Harlan Ellison’s Wonderful Rant on Why Writers Should Always Get Paid

In a per­fect world, I could write this post for free. Alas, the rig­ors of the mod­ern econ­o­my demand that I pay reg­u­lar and some­times high prices for food, shel­ter, books, and the oth­er neces­si­ties of life. And so if I spend time work­ing on some­thing — and in my case, that usu­al­ly means writ­ing some­thing — I’d bet­ter ask for mon­ey in exchange, or I’ll find myself out on the street before long. Nobody under­stands this bet­ter than Har­lan Elli­son, the huge­ly pro­lif­ic author of nov­els, sto­ries, essays screen­plays, com­ic books, usu­al­ly in, or deal­ing with, the genre of sci­ence fic­tion.

Elli­son also starred in Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a doc­u­men­tary about his col­or­ful life and all the work he’s writ­ten dur­ing it, a clip of which you can see at the top of the post. In it, he describes receiv­ing a call just the day before from “a lit­tle film com­pa­ny” seek­ing per­mis­sion to include an inter­view clip with him pre­vi­ous­ly shot about the mak­ing of Baby­lon 5, a series on which he worked as cre­ative con­sul­tant. “Absolute­ly,” Elli­son said to the com­pa­ny’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive. “All you’ve got to do is pay me.”

This sim­ple request seemed to take the representative—who went on to insist that “every­one else is just doing it for noth­ing” and that “it would be good publicity”—quite by sur­prise. “Do you get a pay­check?” Elli­son then asked. “Does your boss get a pay­check? Do you pay the telecine guy? Do you pay the cam­era­man? Do you pay the cut­ters? Do you pay the Team­sters when they schlep your stuff on the trucks? Would you go to the gas sta­tion and ask them to give you free gas? Would you go to the doc­tor and have them take out our spleen for noth­ing?”

This line of ques­tion­ing has come up again and again since Elli­son told this sto­ry, as when the jour­nal­ist Nate Thay­er, or more recent­ly Wil Wheaton, spoke out against the expec­ta­tion that writ­ers would hand out the rights to their work “for expo­sure.” The prag­mat­ic Elli­son frames the mat­ter as fol­lows: “Cross my palm with sil­ver, and you can use my inter­view.” But do finan­cial­ly-ori­ent­ed atti­tudes such as his (“I don’t take a piss with­out get­ting paid for it”) taint the art and craft of writ­ing? He does­n’t think so: “I sell my soul,” he admits, “but at the high­est rates.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Faulkn­er Explains Why Writ­ing is Best Left to Scoundrels … Prefer­ably Liv­ing in Broth­els (1956)

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Ray Brad­bury on Zen and the Art of Writ­ing (1973)

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Mr.Vishram G Naik says:

    Seen the text but not lis­tened to the audio.In gen­er­al the writer ought to get paid,however if it a idea which will
    great­ly ben­e­fit human­i­ty it prefer­ably ought to be free,and if pos­si­ble at least the out­line should be free,and com­pen­sa­tion for the writer can be from adver­tise­ment rev­enues to the authors web page and the like.
    Per­son­al­ly i am also fac­ing this after pub­lish­ing a Kin­dle e‑book “Knowledge(Primarily sci­en­tif­ic) Con­tra­dic­tion And Human Iden­ti­ty A call for help” ama­teur thought penned by self,this after edit­ing will be adver­tised for pub­lic dis­cus­sion and content,author is also plan­ning to h/o the project to authen­tic institutions.One of the thought is a add on sym­bol for intel­li­gent life,the sym­bol is plucked out from the top left cor­ner of the plaque of the Pio­neer 10 space­craft which has moved out from the edge of the solar sys­tem into inter­stel­lar space.

  • Robert K says:

    The “pro­mo­tion­al” ques­tion here is whether Mr. Elli­son gets resid­u­als from the DVD sales. If he does, then the inter­view is pro­mo­tion­al, and he ben­e­fits from any added sales of the DVD due to his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the bonus mate­r­i­al pub­lished with the DVD. If his con­tract did not offer resid­u­als, then that’s where he screwed up. That’s where he should have been ask­ing to “get paid” not after the fact when the DVD pub­lish­er is call­ing.

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