‘Should a writer (musician / photographer / artist / illustrator / designer / actor) be paid?’
I’m in no small way discomfited by the cottage industry that now exists in writing about how there is no money in writing. We just love to have this conversation, over and over while getting nowhere. Yet again, okay, here we go!
First. Volunteer and not for profit concerns are very clearly marked as such. For example, community radio isn’t a profit-making enterprise for anyone involved. The salaries paid to the few staff members are generally low, and volunteers are unpaid, well, because they are volunteers. There is very little money in community radio because paid advertising violates the charter under which it operates. The station fulfils an important role tied directly to servicing its community. Volunteer positions are great for gaining experience, meeting wonderful people and hopefully finding mentors, and just for doing something that is all ‘round tops, civically speaking. You believe in the mission of an organisation that you volunteer your labour to for free or cheaply. Plus everyone feels good about going to work there. This is the model that literary magazines like this one work within.
Conversely, commercial websites and publications anywhere that sell advertising are for-profit enterprises existing only to make money. They employ a large roster of paid staff, a CEO, an accounting and ad sales department, and a strong advertising model. These certainly may publish a great deal of interesting things (or they never do), but it’s not a community service portal, it is a business. Therefore, in this model, there are people getting well paid and profit is earned from the work produced for and published on the site—without writers, without writing, the site would be an empty vessel of pointless design that no company would buy ads on. Therefore, writers should charge commensurate rates for the time they put into producing pieces for these publications because ultimately, a whole lot of people financially benefit from the writers’ work.
Not long ago, it used to be that new practitioners in a field would occasion to undertake unpaid work as this was a stepping stone towards paid work, which you earned your way into by acquiring the trade through practise. However, today, in the age of the perma-intern, the unpaid ‘opportunity’ has become the end in itself. There are few places left to step to. For writers today being published is not the problem—anyone can be published—earning a living from the published work is the problem.
Most recently Crikey became the target of white-hot focussed writer rage when Private Media decided to launch a new arts portal, The Daily Review, with no contributor budget. Some expressed discomfort at Crikey being singled out for an industry-wide practice, but that’s how public shaming works. Whoever can be made an example of will be. The action around The Daily Review began when one writer, Brisbane music critic, Andrew Stafford, refused their offer of unpaid work and wrote about it, with much ensuing coverage, on his blog. Several Crikey arts writers then signed a public boycott with the support of many other freelancers. I cosigned with them, though as I have never and will never write for Crikey, my risk was arguably nonexistent, unlike theirs. In what certainly looked like retaliation, Crikey wasted no time in spiking one of the boycotting writer’s pending commissions.
The whole thing was written up with no small amount of schadenfreude in the Australian and Fairfax papers’ media pages. Private Media’s CEO, Marina Go, made an arguably poor and writer-hostile decision in saying to Fairfax business journalist Ben Butler on the record, ‘Why would we have a conversation with contributors about our budget?’. She denied in The Age that there was no contributor budget despite evidence to the contrary (crazy how many journalists are friends with each other and are willing to share information!) and then insulted Butler on Twitter by referring to him as a cadet, though the tweet mysteriously disappeared from Go’s feed and she later claimed her account had been hacked. It was all pretty delicious as it played out and everyone benefited from the page views.
Except the Crikey bloggers, who remain largely unpaid.
In the end, Crikey released a statement on its own site which spelled out its commissioning structure, which was certainly a victory for transparency, but also a dispiriting exercise in reality: bloggers for the site are largely unpaid outside of traffic-generation bonuses and will continue to be so. Other commissions are paid, but reported rates for these are around $150 per piece. That is well below professional rates, though Crikey points out that it has 27 journalists on staff. Not enough, evidently, to produce all the site’s writing without resorting to the legion of serfs willing to give over their work for free. The obvious solution, i.e. publish less writing, has seemingly not been considered.
The ire reserved for Crikey was a particularly potent brew. The site has positioned itself as a kind of mainstream alternative enfant terrible with a special fondness for publishing not always accurate industry gossip. Eric Beecher, Crikey’s publisher, also sits as the Chairman of the board of the Wheeler Centre, an institution central to Melbourne’s designation as a UNESCO city of literature, that also has a firm policy of paying all its contributors and presenting artists. Crikey’s explanation of its commissioning policy was titled, inexplicably, Three Cheers For Our Writers. That same day Private Media posted a job ad, seeking a chief operating officer. ‘This will be an ideal role for you if you want to be part of a growing digital media company with a focus on conscious capitalism and purpose driven business principles.’ Presumably the position is paid.
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. There are lots of these for-profit low paying outlets: Broadsheet, Sound Alliance, Mamamia, The Vine, Pedestrian and Crikey all pay under $150 per piece to most writers and all have paid staff. Some pay contributors as little as $15 for 500 words (Broadsheet).
This currently intractable problem is in two parts: there are too many writers, 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. There are no industrial standards to hold practitioners to account and therefore no award wage can be legislated. There is no way to prevent people from giving their work away for free as it is not illegal to do that. So there is no way to stop the market from being continually devalued because we are continually flooded with supply.
The second—and to my mind, bigger—part of the problem is the publishers who accept and publish free work, or work of a very low standard, in the unending pursuit of the most clicks at the lowest cost. Clicks pay the bills! For the publisher! Not for the writers at places such as this. One has to wonder exactly what level of quality control a site’s editorial team is aiming for when they will publish work deemed suitable to run, but not suitable to pay for.
