Hard for the money

Simone de Beauvoir was not an early riser, apparently. She worked from ten until one (fifteen minutes of which was spent editing work from the day before), visited with friends in the afternoon and wrote again for a few hours in the evening. Gay Talese, of ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’ fame, spends writing days in his townhouse basement, said to be ‘bigger than many Manhattan apartments’; he rises at five, dresses in his suit, heads to his bunker and writes a page or so. It’s not unusual for him to take a decade to finish a book.

Writers often find the routines of other writers enthralling. But our perceptions of writers are much like our perceptions of books: we don’t see the zero drafts or first drafts of writers’ lives – and rarely do we think about the routines of chasing up invoices or negotiating $100 fees for 1200-word pieces.

Yet, many of us do live the zero-draft-writer-life – fighting for the remuneration we dearly hope will lead to a spacious Manhattan bunker. In reality, the question of how a writer might earn a living has never been more problematic.

Over the last twenty years, Australian publishing has been dramatically restructured. As Mark Davis found almost a decade ago, a major shift occurred with the introduction of Nielsen BookScan, data from which changed the industry’s mind about what Australians were actually reading. But the decline of the literary paradigm was, Davis notes, also due to the ‘broader social and governmental shifts related to globalisation’ and the emphasis on ‘free-market notions of deregulation, privatisation and trade liberalisation, and the rise of the global information economy’. The shrinking of independent publishers and booksellers greatly impacted on the industry, too. All in all, it’s considerably harder to get a literary novel published these days.

In the newspaper industry, declines in readership and production have been accelerated by the web. Digital publishing means shorter turnarounds and fewer costs, but has also resulted in a casualised workforce and the disappearance of whole professions. Many writers or editors now do their own fact-checking, subbing, headlining, image sourcing, layout and design.

It’s no exaggeration to say that publishing’s economic models are in crisis, or that readers are no longer relying on hegemonic news sources for their understanding of the world.

In a piece last year for the Meanjin blog, Elmo Keep claims that one of the root causes of this crisis is the surge in amateurs writing for the web. This rapid growth in creative expression has, she argues, stripped writing of its value and eroded notions of professionalism.

‘There are too many writers,’ she says, ‘or at least people who refer to themselves as such. There is no way to verify officially in labour terms who is a professional writer and who is not. There is no bar exam for you to pass before you can practise. You just start.’

If publishers would just keep the bar at an elevated level instead of pursuing online ‘clicks’, Keep argues, professional writers would be recognised as the skilled workers they are and, importantly, would be paid accordingly.

Keep is not alone in this analysis, and there is certainly some truth in the argument. Never before in the history of the world have so many people written. Never before have so many people identified as writers, or enrolled in qualification courses at every strata of the education sector.

Still, it’s surely a good thing, a democr­atic thing, that the internet has circumvented traditional publishing, offering marginalised and would-be writers a way to publish and potentially establish a reading community. Everyone should have the opportunity to produce and participate in culture.

Besides, terrible pay and work conditions are not entirely a recent development; these were, in fact, one of the reasons the Australian Society of Authors was established in the first place. A 1967 issue of Broadside (the society’s then magazine) reports on a member survey that revealed the grim financial situation for freelancers: ‘the fees paid for contributions are even worse than is generally realised.’ Interestingly, the article – penned almost half a century ago – laments the flood of ‘poorly paid, part-time and mainly amateurish’ writers, too.

Even in times of economic boom, writers found it difficult to get paid for their labour – despite the ASA establishing industry rates for non-staff writers. That being said, it’s clear that the situation is now particularly dire.

The ASA and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the two organisations representing writers and their professional interests in Australia (though only the MEAA is a union in the traditional sense, with about 1500 freelance members), suggest ‘minimum’ rates: they recommend, respectively, $892 and $925 per 1000 words, for both print and online publication. For the ASA, these rates apply to fiction, too.

Per line, the poetry rate is $3.13; for poems of up to forty lines, suggested payment is $125.00, with the princely sum of $938.00 recommended for poems of 201–300 lines.

With books, the ASA recommends the writer be awarded 10 per cent of potential royalties: ‘Thus for a $32.95 paperback with a first print run of 3000 copies, the potential royalty to be earned would be $9885.00.’

Both organisations argue that writers should be paid if anthologised – more if the work was previously unpublished – and for each year their work is online. There should also be remuneration for public appearances: $350 per session (slightly less if it’s for a school) and $230 for a thirty-minute reading or performance.

In reality, it’s only for specialist writing and custom publishing – corporations, government departments, industry magazines – that writers receive such rates. For the most part, rates vary tremendously, even between common and well-established outlets.

Few commercial publications still feature fiction or poetry. Among the journals, poems generally receive between zero and $100, though the Australian Book Review offers a minimum of $200. For short fiction, it depends on the finances of the journal: again, rates range from a gratis contributor copy to $500. Griffith Review uses a hierarchical system for its content, which means that some writers are paid generously and others averagely, but its poetry is by invitation only.

