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Pay the writers

It’s a story you’ve all heard before – if you’re reading this, you’ve probably experienced something similar.

A major newspaper emails me via a literary journal to ask if they can publish one of my stories. I am afraid that in these straitened times all we could offer you in exchange for publication rights to the short story would be a quid pro quo arrangement in terms of publicity. They’re waving ‘exposure’ at me like it’s a cheque.

Annoyed, I flick a ‘can you believe this?’ email to the journal – they can’t believe it. I stomp around the house, walking off the friction between flattery and exploitation. I know within minutes that I’ll say yes – it is good exposure, and like it or not, the papers do still have influence with general readers, and it’s in my interest to do it – but I have to give myself an hour to calm down before I write the email.

I say yes, but I qualify it with a polite objection to assuage the sense I have of humiliating myself. I must mention that although I understand the ‘straitened times’ as well as anyone, it is disappointing that a publication with The Australian’s reach and profile would not be able to offer any remuneration to authors, even if only symbolic.

I’m nervous writing this, because I don’t have a lot of power in this situation. I’m conscious of the story of Matt Smith, who asked the same company to pay him and was not only refused but blacklisted and insulted. I consider my options, and contemplate publicly shaming the publication in question after it publishes the story, posting the email exchange on my blog and encouraging people to buy the original journal, which is a small start-up, but which does the honourable thing and pays royalties.

As it turns out, I don’t have to. A few days later, they get back to me. We’ve looked again, and we can offer you $400.

I won, and I’m happy. I still feel annoyed with them for trying to exploit me, and with myself for saying yes. I wonder how many people in my situation would simply have accepted the offer, and said nothing. I wonder if they are only paying me because someone else had the guts to say no.

The culture of freelancing in Australia is a culture built on delicate etiquette. I have been tossing up whether or not to publish this story – it’s not especially shocking, I was paid for my work, and it might mark me as a difficult worker if I complain about my entitlements. There’s etiquette which is basic professionalism, and then there’s etiquette which is silent complicity with exploitation. It’s a line we all have to find for ourselves.

Last week there was yet another incident, as new Monthly editor John Van Tiggelen accused old Monthly editor Ben Naparstek of poaching ‘his’ writers, stimulating the same kind of social-media conversation we keep having about the ethics of our industry: about exploitation, exposure, transparency, gender inequality, and how deteriorating conditions are forcing us to contort our own professional standards.

What separates precarious arts workers from other workers is not the style of our labour, or the fact that we love what we do, or our special ‘creative’ egos which are supposed to make us grateful for any attention. It is one thing, and one thing only: the fact that we are not organised.

With the slow death of the mainstream newspaper and the collapse of publishing as we once knew it, plus the expansion of online outlets, freelancers are at a crossroads. Our workplaces are changing radically. We generally expect to work for free for the first two to five years of our careers, surviving on sparse paid copy jobs, or dish-pigging, or credit cards. We get into debt for our writing, or fight for an internship, or take all the free-freelancing as notches of pride on our career bedposts. We do it for the relationships or the profile, and that’s fine. It’s a fact of life. We accept this fact of life like workers in the 1920s accepted twelve hour days and child labour. Like workers in coal mines in the 1950s accepted the fact of safety shortcuts. Until they went on strike, and won future workers their rights. If we don’t have that solidarity, we are in danger of accepting the fact of our own demise.

Take the internship. Apprenticeships and a degree of work experience are common in many industries, but they are absolutely rife in the arts. Unpaid internships may offer educational benefit but they are biased towards people with family money who can afford to work for free for years, entrenching a class bias in the arts. In fiction, there’s a bias towards the insanely committed who can live in their cars and eat out of dumpsters while they write their novels (ahem) – which is not for everyone, and certainly not for people with kids. Sure, you do it if you can and if you want to, and you get to make a funny story out of it later, but no-one should be forced to live that way for their work.

For me, it is not so much about the amount of money I should be getting, which fluctuates depending on the publication, but the fact that I should feel safe asking. And I do, now. I feel empowered to do so by a decade’s professional experience, my established position, and my ability to find an audience for publicly shaming potential exploiters. Not everyone has this.

