Monday, November 5, 2007

Why Creative Writers Get the Shaft

Well, it's finally happened--television and movie scriptwriters are going on strike. I'm less concerned with how this will affect my weekly Heroes habit and more concerned with the precedent this will set among writers in all industries. Will novelists, poets, short story writers, and web content writers start demanding more for their work? Maybe it's time they did.

Writers get dumped on in all writing-related careers. In what other industry do you not get paid if your customer doesn't like your work? If you're a wholesaler and a company buys your product to sell, on what other planet can they pay you less for products they sell at a discount--or not pay you at all for products they failed to sell? Oh, and if you're an actor, a television producer, or a movie director, do you get paid for DVD sales of your movies? Yep. But the scriptwriter doesn't see a nickel.

The only exception I can think of is copywriting. Copywriters generally have it easy. They don't mess around with kill fees; they dictate their terms; and they don't work through agents. I've been thinking about why this is--what makes copywriting and content writing different from creative writing professions such as novel-writing and screenwriting? Here are a few reasons I've come up with.

Copywriters know business. Copywriters write about business. They are immersed in business. They think about how to sell more for their clients and how to maximize profits for themselves every day. While it's rare to find a novelist who describes herself as a "businessperson" first and a writer second, many copywriters think of themselves this way. In copywriting, creativity isn't necessarily valued so much as profitability. You may write the most plain, drab prose in the world--but if it sells, it's gold. An awareness of how business works is, in my opinion, crucial to getting the best deal for your work.

Creative writing is a glamour job. When's the last time you sat down and wrote a landing page or a batch of catalogue descriptions for fun? Probably never. But if you have the creative writing bug, you'll write that novel or poem or short story no matter who reads it--because you feel compelled to. Copywriters write for money. If they're not getting paid a fair wage, they won't do the work. And they definitely won't do it for free. But creative writers do it for the sheer love. When you're that passionate about what you do, it can seem like an unbelievable blessing that someone would want to pay you anything to do it. This could mean creatives are more likely to fail to negotiate rights and ask for more.

MFA programs don't teach business savvy. Go to any creative writing school, and you'll find professors who are concerned with your wording and syntax, your skill with metaphor and other poetic conceits, your character development and dialogue skills, and so on: all the subtle and obvious things that make a great piece of art. You'll rarely find anyone drilling students on how to land a publisher, the ins and outs of royalties and advances, and how to negotiate without losing your agreement entirely, as some publishers will actually dump new writers who even attempt it. As a result, a whole lot of talented people stumble around in the real world after graduating from high-priced programs, confused as to what to do with all that talent. If one of them gets lucky enough to actually land a publishing deal, the average MFA is in no position to tell how good that deal actually is.

Supply and demand. Let's face it: creative writers are a dime a dozen. Unless you're Stephen King or Danielle Steele, there are thousands of other novels in the slush pile that will fill the same market niche as yours. If you get fired from your screenwriting job, there are hundreds of hungry writers out there desperate for a chance to work on a syndicated show. Creative writing attracts people who are truly passionate about their craft. And there are more of them than there are well-paying jobs. This gives employers, publishers, television studios, and other bosses all the power.

A good copywriter is a bit harder to find--although there are plenty of us out there, too. But while there are a limited number of television studios and publishing houses--not to mention viewers and readers, who are actually shrinking--the amount of businesses who need writers is growing every day. This gives the writers much more power.

I've spent my adult life learning about the established practices of the publishing industry--and becoming more and more dismayed by the way it treats its writers. These screenwriters are unionized, so it's much easier for them to make demands. While this probably won't happen for novelists any time soon, it's my hope that the strike will send a message to everyone who works with writers.

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