As luck would have it, we’ve sent out a call for people to blog at Overland just as a controversy has developed over the ABC Book Show doing more-or-less the same thing. The arts industry’s reliance upon free labour is a fraught issue; what follows is an attempt to think the implications of what we’re doing at Overland and why.
Historically, Overland has always depended upon a huge amount of volunteer labour. In its early years, the contributors weren’t paid and the original editor, Stephen Murray-Smith, subsidised the journal through his own efforts. Since then, Overland, like other journals, has gone through a certain amount of professionalisation, with grants from various funding bodies covering salaries for some editorial and administrative staff, alongside payments for authors.
Nonetheless, Overland remains a not-for-profit organisation in perpetually perilous economic straits. Today, as in the past, the magazine only comes out because of the paid staff work beyond their hours – and because many other people – from poetry editors to fiction readers – don’t get paid at all.
Is this problematic? Yes, of course it is! Oz Lit in general – and the small press sector in particular – is awash with volunteerism, generally (though not always) hidden under the American practice of ‘internships’. Every literary festival marshals an army of unpaid labour to work behind the scenes; almost no literary journal pays writers at award rates.
By-and-large, however, that situation has always been beyond our control. We simply haven’t had the budget to pay everyone whose work we’ve relied upon: the copyeditors, the proofreaders, the folks who helped with the events, those who culled the fiction pile, etc. But, rather the abandoning the project, we’ve tried to make volunteering as meaningful as possible to those who do it. ‘Mentoring’ is a pretentious term but that’s been the basic idea – and, really, I don’t see how else an organisation of our resources can behave other than to provide non-monetary compensation in the form of experience, training and so on.
The shift online has only made matters worse, adding a fresh array of responsibilities without an equivalent increase in resources. So is it wrong to ask people to blog without payment? Well, it’s certainly not ideal but, short of a massive increase in funding (and to date the funding bodies have been reluctant to provide money in that area), it’s the only basis on which a group blog like this can function. As it happens, we’ve been running this site for some time now – and we’ve never been able to pay the contributors.
You could argue that we’re trying to have our cake and eat it, too; that, if we can’t pay participants, then our current plan – basically, to attract more bloggers from outside Melbourne, and from regional areas – shouldn’t proceed. Maybe that’s right, and I’m certainly open to argument on the point. But I’d hoped we’d be able to do it in such a way that participants found the experience worthwhile, not only because they were helping build the Overland project but because it proved useful for their own writing.
Anyway, I’m interested in other people’s responses.