When we do have access, outrage can be mobilised quickly. Last year, Amanda Palmer tried to get away with getting musicians to work for free in her orchestra. That was resolved quickly, and Palmer changed her mind (or ‘reconfigured her financials’) because she heard the complaints loud and clear – because the musicians were able to get organised. Many of them would have done it for free. But they knew they shouldn’t have to. It was an excellent example of the real benefit of exposure.

Another example closer to home: Overland first offered me the gig of fiction editor as an unpaid position. I was perfectly comfortable asking Overland for a fee. It’s work, and I can’t afford to do it for free, and I knew that Overland, although run on a shoestring and reliant on voluntary labour, has the capacity to find or raise the funds and the political insight to see why that’s necessary. (I remembered a previous discussion over the blog, too – am happy to note that blog posts are now paid.) I respect Overland for making the effort. For smaller organisations, there’s always the option of grants, fundraising, or cutting costs elsewhere. Even if a publication doesn’t have the money, they are usually better resourced to find the money than an individual writer is. If you can’t pay your workers, then maybe you shouldn’t be in business.

We are reluctant to use that word business. The fit between arts and profit is so uncomfortable that it makes these discussions awkward. Culture is hard to commodify and value hard to measure. I can’t put a dollar value on a poem. Whether we get paid by the word, or the line, or the hour, we deserve income for labour, as much as any other contract worker. There are personal exceptions – I would write a guest post for a blog or a bit of PR for a mate’s struggling band just as I would volunteer at a community garden or help a friend move – but they are not the rule. The rule is, work equals pay. And it doesn’t matter where each of us draws the generosity line if we all agree with that basic principle. I’d like to shift the whole system, too. I’d like to live in an economy based on reciprocity not profit. But it doesn’t matter how radical you are, you don’t dismantle capitalism by denying yourself a living wage.

Too often, working for free is presented as an individual moral choicerather than a systemic problem.

Thing is, we know all this, and have done for years. And yet we keep having the same conversations, the same argument, every time it happens. So let me cut to the chase. If we want to be paid fairly for the work that we do, then we need to be organised.

The MEAA is working on organising for the growing numbers of freelancers, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with. In the meantime, there are independent strategies we as workers can employ to informally put pressure on organisations which try to exploit us. Public shaming through social media is the one that gets most used at the moment.

 

Campaign alongside efforts for an arts dole, in solidarity with other welfare recipients, and for codes of conduct and potentially minimum rates

I’d like there to be a step between personally objecting and publicly shaming. Imagine being able to send recalcitrant organisations ‘overdue invoice’ letters with a substantial threat of collective freelancer withdrawal behind them. I once presented someone with a giant novelty overdue invoice at a writer’s festival, and was paid pretty promptly. There is plenty of room for fun and pranks here. Employer of the month club? ‘Merry Christmas – Pay The Writers’ cards?

To boost the bargaining power of precarious arts employees, we could offer strike capacity at larger organisations and across the industry. But … how do we strike? If we work from home, what do we withdraw?

If we down tools, no stories get written, and it’s possible nobody will notice. We could target advertisers, like #destroythejoint did – attack the profits of the non-payer, just like we’d attack the profits of a sexist shock jock. Ultimately, we could attempt more ambitious strategies like shutting down web servers or bothering people in their offices. I’m hoping that people will feel free to share ideas.

Obviously, agitation alone is not going to change our industry.

In the long term, we need to be more ambitious about how we work. How can we gain control over the means of production in the informal zones of the cultural economy, in which many arts organisations rely on volunteers and funding? Citizen journalism and the web haven’t got there yet, but there is plenty of potential for worker-owned cooperative media. Why not have a place where these discussions can take place?

There are two million casual workers in Australia and precarity is becoming an issue across all industries. [http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/precarious-job-security-is-not-confined-to-the-third-world/] We shouldn’t lie down and take it as a fact of life. We certainly shouldn’t be grateful for it. As writers we have a degree of power that many other workers do not – we have the means of communication. We need to start working alongside each other and not in competition.

Wages are always going to be a bargain – a negotiation. I’m not arguing that we have to be paid in every single instance. I’m arguing that we need organisation to strengthen our bargaining power. I’m arguing for that organisation to be based online (perhaps with physical meetings in local areas), open to any precarious worker, and loosely structured so that it has the flexibility that we have as workers to shift tactics and resources where necessary.

