Pondering online publishing, take one

Dear Diamond Yarn (or Westminster Fibers, Nova Yarn, Alchemy Yarn, and any other distributor or producer of hand knitting yarn that sells to retailers),

I’ve got a marvellous idea for a yarn shop. I really love knitting, and I know that knitters will love the cozy knit + coffee shop environment I’ve got planned… Yarns up to the ceiling, hardwood floors, free child care, only the best yarns and patterns, but a bit cheaper than the competition. And I want to stock your yarns and patterns. Will you sell to me?

Well, when I say “sell,” I don’t really mean sell just yet. I guess you don’t supply on credit for new retailers, and I’m not absolutely certain that I’ll have the cash flow to pay my first bills when they come due, anyway. So, could you just, you know, give me the yarn? If I make enough money, I could pay you later.

Actually, when I say “later,” I don’t mean for this first shipment. I mean for later ones, when I’m starting to turn a profit. I’ve got to eat, right, and then there’s rent (home and commercial), and insurance, and then the cost of renovating the store space, but after all that you’re next on my list. I hear that a new business spends its first few years in debt, actually, so it might be quite some time before I can afford to pay you. But think of the intangible benefits: when I sell your yarn to customers, they’ll come back wanting more (well, it won’t hurt that I’m discounting it a bit). And I’ll put your posters up in my windows, so you’ll be getting free advertising.

I’m a start-up company, and I don’t want to have to devote any more cash than absolutely necessary to this enterprise. I mean, your products are important to me and I really like them, and there’s no point in having a knitting shop without them,
and there’s nothing I’d like better to do than to pay you the fair market value for your products, but you know, in the grand scheme of things it won’t hurt you to comp me an order or two. Or four. And I figure it’s less important to pay you than it is to pay the contractor and the landlord, because without them, there’d be no shop to stock your yarn, right?

Anyway, whaddya say?

Do you need to be told the answer?

Okay, now how about this:

Dear all you knitting designers out there,

We’re going to start up a new online knitting magazine, and we’re sure that people will love it. Everyone loves free knitting patterns — who doesn’t? — and we’re certain that even with all the online magazines out there now, ours will be a success.

Of course, there wouldn’t be a magazine without you, the designers! So here’s our first call for submissions. We’re looking for the sort of patterns that people really want to knit: avant garde designs, instant classics, you name it! But no garter stitch scarves, please!

We’re planning to launch in [insert ridiculously short date here], so the sooner you send in your submissions, the better! Please send in a swatch (or picture of a swatch), a sketch, and a brief design description. We promise to get back to you to confirm acceptance within a week.

Unfortunately, we’re unable to compensate our designers at this point. We’re just a start-up business, and we’d like to pay you what you deserve, but we can’t do that right now because we don’t have the resources to commit to paying contributors, and we don’t want to have to incur debt just to do that. We’re sure you’d understand. Instead, we can give you free ad space — as if having your pattern published wasn’t enough! — or get you the yarn you need for your design.

We look forward to hearing from you!

It’s reasonable to expect that if you’re going to run a store and sell tangible goods, that you’re going to have to incur some obligation to pay your suppliers for those goods. And it’s a real obligation, too, because if you pay with credit and don’t follow through, there will be consequences.

So why does the notion still exist that publishers of online knitting magazines can get away without paying contributors? Is the supplier less entitled to compensation just because their product is intellectual rather than material?

There was a time — a magical time — around 2002 or so, when you could get away with this sort of thing. Knitty managed it by virtue of being first. Magknits followed close enough behind in Knitty’s wake to capitalize on the awakening of the latent designer within the minds of Internet-enabled knitters. Both of these publications later took on advertisers, and started paying contributors. By the time Spun launched in 2004, with advertisements in place but no remuneration for contributors? Smaller projects. In 2.5 issues, not a single sleeve.

