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blogging, payment, the ABC and Overland

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.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. I have two thoughts on this issue (so far, more will no doubt come).

    One: If you think that you should be paid with money for undertaking a particular task that isn’t going to pay you, don’t do it. No one’s making you do anything.

    Two: How wonderful that we are able to contribute so extensively and with complete freedom of speech to a range of subjects too numerous to mention, on a platform that exposes you and your ideas and beliefs to thousands and thousands of people with an open and ongoing invitation to others to do the same, without reservation.

    Rewards don’t just come in dollars and cents. If that was true, none of us would be here. And that’s the truth.

  2. I think the rationale for not paying bloggers is quite reasonable, and as you said, largely out of your control.

    I think the situation with the ABC is different as it is much closer to funding from the state. The demand really should be more funding for the arts. And I guess we always make this token call for my funding but I feel like it’s made with little urgency. I suppose it isn’t urgent from the editors as they’re already paid. But we need to make these calls stronger and more real, rather than be consigned to lack of funding and the need to write for free.

  3. It is a bit of a slippery slope. I think that broadening the outlook of Overland by using people from outside Melbourne is a good thing. Asking someone to blog weekly for no pay seems a bit much. I think it would be much more reasonable if it was the occasional ‘guest’ blog. That way you could extend the blogs to many bloggers all over Australia. Otherwise we may end up getting just a blogger from another large city.

  4. I think this is unfortunate timing.

    I don’t get paid for writing on this blog and I’ve done it for over a year. Yes, I wish I got paid to write it, and every once and I while I have a whinge about it and try to convince Jeff to put me on the payroll but ultimately it’s like any volunteer work – if you don’t want to do it, don’t.

    Beside obvious funding considerations, Overland is specifically asking for emerging writers. This means people applying will probably not otherwise be able to make money from the stuff that they post here, and are probably finding it hard to get any exposure at all. I made a business decision not to post non-fiction or journalism here because every time I do it will cost me about $100 in foregone freelance fees. Other bloggers just need to think about how best to work this opportunity.

    If you were able to pay, more established writers would apply, crowding out opportunities for writers at an earlier stage in their career.

    Blogging for Overland for the last 14 months has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me (apart from the hate emails, that is). It’s raised my profile enormously. Most of the poems in my forthcoming poetry collection were first published here.

    Overland has at least as much, if not more to lose from this venture, in both monetary and reputation terms, than emerging writers who may apply. You are saying “Here, we have no idea whether you can do this job, but we will lend you our readership, help yourself to our branding and reputation, the one we’ve built up over fifty years…”

    I’d say it’s a pretty even deal.
    Of course we all want to be paid, but saying “no money, no writing” is clearly completely unrealistic in this industry.

    Why look at a gifthorse and call it a lame donkey?

  5. There are valid points on both side of the argument. Having bloggers from all states is a great idea. Asking them to blog once a week for free is a bit much. If it was paid it would be different. But honestly Jeff, I think you’ll have enough content without imposing such a rule. Once a fortnight is more realistic.

    As an emerging writer, the opportunity to blog for Overland has been enormous and I am grateful to Jeff for allowing me to do so. I can feel my writing improving, and I’m learning so much more about politics while at the same time getting my name out there. Having the power to log into Overland and broadcast my opinions Australia wide is so rewarding.

    Lisa’s argument about blogging not being considered a legitimate form of writing is very strong. When I write up a piece for Overland I have to do research. It takes time. But I refuse to blog more than once a fortnight or spend more than five hours on a blog piece because I don’t get paid. It isn’t about the money because even if I got paid it wouldn’t be much, it’s more about my writing being recognised and ‘work’ and not merely a hobby.

    To me, what the ABC and Overland are essentially telling me is that all the emerging writers should write online, and all the established writers should write for print. Jeff, is this the road you want to take, the example you want to set? If so, then go for it. But remember that Overland is an important part of the publishing world in Australia and other publication WILL follow your lead. However, if you think that the way forward is that high quality content should be online and print should be cut back, then Overland and ABC are setting the wrong example. Since everything is supposedly moving online, maybe Overland could pay its print contributors say, 10% less and give that to their bloggers, thereby legitimising blogging and making some sort of step or statement about publishing and its future.

    Basically, Jeff, I am more than happy to blog for free for you but just think about the bigger picture and you’ll figure out what to do.

