Imagine that bucket as a bookstore, or a gallery, or a magazine, or a college curriculum, or a grocery store. Any desirable space of limited capacity. The more of us there are who can provide the appropriate content for that bucket, the more we’ll be in competition with one another, and that competition will come mostly in the form of price.
I’ll teach that class for two thousand dollars.
Well, I’ll teach it for eighteen hundred.
Being a content provider in any field is like a reverse auction, in which the lowest bidder wins.
The journalist Ben Fong-Torres maintained a strictly freelance career for forty years, because he wanted the freedom to pursue his own topics at his own depth. He knew that as a daily newspaper reporter, he’d be assigned stories that weren’t in his area, and that he’d be under pressure to turn them around quickly, glancing off the surface rather than really penetrating. When he started in the 1960s, he could write a feature story and be paid about $500. But he finally gave up and accepted a newspaper job. The end came when he was offered a cover story for a big magazine in 2006, and they told him it would pay… $500.
One of the things I described in The Adjunct Underclass was our increasing understanding of college education as “content,” and college teachers as “content providers,” leading toward what economists call commodity pricing, in which a gallon of crude oil or milk is a uniform commodity to be sold at uniform price.
The fungibility of the commodity places downward pressure on price, and cannot consider the unique practices of the producer. If a particular dairy farmer thinks he needs $18.50 per hundredweight to break even, but the going market rate from the co-op is $16.50, then $16.50 it’s going to be, and the individual farmer gets to choose to either (a) lose two bucks per hundred pounds, (b) reduce the quality costs of his work, or (c) stop selling milk altogether. So too for adjunct faculty. Intro Sociology can be bought by colleges in the Boston Metro teaching market for about three thousand dollars per three credits, so an individual teacher—no matter how well credentialed, no matter how excellent—gets to choose to (a) teach for an embarrassingly small hourly rate, (b) try to make their teaching something simpler and less time-intensive, or (c) not teach at all. In the eyes of the college-as-aggregator, as long as any specific provider is above the floor of competency, it doesn’t really matter if they’re any better.
I was put in mind of this over the past couple of days while reading the really smart blog of the writer Madeleine Morris, PhD in creative writing from Roehampton University. She’s had some success commercially publishing her work—she writes erotica, a small enough bucket in the best of times, and one with an enormous number of content suppliers—but most of her work has been given away, published in bits and pieces on various websites, including her own. She’s part of the vast fiction community who, even when published in “the little magazines,” are paid only in contributor’s copies. But she lays blame at the feet of not merely the publishers, but also us readers.
Content has become an incredibly cheap commodity. I’ve watched readers whine over paying $2.00 for an ebook novel. I know of readers who buy an ebook, read it, and then return it for a refund. Think about it: a novel for less than the price of a coffee you consume in 5 minutes and piss out 5 minutes later. A novel that takes, if you’re any more than an abject hack, at least 3 months to write. So, it’s readers too, who feel entitled to something close to free entertainment.
The internet has made us all freeloaders. We expect our music and our reporting and our images and our ideas and our stories for free. We are offended by paywalls. So content providers are all reduced to buskers, playing our tune on the corner with a hat on the ground, asking Kickstarter or GoFundMe or Patreon for a few bucks.
And here’s another dilemma. I’ve had my career, I don’t need to be paid to write. So are these very essays contributing to the expectation of good, free content? Am I taking up reading time that someone else might be paid to claim? Am I contributing to our cultural diminishment of intellectual life by offering intellectual life for free?
So let me say this. All writers need readers. Some writers need readers and money, because it’s their livelihood. Pay those people. Please.