(Strictly speaking, yes, I know, Knitty wasn’t first, KnitNet was. But by the time Knitty launched, KnitNet had moved to a subscription base, with limited free content, and it probably wasn’t on the radar of most knitbloggers. And I suspect that KnitNet may have paid its contributors from the start; if they did, good for them. They recognized that you’re not entitled to value for nothing. And as a total aside, I think Spun’s strength was the direction that MMJ had envisioned as a lifestyle magazine. It’s better as a magazine for people who happen to knit than as a knitting magazine. If all Spun had published were patterns, I wouldn’t have been sorry it faltered. But I do hope that the rest of it — the columns, features, and reviews — will continue sometime.)

Of course there are other online knitting/crafting mags that launched inaugural (and further) issues without compensating its contributors. Southern Cross Knitting has published two issues, but it’s intended to showcase the talents of a particular geographic region; it has a cause, and designers who are signed on to that concept. Same thing goes for the inaugural issue of MenKnit. The AntiCraft (which promises to go beyond knitting), as far as I know, didn’t even solicit submissions from the general knitting public. The editrices established the tone with their own content; those who dare to follow would have espoused their cause.

In short, I really think the time for publishing someone else’s intellectual knitting property without compensating them is past, unless there is something about your publication that will make it worth the contributor’s skill, judgment, and labour. Providing knitting patterns for men and encouraging men to knit. Proving to the rest of the world, subjected to one glossy magazine exemplar, that Australian knit design doesn’t suck. Even being friends with the publisher might be enough.

And let’s be clear about what words like “compensation” and “remuneration” mean: money. Something that can be exchanged with others in order to procure the necessaries of life. Not yarn, not ad space. That’s not compensation. If you give a designer yarn or ad space in a new online magazine, they’re still in the hole for the time and intellectual effort dedicated to creating a pattern. So they break even on yarn, since they didn’t have to use their own; that’s still not a gain. And can you quantify the value of an advertisement in a new online knitting magazine? Assuming you can, that’s not a gain to the contributor either, unless the contributor would have purchased that ad space.

This tirade was brought on by an announcement of yet another online knitting magazine, tentatively scheduled to launch in January 2006. (No, not that one by Bo Peep’s Wool Shop, which has pushed back its launch date to January 2006; it’s another one, which, if it launches, will be online mag number four for Hogtown.) In the initial call for submissions was the now de rigueur “being a start-up, unfortunately we can’t pay.”

You know, in every other industry, a start-up venture requires an investment of capital. But in the online knitting publishing world, even though we now have three periodicals that pay their contributors, no start-up is willing to put up that capital to pay the content supplier. If you’re planning to at least break even on the enterprise by running advertisements, for example, shouldn’t you ensure that your designers and writers break even, too? Whose risk is it supposed to be, anyway?

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16 Responses to Pondering online publishing, take one

  1. You are correct. KnitNet has paid its designers for their patterns right from the beginning. We do have arrangements with some designers to publish patterns in exchange for exposure, for links, for kits in the store or other comensation other than money. We do not expect talented and professional designers to gave their patterns away for nothing. We also spend a lot of time and money making sure that the patterns we publish are professionally edited so that the instructions are accurate. In six years, we have had about six errors. Compare that to any print magazine. We are happy to look at patterns by professional patterns, so please submit them.

  2. j. says:

    (in case anyone’s wondering, I responded privately to Stephanie)

  3. I’m responsible for the submission request that launched this tirade and I wish I’d found the post earlier so I could have replied. For the most part I agree with everything you said Jenna, and with the comments – professionals should be compensated for their work. But isn’t there some in-between room for ambitious amateurs? I think it’s interesting that poetry was mentioned as a comparison. Maybe I’m not appalled by my own actions because I’ve published poetry in journals many times, sometimes for $30 but usually for 2 copies of the book. And that’s okay with me. Actually it’s totally thrilling. I value the work I put into them and I also value the work of the volunteer and student ed. boards that put the journals together. It’s really in that spirit that I started my own thing. For the joy of putting together a nice-looking page, posting some designs and – if there was interest – other people’s as well.
    I understand a lot of you of have been at this knitting thing for decades and there’s nothing new under the sun, but I’m new to it and I’m excited about it and wanted to claim a corner of the web for myself. And no, I can’t afford to pay people for their work. Really I can’t. The ads on small site don’t cover anywhere near the costs of running it. So people who want to be paid will send their work elsewhere. I guess what I’m saying is, what I’m starting isn’t a business. It’s a hobby. If it ever blossoms into a business, I will pay any contributors the going rate.

