As anyone who’s ever been involved in a campaign knows, it’s hard to predict at the outset what shape it will take, what things it will have the power to change or how many people are going to turn up to meetings, particularly the first one.
This is what we were discussing when staff from Overland, the Australian Society of Authors, the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance, Writers Victoria, the Emerging Writers’ Festival and the National Young Writers’ Festival were arranging tables and chairs downstairs at The Wheeler Centre. The aim of the meeting was to turn the conversation that’s come to be known as ‘Pay the Writers’, a loose collective started by writer and editor Jennifer Mills, into a more structured campaign, one with bulk and concrete objectives. To take off, such a campaign needs a mass of members – vocal members – who have ideas on what needs to shift to improve a situation.
By my estimation, 70 people attended Wednesday night’s meeting, including working freelance writers, cartoonists, editors, emerging writers, booksellers and the Australia Council. It’s rare to get so many people in the one room who all agree that writers should be better paid, have collegial support and shouldn’t be individually left to battle publishers.
Following introductions from Jennifer Mills (via video) and the various groups committed to the campaign, and a short reading of the Pay the Writers manifesto (that came out of a smaller forum at the Emerging Writers’ Festival), the assembly broke into smaller groups that focussed on the major issues confronting writers and proposals for tackling those, particularly in dealings with commercial publishers. There was a lot of consensus in that room about what needs to change – primarily, we need transparency from publishers and minimum or award rates for freelance writers – and a recognition that the rates currently suggested by the ASA and MEAA are aspirational, and in no way enforceable.
At my table, we came up with a short-term, medium-term and long-term proposal. The thing we thought could be addressed immediately, in the next week or so, was for publishers to add a page to their website clearly stating how much they pay writers, as well as providing information on their invoicing process.
Our next proposal was that we appoint a working group from the campaign to establish tiered minimum rates in consultation with writers and industry. Said rates would be tiered for types of publication (large commercial versus literary not-for-profit), the kind of writing (corporate versus poetry), etc. We also suggested the working group could prepare a document on the proposed rates to be published in a public forum, such as a Pay the Writers site, where writers and industry would be invited to make comment and provide feedback. Obviously, such a task would require time and effort. We estimated six months or so.
Establishing these minimum rates would lead to our table’s long-term goal: that these figures be used to guide the labour practice of freelance writers and publishers. The crucial thing about these rates, some of the writers at our table argued, is that they have to be amounts that those involved in the campaign are willing to organise around. In other words, if these rates are agreed upon and disseminated and a publication still refuses to meet them, the campaign has to decide what steps it will take. Such a decision would be far down the track, but a refusal to meet minimum rates the campaign had worked hard to establish could conceivably result in a name-and-shame campaign or the refusal of labour.
Other ideas were raised in summaries from the tables, such as reaching out to other writers and publishing workers over the next couple of weeks to get them involved in the campaign. Writers from Mamma Mia were not present, observed the MEAA’s Lachlan Batchelor, ‘and we need to reach out to those writers. Mamma Mia only pays $50 a post, which isn’t much, but they didn’t use to pay anything.’ It was because of targeted pressure that the publication changed its payment policy, he explained.
Moreover, it’s impossible to improve conditions across the whole industry if you’ve got freelancers, such as the Mamma Mia writers, who may feel excluded from a campaign, or publications that feel they’re exempt from industry rates.
Obviously, the ideas raised at the meeting are future goals that a campaign may be able to achieve. The only thing the campaign actually voted on was to have another meeting in a fortnight’s time. A campaign is only ever as strong as its membership base: people who care passionately about an issue and will fight to see it transformed. If you’re such a person, come to the meeting in a fortnight’s time (time and date to be confirmed). If you’re not in Melbourne, you can stay in touch with the campaign by signing up to the Facebook Pay the Writers group or contacting me on firstname.lastname@example.org to join the email list.
Notes from the meeting will be sent out shortly and published on Facebook and in the comment section below.