SO… I have set up twitter (@paythewriters), tumblr (paythewriters.tumblr.com) and gmail (paythewriters@gmail.com) accounts for paythewriters, and I’m hoping there will be others willing to take on rotating curation of all three. I’m not on Facebook, but I’m happy for this project to be there.

In terms of organisation, I’m proposing a very loose anarchic affiliation here, built of the social media tools that I have available to me as a regional writer. It wouldn’t (and couldn’t) seek to represent every precarious writer or freelance arts worker. I’m thinking more of a gang than a union. But I’d be happy to organise in person too, at writer’s festivals and other events which bring us together.

As a first step, I simply want a space where these kinds of discussions can cohere from outbreaks of rage on social media into a publicly available resource and the discussions can hopefully grow towards action.

Right now, we have too much flexibility and not enough strength. Too much exposure and not enough light being cast on working conditions. It’s time to stop framing this discussion in terms of individual choice and start shoring up our bargaining power. As with any other industry, one worker, a single freelancer has almost no power – but an organised group could change the game.

 
Some links:
Carrot Workers (UK)
Precarious Workers Brigade (UK)
Do you really expect to get paid?’ – OzCo study
who pays writers (US tumblr)
Emerging Writers Festival info on who pays what in Australia
Balancing the books’ – Maria O’Dwyer at Overland
Karen Pickering and Helen Razer on this subject at the Wheeler Centre Dailies
Political writers in the Neoliberal Age’ – Rjurik Davidson at Overland
Why do creatives put up with no pay?’ Jeff Sparrow at New Matilda

Jennifer Mills is the author of two novels, Gone and The Diamond Anchor, and a collection of short stories, The Rest is Weight. Her work has received wide critical acclaim and won numerous awards both nationally and internationally. In 2012 she was named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian novelist. She lives in regional South Australia and is currently the fiction editor at Overland.

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Comments

  1. What do you think about internships, then? It worries me that these debates sometime get presented solely in terms of writers, as if editors, publicists, etc were of no concern.
    For instance, the Melbourne Writers Festival is currently advertising for interns, asking them to work for free for two days a week for ten months.
    http://www.mwf.com.au/2012/?name=Internships
    Is that OK or not?

    • The first benefit listed in the PD is “Performing a role pivotal to the Festival’s success”!!! That might even be worse than “”do it for the exposure”.All those jobs seem like positions the festival probably paid for in the past but are now replacing with volunteer labour. How many people could afford two days a week for the privilege?

      I don’t think it’s okay. Nor do I don’t think it’s okay that this conversation is always about writers and not marketing interns and all those other jobs in these under-paid, under-valued industiries.

    • What do people think? There are course credits offered there for some interns – is that worth it? Most of those positions look like 2 days/week for five months, which is equivalent to 8-9 full time weeks of work.

      I had no intention of presenting htis as a writer-only problem, indeed that’s why i’ve described the project as for ‘precarious arts workers’ – however i am a writer myself, so it’s what i know most about. Would be interested to hear from interns about the benefits/costs of doing it.

  2. Such a challenging question and debate! I hope we all find some answers soon, particularly to the challenge of finding commercial opportunities to support great writing.

  3. Jen,
    thanks for your piece. Your courage in asking to be paid for your work is inspirational and it’s great to hear that you succeeded with Overland and the other publication you mention. I agree that this is an urgent issue for all freelance writers and that if we don’t act now to improve our conditions, we’re facing a total erosion of the value of our work.
    You might be interested in the work of the National Writers’ Union in the US and their action against the Huffington Post, which set some pretty bad precedents for not paying writers: http://www.nwu.org/huffpo

    They are on Twitter at @paythewriter
    I’m very interested to hear about MEAA’s attempts to organise and include freelancers. I’ve never felt comfortable joining MEAA because as a writer primarily of fiction I don’t think of myself as a “real journalist” somehow, but I’m going to rethink that, particularly after I just tried and failed to negotiate myself a better rate with a major publication on a story that would have included a fair amount of journalism-type reporting.

    I’m even more interested to see that you haven’t even mentioned the organisation that does exist to advocate for writers and the value of our work, the Australian Society of Authors. I would love to see the ASA prioritising a campaign around the proper payment of authors for their work, and I hope the organisation you’re suggesting that we form will pressure them to do so. We simply don’t need another big program of expensive courses, which the ASA seems increasingly dedicated to providing, duplicating the services of writers’ centres everywhere; we do urgently need coordinated national representation on this issue of being paid for our work. Jen, please consider running for a spot on the ASA board and pursuing this issue in that context. The ASA has considerable resources and it is their mission to use them to protect our interests as writers.

