Art Matters, So It Shouldn't Be Free

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In a previous life, I worked as a wind energy developer. It meant lots of long trips to exotic places where people are usually not (at least, not in great or even middling abundance): places like Sweetwater, TX; Minot, North Dakota; Ozona, TX; and Santa Rosa, NM. Don’t get me wrong — these are all lovely places with very kind, welcoming communities. But wherever there is plenty of wind to support industry-scale wind projects, there is typically not much in terms of population.

Anyway, I remember vividly one day trip I took to some North Texas county (I can’t remember which one anymore, but it was a very rural, remote area with a lot of trees and, as we soon figured out, not as much wind as we’d hoped) one spring day. The company I worked for had sent over a young intern named Adam from Irish HQ, so as an educational experience and for some company I took him with me.

During the long, two-hour drive to the meeting, we somehow got to chatting about artists (musicians in particular), creativity, and the bubbling tension between the need for these artists to make a living and the demand of their fans for free content. This was a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world, when Pandora was just starting to find its audience and YouTube was exploding with illegal uploads of both official and “unofficial,” fan-made music videos.

Adam believed that artists should make their work freely available on the Internet and suffered not an ounce of guilt from downloading copyrighted content without paying for it. He genuinely believed that because his generation (he was about 19, and this was the mid-2000s) had grown up accustomed to paying little or nothing for music, movies and books because of their wide availability on bootleg sites, they shouldn’t be expected to suddenly pony up for access to them. Sure, he was happy to pay a few hundred dollars for an iPod, but for the music and other content he would actually play on it and without which the iPod would just be an outrageously priced paperweight? Nada. When I asked him how in the world he expected these artists to survive and continue to create without compensation, he said, “They can get a full-time job and create in their spare time.”

Artists have always, always struggled for respect and an adequate income for their work. Distributing content without artist compensation is a longtime tradition — it’s why copyright law was invented in the first place. But with technology making it so incredibly easy to distribute any creative work on a mass, global scale, it’s become even harder for artists to control their work and earn a living wage from it. If even musicians with vast financial resources and the power and influence of corporate money behind them can’t make money solely from their creative output but must hustle to make themselves into a “brand”, is there much hope for the “independent artist” who would rather spend their time and energies actually making art and not shilling t-shirts and plastic wrist bands out of cramped apartments?

I could never convince Adam that artists deserve to be paid every single time their music is downloaded, their film is viewed, and their book is sold. But while the conversation happened nearly a decade ago, it stuck in my head and comes out periodically whenever I read articles like this one, which calls for basically an overhaul of society and more expansive public investment in artists and their art.

Despite what I just wrote above about the importance of compensating artists for their work, I’m of two minds about the idea of devoting public funds to support artists. The Depression-era programs put to work thousands of writers, photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists left an astounding legacy of documents, films, and artwork that serve as a rich repository of content about a particularly critical time in American history.

On the other hand, the content, while voluminous, wasn’t exactly created solely for the sake of art. As this article carefully points out, “Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.” Government money is rarely offered without strings, even today, and while I consider myself fairly liberal, I hesitate to endorse any arts program or idea that relies so heavily on government largesse. Socialist art has rarely produced anything of lasting cultural value and more often than not serves as a propaganda tool. The artist should only ever be beholden to their creative impulse, never to an outside agency with its own agenda.

Still, I also don’t think that we can expect the “masses” (who my former political science prof often referred to as “asses”) to suddenly have a change of heart and refuse to download anything without ponying up a royalty to the artist. One program I find appealing is Ireland’s Artists Tax Exemption. Rather than requiring artists to submit exhaustive applications and compete with their peers for a limited amount of earmarked funds — a process ripe with bias and the stifling of free speech and creativity — the program offers a simple blanket benefit to all artists who make money from their work. It’s not a perfect program: the government is still the final arbiter of what it considers “of cultural merit” and thus eligible for tax exemption. But it does strike me as an easier and more liberal means of supporting artists by removing or at least minimizing the burden of supporting oneself through one’s art. Like everyone else in society, the artist must still organize her paperwork and receipts to prepare for filing the appropriate returns, but at least she’s not enduring the soul-sucking business of filling out reams of grant applications, writing one more goddamn essay about why her work should be funded, and gathering reference letters and budget forecasts.

