Paying the writers

Jennifer Mills

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of stories popping up about writers and other creative people being offered payment in the form of ‘exposure’. When they refuse, they are told they are rude or that they won’t ever be able to work for that outlet again. I’m shocked and upset by such incidents, and I know a lot of other people are as well, judging by how much the stories are shared and lamented on social media.

Exposure can be very helpful if you are just starting. But I am fifteen years into my writing life and have published three books. I have successfully supported myself (with the aid of occasional grants) for years. I would call myself ‘mid-career’, and being asked to give my writing away for ‘exposure’ comes as an insult. So when exactly that happened to me over the summer, I decided to use the opportunity to talk about why we need to stop simply complaining and start organising. In a post on the Overland blog, I started the humble skeleton of an organisation, calling it, somewhat obviously, Pay the Writers.

For many of us, negotiating payment for our work is vital. A couple of hundred dollars can make the difference between groceries and dumpster diving, or paying a bill and supporting a crowdfunded project. Negotiating by yourself is a difficult and disempowering experience. Sending those ‘how much can you pay me?’ emails is always a risk. I have often felt that asking for money might damage a relationship or mean the withdrawal of a publication offer. I’ve worked hard (and often gratis) to get to a point where I can be choosy and say no to work I don’t like or can’t afford.

Now that I’m an editor as well, I’m conscious that it’s my responsibility to be up-front with people about how much they will be paid and when. I’m not always good at it. Most artistic types find discussions about money distasteful, and I’m no exception. The trouble is that there is always someone willing to exploit that distaste.

Which is not 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 – in fact, 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.

For me, it comes down to collective versus individual bargaining. The increasing prevalence of freelancing and precarity means we are removed from each other and the potential we once had to act collectively. At the same time, we have, at our fingertips, social media and tools that we have never possessed before. I don’t want to start another union or professional organisation, but I do think we can use social media to push collectively for better pay and conditions.

That is just one among many potential strategies.

The industry is changing rapidly, and although writers, artists, designers, journalists and so forth don’t always have the same issues, we have common difficulties. If we don’t get organised, we risk losing what little entitlements we currently have. As smaller outlets are able to convince people to work for free, larger outlets also try it. So long as we accept that we are all in competition, there is an assumption that there is always someone willing to work for free.

The last fifteen years of crisis in the media and publishing sectors have seen a deep attrition of pay and conditions for all. The many journalists laid off at major newspapers are adding to the freelance pool. If we are not careful, we will all end up writing for love and exposure in between real jobs washing dishes or making coffee. 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.

Of course, there are many places where capitalism and creative labour don’t join neatly together. That is one of the cool things about being a working writer: writing can have the dignity of a craft. I might not make much money in a year but I have a certain freedom to resist drudgery. I have some access to what passes for public discourse and I get to do what I love.

Ultimately, I think that should apply to all work.

We have a long way to go before that happens, but right now we have an opportunity to harness our lamentations and nudge our industry towards fairness.

Benjamin Laird

In many ways, I agree with Jennifer: it is financially difficult to be a writer.

Mind you, it is worth noting that it is not just in the creative arts that unpaid labour is increasingly occurring. For instance, the internship is now so ubiquitous as to become almost a prerequisite for working in many industries. Internships are presented in much the same way as unpaid exposure is pitched to writers – that is, they are said to be necessary for some future reward. We are starting to see the long-term effects of interning on the reduction of entry-level jobs: take the Melbourne Writers Festival, for example, which advertises unpaid publicity intern opportunities rather than paid low-experience positions.

So when referring to writers in this discussion, I think we need to acknowledge that we are talking primarily about a specific kind of writing. Many writers earn their regular pay by working in advertising, commercial media or government. ‘Creative writers’ have a range of financial experiences that differ vastly to the regular wage of other kinds of employed writers, such as copywriters or journalists. Some creative writers don’t even rely on income from their writing, surviving instead from other paid work or, in fortunate cases, an existing financial independence. Other creative writers might see the hundred dollars they receive for their poem as one tenth of the money towards a new computer or four new books. Many hope a monetary reward will appear after the publication of a collection or a novel, but, realistically, any such payments are unlikely to be sufficient to financially sustain them (unless they are lucky enough to win an award or receive a grant).

The problem for creative writers in the literary arts arises because the publications in which their writing appears are either financially failing – for example, newspapers – or are almost never commercially successful – for instance, literary journals.

In reality, many publications can’t financially compete for writers or audiences in a market saturated with commercial media. Take an online journal like Cordite Poetry Review: it publishes all its content for free but wears the cost of the infrastructure. When a journal like that does pay, it’s usually because it has received government funding (or worse: the money comes from the editor’s or publisher’s pocket).

So if publications can’t pay, what should the creative writer’s response be, bearing in mind that these publications are often run for the very same reason people write: because the essay, poem or story needs to be published?

Jennifer suggests that a writer should determine how much they are prepared to be paid by a publication based on their own personal ethics. Obviously, there is a difference between being published by Overland or Quadrant. (There are, of course, those writers happy to appear in both publications – but what does that say about our literary culture, when it doesn’t matter to the writer whether the journal believes in climate change or Stolen Generations?)