    The going rate recommended by the ASA is $1 a word. This hasn’t changed in a long time. I mean, about TWENTY YEARS. Not many outlets paid that 20 years ago; perhaps even fewer pay it now. That rate looks like a joke to a lot of writers.

    As writers of fiction and as critics who want to participate in a vibrant national and international literary culture, we write because it is our passion. It can feel like an absurd privilege to be paid for doing what we love. But it shouldn’t: this is our work, this is our labor, and we deserve to be recompensed for it just like the printers who print the pages it appears on, and the technicians who service the computers at the publisher’ offices, and the editors who bring it to the page. Unless we want to concede the entire literary culture to a class of people who can afford to write for nothing or next to nothing, we do need to argue for the value of our work.

    • Thanks Kirsten,

      I will look in to the ASA, which was mentioned in drafts of this post (i decided i couldn’t cover everything). Their freelance rates are rather aspirational, and like the MEAA, there tends to be a focus on professional development seminars, which duplicates the work of writers centres. I was in the MEAA for several years when I was writing more journalism, but left after feeling utterly ignored. Our unions should do better, and we shoukd be asking them to do better.

      Precarious work exists across all industries, and i do think there’s room for more guerrilla style campaigns alongside existing institutions.

  4. I hope, eventually, that publications/organisations that don’t pay writers will be seen for what they often (not always) are (profiteers and egoists). And then, also hopefully, the publications that don’t pay now will see it as a point of honour that they do.

    All wet-eyed thinking, I know. Unionisation might be the only way. So that all print and online publications (and literary organisations) understand that there are minimum set fees for writers. And that can’t be meddled with.

  5. The Alliance are working on this, it seems, properly and finally, which is marvellous news. I’ve told them repeatedly that their published aspirational rate sheet is not just unhelpful but actively damaging to the industry. Sounds like that’s been heard.

    It’s great to see this conversation finally happening from so many angles right now, it seems like there’s momentum. Good on you, Jen, and good on Overland for being okay with you talking about your experiences with them.

  6. Writing in the service of capital deserves payment, for sure; its worth is another matter entirely.

  7. A few thoughts. About half (or maybe a bit more) of the writing I do is unpaid, cos it’s for publications to which I’m politically sympathetic. Writing for them seems to me like speaking at a demonstration, where it would never occur to me to ask for a fee. Of course, that’s only possible because I have a non-writing job that pays my bills. But fiven that I can’t make a living from writing leftwing polemics (and, strangely, that seems to be the case!), I don’t necessarily see the (generally token) fees that some outlets offer as a big factor one way or another. Obviously, that’s not the case for everyone, and if you’re trying to survive as a freelancer things would no doubt look very different — perhaps akin to the person who can’t attend the demonstration because they’re too busy earning their living (which is perfectly reasonable).
    On a slightly different note, in some creative writing schools or writers centres, ‘professionalism’ is equated with quality (with even a token fee proving that you are ‘professional’), which doesn’t seem right or useful, particularly if you’re working in a genre or mode that’s fairly socially marginal. For instance, questions are surely posed differently in, say, poetry, where it’s most unlikely there will ever be a sustainable industry, and so organising for better conditions for writers really means a discussion about models for arts funding.
    I agree with the focus on organising, an absolute prerequisite for achieving any change in the industry. But, as someone mentioned above, there’s all kinds of unpaid labour in this industry, and that needs to be part of the discussion. What do we say about volunteerism? What do we say about amateurism? Internships?
    Anyway, it’s a useful discussion and thanks for kicking it off.

  8. It simply has to stop. If a writer gives away their writing for no payment in exchange for “exposure” they have no respect for their work. The editor gets paid, the printer gets paid, why should the writer not be paid?