I’ve not spoken to Adam since I left the company in 2006, but I wonder what he thinks now, a decade later and 10 years older, about the state of the music industry. Folks wanting unlimited free music have never had it better — I listen to Spotify all day long and have never paid for it. But as a writer who works hard for every word and every page, I’m terrified of what the future holds for creatives who want and deserve to be paid for doing what they love and doing it well.

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Art Matters, So It Shouldn’t Be Free

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In a previous life, I worked as a wind energy developer. It meant lots of long trips to exotic places where people are usually not (at least, not in great or even middling abundance): places like Sweetwater, TX; Minot, North Dakota; Ozona, TX; and Santa Rosa, NM. Don’t get me wrong — these are all lovely places with very kind, welcoming communities. But wherever there is plenty of wind to support industry-scale wind projects, there is typically not much in terms of population.

Anyway, I remember vividly one day trip I took to some North Texas county (I can’t remember which one anymore, but it was a very rural, remote area with a lot of trees and, as we soon figured out, not as much wind as we’d hoped) one spring day. The company I worked for had sent over a young intern named Adam from Irish HQ, so as an educational experience and for some company I took him with me.

During the long, two-hour drive to the meeting, we somehow got to chatting about artists (musicians in particular), creativity, and the bubbling tension between the need for these artists to make a living and the demand of their fans for free content. This was a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world, when Pandora was just starting to find its audience and YouTube was exploding with illegal uploads of both official and “unofficial,” fan-made music videos.

Adam believed that artists should make their work freely available on the Internet and suffered not an ounce of guilt from downloading copyrighted content without paying for it. He genuinely believed that because his generation (he was about 19, and this was the mid-2000s) had grown up accustomed to paying little or nothing for music, movies and books because of their wide availability on bootleg sites, they shouldn’t be expected to suddenly pony up for access to them. Sure, he was happy to pay a few hundred dollars for an iPod, but for the music and other content he would actually play on it and without which the iPod would just be an outrageously priced paperweight? Nada. When I asked him how in the world he expected these artists to survive and continue to create without compensation, he said, “They can get a full-time job and create in their spare time.”

Artists have always, always struggled for respect and an adequate income for their work. Distributing content without artist compensation is a longtime tradition — it’s why copyright law was invented in the first place. But with technology making it so incredibly easy to distribute any creative work on a mass, global scale, it’s become even harder for artists to control their work and earn a living wage from it. If even musicians with vast financial resources and the power and influence of corporate money behind them can’t make money solely from their creative output but must hustle to make themselves into a “brand”, is there much hope for the “independent artist” who would rather spend their time and energies actually making art and not shilling t-shirts and plastic wrist bands out of cramped apartments?

I could never convince Adam that artists deserve to be paid every single time their music is downloaded, their film is viewed, and their book is sold. But while the conversation happened nearly a decade ago, it stuck in my head and comes out periodically whenever I read articles like this one, which calls for basically an overhaul of society and more expansive public investment in artists and their art.

Despite what I just wrote above about the importance of compensating artists for their work, I’m of two minds about the idea of devoting public funds to support artists. The Depression-era programs put to work thousands of writers, photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists left an astounding legacy of documents, films, and artwork that serve as a rich repository of content about a particularly critical time in American history.

On the other hand, the content, while voluminous, wasn’t exactly created solely for the sake of art. As this article carefully points out, “Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.” Government money is rarely offered without strings, even today, and while I consider myself fairly liberal, I hesitate to endorse any arts program or idea that relies so heavily on government largesse. Socialist art has rarely produced anything of lasting cultural value and more often than not serves as a propaganda tool. The artist should only ever be beholden to their creative impulse, never to an outside agency with its own agenda.

Still, I also don’t think that we can expect the “masses” (who my former political science prof often referred to as “asses”) to suddenly have a change of heart and refuse to download anything without ponying up a royalty to the artist. One program I find appealing is Ireland’s Artists Tax Exemption. Rather than requiring artists to submit exhaustive applications and compete with their peers for a limited amount of earmarked funds — a process ripe with bias and the stifling of free speech and creativity — the program offers a simple blanket benefit to all artists who make money from their work. It’s not a perfect program: the government is still the final arbiter of what it considers “of cultural merit” and thus eligible for tax exemption. But it does strike me as an easier and more liberal means of supporting artists by removing or at least minimizing the burden of supporting oneself through one’s art. Like everyone else in society, the artist must still organize her paperwork and receipts to prepare for filing the appropriate returns, but at least she’s not enduring the soul-sucking business of filling out reams of grant applications, writing one more goddamn essay about why her work should be funded, and gathering reference letters and budget forecasts.

