Publishers, you need to pay the writers

As an organisation that supports, advocates for and employs writers of all shapes and sizes, Writers Victoria has been paying close attention to recent discussions about writers being asked to work for free.

In the brave new world we find ourselves in – of shrinking budgets, publisher uncertainty and proliferation of free content providers – calls for writers to come together around adequate remuneration are ricocheting around the globe.

Writers love to write. There’s a thrill when someone wants to publish a writer’s work, even if they don’t have a budget to pay for it. And writing for free in order to build a profile and portfolio can be particularly useful when someone is just starting out.

But when experienced, published and professional writers are still being asked to donate their work long after their apprenticeship is over, it’s time for our sector (which makes its living out of words) to have a long, hard look at how we’re looking after those who make them.

Passionate conversations have been taking place in publications, festivals and online. In May, a panel of publishers, writers and journalists at the Emerging Writers Festival shared their tips on how to make the transition from free to fee writing. Author and comedian Justin Heazelwood shared his own experience, which came about by simply asking his editor if he could start getting paid. ‘There’s often money floating about but if you don’t ask it certainly won’t be offered to you,’ he said.

Victorian writer and comedian Catherine Deveny has also seen the benefits of challenging a request to work for free. ‘Last year I was offered paid work and refused on the grounds that others were not being paid. The company changed tune and paid everyone,’ Deveny wrote in her startling (and hilarious) response to being asked to work for free for a multinational chemical company. The article ends with the wonderfully succinct sign-off: ‘Exposure don’t pay the rent.’

On the international stage, music writer Barry Hoskins launched a manifesto earlier this month that  called on freelance musicians, writers, actors, photographers and designers to join him in withdrawing unpaid labour from the creative and media industries.

In Australia, Pay The Writers has grown from an initial post on the Overland blog to a new advocate for collective negotiation and adequate compensation for writers and their work. Convenor Jennifer Mills published her story of being asked to work for free by a major commercial publication. Her subsequent call for writers to ‘stop simply complaining and start organising’ around this issue expanded into an open discussion with Melbourne-based poet Benjamin Laird in Overland’s winter edition.

While Laird agreed that it can be financially difficult to be a writer, he suggested that ‘many publications can’t financially complete for writers or audiences in a market saturated with commercial media’. Mills, herself an editor who publishes other writers’ work, wrote of the need to question the discomfort that writers and editors experience around payment negotiations:

[N]ot to say that all editors want to be exploitative – we have our own pressures, and literary journals in particular are struggling, unprofitable entities that do not always have the ability to pay fairly, if at all. There are a lot of grey areas in writing. I don’t mean to say no-one should ever work for free – I often do it myself. But that should be a choice we are able to make according to the context and our personal ethics, and not because we are pressured to do so.

There are many reasons writers choose to donate their skills and time. Earlier this year, Victorian writer and editor Karen Pickering wrote an article on free writing for The Victorian Writer magazine (TVW). She compiled a list of the reasons other writers had given her about why they work for free. These included: ‘I wrote for free for many years in order to be in a paid position now’, ‘Being able to write and have it published is such a privilege that it’s clear payment is not the goal of my writing’ and ‘There is no viable business model that allows for the payment of writers so if I want my stuff out there I have to offer it for free’.

Pickering had written an earlier piece for the Wheeler Centre’s Dailies that outlined the ‘absurdity’ of expecting writers to work for free. But in writing the follow-up article for TVW, she knowingly submitted a piece for a publication that doesn’t currently pay its contributors. Pickering explained that she was ‘writing the article for a publication that seeks to inform and empower and support other writers. That’s an act of collegiality on my behalf. It’s a gesture to my community that I value what they do and I want to communicate with them about things that matter to me.’

Also important to Pickering was the fact that TVW is not a commercial publication that would financially benefit from her writing or one that currently has the money to pay writers. As the publication of Writers Victoria, TVW is sent to our members ten times a year (one of the benefits of membership). Writers Victoria is a small, not-for-profit organisation. We don’t sell the magazine, and its print costs outweigh the small income we derive from advertising.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be joining the call for writers to be paid. So far, the debate has been mostly one-sided and it’s time for the sector to reply. It shouldn’t be writers vs organisations: we’re on the same side, or should be. As the state peak body for writing in Victoria, we have a responsibility to advocate for the rights of our members – even when that means looking at the way we do things ourselves.

Good writing is a craft that results in a valuable product created through a significant investment in time, training and professional development by skilled practitioners. Australia is overflowing with highly talented people running one-person writing businesses – many of these people already make a living through their writing skills and many more aspire to do so.

WV mentor Myke Bartlett was quoted in Overland last year saying: ‘I’ve always been paid for my journalistic writings, with very few exceptions. I’m pretty fixed about that. You know, plumbers don’t go fixing bathrooms for free until they’ve built their reputation. If your work’s worth printing, it’s worth paying.’

While writers don’t have the benefit of a tangible, plumber-like apprenticeship, it is strange that many publications assume their work shouldn’t be compensated in the same way as other similarly qualified craftspeople.

