This is a guest post from my friend Jeff Goins, who has a new book out called Real Artists Don’t Starve. If you order it this week, you’ll get $200 in bonuses. Find out more at dontstarve.com.
The secret to getting paid as a writer
When the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison was asked to contribute an interview for a film project on the making of Babylon 5, he said, “Absolutely!”
There was just one catch: “All you’ve got to do is pay me.”
“What?” the young woman on the other end of the call asked.
“You’ve got to pay me!” he shouted.
“Well,” she said, “everyone else is just doing it for nothing.”
This was when Ellison lost it.
“By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing?” he said. “Do you get a paycheck? Does your boss get a paycheck?”
“Well, yes,” she admitted. But, “it would be good publicity.”
“Lady,” he said calmly, “tell that to someone a little older than you who just fell off the turnip truck.”
As a long-time screenwriter, Ellison has seen many people come and go in Hollywood. He understands how the business works, what the economics are, and how to survive in a very competitive market that is unkind to creatives.
He’s also seen new writers come to town not understanding they ought to be paid for their work.
“It’s the amateurs,” he said, “who make it hard for the professionals.”
Ellison knows a secret many beginning writers don’t know. It’s one I certainly didn’t understand when I began my career: If you want to get paid, you have to charge for your work.
Obvious? Sure. But it’s still something many writers, creatives, and artists struggle with. Harlan Ellison, on the other hand, sticks to one simple standard: he never works for free. Today, he is one of the most successful writers in Hollywood.
Over the past several years, I’ve seen many writers launch their careers by giving away just about everything they do. I made this same mistake. We do this because, we are told, it’s a great “opportunity.”
The problem, though, is what we call “opportunity” is really just a gamble. Opportunity doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t put food on the table. You can’t invest and watch it multiply. Opportunity is a bet, and like most bets, you rarely win.
If you want to be generous, by all means give your work away as much as you want without expectation of payment. Personally, I love doing this, but I do it because I choose to, not because I believe it is my only option. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being generous. It’s just hard to build a career on the currency of chance.
So, please, believe you’re worth more than an “opportunity.” Charge something, anything. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Some is better than none. Just be careful giving away your best work, because it can become a hard habit to break later.
This doesn’t make you greedy, by the way. When someone accused Walt Disney of making movies for the money, he replied, “We don’t make films to make money. We make money to make more films.”
Money is the means to making more art. Without it, our work is over before it begins. When we charge for our art, we are making a statement about how we value our work. The world won’t take us seriously until we do.