s not up to much.

    That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t work for free; for enjoyment, or to distribute polemic (as with much blogging, the modern pamphleteering), or as advertising for your paid work, or to try to get a start, or for good old vanity.

    But it does bother me a bit that there are a lot of swivel-eyed types wandering around the internet insisting that everything- all media- should be free as if being paid for a book, picture or movie is some kind of crime against humanity. So I’m a bit six of one half a dozen of the other on this one.

  3. The supply of excellent writers is very low. I’ve paid copywriters £500/day before. Worth every penny. Same with photographers. An extra £2000 on copy and photos will make your website go from amateur to the top 1% on the net. That’s worth it. The supply of truly exceptional photographers and writers is actually quite low.

  4. What I want to know is why supply and demand doesn’t work on CEO, consultancy, and banky types. Supply of those capable of delivering such labour also greatly outstrips demand yet those that get picked to deliver such labour get highly rewarded for it, while the rest of us are threatened with India. Why isn’t Goldman Sachs staffed largely with interns?

  5. @Ken, absolutely. But most employers and customers are happy to make do with mediocre to crap writing, and that can be done in India at about $10 per 1000 words.

    Just read anything that has been translated, or anything written by “Doily Mile Reporter”. There is no evidence of copy editing and all yer idiosynkratiks are completely wrong. Bad writing on every level imaginable, but because it’s considered good enough for the national press and blue-chips (given the low price), the good writers/translators/editors are out of a livelihood.

  6. JamesV,

    Because the CEO, consultancy and banky types are statist cartels. See also, lawyers, doctors. Polly Toynbee. Etc.

  7. That’s why Arts grants should never be awarded to writers: there’s always an excess of writing anyway. Whether they should be awarded at all is another matter: depends who’s paying, I’d say.

  8. James V,

    Goldman’s is not staffed entirely with interns because they can not do the job that Goldman’s clients pay them for. Since 1996 the banking and stockbroking part of the city has been one of the most ‘open’ and competitive job markets in the UK. It also has a remarkably high turnover, it tries people out and if it doesn’t work they spit them out again – Goldman sacks between 5 and 10% of its staff every year. Sure, the graduate trainee schemes that bloomed in the nineties took a certain ‘type’ – numerate graduates from oxbridge basically (and their international equivalents), but to stay and make the big bucks you have to pass the test of the market. You could be a great trader, a super smart analyst, a shrewd fund manager or a brilliant relationship banker. But you don’t get paid just for turning up. I am not defending Goldmans, most Investment Banks actually work this way, just they are more rigourous about it. Of course those they ‘let go’ fuel the fire (think the ex GS table tennis guy recently or that delusional Walter Mitty “City Boy”) that the media love to stoke. Talking of which, amazing how many people in the media – especially dead tree press – are related to people already working there isn’t it?
    But what am I talking about? They are all overpaid and evil. Sorry, as you were.

  9. JamesV: There may be a large supply of people wanting to be CEOs, but the supply of those able to do the job (eg with the CV/track record to show they have the requisite qualities) is limited – being CEO material means that one has survived the tournament and been promoted to C level office (COO, CEO, CIO etc).

    One of the reasons why CEOs are paid big bucks is that the board wants the company to do well. They make one (well two if you count firing) big decision – hiring the CEO. They do vote on his strategic choices, but generally their biggie is the CEO. So, given that the CEO’s pay is diddly relative to the size of the company, they will tend to pay as much as it takes to get the “best” possible candidate for the job. Demand is thus high and supply is limited.

  10. I work for free all the time. About 40% of the time, at a guess. Not by choice, I might add.

    Other, wealthier members of my profession – the law – work for free by choice. They call it pro bono work.

    I have no idea what are the consequences of any of this for democracy.

  11. Edward, I’m primarily concerned about the continued state-supported growth of Polly Toynbee. According to my extrapolations, at current growth rates she’ll have consumed the entire economy by September 23rd, 2047.

    Time is running out.

  12. PJH,

    “There are plenty of programmers that work for free”

    I guess, but we all do things that we want to do, whether for financial or non-financial rewards.

    What that journalists are missing is the fact that there’s lots of people out there who write stuff for non-financial reasons (ranting about the government) or for indirect reasons (PR, lobbying etc). The only reason they couldn’t in the past was the cost of access. Once you got blogging tools that allowed you to set one up in 2 minutes, the game was up.

  13. No coal miner, nurse, shipyard worker, accountant, or any other person with bills to pay works for free.

    That is complete bullshit. I’ve had free work from nurses, metalworkers, accountants, electricians, plumbers and plenty of other professions. It’s called “doing a favour for a friend”. Obviously I return the favour where I can – I’ve made lots of little problem-solving gadgets (software and electronics) for mates and have standing offers out with others.

    Maybe Her Toynbeeness doesn’t associate with those in trade and thus doesn’t realise this goes on?

  14. What exactly is this *writing* that writers should be paid for doing? In this case, one presumes, expressing their opinions. Now, I’ve been known for expressing my opinions down the pub. Don’t recall being paid to do so, though. Maybe I should write my opinions & get some publication to pay me to do so. But that means I’m selling them a product & they’re going to want the sort of product they can sell in their publication. He who pays the piper calls the tune. So what this guy wants is a Guild of Writers all spewing out stuff the publications think’ll sell. And if you’re not in the Guild? Then you can’t express your opinions.
    And he can get stuffed.

  15. Only if you want to support the rise to glory of the Ariana.

    I get paid for some of my writing, Mrs S-E gets paid for nearly all of hers. Our host gets paid by Forbes and the Torygraph, I presume, and gets a probably-trivial income from hits on this blog.

    So it’s actually a “powerful lefties are over-privileged” meme – ditto Polly and her whitterings – not a “writers cannot get paid” one.

  16. You could be a great trader, a super smart analyst, a shrewd fund manager or a brilliant relationship banker.

    Indeed. A good mate of mine is an American working for Bank of America, has been with them years and earns a f*cking fortune. One look at his interpersonal skills tells you why he’s paid so much to effectively keep clients happy.

  17. JamesV (#5) said “What I want to know is why supply and demand doesn’t work on CEO, consultancy, and banky types.”

    It works just the same as writers. A few (those who are very good, or persuade those doing the paying that they are very good) get lots of money.

    The difference is that if people don’t get paid well for doing that sort of work, they generally stop doing it.

    But writers keep on writing (especially poetry) all their lives even if no-one values their output enough to pay for it.

  18. Dear Kevin Monk,
    You have identified the point. Writers who are half competent can earn a living if they write what someone wants them to write. ie, there is a pre-existent demand. Not so easy if you want to write what you want to write. Lucky if, like Ms Toynbee, what you want to write is the same as what an employer wants you to write. And, as Tim so often points out, Ms Toynbee is very creative.

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