The issue affects me on a personal level, too. 2013 is the first year that I have been able to use the words ‘paid’ and ‘poetry’ in the same sentence. Writing under the name of Katie Keys, I will undertake my second paid poetry residency at the end of July. Which means, after years of insinuating myself as guerrilla poet-in-residence at festivals and events, I’ve had to stop giving it away for free (and, as a result of saying ‘no’, have risked damaging my relationships with producers and publishers).

Many writers make the most of similar ‘found’ opportunities (some of them free) to build a portfolio and audience. They learn on the job. They move up through the ranks. But working their way up implies there’s something to work towards: a pay day at the end of their long internship.

Paying writers is not only an investment in their careers but in the future of Australian storytelling and commentary. Yes, it costs money, but losing our writers also comes at a cost. Paying our writers to write is what will ensure our presses, news outlets and journals have quality content to publish.

It’s also the only way we can make sure unique voices and new ideas aren’t silenced by writers having to give up their dreams in order to move onto better paying jobs. This is particularly important for writers from less wealthy and marginalised communities, as Mills wrote in Overland:

The people who will end up as writers will be those who can afford to write as a leisure activity or those with an interest group behind them.

It’s not just creative writers who are being asked to work for free, but there are better models for paying journalists and copywriters that we could learn from. Our world is changing. Together, we have a unique opportunity to harness this change and find new models that work for both sides.

Pickering called on writers to have open, honest conversations among themselves, and with their editors and publishers, about what their work is worth.

In her Dailies article she suggested that writers ‘choose to ask how much you’ll be paid (even suggesting a range) rather than if you’ll be paid. Then the onus is on the employer (and they are employing you) to explain why they want work from you but aren’t prepared to pay for it.’

Editors, publishers and organisations need to challenge ourselves and our colleagues to ensure that free writing is a gift that writers can choose to bestow rather than an expectation of the industry. We know that we won’t always be able to meet our aspirations but we should be willing to join in the conversation and make sure our justifications measure up against our profits and our capacity to pay.

It’s time that we sector organisations join the conversation and begin to examine our own ethics and ways of working. For our part, the Writers Victoria team is already looking at a number of different business models for The Victorian Writer that we hope will see us start to pay commissioned writers for content from next year.

In this way, we hope we can help writers feel empowered to challenge the assumption that they won’t be paid, come together to change the status quo, and reclaim the ability to offer their work for free – on their own terms.


Kate Larsen

Kate Larsen is an arts, cultural and non-profit consultant with more than twenty years’ experience in the non-profit, government and arts sectors in Australia, Asia and the UK. She is on Twitter as @KateLarsenKeys.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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  1. What writers need to understand is that without supporting local publications (ie. buying it/subscribing) the issue of satisfactory payment will never be resolved. It’s a chicken-egg scenario. Publishers are not sitting back laughing at how much revenue they’re making from not paying writers; they’re struggling to stay afloat in this difficult economic environment. I’m tired of writers whining about payment but then not even supporting the publications they seek payment from for their writing.

    1. “I’m tired of writers whining about payment but then not even supporting the publications they seek payment from for their writing.”

      Yes, and I’m tired of publishers who don’t understand that they need to produce an appealing publication in order for it to sell.

  2. Island Magazine requires anyone who submits to be a subscriber. Perhaps you could institute that rule, thereby generating revenue and not being angry with writers for daring to expect to be paid.

  3. disgruntled publisher: Elmo Keep makes a fine point, so I won’t repeat it. Many writers like myself, having worked with publishers and editors, know how tough times are for the industry as a whole. This, however, does not cancel out the absolute right a writer has to be paid, just like everyone else, for their work. We’re not ‘whining’ we’re respectfully seeking something that is granted to just about every other working professional.

    This is a great post Kate, thank you for writing it.

  4. Bravo Kate- wonderful piece! I’ve been writing for free for too long now, and have just started to understand that I have worth, as do my words. I will always be loyal to the publications who helped me get on my feet, but from now on, I will ask for payment for most of my new work. Work- hours and hours of it spent researching and writing. I love to write, but isn’t it wonderful to love what you do for a living?! Now I just need to make a living! I worry that making comments like this after your article will be biting the hand that feeds me, but guess what…I’m not eating real well! Time to take the Free out of Freelance eh?

  5. Disgruntled Publisher is absolutely correct that it is a chicken and egg situation. Publishers certainly can’t pay writers if they don’t have enough subscribers, but how are writers supposed to buy subscriptions if they’re not getting paid?

  6. Kate, thanks very much for raising this; it affects most writers. Of course, payment may be necessary in attracting real talent, but it can’t “ensure our presses… have quality content to publish”. Witness the words of one writer who always receives payment: “If your work’s worth printing, it’s worth paying”. It may be worth paying for — but if the writer doesn’t even care to put that preposition in a sentence on such a topic, then very possibly it isn’t.

  7. It’s interesting that you quote Deveny here as some sort of heroine, given that she is, in her own words, “great mates” with Mia Freedman who is quite notorious for not paying writers and who is undoubtedly part of the “network” Deveny would be alerting. It seems it’s okay for some publishers not to pay but not others according to Deveny.

  8. I find it strange to think that anyone in their right mind could believe that a writer started writing for the money. If there is money due to you then it should come to you of course, but in my opinion most ‘real writers’ (whatever that means) usually do it because they have to. Plain and simple. That being said, if your writing is generating money then you are entitled to that money.

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