I’ve not spoken to Adam since I left the company in 2006, but I wonder what he thinks now, a decade later and 10 years older, about the state of the music industry. Folks wanting unlimited free music have never had it better — I listen to Spotify all day long and have never paid for it. But as a writer who works hard for every word and every page, I’m terrified of what the future holds for creatives who want and deserve to be paid for doing what they love and doing it well.

Amazon to pay Kindle authors only for pages read – Telegraph

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Amazon’s new system will cut the royalties for self-published authors who fail to hold a reader’s attention until the final page

via Amazon to pay Kindle authors only for pages read – Telegraph.

This is horrifying and a terrible precedent. Frankly, I don’t understand the position of author Kerry Wilkinson, who is quoted in the article as asking, “If readers give up on a title after half a dozen pages, why should the writer be paid in full?”

If I go to the emergency room with a heart attack and die on the operating table because the EMTs didn’t get me to the hospital in time, is my family still liable for the bill?

If I buy a dress but then take it altered to my favorite tailor because I think the hem should be 2″ shorter to truly flatter me, should I get a refund from the designer for whatever percentage of the dress I cut off?

If I book a flight to Paris, but then fall in love with someone while on layover in London and decide not to continue my journey, should I demand that the airline reimburse me for the percentage of the flight that I didn’t complete?

And yes, as Peter Maass is quoted as saying in the article: “I’d like the same in restaurants — pay for how much of a burger I eat.” Or a glass of wine I drink. Or if I walk out of a movie halfway through, I only want to pay half the bill. Or better, yet, hell, just give me all my money back.

Yes, it’s true that writers can “opt out” of the Kindle Select program, and frankly, it’s not that great a deal anyway since you’re essentially getting pennies so that someone can read it for free. But it sets a terrifying precedent to a future in which writers are mere commodities in the same way that education has become a commodity, valued only for what it can produce for in a free market.

I used to think that I wanted to live forever, but now I just want to die before it all goes to hell and writers will be mere content producers, not the scribes of an age.

Credit card sneaks

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It was inevitable, of course. I’ve enjoyed a 5.9% APR on my Fidelity MasterCard since I first got the thing about six years ago. When I called them a couple of years ago to ask them a question about the card, I made a point of telling the customer service representative that I really appreciated them maintaining that same low APR for so long, and he said something to the effect of, “Oh, as long as you keep paying on time and maintaining good credit, we won’t change the rate.”

Even back then, I knew that wasn’t necessarily true. You don’t have to read the fine print to know that APR’s are at the mercy of the issuing company, and that they could change them at any time. Every now and then, I would check the statements to see what the rate was, and each time I would smile and think, Good, they’re not changing it.
Well, that was a good ride while it lasted. I recently recieved one of those thick, official-looking envelopes in the mail from the company, and although I normally just glance over the contents to see if there was anything that required my immediate attention before tossing it in the shredder, this time I actually took the time to read the whole two-page document that accompanied the privacy manual and a couple of ad flyers.
In short my credit card company is now raising my APR as of June 1, 2009, to 11.99%. Still not a bad deal (my Wells Fargo VISA, which I only use once every few years, is a crazy 14.99%, and they refuse to lower it, even after I’ve asked and pointedly told them I would not use it until they do), but it’s still double what it has been. They also raised the APR on balance transfers and cash advances, as well as the late fees, although since I’m never late in my payment and I never do either transfers or cash advances, I didn’t pay attention to what the new terms are. And here’s the thing: the new rate applies to new purchases and existing balances.
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Here’s the interesting part, though: The notice also offered the option to reject the new APR, with a caveat. In order to reject the new rate, I had to call this number or send them a written notice. In addition — and here’s the kicker — I can’t use the card anymore, whether for purchases or balance transfers or even those automatic payments for things like subscription services. The moment I do, the new APR kicks in, applying not only to the new purchase but to all existing balances.
B. and I weighed the options and decided to reject the APR. We’ll pay off the current balance and then decide whether or not we want to continue using the card. One of the things I really like about the card is that I’ve had it for a long time, and along with the Wells Fargo VISA (which I’ve had for six years), it gives me a good credit record. I pay on time, and a couple of times I’ve paid the full balance off. (The VISA hasn’t had a balance in a couple of years.) They’ve always been pretty decent, especially with the APR, although occasionally they’ll play that awful trick of changing the due date, sometimes by as much as a week. That’s one of the reasons why I never do automatic payments for anything, even for utility bills. I like to be able to control when I pay bills, and since I keep a close eye on our outstanding bills and pay them weekly, I’m never late.
Another reason we like the card, of course, is that it allows us to get things like rental cars and hotel reservations worry-free. The card does have a rewards program, and right now we’re expecting a $350 check from it, but it’s not as good as, say, the American Express or Discover cash back programs.
We’ll probably look into other cards with lower interest rates, but for now I think we’ll just pay off the card and then use it only for things like the aforementioned travel expenses, paying the balances as soon as they incur so that the rate doesn’t kick in at all. I don’t like having too many credit cards — I have two, the MC and the VISA, while B. has one — and I loathe applying for more. Still, it might be a good idea to start shopping around once we pay this one off.
If you have a credit card with a low rate, or even a not-so-low rate, make sure that you start monitoring any correspondence you receive in the mail or electronically from the card issuer. It may come in a formal letter like mine did, or it may be buried in fine print among many other documents they send you, but with the Obama administration considering legislation that will impose restrictions on the ability of lenders to amend credit card terms, you can bet that banks are going to be scrambling to make changes now, before any new laws take effect. Even if you’ve been paying on time for the entire life of the card, and even if you’ve rarely used the card, definitely keep an eye on it. You might be in for a big surprise.

