What Web Writers Can Learn from the Writer’s Strike

Writer's Guild Strike

Back in the summer of 1997, I walked into the managing partner’s big corner office of the downtown Dallas law firm I worked at and resigned. I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I didn’t want to practice law.

So I packed up and headed south to Austin. In addition to being a Mecca for live music, Austin has a very cool film community, especially for writers. So, the plan was to become a screenwriter and just tough it out until I made it.

You know… tend bar or something. Starving artist stuff.

I had some money saved up, so instead of finding a job immediately, I decided I’d better start cranking on a script. I bought some screenwriting software and all the requisite screenwriting books, which taught me a lot about compelling narrative.

Problem was, I didn’t write anything. Nada.

Instead, my procrastination-inflicted brain decided that I continue my research into the film industry. See how things worked.

Anything to avoid writing.

As it turns out, I discovered that screenwriting is a pretty lousy job. In the film industry, writers are at the bottom of the food chain, even though the story is what gives everyone else a job. Writers have very little say in what happens once the film goes into production, and no one really worries too much about rewriting the script on the fly (even the actors).

As a writer, the only way to have any control and autonomy in Hollywood is to also be the producer or director. Television writers have it better than film scribes, but I had no interest in writing for television, and they remain at the mercy of the business types.

So, I started my first Internet ezine instead.

Ten years later, the Writer’s Guild of America is on strike, because writers are not being compensated properly for their work in new media and other digital assets. And here I am sitting on a whole heap of new media digital assets.

At least I can point to one good decision I’ve made in my life.

The point for you is this. If you’re freelancing for online producers or blogging for hire, you’re setting yourself up to be exploited. No wait… you are being exploited.

The new media producers are analogous to the Hollywood producers, and they’re the ones who are making the real money while you work for them. Why?

Becoming a writer/producer online is simple relative to film production, and it can be extremely lucrative. Writers should be running the show because it’s the story that matters most, but that means you need to spend a bit of time learning about online business and technology.

You don’t have to learn everything to be a writer/producer. You just need to know what needs to be done, and then get people to make it happen with you. That can be through outsourcing, or through strategic partnering with those who have the skills you lack.

I don’t know if there will ever be a Blogger’s Guild of America, but I wouldn’t wait around to find out. Why not just take control of your own destiny?

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the link Brian :) I think many of us doubt our own worth while making a disproportionate contribution. Your Teaching Sells course should help people balance the books :)

  2. Great article. Become master of your domain!

    Since you mentioned procrastinating, I’d like to recommend a book that will kick the procrastination habit right out of every writer, artist, or business person. It’s called “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. If it weren’t for that book, I might not have gotten mine finished and published.

  3. At times I’m asked to contribute to another blog or join a group blog because people like my writing at thinknola.com . I’m going to bookmark this article. I say no and forget why I (almost always) say no.

    A huge part of it is that on someone else’s blog I have no control over comment moderation, and therefore have no control over the relationships I build through my writing.

    I’m not sure what producers of blogs bring to the table. They stuff that they do is more easily outsourced than writing.

  4. Being a freelancer is a drag. There is only one of you,and only so many hours in the day, so there is a real limit on how much you could ever make, and the reality is that most of the time you’re not getting paid at all.

  5. I think screenwriting is the classic anti-job. As an English major in college, it’s the first thing I thought of doing for a living. I even wrote a script during my senior year as an honors thesis.

    Then, like you, I found out that it’s a lousy job. No respect, no final edit, and no pay. So I went into real estate :-)

    The thing is though, I think there’s a reason why the “storyteller” is paid less than the actor or director. The average, 100- IQ moviegoer isn’t looking for a great story. They’re looking for an emotional rush.

    As a result, many of the movies with the best stories lose money and many of the formulaic, popcorn crunchers with lots of special effects become financial hits. If you’re a movie exec, who cares if your movie sucks, as long as everyone goes to see it?

    I *do* think screenwriters are horrendously underpaid, but I don’t think they’re going to see that much of a change, at least not relative to actors and directors.

    Online though, I think it’s completely different. People that can communicate in a truly insightful and innovative way are in much higher demand than anyone else in the blogging industry. Nothing is more important than the quality of your content.

    So yeah, I think you made the right move. Bring your talents to an industry that is desperate for them and reap the rewards of the medium you control.