      • I’m reading this with trepidation and disquiet under several of my hats. Under one, as a writer for magazines and occasionally newspapers (book reviewer etc.) I like to be paid. $1 a word seems like a fortune – the best I’ve ever had is 80c and 20c is normal. Under another, as an academic writer (who is not employed as an academic) I never get paid for that, but it has a quid pro quo in the ability to apply to my institution for the odd conference travel grant. But, as the editor of a scholarly journal which publishes both academic and creative work, I can’t offer anyone any money for anything. I am not paid to do it, neither are any of my co-editors (except one who does some admin work for us), and none of the writers are. Academic publishing is predicated on the fact that it’s a perquisite of the academic career (though that’s something which is becoming more and more insecure and marginal as well especially in the humanities) and that people do it because it advances their careers. The journal is not a rapacious organisation making profits, but a precarious venture held together by force of will by a few individuals. The journal is open access – there is no income stream. Should I just stop doing it? Maybe I should!

  9. It is great to see this discussion being brought out into the open, and fascinating to read the varying perspectives on it in the links here. I definitely think there is a need for solidarity on this issue.

  10. A few rambling thoughts: I feel it’s really important to work with emerging writers, because they’re most vulnerable to ‘exposure’ cons. The Alexis Madrigal piece takes for granted that certain groups of writers will always write for free and I see it as our challenge to contest the ‘commonsensical’ nature of that.

    Too often, emerging writers learn that writing for free is a sort of apprenticeship, a rite of passage that everyone undergoes. That’s romantic bullshit. These days there are lots of opportunities to write for free outside the capitalist system (personal blogs, passion projects, etc) and these can and often do lead to paid opportunities. No writer should let a paid editor, working for an organisation where others are paid, tell them that ‘experience’ and ‘exposure’ are payment enough.

    It’s also about solidarity rather than competition. Writers need to realise that working for free may have short-term benefits but it hurts them as part of a wider industry in which rates are driven down for everyone.

  11. This is an incredibly important conversation so thanks for the post.

    While I agree with much of what has been said, I do differ on the main thrust of the argument – because not all kinds of writing are the same, and not all publishers are equal.

    Certainly, if a business can’t afford to pay their workers they shouldn’t be in business. But I don’t think that model – one where neoliberalism stretches its long arm to turn all social interactions into business transactions – is always that compatible with culture.

    Literary journals are not profitable competitive businesses in a capitalist sense. We can wish they were: we can wish more people bought subscriptions and we can pretend that there is a viable business model in that wishing. But in reality, it means a literary journal will always be paying less than the value of the work involved in its production. If we push for more contributor fees from our journals, well, we’ll send them out of publishing.

    What’s more, by treating these unprofitable literary journals as businesses, the less than average pay has an effect on the whole industry, lowering the wages of the whole industry.

    I do technical support – some of it voluntary, some at a reduced rate – for both Overland and Cordite, and it isn’t for fame or experience. It’s because they are not businesses. More than that, they have political and/or aesthetic goals that I share. If I were to consider this as “work” and charge them at the same rates as my other freelance work, my rate would be unaffordable, or I would undercut the rates of other freelancers.

    So why support literary journals and other unprofitable cultural practices and spaces? For me, it’s because capitalism doesn’t have an answer to cultural practices, particularly those on the edges of society. Most people don’t want to pay for poetry, for example.

    I think there’s a danger in lumping book publishers, newspapers and literary journals all together, and it’s something that will hurt freelance rates and wages in these industries in the long run.

    Instead, maybe it’s time to start talking about collectives again, ones that work together to support political and/or aesthetic cultural practices.

    • Interesting points, BjL. Personally, I’m not convinced that some forms, like poetry or short fiction, do have value in a capitalist sense.

    • Yes, and that is part of the point I was trying to make above. I am not arguing for a code of practice, or minimum rates that apply to everyone. I have no problem with taking these decisions on a case by case basis. I have a huge problem with our being reduced to competitive individuals when we are capable of organising ourselves as a group.

    • You raise some interesting points here Benjamin, especially about literary journals and I agree that there are different circumstances involved.

      But when a mainstream publication is making money off the back of its writers, then there should be no question about reimbursement.

      A publication like the Australian for example, or the Daily Telegraph, should never be expecting writing for free and I think the problem is that they have seen the smaller models make it work and think they can jump on the bandwagon. It stinks.

  12. I could include literary journals in the category of ‘passion projects’ I mention above. I don’t think of them as capitalist organisations. I have a similar attitude to them that Jeff Sparrow mentions above: my labour expresses my goodwill and enthusiasm.

    The unfortunate thing is that writing an extended essay for such a journal requires far more time, research and intellectual exertion than the kind of short-lead piecework that characterises many freelance commissions. ie the kind of work that most deserves generous payment is rarely wanted by the organisations that can pay, and rarely paid by the organisations that want it.