It's April 13th. Do you know where your W-2's are?

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I totally do not mean to sound smug at all, but I did my taxes way back in February. As in 2007 and 2008, I pretty much started doing my taxes almost as soon as all the W-2’s landed in my mailbox solely for one reason: I knew we had a big refund coming to us, and we needed that money badly. Badly. That will overcome an procrastination tendencies I may have to put off filing the return until, say, the evening of April 15th. I’ve done that nearly every year since I started doing my own taxes way back when.

Okay, I take it back. There is another reason why I do taxes early, and this will sound very geeky and goody-two-shoes: I actually like doing my taxes now. Seriously! Yes, I like seeing the refund amount increase and increase and increase as I plow through the different pages of my online Turbo Tax program, but honestly, I actually like sifting through my tax forms and working the numbers. Strange as it may seem for someone who didn’t do well in college statistics, but I actually love working with numbers now. I’m the CFO in my little family, the one who pays the bills and plays around with Quicken and balances the checkbook every couple of days. In a way, we pretty much have to be this diligent because of our limited income, but much to my shock I’ve found that I derive real, perverse pleasure in organizing our paperwork and working through the spreadsheets. I know, it’s weird, huh?

There’s a huge, huge amount of satisfaction in knowing exactly where we stand financially all the time, even if that actually means that we have, oh, $10 in the bank. (No, it’s not that bad, but there have been times in the past, I must admit. Talk about being creative.) Knowing that I have exactly $10.21 in the bank, however distressing that may be at times, is still infinitely better than the terrifying experience of constantly being in the dark, not knowing if I have enough money to cover a check I’ve written. I’ve been in that situation before. It’s not pleasant at all.

So yeah, we got our refund two months ago. It helped us tremendously with our moving expenses and in paying off one of two credit card balances. I’ll do it again next year, too, and begin filing as soon as we get our W-2’s and 1099’s. It’s amazing how easy it is to set up a tax system — I have a single file folder labeled TAXES [insert tax year here] in which I throw anything that I think will be useful and necessary when tax season comes in. Donation receipt from one of a handful of nonprofits that we support? It goes in there. (Not that we’ve ever had to use it, since we don’t itemize enough to surpass the standard deduction, but you never know.) Business-related receipts? It goes in there. (I tape all business receipts on to copy paper and put the latter into the folder. It’s infinitely better than shoving a thick sheaf of small, odd-sized receipts into the folder, where it will inevitably fall out.) Health care receipts for expenses we couldn’t deduct from our Flexible Spending Account? It goes in there.

This year will be a little different, depending on my job situation. If nothing of interest comes up, I may decide to continue freelancing and hope that I’ll be able to double my income, as I did in 2008. With the economy still very shaky (anyone else sick of hearing analysts trying to predict when we’ve “bottom?”), it’s not promising, but I’m nothing if not optimistic. Besides, who knows? Perhaps I’ll finally finish my novel and sell it for a million dollars to Random House, after which I option it to Steven Spielberg (call me, baby, it’s right up your alley!) for an equally jaw-dropping amount. Hey. If you’re gonna dream, you might as well dream big.