  6. I’m glad you didn’t procrastinate on this post, good stuff. From where I sit you have made lots of good decisions…..CopyBlogger is a slam dunk, Tubetorial set the bar for edutainment, and Teaching Sells rocks.

    I am so glad you didn’t take up screen writing!

  7. That’s an interesting tale, Brian. I am a blogger as well as a journalist as well as an aspiring screenwriter. I have always felt writers were paid too little, no matter what the forum. Long live writers!

  8. Perfect post Brian!
    One of the reasons I even fathomed writing at all is due to blogging. I finally had a platform to be creative, help people and communicate.

    When I realized how much writers get paid for print assignments, I was bummed and thought “Well, teaching Middle School it is then.” But the more I sink my teach into the online world, I realize I can write about whatever I want and potentially make money.

    Thanks for the uplifting post. And Mark, thanks for the book rec.

  9. I have a couple of dear friends who are freelance writers and I agree that it is mostly exploitation. One of the best places to see this exploitation in action is on Craigslist… a paucity of writer jobs offering $5 – $10 for quality blog posts.

    If you can make the leap to learn just a few more web and business skills, you can pocket the cash and get what you are really worth.

  10. I was a film studies major for a short time, back when I thought screenwriting would be a viable career for me. The more I learned about the ways of Hollywood, the less appealing the whole idea became. From everything I have read, most writers in the film industry are treated like dirt, as if they’re a dime a dozen. My understanding is that this phenomenon gets worse over time, which might explain why a whole of nothing is coming out at theaters these days. What a shame.

    -Melissa Donovan
    Writing for Writers

  11. I think the film industry pays the price for treating the writers the way it does. Let’s face it, most of the films produced each year are terrible, no matter how much has been spent on them. Why? Because the stories don’t work. The dialogue has been butchered. Why don’t they just spend a little bit of time and money on a good script? Do they think no one notices? I think they do.

  12. More people need to get Peter Bowerman’s Well Fed Writer book and take some of Rich Armstrong’s advice to Make More By Writing Less by firing some of our clients. I did and it works! More and better keeps coming. We do deserve more because we don’t get the royalties from what our writing brings; somebody else always does instead. Bravo to Brian one more time!

  13. Brian, I appreciate the thoughts behind this article. Many people go into the writing career path not realising what they are getting into. Screenwriting seems particularly unrewarding.

    However, one thing freelancing does do is that it helps you to build up a portfolio of published work. Isn’t that kind of critical? Blogging may be a bit different, as you can build an audience throught networking, but if one wants to be a paid author these days, you usually need to produce some published clips…

  14. but if one wants to be a paid author these days, you usually need to produce some published clips…

    Generally, and it never hurts to have a blog to refer people to. But if you’re your own client from day one, it gets a whole lot easier to get the green light on projects. :)

  15. nice article.

  16. Brian, great post. My husband has worked as a grip for about 20 years and he’d argue with you for bottom-of-the-food-chain status for this reason:

    Grips don’t make residuals.

    His analogy for writers working as “bloggers for hire” or the like: an actor paying a producer for an audition.

  17. In 1993 I graduated from UCLA Law and decided never to practice. I know from whence you came :)

    I think that all of these writers need to start writing and producing their own, online content. They can make more on advertising, as you and others have proven…

  18. Thanks for your post.

    It showcases what we must do to retain at least a little control over what we do.

    Also, you hit the nail on it’s head when you highlighted the power of collaboration.

    It’s about grabbing hold of a vision and then creating win-win relationship with others who possess passion to help you see the project through.

    Again…Thanks

  19. Almost the only reason I prefer working for myself (not full time atm,t ho) is how easily I can approve my own projects. No having to quibble with the customer is so liberating.

  20. The writers plight is something i didn’t know mainly because my focus on writing is new. The part about taking destiny into your own hands – hear hear! Thanks for sharing.

    I enjoy writing. Id like to do some freelance work but I’m not concerned about the money as much as the experience of writing something on commercial level.

    I, not so long ago, posted on crea8site forums about how to go about finding freelance work – it might make for an interesting post here at copyblogger ;).

    All the best – Sascha

  21. It’s nice to once again get a glimps into your personal life. We all knew you were a lawyer, but knowing you’re an artist type..makes everything make alot more sense.