But I’m sceptical of the ‘payment rates by personal ethics’ argument when it comes to literary journals – and this, I think, is the writing where such negotiation matters the most, because journalists and freelancers have the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) when it comes to newspapers, and the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) steps in once a writer has a book contract. Negotiating pay according to personal ethics means that the individual must decide how much they will write for (which will sometimes be nothing, if the writer opts for ‘exposure’). How is that different to what already happens?

It’s a shame collectives are so out of favour! In my opinion, in this period where every interaction between people is reduced to a transaction, we need some alternative models. If the market can’t solve the problems of literature, why keep turning to it to publish our works? Rather than simply starting another literary journal or another small publishing company, we could create literary collectives whose members participate in the collection and publication of their writing. Instead of aspiring writers being encouraged to publish on Amazon in the hopes of making a million dollars, they would have the opportunity to collaborate, support and challenge each other – and produce literature.

The conundrum is, though, that we live in a society where everything costs money, and as Jennifer writes, the question of whether we’re dumpster diving or shopping is signified in every dollar.

But I don’t think the solution to this financial dilemma will come from creative writers acting individually. I’m also not sure it will come from a program of pressuring publications and arts organisations to supply money they just don’t have.

This quandary is bigger than a single writer, or even a collective of writers – as a society we need a way to pay for the creative arts. What I think we need is a societal defence of literature: an argument for why we need to publicly support literature. It should be a defence that doesn’t rely on the market to justify it, nor on Australian nationalism. I’m not quite sure what that would look like, but it would be one step closer to a society in which we can support our creative artists, in a way that the market has already shown it cannot.

Jennifer Mills

The problem of acting individually is precisely what prompted me to start Pay the Writers. In large part I have been inspired by the emergence of precarious worker groups in other countries, particularly the Carrotworkers’ Collective and the Precarious Workers Brigade in the UK. The former was started by interns; both mobilise in a broader context against cuts to welfare, higher education and so on. So I see the attempt to create a discussion around this issue as vital to organising my own ‘workplace’, but I also recognise the broader context, in the sense that all work is increasingly precarious.

The cultural phenomenon of payment via exposure is worth examining in more detail. In our neoliberal context, creative work is often seen as a special or elite activity. People’s desire to attain the status of a ‘special’ creative worker is easily exploited. By arguing that creative work is ordinary work that deserves fair remuneration, we separate the actual labour (in this case, writing) from the image or identity (being a writer). We need our work to be a part of the economy if we are to live. At the same time, we don’t want to reduce our work to a product or a brand. I think this tension is at the heart of all ‘creative industries’ discussions.

Not everything can be absorbed by the market; indeed, many of us become artists in part to escape the brand/image realm of capitalism and to seek out something more affirming. Cultural work is a very complex thing to value. But the same is true of teaching, social work and being the CEO of a major polluting corporation, none of which is currently valued very accurately, in my opinion. So this is a problem with capitalism not with the arts. Nonetheless, since money is the best way we now have to ascribe value, it follows that money is our best measure of respect for creative work.

Benjamin, you say that the main problem here is that literary journals are failing. I would argue that the problem is much wider than this. The original incident that motivated me to write my blog post was an offer of ‘exposure’ from the Australian. Last I heard, Rupert Murdoch was not short on cash. As I said, there is pressure at every level of work for us to lie down and accept our own exploitation.

I would be the last person to argue that literary journals are out to get writers, but they do have an opportunity to set an ethical standard. Too often the problem is seen as a choice between supporting institutions or artists without asking whether we self-identify as producers or consumers in the arts. I think we are more likely to use words like ‘community’ and ‘network’ when we talk about a good journal. Also, the writers are the ones buying the literary journals. So if you support writers, you support the journals too – sometimes with incentives, such as the way Overland prioritises submissions for subscribers and Island now deducts a subscription from contributors’ fees. This can become a reciprocal culture, an example of an alternative economic model operating within the dominant one. In any case, accepting non-payment is not going to do anything to save a journal or website – eventually it is going to do the opposite by eroding their reputation with audiences.

I don’t think a journal like Overland or Cordite is really competing for market share (particularly Cordite, which is free). I’d say Overland is more about nourishing a conversation, providing space for discussion of ideas, and fermenting radical thought. It’s not ideal, but it tries to be a culture of community rather than of competition. And Overland does a good job of examining its own ethics around this issue, which is why we can have this conversation here.

The Melbourne Writers Festival internships are a good example of a grey area. MWF might not have the money, but there are ways that the festival could find it – corporate sponsorship or crowdfunding or begging for more government support – so putting pressure on literary events might be of use. These internships provide course credit to some students so that could make them worthwhile for some – I’d be interested in hearing from applicants and from the MWF about this.

I certainly agree that we as a society need to look at bigger picture ways to make the arts sustainable. You argue for increased public funding, and I do think this is a big part of what sustains creativity, but government support can be very fickle and unpredictable so it is good to have several ways of supporting ‘creative industries’ and cultural work.

