Nice Doesn’t Pay the Bills

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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December 17, 2014

Yesterday afternoon, I saw a post at Writer Beware about one of my favorite websites, The Toast. The post was about a section of their contract in which they asserted rights to contributors’ copyrights.

I trust the people at Writer Beware, so when they say something is an unacceptable rights grab, I believe them.  I’m not the only person who did.

A few hours later, the issue was resolved–everyone’s happy, right?  Well, I’m not.

I’m unhappy that Nick Pavich, publisher of The Toast, was dismissive when these concerns were raised last night and then proceeded to be grossly sexist.  He did apologize. To me, it felt less than sincere.


Dream journal? Kittens?  Really?

This is the moment when I point out that Nick Pavich is an attorney. Presumably, he knows his way around a contract or would know someone who would and would be willing to give him a friends-and-family rate on the billing in order to, I don’t know, write a contract that wasn’t capitalizing on people’s lack of knowledge about publishing (especially since the artists’ contract wasn’t so awful)? I don’t give a flying fuck if sites like xoJane and Gawker use similar contracts with their freelancers; The Toast’s public position has been that they are, in some ineffable way, different–nay, better–than those sites.

Jacqui Shine says it much better than I could:

Or, more succinctly: exposure kills.

The Toast–and its parent company, Manderley LLC–are in this to make money.  That is something they’ve been open about since day one–the fact that a community has sprung up in their comments is wholly incidental to their stated purpose.  They run advertising and sponsored posts–what this means is that the audience is the product. They aren’t running the site and acquiring content out of the goodness of their hearts or because they want to be nice. They have found an audience that isn’t being served and they’re using that to create revenue.

And speaking of the advertising–it’s terrifically intrusive.  Five ads above the fold, four of which are animated in some way and one of which, if hovered over for too long, opens a content-obscuring box and starts talking to me about the deals at my local Chevrolet dealer.

I am, of course, not saying that they shouldn’t have advertising or that they shouldn’t make money. But my local newspaper manages to have ads that are less obnoxious than this. And my local newspaper is in this to make as much money for their corporate overlords as possible.

Also: I do generally love The Toast. I link to them quite frequently and I remember when they were just a wee little site that could. I’m happy they’re successful. They’ve been on my list of places to pitch (if I ever get around to firming up some of my ideas). I also believe that Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe are doing the best they can. They seem to be genuinely nice human beings.

But that’s the thing–it actually doesn’t matter if they’re nice. Nice doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t matter how nice they are if their contracts are (were) written like that. Nice is not an excuse or a reason.  It is completely orthogonal to the issue at hand. (Also: so is being new to publishing writers and paying them–again: Pavich is an attorney. He has the resources to set up an LLC and handle the business end of things, he has the resources to create a standard contract that doesn’t suck.)

Again: The Toast is a for-profit business. If you’re writing for them, you are providing them a service for which you should be compensated. Part of that is a fair contract. Many of the people writing for The Toast are not professional writers and they don’t know what a fair contract should look like–this is why sites like Writer Beware exist (the comment at The Toast calling Victoria Strauss’s post “a poisonous little blog post” made me see red; this comment may be directed at Scalzi’s blog, but it seems likelier to me that it’s directed at Writer Beware as this is what got this party started).

I am pretty sure that The Toast is doing fairly well financially–after all, they were profitable a mere 9 months after they came into existence (you can actually see their traffic analysis here; their monthly unique visitors have essentially trebled since that article was published in April).  And it’s not like they’re paying their contributors a whole heck of a lot, either.

And yet: there are clearly members of the commentariat who see this nominal payment as a lagniappe for the exposure. Who feel that even though the contract was flawed, that The Toast would never be so crass as to actually enforce those terms because they hadn’t in the past and because Pavich can pull a handful of examples out of his hat where he didn’t enforce them.  Writers shouldn’t have to rely on a business’s goodwill and niceness to be treated fairly.

The Toast is a financial asset. And do you know what happens to financial assets sometimes? They get sold. And when they get sold, all bets are off. Just ask the writers who had contracts with Night Shade Books. Or Dorchester.

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  1. UrsulaV

    I’ve done work for hire before, and never expected to get to use any of it…but they paid WELL for the privilege. There were more zeroes attached to the number, for one thing.

    And no, “We’ve always been nice in the past!” is BS. Always assume you and your editor will both be struck by a meteor tomorrow and that the contract will be litigated by your worst and greediest relatives.

    Otherwise, thank you, Mr. Pavich, I WILL go write in my dream-journal. It’s done surprisingly well for me so far.

  2. --E

    Your last two sentences are the most important thing here.

    Maybe everyone who currently works on/for/at The Toast are the most sterling examples of fairness and goodwill ever produced by humanity. And perhaps as time passes, they will only grow wiser and more beatific and beneficent.

    Doesn’t mean a goddamn thing if circumstances change and they’re no longer the people in charge.

  3. Michal

    Yes, I was greatly irritated by some folks in the comments trying to shame Strauss and Scalzi and making *them* out to be bullies of some sort. And am I one of the few who remembers when Mallory made fun of the Hairpin for not paying contributors?

    Still love the things they post on the site. But those contract terms were sneaky and Wrong.

  4. Michal

    @Michal: Oops…it was Bustle, not the Hairpin. Had to do with an exploitative “unpaid internship” (in quotes because “write a bunch of articles for our site instead of your personal blog where you’d retain the rights” doesn’t count as an “internship” for me).


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