  6. i’m a full-time writer, and i have a policy on writing for free. i’m at overland because i like being a part of the community/discussion. i don’t blog once a week, because i don’t have time. i don’t generally post longer stuff here unless it’s cross-posted from my blog, so i’m not working too much.

    policy is roughly:

    indie publications i really like get some of my work for free.

    i accept low pay from middle-range online publications that offer a good platform, like new matilda.

    i have a sliding scale for freelance work.

    there is a lot of ‘youthsploitation’ in the media and wringing free content out of emerging writers is just getting easier. realistically we all have to go through it. i find i am doing less and less work for free, just as i am spending less time chasing work the more it chases me.

    did we have any labour rights before new media? i would like to be paid properly to write novels. but that is probably a pipe dream. so i am rapidly developing grant dependency and learning to market myself.

    It could be worse. Look at the SMH and Age – half their stories come from f***book now. The journalist is dead, long live the blogger? i’d rather be reading awesome blogs than advertising.

  7. Jenjen, I agree with what you’re saying. I see myself primarily a novel writer and because of this, blogging is secondary for me. I limit how much time I write for Overland because I have a novel to write and I am a mother and I go to school. It isn’t as black and white as getting paid or not getting paid. It’s more frustrating that as an emerging writer it’s so hard TO get paid. But we all have to do the hard yards to get ahead. I also write for Overland because it is like a community and one that inspires change. I think people that are passionate about Overland and what it stands for will write for it regardless of whether or not they get paid(Me).

    But, I was thinking more about what blogging represents in publishing and the way forward for publishing in the future. How do we see blogs five years from now and what kind of content do we want to be reading online? Do we want online content to be mostly emerging writers? Maxine raised an interesting point about Overland’s reputation and name. I think people read Overland to find out what is happening outside mainstream media, to get an informed opinion from someone experienced? that really knows their stuff? By having only emerging writers blog for Overland will they be losing that? Maybe a mix would be better?

  8. Yeah, the more I think about it, the more the ‘once a week’ stipulation seems unreasonable. Was just a number pulled out of the air, really, but probably is too onerous.
    Ta for the feedback on this stuff. I do appreciate it. Like, we are all entering a new world with online publication and exactly how it’s gonna work is far from clear, and so I expect we all have to fuck up a few things along the way.
    For myself, I do a fair amount of blogging (and other social media) outside the time I officially allocate to Overland, mostly, I guess, cos I want this forum to work, but also cos blogging is a bit like thinking aloud. It’s a good chance to work stuff out, to try out ideas, and so on, in the knowledge that there’s an interesting group of commenters who will respond.
    But like Jen and Maxine, I’m aware that writing for a blog is also time stolen from writing from other forums. So it’s always something of a balance.
    As for Koraly’s point about transitioning from print to online, it’s an interesting issue but quite a complex one. Clearly, the online environment will become more and more important to all journals but exactly what an online literary journal looks like is still far from clear. When you think about it, in some respects, a blog and a traditional journal could not be more different. I mean, as it stands now, Overland is a quarterly. It’s all about spending a long time working on each essay or story to get it as good as possible before unleashing it on the world. The flipside is that, by definition, a quarterly is never current.
    A blog, by contrast, is all about topicality. But, for all the reasons raised above, most of us don’t have a great deal of time to spend on blog posts: mine are (as you’ve probably noted) pretty stream-of-consciousness.
    So the relationship between a blog and a lit journal is quite a complicated one since, in some ways, they’re trying to do very different things. Which, I guess, brings me back to my initial point: it’s all a work in progress, and there will be more stumbles before anyone sorts it all out.

  9. yep, agreed – more experiments, more discussion.

    writers and journals do have different interests, and our workplaces are changing fast. as we get more established as writers we do have a responsibility to help others avoid exploitation. know your rights, as they say. it’s up to us not to come out of this with no rights at all.

    in line with overland’s democratic mission, it’s good to be able to have these conversations here.

  10. Jeff, it’s great that you are so open minded about this. It’s a scary time ahead for writers and publishers and this kind of discussion is healthy. I agree that blogging and a journal are different, and they may stay different well into the future.

  11. Hmmm. As Zoe said, “Rewards don’t just come in dollars and cents. If that was true, none of us would be here. And that’s the truth.”
    Indeed. However it’s tedious seeing even a bright person like Jeff with his experience of blogging trotting out this tired old chestnut about blogwriting being ‘stream of consciousness’ stuff for which, ergo, he should not have to raid the journal’s coffers.
    This kind of reasoning is too close to becoming disingenuous for comfort – this is not about cake, it is about value.