It’s April 13th. Do you know where your W-2’s are?

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I totally do not mean to sound smug at all, but I did my taxes way back in February. As in 2007 and 2008, I pretty much started doing my taxes almost as soon as all the W-2’s landed in my mailbox solely for one reason: I knew we had a big refund coming to us, and we needed that money badly. Badly. That will overcome an procrastination tendencies I may have to put off filing the return until, say, the evening of April 15th. I’ve done that nearly every year since I started doing my own taxes way back when.

Okay, I take it back. There is another reason why I do taxes early, and this will sound very geeky and goody-two-shoes: I actually like doing my taxes now. Seriously! Yes, I like seeing the refund amount increase and increase and increase as I plow through the different pages of my online Turbo Tax program, but honestly, I actually like sifting through my tax forms and working the numbers. Strange as it may seem for someone who didn’t do well in college statistics, but I actually love working with numbers now. I’m the CFO in my little family, the one who pays the bills and plays around with Quicken and balances the checkbook every couple of days. In a way, we pretty much have to be this diligent because of our limited income, but much to my shock I’ve found that I derive real, perverse pleasure in organizing our paperwork and working through the spreadsheets. I know, it’s weird, huh?

There’s a huge, huge amount of satisfaction in knowing exactly where we stand financially all the time, even if that actually means that we have, oh, $10 in the bank. (No, it’s not that bad, but there have been times in the past, I must admit. Talk about being creative.) Knowing that I have exactly $10.21 in the bank, however distressing that may be at times, is still infinitely better than the terrifying experience of constantly being in the dark, not knowing if I have enough money to cover a check I’ve written. I’ve been in that situation before. It’s not pleasant at all.

So yeah, we got our refund two months ago. It helped us tremendously with our moving expenses and in paying off one of two credit card balances. I’ll do it again next year, too, and begin filing as soon as we get our W-2’s and 1099’s. It’s amazing how easy it is to set up a tax system — I have a single file folder labeled TAXES [insert tax year here] in which I throw anything that I think will be useful and necessary when tax season comes in. Donation receipt from one of a handful of nonprofits that we support? It goes in there. (Not that we’ve ever had to use it, since we don’t itemize enough to surpass the standard deduction, but you never know.) Business-related receipts? It goes in there. (I tape all business receipts on to copy paper and put the latter into the folder. It’s infinitely better than shoving a thick sheaf of small, odd-sized receipts into the folder, where it will inevitably fall out.) Health care receipts for expenses we couldn’t deduct from our Flexible Spending Account? It goes in there.

This year will be a little different, depending on my job situation. If nothing of interest comes up, I may decide to continue freelancing and hope that I’ll be able to double my income, as I did in 2008. With the economy still very shaky (anyone else sick of hearing analysts trying to predict when we’ve “bottom?”), it’s not promising, but I’m nothing if not optimistic. Besides, who knows? Perhaps I’ll finally finish my novel and sell it for a million dollars to Random House, after which I option it to Steven Spielberg (call me, baby, it’s right up your alley!) for an equally jaw-dropping amount. Hey. If you’re gonna dream, you might as well dream big.

Get free government grants that you never have to pay back!

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Okay, now that I have your attention…

When I worked as a grants director for a women’s college, I would occasionally receive the odd request for funds from individuals. Inevitably, they were hand-written and stuffed into a colored envelope of some kind and smelled faintly of desperation. I think I received a handful a year, but they were memorable. There was one from a single mother who needed money to pay her bills. Another one was from a woman who needed money to help with everyday expenses, which had become untenable since she became the sole caregiver of her ailing elderly father. They were heartbreaking, even more so since there was really nothing I could do for them. After all, my job was solely to solicit grants from foundations, corporations and individuals for the college, not to disburse them to the public. If only.

One thing all the letters had in common was that they all mentioned that they found my contact information from the infamous Free Money Man himself, Matthew Lesko. You know the guy. (And no, I’m not linking to his Web site. I’m annoyed with him enough without throwing him any traffic.) He’s the one who wears those blazers with the question marks printed on them; he screams at the camera at the top of his lungs and tells you all about the “free money” that’s available from the government. Uh-huh. He basically repackages information anyone with a quarter of a brain can find themselves for free from government Web sites, and then charges a nice little fee for the privilege. He has plenty of critics and is frequently charged with broadcasting misleading advertising, but he’s still around and still taking suckers’ money.

