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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
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