  13. I recently had an article accepted by MamaMia, and while I was happy about the potential exposure, I found it shocking to learn that they do not pay freelance writers anything at all. Sadly, this is becoming a more frequent experience.

    And while MamaMia do have a team of paid staff writers, the bulk of their content comes from freelancers like me, writers who are trying to make a name for themselves.

    I did question this with the editor, and ask to be paid for my work, and when she explained their position, I felt entirely undervalued and came very close to telling her to shove it. However, I didn’t feel like I was in a position to make that decision based on principal alone and that made me feel pretty dirty.

    Like most up and coming writers, it isn’t about the money for me so much. Of course we all want to get paid, and we all think we should be paid for work that is good enough to publish, but we are also savvy enough to know that other than token payments, we won’t be making any real money from our writing until we have made a name for ourselves, until we can break into that circle.

    The circle I speak of consists of the usual suspects, well known writers who get paid for regular gigs, in various publications – obviously because they are talented, but also because of their name. There are many brilliant freelancers out there who simply do not get published because they are still unknown.

    And so it becomes a vicious circle based around income, principal and exposure. Do you say yes to the smaller, less known publication who is decent enough to offer a token payment (if only for tax purposes), or do you say yes to the more popular publication, where both your work and your name will reach a wider audience, and accept that you are being exploited?

    Writers like myself, who are trying to break in, often feel powerless to change this lousy situation because even though it affects us the most, we are being asked to turn down valuable opportunities that might lead to our work actually being valued down the track.

    And those writers who criticise people like me for allowing ourselves to be exploited, well they are the same folk who have already made a name for themselves, and so they are already in a position to negotiate terms or knock something back when it smells funny, because they have other paid opportunities.

    I feel like there should be some kind of union to protect freelancers and their work from the kind of modern day exploitation.

  14. I enjoyed this article, good work! The tricky thing here is that obviously, we enjoy our work, writing, so there are feelings of guilt when asking for payment, sometimes. But footballers enjoy playing footy too, but the best of them get paid for their work, and no-one queries that. I say, ask for payment, and take the money when you can get it.
    I am currently running a series of poetry workshops with a community organisation. I was asked, and was flattered to be asked, but I said I would only do it if I was paid for it. I’m glad to say an honorarium was offered, and all parties are happy with the arrangement.
    Ask for the money, you deserve to be paid for your efforts, always!

  15. Whilst I thoroughly agree with the points made here, I do take umbrage at the use of Amanda Palmer as an example. You said that in her case the musicians were paid because they managed to get organised -which isn’t true at all. Amanda worked out a way to pay them because of the public outcry, but not one of the musicians who performed was amongst the group demanding that she pay them.

    Also, the problem with the general outcry over that incident was people saw her kickstarter and assumed “this is $1.2 million of donations that she can spend as she likes, and she’s choosing not to pay the musicians” when in fact, it was $1.2 million of payments for products, which was then spent on making those products (or going to and doing those shows, in the case of houseparties). Amanda made enough to feed and house her band for the tour but no profit after that.

    She wasn’t looking for professional musicians and promising them exposure instead of payment. She was looking for fans and promising the chance to be onstage with one of their idols. I think that makes the comparison useless for your article. It’s nothing at all like a major profit-making publication trying not to pay their writers.

  16. Fantastic article Jennifer!

    I think this is a big issue all through the arts in Australia. I wonder if the movement would be stronger and the voice louder if it was addressed across all the arts?

    As a visual artist, a writers and my husband in the film industry I see this exploitation and the undervaluing of creative work all the time. It’s distressing having to chase up money or justify and qualify ones work. Imagine if this happened in sport?

    I’m all for this and any change really.

    Here’s an article about the state of the VFX industry, if you’re interested:
    http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2013/02/life-in-the-movie-business-an-inside-look-at-the-vfx-crisis/#respond

    All the best
    Lily Mae

  17. Great post thanks Jen, important subject and good to have this discussion here. Needless to say, I agree with you that we writers should be paid for our work.

    I also agree with Jeff and Benjamin and others that not all writing is the same, not all publications are equal. I willingly wrote gratis for the Overland blog in its previous online incarnation, as a way of contributing to its discussion, joining its community, getting my work online in a place I felt at home in.