As for nonfiction, the Monthly offers $1 per word, at least to celebrity writers, though it’s only 80 cents a word at Morrie Schwartz’s new venture, the Saturday Paper. The Sydney Review of Books pays up to $1000 for lengthy literary criticism. At the Age it’s 60 cents a word for reviews and weekend features, with bigger names earning $1; with commentary pieces, it’s $150–$200, though like many publications, the Age rarely volunteers this information, forcing new writers to try and solicit a fee. News Corp is said to offer 50 cents and up, depending on the publication, though The Punch pays nothing. At the Guardian it’s 60 cents a word for commissioned articles, and only $150 for Comment is Free pieces.

Most freelance online pieces in Australia are paid $50–$200, regardless of word length. Thus, a writer would have to produce a commentary piece a day to make something like minimum wage. Even august international publications pay pittances: the New York Times offers $75 for op-eds, while The Atlantic online offers $100 for 500–1000 words.

Frankly, you can’t feed a goldfish on what most writers are paid.

Of course, writers often create for reasons outside of payment. In ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell identifies four primary (non-monetary) motivations for writing, two of which are ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ and ‘political purpose’. The first is the ‘perception of beauty in the external world’ or the pleasure taken in words ‘and their right arrangement’. The latter, the desire ‘to push the world in a certain direction, or to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of world we should strive after’. Indeed, outside of tabloid journalism or commercial writing, hardly anyone writes solely for money. Even in nonfiction, the various levels of craft – knowledge, research, syntax, sentence elegance, story, etc. – matter as much or more to most writers than money. Nevertheless, most writers do want to earn something.

‘It doesn’t matter how radical you are,’ writer and editor Jennifer Mills wrote last year, ‘you don’t dismantle capitalism by denying yourself a living wage.’

Sick of unpaid or low-paid labour being framed as a choice that each individual writer has to make (rather than as a problem affecting the industry as a whole) and enraged after the Australian initially said it couldn’t pay her for a story, Mills decided to organise. She launched a collective known as Pay the Writers, which is less a traditional campaign and more ‘a space to discuss the issue, expose poor standards in the industry and support [other writers]’. It maintains a Twitter feed and a website that links to information and resources. Over the past year, Pay the Writers has given oxygen to the issue: the result has been repeated discussions of pecuniary matters, most frequently on social media, with a growing consensus that the promise of ‘exposure’ is no longer an adequate compensation.

Despite the commonalities in conditions for freelance writers – no holiday leave, no sick days, no superannuation, no overtime, no workplace regulations, no infrastructural support – the hurdles in organising a campaign for writers are obvious. For a start, there is an absence of communal physical spaces – because of the internet, publishing spaces and writing pools are national, if not global.

Nonetheless, late last year, Bethanie Blanchard, Laurence Barber and Byron Bache wrote an open letter declaring they would not write for free for the Daily Review, the new publication launched by Private Media, or allow it to syndicate their unpaid Crikey work (this was, effectively, the model the arts publication initially proposed to supplement its staff content). It was one of the most public actions taken collectively by writers in Australia and was a courageous stance; many other freelancers and critics signed on.

The campaign was a success: the publication no longer expects free content and various writers involved have since been approached for paid work.

For Blanchard, one of the boycott’s organisers and a regular Crikey blogger, the action added to her resolve ‘to simply ask about pay, to open the conversation’. She recognises that public discussions – and condemnations – are crucial: ‘if we collectively keep asking these questions of large publications, it forces them into self-examination.’

‘I think the Daily Review controversy showed that publishers are quite sensitive to industrial action,’ prolific freelancer Ben Eltham observes, ‘particularly when it starts to inflict reputational damage.’

Eltham is right: this is not a crisis writers can solve as independent agents or by negotiating each paid job individually (and thus on the terms of the employer or publisher). Fighting for better pay requires a recognition that writers face a common problem, one that requires a collective solution.

Pay the Writers is an excellent beginning, but larger action is also required. Such a campaign would be strengthened by writers joining their union, the MEAA, although the ASA also has influence here. Indeed, challenging this situation will require collective organising across the sector.

Debates about exploitation in publishing often focus exclusively on writers, but that is a blinkered approach. Across the entire publishing industry, employees (whether writers or not) are low paid and insecure. Editors, for instance, work fifty-plus hours a week, take home manuscripts in the evenings and are frequently paid between $35,000 and $60,000 a year. One editor friend of mine works in a publishing house that has stopped replacing editors who finish up, even though there is no reduction in book projects.

All publishing employees want the same thing: decent treatment, better pay and an industry that values their work. By joining the MEAA, writers – as well as editors, publicists, designers and other publishing workers – can build and grow campaigns based on issues common across the industry. This potential for broader solidarity is important because we’re much stronger and harder to ignore together than apart.

But the union is only as strong as its members – and writers (particularly freelance ones) need to agitate to put their concerns on the agenda. Part of being a union member is arguing for certain campaigns and directions based on what workers in the industry want and need.