  4. M-H says:

    I was recently approached by someone at Muench Yarns to contribute unpaid articles to their website. Apparently they ‘loved my blog’, and thought that I would be glad to contribute to their advertising effort to increase my readership. I so don’t think so! I had quite a long correspondence with this gentleman, who eventually offered me a laughable amount of money for my contributions. Dunno what they weere reading on my blog, which is rather opinionated!

  5. Robyn says:

    In my market, editors start at around $35 per hour and can be expected to edit 4-6 pages an hour. I don’t know how that relates to knitting, though.

  6. mk says:

    A little off-topic – I’ve been trying to find out if there’s a standard rate for tech editors. I’m working with a new designer who is also trying to get her foot in the door doing tech editing, and while she gladly did the first pattern for experience alone, I’d like to pay her in cash but have no idea what the right amount would be, and my attempts to find out have not yielded much. The best suggestion I’ve gotten so far is to calculate her share as 20% of what I think fair compensation for my work on the pattern would be, but that’s subjective and won’t help much if/when she works for other people. Since she’s planning to do more work like this, I’d like her to know what is reasonable and what is being fleeced. Right now she’s so thrilled by the idea of getting any work at all that reason isn’t quite in it.

    My experience in selling patterns to publications has been that I can expect anything from a free copy of the publication to $100, and that the big magazines go into the four figures, variance based on complexity of pattern and who the designer is. I’m now planning to offer some patterns for sale via my weblog in an attempt to balance things out – getting published in other people’s projects has given me a bit of street cred and experience, but has not come anywhere near fair compensation for my time and skill in cash. Whether selling my patterns directly will do so remains to be seen.

  7. Ann says:

    How very timelt! Today (11/9) a post appeared on the knitlist looking for designs for a “new book.” I replied and asked “how much?”

    You can guess the answer I got. AND they need sketches etc. by 11/17! They might provide yarn AND a copy of the book.

    Woo hoo!

  8. JoVE says:

    ABSOLUTELY! and the only reason they can keep doing it is because some people don’t value their own work enough to think they deserve the money. I hope lots of (even new) designers see your post and seriously consider taking a pass.

  9. kbsalazar says:

    Jenna, thanks for putting it into words. At this point there’s no reason for me to give away patterns via the websites of others. I can go broke giving things away perfectly well on my own venues. AND I’m in full control of any associated deadlines (or lack thereof).

    But I’m not building a portfolio. I don’t care. It’s not like anyone will ever want to pay a living wage for freelance knitting design.

    And I’m not driving people to my sites via links. While this is a slightly more compelling argument, I’m not a eyeball whore. I’m not earning money with my websites, and maximizing traffic levels aren’t a prime concern.

    So. I’ll continue to design for pay and for free, but limit my free stuff to my own lines of distribution. Unless someone can come up with a better argument.

  10. gwen says:

    Now with poetry, the chances are you’ll be “paid” in copies of the literary journal you’re published in, unless it’s one of the big ones (I think!), whose names escape me now. A long established practice. (read this comment knowing it’s been a really long time since I’ve had anything to do with poetry!)

  11. Joanne says:

    Yes! You said it eloquently.

  12. Chelle says:

    Thank you Jenna. Similar thoughts raced through my mind when I read that request for submissions, but you expressed them far more eloquently.

  13. Steph says:

    Yes and yes! This is the same as your friend wanting you to knit a Starmore sweater for them, but not wanting to pay you for your time.

  14. julie says:

    great post – and the obvious answer to why do they think they can get away with it? Because (as you noted) they already have! The knitting industry has such a long and rich tradition of non-compensation – ask any lyso about all the free help she gives away.

    and don’t be so sure that your first scenario about yarn suppliers is far-fetched. this recent expansion of the market saw them behave with very sloppy business practices and a whole lot of greed.

  15. Kate says:

    What a well-spoken representative of knitwear designers. Do I hear a future union leader of Knit Designers Local 101?! =)

  16. Stefanie says:

    Great post, Jenna!