I didn’t take the time to actually track down this book that my correspondents claimed had my information in it, but I had little doubt that it was true. Although my name and title were on the college Web site, few ordinary folks would have found me unless they were somehow associated with the college. I was appalled that Mr. Lesko would perpetuate his fraudulent practices by throwing my name into his book; surely he’s smart enough to figure out that a grant writer, especially one employed by a college, would not be in any position to give money away.

Anyway, I mention this now because I’m seeing lots and lots more people heading to the Web and seeking the “free money” scam that Mr. Lesko continues to hawk. One of my former clients is actually a young small businessman who wanted grant money to buy a farm. We had a lengthy meeting whereby I took as many notes as I could about his background, finances, etc., but cautioned him multiple times that there were likely few, if any, sources of government or private funds for land purchases. I didn’t have much experience in the area at the time, although my background in grant writing did give me enough confidence to let him know that I thought our search would likely prove futile.

He didn’t care and remained optimistic. I offered him two hours of basic research to see if his idea was viable, after which we could talk about the next step, which would have been crafting a bare-bones proposal draft. He paid me 75% of the work in advance and in cash (although I’d only requested 50%), and I went to work.

As I had predicted, no “free funds” were available for what he wanted. I dug deep into the sites of the US Department of Agriculture, the Colorado Ag dept, a few foundations, the Farm Bureau, and talked with folks from organizations such as the Future Farmers of America. My conclusion dovetailed with what I had initially predicted: unless my client had a very, very specific and research-oriented reason for buying a farm (in which case the USDA does have some grants), his only option would be to take out a low-interest loan from a lender that specializes in rural development loans, of which there are actually quite a few here in Colorado.

I wrote up my report and sent it to my client. I actually spent 2.5 hours on the project rather than the initial 2 that I had quoted, but I threw in the extra half-hour for free because a) it was an educational experience for me, and b) I liked the guy. He has a wife and little kids and really wanted to have his own farm. He had great ideas for it, and I had no doubt that he would succeed.

Of course, you could probably guess how this ended. I never heard from the client again, and I never got the remaining 25% that he still owes me. Oh well.

I suspect that he’s still out there, still believing in the hype that free money does exist, still trying to find a grant writer who would find him that elusive pot of government gold. I see variations of him on Craigslist and other job sites I haunt, folks seeking grant money because “I’m a woman” or because they “want to raise funds for my company to get off the ground” or because they need money to “pay my bills” or — and here’s a really popular one — because they have a “great idea.” I suspect that few, if any of these folks want to even consider a loan — possibly because they’re not eligible, especially in these days of tightening credit — so they fish the Web for some cheap writer to find that free money for them.

Many promise fees to the writer of over $25,000, although most wouldn’t pay more than a couple of hundred dollars, if they pay at all. Forget about the fact that writing grant proposals is a professional service that often requires hours of time at a rate upwards of $50-200 an hour. These poor souls have fallen under the Lesko Spell, the kind that seems to especially attract the gullible, the desperate, the lazy, and/or the greedy.

Folks, please get this straight: THERE IS NO FREE MONEY OUT THERE. Sure, there are plenty of grants from all levels of government (federal, state, local, tribal), but generally they’re scholarships for students, and more often than not they’re very specific in their requirements, e.g., you have to be a particular ethnic minority, go to a particular school, study a particular subject, have a parent who’s employed with a particular agency, maintain a high GPA, etc. If by some chance you are eligible and that’s what you’re looking for, you still have to apply for it — the government is likely not going to just hand it over to you. However, know this: if you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re definitely smart enough to find these grants yourself and fill out the applications without hiring someone like Matthew Lesko to do it for you.

There is no “free money” for individuals looking to buy a home.

There is no “free money” to help you start a small business.

There is no “free money” to help you pay your bills.

There is no “free money” to help you with your health care costs.

Repeat after me: There is no “free money.” There is no “free money.” There is no “free money.”

What does exist are: programs for desperate homeowners to refinance or renegotiate their mortgage payments; small business loans to qualified folks with a solid business plan; food stamps, energy rebates and other government entitlement programs for low-income Americans; and Medicaid and extension of COBRA eligibility for people needing health insurance. Many of these provisions are in the new stimulus package recently passed by Congress, which also includes plenty of tax credits for both businesses and individuals.