One of the main criticisms of the MEAA and ASA is that their rates are woefully unrealistic. Changing these policies – and demanding better protections more generally – is something that needs to be pushed for.

‘I would like to see MEAA and ASA accept the contemporary creative labour market for what it actually is and to campaign for better rates at the bottom end,’ Eltham says. He points out that the industry’s $100 (or thereabouts) flat rate for online pieces was an arbitrary decision, determined by an unknown rationale but now adopted by many publishers.

‘If we could work on a minimum-rate campaign,’ he suggests, ‘say $200 or $250 for an online article, that might work to drag rates up across the board.’

I would phrase this slightly differently: the rates should be ones that we – writers, with the help of the MEAA and ASA – will collectively organise around.

Industries change their practices because of pressure. The Daily Review boycott showed what was possible when writers act collectively. We need a union-backed campaign that employs similar tactics: identifying publications that refuse to meet the stated minimums decided upon and then publicly naming and shaming them. If a publication still refuses to lift its rates, writers – and hopefully others – will have to tap into the resolve of the Daily Review boycotters and collectively black ban it.

But that raises another important question. If we are going to fight seriously about pay, we cannot simply set the same rates for all publications – we would not expect a new experimental poetry collective to pay the same as the Herald Sun or the Saturday Paper. Moreover, because writers do not write primarily to earn money, we need to recognise the legitimacy of aesthetic or political projects that are not – and never will be – commercial.

‘Labors of love will always exist, and that is a good thing,’ notes Evan Kindley on Avidly, responding to the criticism that American literary and political projects weren’t paying writers enough, ‘you can’t simply bracket out what people care about in the name of a more just economic arrangement.’

The desire to create and participate in culture goes to the heart of the creative-versus-remunerative dilemma. As I have said, writers are often impelled by non-mercantile motives: a pleasure in executing a fine short story, a desire to make a political or cultural contention, a longing to capture an impression or sentiment in strings of letters and punctuation. Most of the time, a writer crafting a poem, short story, novel or essay is not thinking about money. For some writers, remuneration never converges with publication.

That is why the campaign needs to establish and publicise distinctions between different kinds of publications.

Experimental online poetry journals, for example, survive only because everyone involved is committed to literature. No-one at a journal like Cordite is getting rich. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s a not-for-profit project based on shared enthusiasm, the same kind of enthusiasm that inspires poets to write in the first place.

There are all kinds of literary and political projects that have traditionally relied on volunteer labour – and not merely from writers. Overland, for instance, falls into that category. We are a not-for-profit magazine that is primarily a political and cultural project – we offer all our writing free online because we think the dissemination of ideas is the most important reason for our existence.

This does not mean that literary, political and similar journals should be above scrutiny. In fact, taking the Pay the Writers campaign forward will involve setting appropriate standards for these publishers as a group. It might be legitimate, for instance, for a small poetry magazine to ask contributors to write for a nominal sum – but only if the journal itself is a not-for-profit venture that distributes what resources it has in an equitable fashion.

It is not a question of whether a particular writer feels sufficiently committed to this or that project to waive the normal fee. Rather, it’s about establishing standards for not-for-profit and commercial publications – and then collectively ensuring they live up to those standards. (Once these rates are established and met, writers would, of course, be free to donate their payment back to the project.)

Building such a campaign will not be easy. A good place to start would be with a meeting involving representatives of the MEAA, the ASA and as many writers who could be induced to attend. This would be a forum to decide collectively on our expectations, motivations and demands. What pay rates, for example, are we prepared to accept from commercial publications? Do we recognise the distinction between print and online payments? What do we think about new writers trying to break into the industry working for free? How should volunteer work be treated in the sector?

Equally importantly is a forum for a renewed discussion about arts funding, one involving writers, editors and other publishing workers. For the immediate future, state funding will continue to be crucial for most creative writers, helping to supplement other jobs and, in some circumstances, fund entire projects. As Mark Davis argues, the ‘literary paradigm has always required external, non-market support to survive’. We need to be able to defend the financial support that culture receives from the state (for a primer, start with Alison Croggon’s essay ‘Why art?’ in Overland 212). Creating space for such public discussions should be an essential part of any writer-led campaign: in a time when economic rationalism and neoliberalism rule, why should all our taxes go to funding war, detention centres and corporate subsidies?

But we must also avoid reducing all writing to a fee. Abandoning culture to the market will give us a future where only those who can afford to will produce it, and all they will craft are odes to iron ore.

Thanks for the time, insights and ideas of Jennifer Mills, Aaron Bady, Alice Bell, Giovanni Tiso, Mel Campbell, Ben Eltham, Alison Croggon, Louise Swinn, Jessica L Wilkinson, Jane Gleeson-White, Bethanie Blanchard, Jacinta Le Plastrier, Lisa Dempster, Sam Twyford-Moore, Benjamin Laird, Jeff Sparrow, the ASA and the MEAA.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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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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