  22. Has anybody else noticed the floating or missing apostrophes?

    > Writer’s strike (Brian)
    > Writers’ strike (WSJ)
    > Writers Guild of America
    > Writers’ Guild of Great Britain

    It’s ironic, really, when you think how we all regularly lecture non-writers on punctuation :-)

  23. Good article. Uplifting. Wish there was more suggestions regarding resources. This topic is WAAAAAAAY bigger than what was written. But it is a good “heads up” regardless. :)

    Going to take a look at the War Of Art book, thanks Mark.

  24. I believe what drives many writers is different than what drives a mogul.

    I gave up the freelancing dream when I discovered I could not earn enough to feed my children–as a single mom at the time.

    In writing we express our diversity and the richness of the human experience. That is what makes your blog compelling. Thank you!

  25. Writers should not run the show simply because they create the story. In fact, sometimes the story just can’t work.

    Maybe it goes beyond the budget.
    Maybe the costumes won’t work.
    Maybe the locations won’t work.
    Maybe the cinematography won’t work.
    Maybe the casting won’t work.

    That’s why there are Directors and Producers. My husband and I are budding indie filmmakers. I’m the writer. He’s the director. Knowing him and watching him work helped me realize that if writers want to be more involved in the process, they have to become Producers.

    And yes, web workers can – and must – learn that! (Which, btw, is why Teaching Sells is such a great program)

  26. Although writers are underpaid, in general, I can’t agree with what most people have been complaining about on this comments thread.

    The day I understood my value (my company hired a consultant who was asking 40% more than me while I had more experience), I simply raised my hourly fee as a freelancer and guess what? People are paying me what I’m asking me to pay me now.

    I did the same thing on my Monster resume: I was called up by some headhunters “because I was cheap”. I raised my asking annual salary by 15Ks, and still got some calls.

    For each call I get, I raise my annual demanded salary by 5Ks, and I’m still getting calls.

    I’ll write back once I’m 500Ks ;)

    The problem is that some writers accept to be paid 10$/hour to write, ditto in the translation world. It’s the whole “let’s outsource to a third-world country” problem, and writing is viewed as the last thing we should worry about. Ironically, it’s the writing that brings you sales in general. Go read Nick Usborne if you doubt about that, but I’m sure everyone HERE agrees :)

    Yes, screenwriter is a lousy job and you never get to do the final edits, and yes, unless you’re the producer, you’ll never get to do the final edits.

    If you’re in the writing business, you better get used to not having the last word… or become the producer :)

  27. This was a great article, and great advice. I hope what you say helps people realize what the industry is like before they dive right in.
    Thank you.

  28. Although I also blog for a living, I don’t think the time for a Writers’ Strike has arrived just yet. I know fellow writers who don’t really take online writing seriously. To them, it’s just a phase. Something to keep them preoccupied and something that pays. So even though they might think they’re being exploited, it’s really fine with them. Of course, this is just a personal opinion.

  29. Yeah, writers must boycott sites like Helium.com and Ezinearticles.com that promise money in return for content. You are being set up. These firms are making millions with your content (from ad sense ads) and you sit there, waiting for checks that never come!

  30. Excellent post. When I saw what people were willing to pay writers on the web, I decided to create my own site. What bothered me even more was listening to internet marketers talk about how cheaply they could buy content, including all of the rights. I’ve been wondering when writers would wake up.

  31. Powerful post! One of Copyblogger’s all-time best.

  32. I don’t know. I think you have to balance a little bit of both. Yes, be in charge of your own destiny, but you also have to learn how to work with people on their turf.

    I’m not a studio executive and don’t understand all the inner working of a story, but I do know that it involves a to more logistics than it looks. I used to be a logistician, and it is a pain.

    In this world, you cannot always have it your way. The things you truly want to be in your domain, keep to yourself. Self publish. Maintain complete rights, if you can.

    However, if you’re interested in a shared experience that requires collaboration, then everyone has to play a role somewhere. We can’t all be the chief and the indians at the same time. Something will have to yield to the other.

    So I’m a big believer of taking control of your destiny, but I also believe that there is a time and place for everything. Learn how to make the two collude, and you’ll be able to do well in both worlds.