    You should not admit to such thoughts, dear Jeffrey. Far better to find an excellent piece of blogwriting (they do exist) and republish it for the appropriate remuneration in the journal (as HEAT and Walleah Press have done on several occasions.) I would also suggest if you must have free content from bloggers, do the Meanjin thing and have guest posts when and where you see them – do some serious online reading and filtering. That costs too, but not as much as paying for posts.

    And as every blogger knows, there is of course another way for bloggers to contribute to the ‘Overland project’, and that’s by being part of the conversation – responding to well written, engaging blog content here by commenting, and maybe even linking to it or tweeting it further abroad. No one needs to be paid to do that, either. But we won’t do it unless the content is worth reading in the first place. And if it’s worth reading, how is it that different from the mag? or, how do you expect it to grow an audience for the mag?

    Good luck with all that, but I really think you need to come down from your high horse about the true nature of the ‘blog project’. You are more than capable of running a cracker blog, Jeff, and I’m sure you’ll work it out.

  12. Oh, come on, Genevieve — that’s unnecessarily snippy. The ‘stream of consciousness’ reference was explicitly about how I blog, not an indictment of the art of blogging. Go back and read it again.
    What I meant was that I’m limited in the time I can allocate to blogging. I don’t want to go all ‘poor pitiable me’ since I’m very happy about what I do but, for what it’s worth, I’m not paid to do blog, either: the web stuff is in addition to my Overland workload, and thus comes out of the time I should be spending working on this stupid book or the regular stuff I do for Crikey or Drum or whatever. So, as I say, the blog posts I contribute are written very quickly. With all due modesty, some of them are OK; some of them, not so much.
    Quite willing to acknowledge that other bloggers are much more consistent.
    On the more general point, obviously the blog is different from the mag. How could it not be? As I noted above, while we only produce four print magazines a year, people write for the blog on a daily basis — and there’s no copyediting, no proofreading, no typesetting. It’s fair enough to argue that perhaps there should be — but it does seem to me that if we went down that road to its logical extension, well, we’d end up producing a quarterly print journal plus a daily online journal, and we no more have the resources to do that than anyone else does. I mean, how many Australian blogs currently are able to pay not only writers but editors, proofreaders and so on? Not so many, I would have thought, and I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair to expect us to singlehandedly solve a problem that faces just about every group blog in the country.
    You raise a more general point about the integration of online content with a print journal.
    The reason, it seems to me, why this is so challenging is that the two things work in different ways and have different rhythms. Is one better than the other? Well, isn’t that like asking whether a newspaper is better than a book? The comparison involves a category error, since the two things work in different ways and serve different purposes.
    At the moment, for better or for worse, Overland is primarily a print journal. It’s the print journal to which people subscribe; it’s the print journal to which we devote most of our resources. At the same time, like everyone else, we are trying to come to grips with the online environment, albeit with no extra resources to do so. That’s the basis for this current proposal. I’m willing to be convinced that it’s misconceived but I think it’s a little unfair to suggest that I’m somehow on a ‘high horse’.

  13. All very valid points. Remuneration does go beyond merely fiscal, I got great deal of satisfaction when I saw my blog stats skyrocket after Maxine guest posted my Poetry Slam Finals review. I like Jenjen’s sliding scale system, this is charitable if you are an accomplished writer, as an apprentice writer I would appreciate the exposure that the overland blog offers. And quite simply the bottom line is that if you think it is unfair, you don’t do it. I have recently had to pull back on my own beloved blog because of the time it takes to maintain being taken away from other areas of my development, it can be quite onerous, but I will be lodging my application to write for the overland blog because I believe in their ideals and would appreciate the development opportunities.

  14. Obviously, publishing today is not the same as publishing in 1954. There have been technological changes, funding changes, the advent of the internet, and layout and typesetting are a lot less labour-intensive.

    It’s unfortunate that an online presence is now an expectation and a necessity of the literary journal, but it is the reality. If this is not part of the editor’s role, whose role is it?

    I don’t agree that Overland the journal and Overland the website – which includes a blog – are different. I think it’s all part of the journal’s identity, and with the future including, if not being dominated by, digital publishing, it’s a pressing issue. Given the importance, isn’t it time that print journals started devoting some of their resources to new media?

    Can we expect the discussion of the web and literary journals as part of the Meanland project?

  15. Koraly, your comment about online/emerging and print/professional writers, teamed with Jeff’s comment about his stream-of-consciousness blogging style, struck a bit of something in me.

