The famed sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison passed away today. He leaves behind not just a mastery of work for the original Star Trek, films and countless books, but a great legacy in artist advocacy. In fact, his biggest impact may be a three-minute rant now known as Pay the Writer. It is a key discussion in getting your self worth as a creative.
The classic (explicative) video
According to Ellison, a major Hollywood studio wanted to use a video interview of his in a DVD set. It was for the '90s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5, for which Ellison wrote. However, unlike the screenwriting, the company reportedly wanted to use his video for free. The conversation quickly devolved.
By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing? Do you get a paycheck? Does your boss get a paycheck?... Would you go to the gas station and ask for free gas? Would you go to the doctor and have them take out your spleen for nothing?
The crucial part, though, is when the studio rep says it will be good publicity for Ellison.
If you sell 2,000 of them, it'll be great. And what are people going to say? 'Oh, I really like the way gave that interview. I wonder if he's ever written a book. Let me go buy his book'? There is no publicity value. The only value for me is if you put money in my hand.
Why it matters
Ellison says it comes down to economics of scale: There are too many writers (and, frankly, we can fill in the blank with any unusual or creative profession) who don't believe they should be paid every time they do something. Corporations know this, and get used to getting quality work from people for next to nothing. When someone wise actually does ask for their true worth, then they are turned away for those who are too scared or naïve to know their value.
My latest keynote How to Create Your True Worth is on the same topic - it's close to my heart. It resonates with many others, too: The short video clip, from the documentary "Dreams with Sharp Teeth", has racked up 1.1 million views on YouTube.
There are some nuances here worth discussing.
First, payment doesn't have to be money upfront or even money per se: It could be access to your target customers, advertising for your product or a share of the profit later.
Second, a non-paying opportunity is worth considering if it gives you the experience worth money later, which, as I discussed with actor Wil Wheaton's similar diatribe, may make working for free worthwhile.
No matter the circumstances, you should make sure you are being honored and compensated for what you bring to the table. As Ellison says, no one is doing you any favors by working with you. And if they didn't think your work was worth anything, then they wouldn't be trying to work with you in the first place.