In other words, there is money out there, but none of it can technically be called “free,” with the possible exception of food stamps, but I doubt that these are what people have in mind when they start hunting down proposal writers.

It actually makes sense that the myth of “free money” remains just that: a myth. There’s a reason why foundations don’t simply distribute checks to outstretched hands. Grant proposals are complicated beasts, requiring not only the basic information about the potential recipient but also a damn good reason why they should hand out their funds. Donors want to know that their money is going towards a greater good, that their hard-earned cash is going to a project that will serve the greatest number of people. They want to give $1,000 or $100,000 or $1,000,000 to a program that will change a community, a country, the world, not to a single person or a group of people with more limited needs. They want to know that their money will outlast them, that they will create something that will make a difference. Imagine if UNICEF just handed out checks to all the people in Africa or Asia or South America rather than create programs that will expand education access to all children or train women to start their own microenterprises or ensure potable drinking water for a village. With very few exceptions, grant money operates on this classic principle: Give a man fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and he’ll eat for life.

So please, if you’re thinking about maybe hiring your own proposal writer for $100 or so to help you land that “free money,” save your cash. First of all, really good proposal writers — the kind who can put together a viable proposal that may actually stand a chance of attracting funds, not the kind who will just slap together a rambling essay about why you deserve this money — are generally a kind and generous bunch, but we need to eat and pay our own bills, too, so we’ll need to charge more than a pittance for the work. Many of us will do pro bono work, but usually only for nonprofits with which they’ve worked/volunteered in the past.

And second? There is no “free money.”

To outsource or not to outsource

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Recently I had a conversation with two people at two separate times about my decision to outsource my transcription jobs to a contract worker in the Philippines via Elance. My new contractor has been nothing but prompt, professional, and efficient, and if she makes a few mistakes in transcribing, then she’s still a great, great bargain compared to what I would ordinarily pay a transcriber based here in the United States.

The first person I spoke with is actually an editor with whom I’ve worked extensively in the past. She understood completely what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. She’s a small biz person herself, as a publisher of a fledgling glossy magazine that was only launched in the past year. As the publisher and a former writer/editor herself, she wears a number of hats in her organization — co-editor with another person, business manager, advertising representative, distribution manager, etc. — but has yet to pay herself a salary. The magazine — a well-received, much-lauded publication — was launched at what may have been possibly the worst time, with the economy zooming into a downward spiral, magazines and newspapers all over the country shuttering their doors and her biggest advertiser closing up shop just two months after the inaugural issue. In other words, even with the accolades, she’s struggling.

Still, she has a lot going for her. The magazine doesn’t have a central office, just a P.O Box and a staff of half a dozen or so who work from their homes. Since the town in which they operate is rather small, and they’ve all known each other for decades, they’re a smoothly run operation and can get together within minutes from wherever they are. They run a very tight ship, and while they don’t pay writers a lot, they do at least pay separately for photography, so an enterprising scribe with a basic understanding of how a camera works and how to compose a good shot can make more money submitting photos to accompany her article than for the article itself — and for a lot less work! (Yes, I’ve done that several times, and it’s fantastic.)

But even with such efficiency, she’s still a small business owner struggling in an economic climate, and she completely sympathizes with my need to outsource this tedious job to a relatively low-wage worker overseas. I don’t pay quarterly taxes — yet! — because I file a Schedule C along with my husband’s full-time salary, and it always comes out to a hefty refund for us. However, my accounting software does let me know in no uncertain terms what my estimated quarterly taxes would be, based solely on my business’ revenue and if I weren’t combining it with B.’s salary. And as someone who almost made it to five-figures last year, I can tell you that it wasn’t a pretty number. If I remember correctly, I was looking at an almost 40% tax bite.

Woof.

I have no problems paying taxes at all. I understand that it’s patriotic to do so, that we wouldn’t have all these great services and privileges we Americans enjoy if the federal and state governments didn’t have the ability to pay for it. On the other hand, it’s also discouraging to have the government pay lip-service to small businesses — supposedly the “engine” of our economy and the last great hope we have of pulling ourselves out of this recession — while at the same time extracting huge chunks of our already tiny revenue.

Now do you see why I seek every means possible of lowering my expenses, even at the cost of outsourcing to a deserving, but more expensive fellow American? If I were to do that, considering the relatively low pay many publications are now offering, I wouldn’t even break even, let alone make even the tiniest profit.

