Mark Terry

Friday, November 07, 2008

What Are You Worth?

November 7, 2008
I suddenly had an image from the movie "Bull Durham" where Kevin Costner grabs Tim Robbins' arm and says he has a million-dollar arm, but all his parts put together aren't worth 99 cents (or something like that).

The reason I'm thinking about it is a client was offering to pay me less and throw in stock options yesterday. After I thought about this for a while I contacted my writer friend Erica Orloff to see if she's ever experienced something like this. She had.

Which, unfortunately, brings me to something that writers seem to face an awful lot--clients that don't value what you do. For those writers who do copywriting for small businesses (and perhaps even larger businesses) you're likely to encounter this:

"I'd do it myself, but I'm just too busy. How's $10 an hour sound?"

Some I've encountered: "We're just getting started, so we can only pay 10 cents a word, but we expect to take off and you'll be in on the ground floor so when we start making money you'll make more, too."

So, the stock options was new, but thematically, shall we say, it wasn't.

I'm waiting for: "We can't pay you, but how about I give you a frozen turkey or a canned ham?"

In fact, now that I think about it, I did have a: "We can't pay you, but we can offer you advertising space in our publication at a discount rate." [translation: we can't pay you, but if you pay us, we'll give you a 1 inch by 3 inch ad somewhere in the back].

And look, fiction publishers in a lot of ways are the worst. It's a puzzle to me, although I'm sure someone would be willing to crunch the numbers, exactly why on a hardcover that sells for $25, the author's lucky to get 10% (ie., $2.50).

And there are a lot of small presses who do not offer advances. Part of the rationale, which I find interesting, is: we're taking a risk on you, so we want to minimize our risk by only paying for our production costs.

What I find so interesting about it is this: hey, I'm the writer, I've ALREADY done the work, I'm taking a risk on YOU, that you, in fact, want to BUY my manuscript on some sort of half-assed payment plan that's so risky only an appliance store would consider offering it to someone (and they sure as hell wouldn't offer it to the manufacturers, would they?). I mean, I spent months writing the manuscript, now you tell me you want to purchase it, but you're not going to pay me anything for another year or two until the book starts making YOU money.

It's a little bit like going into a furniture store and telling them you'll buy the bed, but only after you've had it at home for a while and made sure it's really comfy and broken in a bit.

This is a little backward, actually. 

Anyway, this is why as you progress through the business of writing you have to start getting a little stiff-backed and steely-eyed about the business end of things (or jaded, cynical and disgusted). Which reminds me, I have to nag one of my clients about a large check that's overdue.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as royalties go, I think that given the discounts publishers give to the sellers, the retail price is kind of misleading. However, when it comes to fiction, whether books or stories, it's a buyer's market since the vast majority of writers out there are so desperate for publication they'd give their efforts away free or -- as iUniverse etc prove -- pay to be "published."

As for non-fiction, writing ability is generally not valued. Actually, a lot of people don't consider writing a skill at all. People think because they can form a sentence they can write. The only reason they hire a writer (by their way of looking at it) is because they don't have time to waste on writing. And very often, they figure they could do it better themselves anyway so they aren't inclined to pay much.

7:51 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

OK. I clicked the anonymous button again!

7:53 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I was explaining this phenomenon to my daughter today. I was "thisclose" to a big ghostwriting deal, whent he economy gave the businessman pause. So it's on hold. But I said to my daughter, "Guarantee you, he will figure he can write it and find 'an English major' to edit it because people seem to think the if you went to college and studied English that makes you a writer and/or editor."

When I started freelancing 15 years ago, at first I took anything. I was frightened. And it was also that I didn't know how to negotiate. Now . . . I get that if I don't say I AM WORTH X (and mean it) no one else will. I've developed a much steelier eye.

I have also, too, had people come to me, decide I was to expensive, go ELSEWHERE with someone who lowballed them and COME BACK to me when their project is a mess.

7:59 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I agree. My biggest problem is when publishers whine about their overhead as if writers don't have overhead. Uh, yeah, I've got mortgage, utilities, healthcare, etc., to deal with, too. If your offices are in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, maybe you should consider relocating to Newark. (And I note with bemusement, that one of my big clients' office was on Park Avenue until last year, but their rent was getting astronomical, so they moved the offices to... yes, you guessed it, Newark. I commented to Leanne that I liked the idea of visiting them at Park Avenue a lot better than in Newark, but if it means they can continue to employ me, I'm okay with it).

Oh, I just love those ads for writers that say it would be a good job for recent journalism or English graduates. I think the subtext is: because no one else will come near us.

9:21 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Can I tell you this story? Because it annoys me so much I'm dying to share it with someone.

Student X comes to me with four or five years of piano, and unable to read a single spec of primer music, not even as far as my second-week students can read.

Within six weeks, his sight-reading is up for or five levels, and his technique has improved drastically.

However, she has one of those bad mortgages, is having trouble, and I charge $100 more a month (for a lesson twice as long).

But she's going through a rough time, struggling to keep up with the bills, and I feel sorry for her. I make an offer to help, no tuition this month, half-tuition for the rest of the year.

She loves the idea.

She's going to get back to me after her husband gets home from a golfing trip in Las Vegas.

1:16 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Forgot to mention my point that applied to your post: Despite his phenomenal progress and lack of progress with his old teacher, her "husband" felt that all piano teachers are interchangeable, and that she should go with the cheapest one, LOL.


Stock options? In THIS market?

1:49 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I about fell out of my chair laughing about "stock options" myself. Heh. Good one.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

I would hazard a guess that most folks are aware of what JK Rowling is worth as a writer, or at least know she's wealthy. On her website one day she mentioned, "The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance."

Even Ms. Rowling has to fight to get people to understand writing is a job. My thoughts are that most people don't think of it as such and therefore don't value it as a product worth paying for.

5:38 AM  

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