'Pay The Writers', by Clem Bastow

Leonid Pasternak. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s an outrageous proposition for you: if you want to start a publication (print or digital), and you can’t afford to or won’t pay your contributing writers, don’t start the damn thing. Totally crazy, right?

Perhaps, but by the time we’d sat at our Pay The Writers meeting table for an hour, workshopping ways to ensure writers get paid, that was my exasperated outburst at the nameless, faceless, not-entirely-hypothetical tightwad publisher that expects to cram their “brand” full of “content” without paying the writers for it.

The lay of the land at the first Pay The Writers “big meeting”, held at The Wheeler Centre on Wednesday 30th July, is initially Beckett-esque; the Pay The Writers manifesto is read aloud, in full, including the paragraph, “We are calling a meeting at The Wheeler Centre on the evening of Wednesday 30 July to start to talk about how we can approach this issue collectively. This meeting will be open to all writers, editors and illustrators and those concerned about their welfare, especially those currently working as freelancers.”

The surreal nature of this is compounded by the fact that at that very moment, I have had to whip out my laptop and quickly file an edit so that one of my regular gig’s articles can be featured on the homepage. The “big meeting” reading continues. I type quietly and with purpose, wondering if this might in fact be purgatory.

A show of hands is called for anyone with a specific axe to grind. Three hands go up: would anyone like to speak about independent booksellers? What about performance poetry? Are there any other cartoonists in the room tonight?

This, in a nutshell, is the problem facing the “pay the writers” movement: where do you begin, and how much daylight is there between wondering if, say, a poet can rightly expect a modest honorarium from a not-for-profit literary journal, and wondering if it is, in fact, illegal for a commercial publication or website with a well-paid staff to expect its writers to provide content for free?

Perhaps the best place to begin, then, is at the end of the spectrum where the most heinous advantage-taking occurs: commercial publications and websites who do not pay, or grossly underpay, their writers.

The shaky consensus that emerged from the Pay The Writers meeting was that the onus needs to fall on making it clear which publications are “ethical”, so that writers can then make an informed decision as to who to write for. Think of it like American food safety gradings: you can take your chances with a greasy spoon that has a ‘B’ rating in its window, or avoid the risk of crook guts by dining at an ‘A’ establishment.

It stands to reason, then, that if a publication is forced - by an industry standard pushed, it would make sense, by the unions - to reveal itself clearly as paying poorly, within a slack time-frame, or not at all, eventually their quality of their content will fall as only writers who are prepared to submit to that treatment will submit. Not prepared to pay writers? Prepare to receive the work of base amateurs.

If the Pay The Writers movement is to gain any traction at all, we need to reframe the debate and see writers as skilled workers.

“Amateur” and “professional” seem far more charged in the context of writing than they do in, say, law or building industries; we would be happy to admit that uncle Joe’s friend Johnno is an amateur builder when he comes to slap a few bricks on the shed wall, but bristle at referring to someone as an “amateur writer”. This is because we are still in thrall to the idea that writing is somehow ephemeral; if the Pay The Writers movement is to gain any traction at all, we need to reframe the debate and see writers as skilled workers.

I am a professional, full-time freelance writer: in my case, that’s journalism and, when the bottom line demands it, copywriting. In an average week, I make around $750 from writing; sometimes more, rarely less. I write, roughly speaking, at least 4000 words a week. That’s what full-time freelancing takes, as much as some people seem dismayed to hear it. It also took me 15 years to get to this point (I have had many of the “vitamin soup” dinners so memorably and excruciatingly recalled in Richard Morgan’s memoir of seven years of freelancing) and I have an immense tax debt to show for it.

Even as I write this I can hear eyes rolling. However, mentioning all this is not showing off, nor thumbing my nose at performance poets or aspiring novelists; instead, it is in direct opposition to the ‘many writers don’t expect to be paid’ stance suggested in Jacinda Woodhead’s Overland piece, ‘Hard for the money’:

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.

Sure, go ahead and “participate in culture”, but do so cognisant of the fact that accepting low- or unpaid work in many cases makes it harder for professional writers to be remunerated appropriately. I am a professional writer: that’s my job. I expect—demand—to be paid for my job. Writers who are hobbyists, who have jobs that aren’t “writer”, undercut the market. Would they do their day job for free? Would they pay their rent with “exposure”?

And as my comrade Elmo Keep says, the flooding of the market with enthusiastic amateurs is at the root of the problem: “There is no way to verify officially in labour terms who is a professional writer and who is not.”

This is the Showgirls business model: “There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.”

As Elmo wrote in her compelling Meanjin piece, ‘They shoot writers, don’t they?’:

The huge problem now facing professional writers—that is, people who derive 100 per cent of their income from their trade as writers, not people who occasionally hobby as such—is that the base line of the market has dropped down to zero. There are a huge number of digital media outlets that have adopted a community service model of non payment despite the fact that they employ an industrial structure in which a lot of people make money, and there are more than enough people not charging for their work to allow this model to flourish.

And this is the key issue in this era of digital-media-driven free market capitalism: if a commercial publication offers me a pay rate that doesn’t adequately reflect and remunerate the amount of work I put into a piece, I may well turn it down, but I do so fully aware that there is a writer waiting in the wings who will enthusiastically accept $50 for 1000 words.

I’ll be frank with you: the continued debate this year about whether or not writers should be paid for their work has turned my brain to mush. It seems so close to impossible to convince people that writing has value (monetarily, not morally or existentially; the latter is a question for my therapist) that I am no longer capable of coming up with anything other than hamfisted analogies. Look at what happened when I sat down to write this piece:

“You can look at writing in two ways: firstly, as the thing a writer does to create the content you publish, and secondly, as the product of the writer’s work. So, by that logic, writing is both a trade and a product. Let’s say you opened a cafe: would you expect the barista to make those coffees for free, or the supplier to offload a few crates of beans, free of charge to you? Or, turn the tables: how would you feel if the customers expected to breeze out of your cafe clutching trays full of hot coffees without paying a cent for them? How many more crap metaphors can I throw at you?? TAPING MUSIC HURTS THE ARTISTS! YOU WOULDN’T DOWNLOAD A LOAF OF BREAD!!”

Look, in the end, it actually is as simple as this article’s opening gambit: Is your business making money? Are you, the editor, being paid? Are you selling ads? Pay the fucking writers, then.

Editor’s note: This piece does not officially represent the position of the Pay the Writers collective. The Lifted Brow pays all its contributors. None of the editorial team are paid. See our fee structure here.