If I were to explain the roundabout way in which this whole exchange began, your eyes would start bleeding at the 5,000-word mark. So forgive me (or thank me) for being a bit brief about it.
When I’m not writing my own stuff, I’m almost always helping my friends with their writing. I’m acting as a beta, or I’m critiquing covers and fonts, or acting as a fount of bizarre knowledge for the mystery writers in my inner circle. (I frequently get 3 a.m. text messages asking things like, “If a guy slit his throat with a straight razor, would he have time to write a suicide note?” or “What kind of personality disorder would a character have to have in order to make this level of paranoia and narcissism believable?” And the scary thing is that I have answers for questions like these.)
But aside from doing the helping thing with my longtime pals, I also write book descriptions (also known as “blurbs,” to the consternation of many – it’s an incorrect term, considering I’m not the one who writes, “Stephen King calls it ‘The scariest book I’ve read in thirty years!’“). As a job. Separate from my actual novel writing stuff. It’s a thing I do. It’s a thing I’m told I’m good at doing, which is why several friends coerced me into doing it for a (part of my) living.
Very recently I was working with an editor who was looking to spruce up the “blurb” (okay, let’s just agree to call it that for now, got it?) of a client’s new release. She approached me with what they had, and I said I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to help, mainly because there wasn’t a whole lot wrong with their working draft. But we pursued it anyway, went back and forth for a week or two, discussing the author’s preferred revisions and trying to work them into what we were piecing together. In the end, not a whole lot of my suggestions were implemented, and I was okay with that – I’m okay with whatever the client wants in cases such as this one – but I expressed some hesitation about being paid, considering my end contribution was so insignificant.
I won’t repost the editor’s email to me without her permission, although it was very kind and I adored her for writing what she did, but it ended with a stern order to watch a video on YouTube repeatedly until I got the message. The (NSFW) video in question?
Now, let’s not get me started on how I feel about Harlan Ellison as a human being. That’s a conversation that probably won’t end well. But I have to admit, I watched this video and laughed, shook my head. put a hand to my forehead, covered my face in shame…because damnit, he was right. And I’d been going about everything in precisely the wrong ways. I let myself feel guilty about charging for my services, even when my services happen to be specialties, ones that come from years of education and experience. They’re legitimately marketable, because they happen to be something I rather like doing and many other people absolutely hate doing it, so they’re all too happy to enlist my help. And yet, still, I’ve always been profoundly uncomfortable when it comes time to discuss fees, because there’s that unavoidable sense when you’re working in the arts – such an intangible thing that you’re producing, so abstract and even ephemeral – that its worth is in the eye of the beholder…and not in what you put into it (man hours, emails, countless drafts, research, any number of things that go on in the writing of a blurb).
I’ve had this conversation repeatedly for years with musician friends. It’s a big thing these days, especially, what with most of them (unless you happen to be U2) getting stiffed out of royalties and no longer being able to make ends meet. I’ve also had this argument with people close to me, my favourite (by which I mean the most infuriating) being, “Hey, if I’m a woodworking artist, and I make a beautiful chair, and someone buys it, I get paid. Once. If someone else buys it from that guy, I don’t get a cut from his resale. Why should any other art be different?”
I have yet to formulate a response to that argument that isn’t mostly made up of curse words and unintelligible noises of rage – if you have a great comeback, please do share it with me so I can use it the next time this inevitably comes up – but the thing about my blurb writing (and working out a price scale for my HUSH commissions, too, but that’s a whole different blog post unto itself) is that I suffer from guilt even over getting paid that first time. There’s something about the fact that it’s just words on a screen that makes it feel…not worthless, obviously, but you know what I mean. Not necessarily something for which I can justifiably put my hand out and say, “Okay, there you go – that’ll be X dollars, please!” This despite the fact that I’m the one who’ll go out of my way to buy the band’s CD at a gig even though I could just stream it on my phone, because I see the worth in what they do. I try to buy my books directly from independent authors when possible so they get more money from me than whatever faceless behemoth is swiping at least 30% out of their pockets. I buy an art print or a photograph from the artist rather than just right-clicking in Firefox. But somehow none of that applies to me?
I know this is a common thing for people in the arts, whatever the branch. So my secondhand advice to you is: watch that video. Bookmark it. Watch it repeatedly. Watch it every time you forget that you stayed up until dawn trying to reword something for somebody else. It’s enormously important to be fair to the people who are paying you. Just don’t forget – like I so often do – that it’s equally important to be fair to yourself, too.