Recently, my younger brother clued me into the Amtrak Residency for writers, a program that has been celebrated in social media. Successful applicants will ride the rails for free, in a room of one’s own (bed, desk, and window), on a route of Amtrak’s choosing. Having traveled in a roomette from Boston to Denver in 2012 (an adventure I chronicled here and here), thanks to the largesse of this same brother, I considered applying. While aware that the railroad has the final say in assigning a route, I imagined a round-trip from Denver to California, with a wide variety of scenery to amaze, soothe and inspire.
When someone posted the application on Facebook, I clicked on it. As applications go, it seemed suspiciously simple. For two questions (Why do you want the residency? How would it benefit your writing?), the answer had to be 1,000 characters or fewer. Not words, characters. That’s the equivalent of 7.14 Tweets. Other than that, an applicant needs to provide a writing sample of up to 10 pages, along with their name, e-mail and Twitter handle, as “the quality and quantity of Entrant’s social media connections and activity, including the extensiveness of Entrant’s social community” will be considered by the judges. There is more fine print which, I’m imagining, not every applicant will either read or take to heart. Part of it says:
“Grant of Rights: In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties….
“For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.)”
You can read all of the official terms here.
In other words, in exchange for offering up to 24 writers a free trip on Amtrak, the company can free ride on the hard work and creativity of possibly hundreds if not thousands of applicants, using their work for financial gain without attribution or compensation. It’s one thing for Amtrak to request that the selected winners write an article or blog post about their experiences, compose Tweets along the way, or otherwise be an “effective spokesperson/endorser of Sponsor’s Amtrak brand”. That’s reasonable. But plundering applications for potential marketing gold smacks of desperation and desecration of the idea of a residency. Does Amtrak want writers who value their work, and therefore refuse to give it away, to apply? Or is this “residency” (more aptly called a contest) just a very cool sounding, inexpensive method for financially strapped Amtrak to get marketing copy from the Twitterati? The approximate value of each trip Amtrak will offer is $900, for a maximum of $21,600 out of Amtrak’s pocket which, in many cities, is less than an entry level advertising or public relations salary, an amount that’s but a mosquito on Amtrak’s elephant of a budget (revenues of nearly $3 billion). This program is certainly a good deal for the railroad, which will receive badly needed PR from talented writers at less than the market price. And while it’s true that this so-called residency does not have an application fee, it does come at a cost. It’s not one I am willing to bear.