    Most blogs that are run by publications, be it Overland, the Punch or something else, are run by professional writers or editors. Perhaps this is where the idea that blogging is ‘easy’ or less work comes from. In the case of Jeff (sorry to single you out, but in context you are an easy example), I would posit that as he is a successful writer in long form and opinion, his stream-of-consciousness style blogs are quite easy to pump out. They’re shorter than a journal article, and he is comfortable with his voice/writing style. But for an emerging, creating something short that fits in with the high quality of Overland writing is much more of a challenge. Perhaps blogging is less valued because it seems easier, almost throwaway?

    Jeff, I think it’s disingenuous to separate yourself from the Overland blog, or see it as something separate from the journal. As the editor of Overland, the content of the blog falls under your remit. If the resources of Overland don’t cover the time you spend running it, then perhaps it shouldn’t be run. Of course the blog is different from the journal – but it all comes under the banner of ‘Overland’, and the quality/content of both should reflect the other. (And, like Jacinda, I would love to see a discussion on the relationship between print journals and their online components feature in the Meanland series.)

    To those who say contributing to the Overland blog is a great opportunity and has more rewards than simply financial – I wholeheartedly agree. But you are missing the point of this discussion. I would dearly love to write for Overland (print) journal and would do so for free if Jeff invited me to – but of course, he wouldn’t, because the fees for writers are built into the costs of producing the journal and, I dare say, important to the aims of the publication. This discussion is not about ‘should we write for free’, but ‘should we be asked to write for free?’

  16. Jeff, in my experience there are always some problems for any blogs attached to establishment publications when the editors have an inelastic approach to the blog in the first place, seeing it as some kind of necessary evil that they are struggling to manage, a kind of growth out the side rather than an organic opportunity to reach an audience.

    You haven’t really addressed that today with your reductio ad absurdum argument about proofreading. Of course we don’t want two editions of Overland, nor does everyone accept, just because you pronounce it to be so, that all good copy is edited copy. That was not my point at all – I made the point that some editors actually think blog writing is worth publishing as it is.

    You can have whatever you want, Jeff, that is the whole point of this free publishing enterprise called Web 2.0. I don’t care what you do! truly, I don’t. If you don’t want to pay people, don’t pay them. It’s your call, and it’s not very fair to get snippy with me if I point out potential pitfalls. The criticisms are made in good faith – if you don’t want to hear them, that’s a shame. But you will think out loud in public…!! what are we to do? Sit on our hands?

    It might be a good idea for you to read Margaret Simons’ The Content Makers, particularly the bits on the public journalism movement and the gift economy. Plenty of food for thought there.

  17. I think a Meanland event or discussion around this stuff would be really useful. Perhaps we could organise a panel at one of the festivals or maybe an online forum on the new Meanland site. Will talk to Soph and see what we can work out.

  18. The funny thing is… I was just considering applying for the blogging gig with Overland. As I read down the email to the… ‘We-can’t-pay-bloggers’ clause, my heart sank…initially.

    What has left a bad taste in my mouth has been my experience writing pro-solvo for a very shiny, happy, profitable parenting magazine. The features I wrote where at least 1,500 words minimum, well researched and very clean copy. They consumed a significant amount of my free time; I have a 12-year- old with a very busy social calendar and a husband who is being groomed for power. However, the plus side was at least I was getting something published and when some random enquired what I did for a living I could confidently confirm I wrote for a parenting magazine. Until, aforementioned pre-teen piped up ‘but they don’t pay her’. Yeah, well you can imagine how that made me feel.

    Anyway….

    …when I went to the magazine’s monthly launch and discovered that all of the twenty-something staff where ‘work experience’ AND we had to pay for our own drinks I was seriously pissed off.

    I continued to write for the magazine for about 10 months and called it quits last October. Not much has happened since then. I write and re-write the script. I apply for journalistic-type-jobs advertised on the ambiguous ‘seek.com – sometimes getting interviews, sometimes not. That is a job-blog in itself I can tell ya.

    I will apply for the blog job, (if I haven’t blown it already) because someone I trust and respect suggested the idea to me. Also, Jeff seems like a good egg and Overland is one great literary journal. Moreover, I am a sucker for seeing my own words in print, for free or otherwise.

  19. Hi Anne,
    As I just said on another thread, the discussion has raised interesting issues, and we’re looking at ways of adjusting the project in response (though exactly what those ways might be is not yet altogether clear). Certainly, as a progressive journal, we are conscious that we have a responsibility not to be exploitative (and I suspect your story is probably quite typical of the small press scene). If we can’t find a principled way to proceed, well, we’ll have to think whether the whole blog thing is viable.
    We’re not adjusting the call-out because it’s already in circulation but as soon as we work out how the idea might be varied, we will contact everyone who has already applied.
    It’s a messy way to proceed but it’s the best we can do.

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