    I was also more than happy to be Overland fiction editor for two years gratis, my way of contributing in kind to a literary journal I admire very much and think is essential to the political debate in Australia. And also, my way of supporting emerging writers with some of the editing skills I learnt over the years.

    I also spent a lot of those two years thinking about and discussing how to make that fiction editor position a viable, paid position so it could attract good people who might not otherwise be able to take it on (i.e. if it were unpaid). So the scene had been set. Incremental change.

    And great to hear from you here too Kirsten T, as ever you bring such clarity to the debate. Especially: why not the ASA? I so agree that ‘We simply don’t need another big program of expensive courses’ – AGGGHHHH – but we DO ‘urgently need coordinated national representation on this issue of being paid for our work’.

    And my heart sinks to realise that the $1 a word fee for writers the ASA recommends is over two decades old.

    Perhaps it’s time the ASA burst into the 21C.

  18. I’ve been quietly campaigning for years on a related issue – the need to pay writers who headline or speak at conferences, frequently feeling greedy for raising the question. Yet the venue, rooms, caterers, printers and transportation are paid for, why not the major drawcards? Try telling a chef that he can cook for 200 people for the “exposure”. Having an agent is one way to keep the fee issue professional and unrelated to the writing. Likewise, if offered a fee or a “free” conference, take the fee. The conference cost is tax deductible anyway. And never agree to donate royalties to a cause, however worthy. The publisher gets the tax deduction and you end up with nothing but more “exposure”. Take the fee and donate if you wish, then claim your own deduction. I’m not against working pro bono but prefer to make the choice case-by-case. A last point, if I opt not to be paid, I make sure *in writing* to retain my copyright. This isn’t about greed or moral issues, it’s about surviving to write another day.

    • Yes, this is a really good point, about presenters. I often present at various festivals – not conferences but festivals where punters pay to attend. Some pay me and that’s nice. But one in particular, which always sells plenty of tickets, cites problems of paying for venue and catering when saying they can’t pay presenters. I say, this is a commercial operation: increase the ticket price and factor in payment for your presenters, because without them you have no festival. I doubt whether that will happen until all the presenters organise and withhold their labour.
      Also, a very good point about copyright!

  19. Love your work, Jennifer, in all its forms.

    My heart sinks when I read that writers “aren’t in it for the money”. Sure, but at the same time, writers need to live. I feel sad to think I’d never have read your stories if you hadn’t been willing to live in your car.

    This is a brave post. You are putting yourself out there for all our benefit. Agree that solidarity is key. If writers will work for free, why would publishers pay them? Our efforts have no worth.

  20. Thank you, Jo and everyone who is still commenting on this! There will be more discussion in the upcoming edition of Overland (211).

    I am happy to report the MEAA has been very constructive in talking about this issue and is keen to work further with freelance writers/creatives.

    Don’t forget if you’re on Twitter you can follow @paythewriters for updates, and email paythewriters@gmail.com if you’d like to get involved or if you have concerns about a particular publication.

  21. Take a look at Jonothon Holmes Media Watch on ABC-TV, Mon.17 June. He did a segment titled ‘Mean new digital world for freelancers’, siting the online feminist magazine Mamamia, amongst others, as one of those that do not pay f.contributers. He also spoke of some freelancers being ripped off.

    I’m not interested in contributing to outlets that don’t pay, what’s the point in that? My work isn’t a hobby, its a job I love doing. A bit of gratis and ‘exposure’ is necessary, of course, but if there’s actually no money in this industry I for one cannot live on oxygen and will leave.

    Lets begin naming & praising print and online sites that do pay contributers, regardless of the amount. Who are they? My first contribution is to praise the print (and soon to be online) magazine The Big Issue. They pay 20c per word and actually apologise for the low rate due to their status as a charity! Aren’t they wonderful!

  22. Fantastic discussion. I have actually been paid more than $1 a word on many occasions but not my publications that get a lot of respect. But pay is going down not up, and more publications are expecting journalists to write for less ($1 a word is common and I now write for less than that, which I never would have done in the past). I am amazed that so many publications expect writers to write for free, and even those who do pay may then refuse to pay expenses so it’s almost like writing for free at the end of the day anyway. (For example, travel writing.) I do think that refusing to work for free is the only answer. By the way, Mamamia now pays a small fee per article.

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