Pay the Writer – yes, but how?

Yesterday, a piece from The Lifted Brow called ‘Pay the Writers’, by Clem Bastow, came up on my facebook feed. It reflects on a recent ‘pay the writers’ forum held in Melbourne on July 30. ‘Pay the writers’ is a recurring debate among Australian cultural circles – and a topic I often see coming up on my social media feeds. Yet every time, I feel highly dissatisfied by the framing of the question. For some reason, I saw this piece as an opportunity to reflect on the topic – and maybe contribute my own foreign views to seek a way forward.

Clem Bastow’s point is very simple on the surface: there is an exploitative system in place whereby editors of commercial publications receive free content from writers, thereby undermining the whole industry. Writing is work and should be remunerated. Writers should unite, and refuse to work for unethical publications who do not pay them – these publications will see their quality drop, their readership will drop as a result, and eventually, they will have to change their practice, or die.

There is, however, a subtle confusion running through the piece. Clem Bastow works as a journalist, and argues about journalistic practices – yet the post opens with a picture of Pasternak, holding his brow, toiling no doubt on the draft of his masterpiece.

People come to writing with a dream. The shape of the dream is unclear – it’s a mushy mix of J.K. Rowling’s billion, communion with a kindred soul on the page, leading the masses towards an enlightened future – or positive revolutionary change – through the sheer power of words, and a name that lives for ever among the literary Pantheon. ‘Was bleibet aber, stiften die Dichter’, as Hölderlin said, and the desire to be part of ‘weaving what remains’ is no doubt a large motivation in our desire to become writers.

In one of Balzac’s most profound novels, ‘Lost Illusions’, heart-throb Lucien de Rubempre comes up to the capital from provincial Angouleme, seeking literary fame. He settles first in a modest garret, toiling on a complex tale of Medieval glory, supported by a group of lofty minds. But soon, he falls into the trap of glamour, and becomes an opinion journalist. This is a step down from noble ambition to the lure of the capitalist world – and signals the beginning of his descent towards ultimate self-destruction.

Clem bastow’s piece does acknowledge this confusion. Whether a non-profit magazine should offer a token fee to poets is a different issue from whether a commercial outlet should pay its editors, while writers provide content for free. However, the slogan ‘pay the writers’ maintains confusion, and – I believe – prevents us from thinking clearly. What follows is an attempt at clarifying the terms of the debate, in the hope that it may lead to better recognition – and material rewards – for our writers.

Let’s examine the structure of the writing economy first. It’s a very common argument in all ‘pay the writer’ set pieces that we wouldn’t expect a lawyer or doctor to work for free – that we wouldn’t just pick up a loaf of bread – and so why are writers’ services expected to free of charge, why is nobody willing to pay for writing anymore? But that argument confuses perspectives. Having grown up in enlightened France, I still expect medical care to be free. I run a non-profit organization, and received a fair bit of legal advice for free. I expect other people’s children to receive education for free. My hopes are not entirely utopian, and I count myself lucky to live in a society that believes in the benefits of cross-subsidy, and offers ‘free’ services and goods to certain people.

Writing is not like bread either, and not only because one is art, and the other isn’t – that’s not an argument for a Frenchman. Producing a news report, a blog post, an essay, or a short story, does require effort; most quality writing only comes after years of practice: true. But once a piece of writing is produced, the cost of reproducing it and sharing it with more readers is negligible, whereas a loaf of bread can only feed so many stomachs before you need another loaf of bread. Whatever time I spend with a doctor, they’re not looking after somebody else’s ailment. Millions can read a piece simultaneously online: until the trolls appear, this does not make any further request on the writer’s time or energy. Just because we can does not mean we should, but let’s acknowledge this basic fact: writing is a particular type of commodity, that can be multiplied at no extra cost.

Although many writers don’t get paid, some do, and four main models are in place to pay them.

Papers and magazines pay writers a set price for a piece, typically based on the number of words, or rough length. In exchange, they receive an exclusive license to circulate the piece, granted for a certain period of time, or in perpetuity. These outlets derive money from two sources – advertisement, and sales – and part of a magazine editors’ task is strike a balance between advertisement and sales, through right pricing and space allocation. But this is not for the writer to look into – they submit their piece, and start working on the next one – though circulating it on social media will be much appreciated thank you.

Book publishers have a very different model. Publishers absorb the risk of financial losses on the production and marketing costs of a book – in exchange, authors guarantee them an exclusive right to the content, and an exclusive opportunity to derive profit from its circulation. Authors are typically paid on a percentage basis – with an advance for the famous or lucky ones among them. Money comes from book sales, adaptation rights and derived products. If the book sells, the cost of producing new copies is very low, and profits increase significantly for publishers – but authors benefit in proportion.

This proportionate model, and the prospect of high returns, may be the dark hidden side of our pay-the-writers debate. Most writers are underpaid and exploited, no doubt. However, there is a chance, minute as it is, to make enormous amounts of money from writing. Surprisingly, this is rarely mentioned in any ‘pay the writer’ discussions. The greedy publisher is a regular villain – but what about J.K. Rollings, Stephen King or Danielle Steele? We growl at the disproportionate salaries of footballers and CEOs – what about writer-superstars? Young writers are happy to write for ‘exposure’ out of sheer vanity, that’s very likely, but they may also nourish a vague hope to strike it rich one day. That free copy for a digital online outlet may bring them one step closer to best-seller status – and they’re willing to take the chance. Should we blame them for the gamble? Not until we solve the question of benefit allocation among writers.