I see four good approaches to this problem. First, we need adequate peer-reviewed government funding to both institutions and artists across all disciplines. Second, a culture of philanthropy (including the micro-philanthropy of crowdfunding) should be supported and encouraged. Third, underemployed artists and writers should be able to access welfare, just as workers in other industries are. Volunteer work in the arts should be recognised by Centrelink, and emerging writers and artists and musicians should be able to get the dole. Fourth, we ought to be working together to defend our incomes.

The MEAA and the ASA do not, in fact, ‘step in’ once you have a book contract or do some journalism. Most of the services they offer are focused on professional development (training, contract review and now indemnity insurance) and are accessible to members only. There is no-one a struggling writer can call to say: ‘Should I be getting paid something for this poem?’, ‘Is this internship fair?’, ‘Will I be able to work in this town again if I say no?’

So we need to figure this stuff out for ourselves.

I would love for something informal and grassroots like Pay The Writers to work closely with the MEAA, the ASA and other bodies to improve conditions for all precarious workers. My own experience with various attempts at social change, from masked street protests to institutional lobbying, has taught me that a multilayered approach is the most effective and sustainable way of shifting things. I believe this is urgent and am willing to try anything to establish a fairer working culture.

Benjamin Laird

Like Jennifer, I think that a multilayered approach provides the best means of establishing equitable pay for creative writers. Unfortunately, this is complex. If individuals face alone the question of when or when not to volunteer, or when or when not to accept pay, they are left hostage to their own negotiating abilities.

I agree with Jennifer about the need for adequate government support to institutions and artists, though, as I said, I think that if we are to achieve this, we need to develop an argument as to why literature should be funded in terms that ordinary people are likely to accept. This task only becomes more urgent with the likelihood of an Abbott government. If we want to defend and extend arts funding in a hostile environment, we need mass support – and that means honing our arguments about why art matters.

My feelings about philanthropy are more mixed. It is, after all, a very traditional source of funding, even if the idea has been re-imagined for our technological landscape through the various crowdfunding platforms. The problem, however, is that it has mostly been artists who are already established and who provide something in return – a film, an electronics kit, a chapbook (almost as a presale without guaranteed production of the product) – who have found their respective communities the most generous. For emerging writers – those most in need of support – funding success seems less guaranteed, especially for any kind of long-term project.

The demand that under-employed artists and writers should be able to access welfare seems a good one, even though it will entail swimming against the tide – we can probably expect even more welfare cuts in the future.

And, of course, I agree we should work together to defend our incomes.

As part of a campaign to pay writers, we need to start discussing the minimum amounts not-for-profit and for-profit organisations should pay their writers. Recently, Momentum Books, a digital-only publisher owned by Pan Macmillan, advertised for bloggers at $20 a post. From one perspective, this is a good thing: writers – bloggers at that! – being paid. Then again, just how much should bloggers receive from a company that is part of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which earns somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 billion Euros a year? Remember how the Huffington Post used its left-leaning credentials to induce countless people to write for free? Then, when Huffington Post sold, all $315 million went to the investors – and none went to the writers who had laboured under the misapprehension that there was no money in the publication.

As we can see, when talking writers’ pay rates, the context becomes vitally important. Paying per blog post is, quite clearly, cheaper than paying for all the conditions – superannuation, sick pay, holiday pay – of an employee. Thus we might look differently on Momentum Books offering a blogger $160 a month (the most said blogger could earn) if we knew that they were doing so to replace the staff reviewer or publicist who might otherwise perform the work.

As freelancers, we should avoid putting ourselves in arrangements where we replace pre-existing jobs. It’s important to see that we have interests in common with those who work within media organisations – that is part of recognising that commercial publications do make profits from our labour.

That is why we also should be arguing for minimum standards for interns and volunteers, standards that are both transparent and fair. It’s not just a question of writers showing solidarity with others in the industry. Increasingly, internships – even in non-writing roles such as publicity – are being seen by many aspiring writers and editors as a way into the industry. That is, the boundaries between writing and non-writing jobs are blurring.

Volunteers should not be used to replace a paid position at an organisation, and there should be clear guidelines published as to what is expected of them and what the organisation provides in return. Likewise for interns. Internships must provide actual training – that is, transferrable skills – and not simply a brush with industry. An intern should be working closely with a highly skilled employee with role-specific experience. This means that when an organisation takes on a publicity intern, the intern should be working side-by-side with a practised publicist.

Even as we fight to ensure that commercial publishers pay writers properly, I still think we need to develop collective, not-for-profit models of our own. Indeed, the two tasks complement each other. The relations of solidarity and support we develop building experimental, radical and alternative publications help us in struggling for decent treatment in the commercial world, just as whatever victories we achieve in fighting for pay spur our own efforts to build different kinds of opportunities for writers and writing.

Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

Benjamin Laird

Benjamin Laird is a Melbourne-based computer programmer and poet. He is currently a PhD candidate at RMIT researching poetry and programming and he is a website producer for Overland literary journal and Cordite Poetry Review.

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

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