You see, the second — albeit brief — conversation I had regarding my outsourcing was with, you guessed it, a professional transcriptionist based right here in the good ol’ USA. Now, granted, I actually don’t know how much she charges. Based on what I’ve been quoted in the past, though, I’m probably looking at at least $40-$45 per recorded hour, and possibly even more. I’ve seen rates upwards of $80-100 per recorded hour. A couple of virtual assistants have asked for $45 per hour of transcribing, so if she took two hours or more to transcribe a one-hour audio file, I could be looking at $90+.

Yikes. Some of my assigned articles that require interviews are for under $100. A few are $50-75. At that rate, I might as well save myself the money and do the transcribing myself. Otherwise, I would have just spent 50-100% of my income just on the transcription.

I would love to give the job to a fellow American worker. But considering the tax rates and the relatively low pay many publications offer their writers, it’s just not feasible. Perhaps in the future, when I can command $4/word assignments from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Right now, though, I’m on a very thin shoestring budget. The bottom line is that I have to think about my own business before I can think about anyone else’s. It’s just the nature of the beast. And for now, Elance it is.

Take control of something, i.e., your business

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One of my favorite writing mentors, Angela Hoy (she of WritersWeekly.com fame), wrote an exasperated intro to this week’s newsletter. Dear Angela is apparently inundated with query letters proposing articles around the subject of “How To Survive the Economy.”

I agree with her insistence that the recession shouldn’t be used as an excuse for freelance writers to throw up their hands and surrender to the relentlessly depressing news no CNBC. (Not that there’s anything wrong with CNBC. It’s an oddly invigorating network to watch first thing in the morning, with or without coffee.) I’ve found that I’m actually making more money from one particular publication I’ve worked with in the past. They’ve let go of a number of staffers and are now relying more on freelancers, and since I’ve been one of their most reliable ones, I’m at the top of their list of go-to folks for when they need a piece.

I’m worried about the economy myself, and even more so whenever I open up the employment ads in the newspaper and notice…nothing. The Free Press actually had just two job listings just the other day. If my freelancing collapses altogether (God forbid), I don’t have the luxury of falling back into a 9-5 cube job to take up the slack, as I did even just last year. Two years ago I sent my resume to a local company and received a request for an interview within two hours. Obviously, times have changed.

Still, I refuse to be worried. I’ve been accused of being too optimistic in the past, but I think this is a case where I just can’t worry about things I can’t control, i.e., the overall economy. I can, however, work on things that are under my control, including my business. I’ve several business ideas I want to roll out and try over the next six months, and while I may have to do some old-fashioned bootstrapping in order to do many of them, that’s okay with me. I have one eye firmly fixed on the post-recession era, when people will be breathing easier and are looking for businesses to meet their pent-up demands for services and information. It may take awhile to get there (I’ve heard estimates of anywhere from a year to five from analysts trying to predict when the economy will finally hit bottom and start its long, slow climb back up again.), but I’ll use that time to my advantage and really work on the business so that I’ll be ready.

Knowing your worth in the freelance marketplace

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I came across a job posting online the other day that sounded mighty tempting. Steady work, potential for a large readership, and a subject that I’m passionate about. Even the ad itself looking promising, in that it was actually well-written and spell-checked within an inch of its life.

I passed on it, however, although I did have to think about it. I recently made the very difficult but necessary decision to only take on assignments that offer decent pay. Now, what I consider “decent pay” may be different from what, say, David Brooks might consider “decent pay,” but since I’m a full-time, professional writer/editor with tons of clips and paid assignments to my name, it’s about time I said No to the low-paying gigs that barely cover a tall latte at my local coffee shop. Time was when that was necessary in order to get clips for my portfolio, although even then I only sought article assignments that paid even $10-$15. (My first paid piece was a short story for an online site that netted me $15. This was back when Web sites that published fiction flourished on the Web and actually paid their writers. I still have that uncashed check, too!)

Now, however, with over a hundred articles and features and an equal number of columns to my name, it’s ridiculous to continue seeking penny-ante assignments with little or no hope of future revenue increases. At this point in my career, my time is way more valuable than $15 for a day’s worth of work, so I might as well command what I’m worth. Or at least, what I’m worth now as opposed to what I was worth a month or a year ago. Next year, I’m sure my threshold will be even higher. So get your bargain writer now!