This, however, is not the full picture yet. Writers have other sources of income. Some of it is minor perks and in-kind benefits – free tickets and cocktail invitations, speaking gigs and workshop opportunities. The perks obviously don’t equal corporate cars, gym memberships, or consulting opportunities, but they exist, and add a very thin layer of oil to writers’ low salaries. Let’s not talk about social recognition too much, but an underpaid writer might have better status than, say, an underpaid cleaner.

More importantly, writing is a subsidized industry, with money trickling down from government, industry bodies and other philanthropic organisations that support literature and the arts. For better or worse, subsidies distort industry – and some writers’ personal condition will depend on whether they can access subsidies, directly, or through their publishers. With digital technology, writers could bypass institutions altogether. I wrote a number of blogs, and received ten of thousands of visits on them. I also published a short novel and a few short stories in France, with a publisher called Editions Gaies et Lesbiennes. I received a meager 10% of the sales to less than3000 readers, way fewer than saw my online writing. Yet this qualifies me for government and arts funding reserved to ‘professional writers’. The prospect of a professional publication is alluring, as it opens doors for subsidies – and this may constitute an additional incentive to do ‘free work’, if it can lead to a proper publication.

Beside, we often hear that writers don’t get paid – but I would question the truth of the statement. If we define the profession as ‘people whose chief activity consists in producing written material for a specific audience and in a specific genre’, I think most writers actually get paid – if not always very well – yet for some reason, cannot claim a ‘writer’s’ badge. When I worked in government, we sometimes out-sourced proof-reading and copy-editing to a professional writer, who was paid around ninety dollars an hour. I produced a number of drafts, in consultation with people in the department, and I was paid a reasonable salary for that. People around me, within the policy group, spent most of their day writing letters and briefs to the minister, replies to the public, policy proposals, reports, or even press releases, and all were paid a decent salary to pursue this writing task. Teachers who develop curriculums or text books are paid to write. Academics who produce articles for peer-reviewed journals and papers for conferences are paid to write. And the myriads of administrators who generate records, emails, meeting minutes and project planning notes, are paid to write. I’m not saying those professions aren’t inherently problematic – but these jobs are about ‘writing’, and typically come with payment.

Why even try to work as a full-time writer then? Serious literary work is compatible with holding a two-to-three-days-a-week job. Didn’t Christos Tsolkias, one of Australia’s most celebrated novelists, work as a part-time veterinary nurse until recently. This didn’t stop him from writing a number of high quality novels. The question, I believe, is one worth asking: why would anyone choose to be a professional full-time writer? Unless, that is, they were offered a proper full-time role with a newspaper (some of those remain, for the moment at least), or unless they were affected by some sort of masochistic writing compulsion?

There is a corollary question, however, which we must ask for good measure: are alternatives available? Quality writing is compatible with some part-time roles. But can writers get these positions? Or do writers miss out on suitable opportunities, because atypical career paths scare recruiters, or worse, their pursuit of a side activity makes them very suspicious to prospective employers. If that was the case, however – as I suspect it may be – then rather than focus on getting a few meager extra crumbs from emerging digital publications – shouldn’t we lobby governments and HR groups instead? Advocate for access to well-paid, part-time jobs compatible with writing. Or hack the system as individuals, use our writing skills to generate killing answers to key selection criteria?

I can hear the retort: not only should writers be paid because they work and others benefit – writers should be paid because they produce a common good: a more enlightened, reflective – or simply joyful – population; a more connected community; stories that weave us together, and delight. Writers are the unacknowledged and unpaid educators of the country. This may be the truth, again, but if that is the case – if writers do produce a common good – and if that common good can circulate on the internet for free, maximising the benefits to the people – then rather than pestering publishers to share meagre profits, and plan pay-walls to reap more benefits, should we not lobby government and philanthropic bodies for more subsidies, in some form or other. And if allocating a bigger share of public money to culture and education is not politically feasible right now, could we maybe discuss the millions handed over to ballets and opera? Writing is a cheap form of art, after all, and proper arts funding for writers could nourish a rich ecosystem.

We should certainly not write for unethical publications. But whether writers get paid may not be the best standard of ethics for a magazine. Does a given publication commission and publish writing that increases readers’ sense of freedom and well being? Does it encourage you to embrace complexity with confidence? Does it offer genuinely diverse perspectives? Or does if leave you frustrated, alienated to corporate interests, addicted to click-bait, celebrity gossip and ten-best lists? This I would consider a more important standard. And if economic pressures are such that only the sons (and a few rare daughters) of privilege and wealth have a chance to circulate their writing and influence opinion – then again, what we should demand is targeted funding for diversity.

Writers need a roof, and food on the table – writers make a considerable contribution to society – and writers are often underpaid: all this is true. But if we want this to change, I believe our first step has to be clarity. Let’s stop shouting a vague and angry ‘pay the writers’, and let’s start articulating the current situation in sharp terms, and with proper framing. Then, maybe, we will get traction.

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