There is an even more insidious problem than free work, which is vastly undervalued work. ‘Rates’ that start at $50 and top out at $150, per piece regardless of length, with the average payment for online writing hovering somewhere in between.
A working freelancer should, at minimum, value their time at $50 per hour. That figure has to take into account every conceivable cost you incur in running your one person small business over the course of each financial year. Those costs being: rent, bills, superannuation contributions, tax, servicing debts, accounting costs, association fees, health insurance, travel insurance, liability insurance, income insurance and, hopefully eating. Factor into this a buffer, which you will require if you would ever like to take a holiday, buy someone a gift, or be able to cover an unexpected and huge cost, like emergency dental work, or a rental deposit—or for if a big commission falls through. Perhaps you’d like to even one day own your own home, in which case you’ll need a very secure and constant income stream (and to leave any capital city behind.)
With those factors in mind, if you are offered $50 for a piece, you should spend only one hour writing it, however many words long it is. I’m not sure which exact super power you possess (mine is arriving precisely on time for any meeting, anywhere, ever. It’s pretty baller), but a writer who can produce sparkling, error-free, lucid, entertaining and convincing copy to length in that amount of time should be earning a great deal more than $50 per hour.
The more existential reason why you should value your time properly is because you only get one life. This was very memorably brought home to me last year in a post John Scalzi wrote for his blog, one that every freelancer should print out and tape above their desk. He wrote, ‘This is all the time that I am getting in the universe, and I’m going to spend it how I see fit. That does not generally include writing for free for people who aren’t me.’ The hours you spend working are the same ones you aren’t spending doing literally anything else you want to do with the one very precious life that you have. If that time working is in reality building someone else’s for-profit business and they will not be sharing the spoils with you, you aren’t only wasting your own time—you’re wasting the time of everyone else who is trying to make a meaningful living, by devaluing the market in which they are trying to work.
Part of entering a field as a professional is being a good student of that field. Spending a lot of time listening, studying, paying attention, asking questions, doing your research, understanding its history and shutting up—before you enter it as an active agent. That includes having a very solid understanding of the market underpinnings of your field. No dedicated professional with thousands upon thousands of hours of practise under their belt appreciates someone vastly less experienced than they are charging much less money for doing the same kind of work. It’s not only a very disrespectful and unprofessional way to behave, it also wrecks things for everyone, you included (yes, devaluing a market also screws you over.) As it is under the law, ignorance of how much you should be charging is no defence.
There are people who make a living by writing for purely commercial, editorial publications, but they are very few in number and fall into roughly two camps: writers who came up in the print hey day and who are sufficiently secure in their reputations, connections and abilities to maintain good rates, and those who did not but who hustle like mofos, seven days a week. To be either of this kind of writer you have to have a very specific set of personality traits: bullet-proof self belief, a very high tolerance for rejection, and to thrive on the pressure that comes with having to continually secure where your next cheque will come from. There are magazines, broadsheets and a very small number of websites that still pay decent rates of 70 cents per word or above, and they are the publications you need to pitch in order to make a living this way. At almost every publication rates vary between writers on an often arbitrary and very mercurial scale; it has always been and so it will always be thus. But before you decide that pursuing this kind of writing career is what you want to do, here’s some more sobering maths: to earn a living wage of $50k per annum (affording all the payables mentioned earlier), you will need to successfully pitch, write and deliver to publication in excess of 70,000 words a year, every year—assuming you average 70 cents per word.
I hope you have a lot of good ideas.
I hope also that you realise the swiftness with which an increasing number of these publications are either closing, consolidating their staff or slashing their contributor budgets. They are not being replaced by digital editions, they are just no longer in business at all as their subscriber bases and circulations have fallen off the cliff in the face of free online publications from around the world, and along with them went the advertising revenue which underwrote the whole enterprise. What we are going to be eventually left with will be nothing but digital outlets paying appalling digital rates—that means that even fewer people will make a living this way than do currently. This is the exact same pattern that has played out across every industry disrupted by the Internet: goods became if not outright free, then very, very cheap, and then those goods became all there was. The revenues they generated did not rise to offset the losses made on the disappearance of physical goods.
And yet, people continue to establish new media properties in this environment, and the vast majority of them do so without budgeting for contributors at all—they know they don’t have to when there is an infinite supply of free labour. There are, also, the tiny, cheering few that start up with generous endowments from philanthropists and that plan on paying decent rates from the beginning. And bless you to those proprietors who realise they would have no product without writers.
At The Lifted Brow, where I am the Digital Director, no one on the editorial staff is paid, only the contributors. We run a revenue share model on our newly launched digital edition, where again any profit bypasses us and goes straight to the writer and the developer of the app. We hope that slowly, steadily over time, the revenues from our endeavours will increase, that grants we have applied for will succeed and that everyone can be remunerated much more handsomely than they are currently. In this equation, we would never ask contributors to work for free because we are a magazine; without writers we are nothing.
The brutal truth is that now is a very bad time to be trying to make a living as a writer, and it has never exactly been easy. But now, even veteran writers are suffering the effects of the devalued market. Writers as disparate as Nate Thayer, John Scalzi, Helen Razer, John Birmingham and Jonathan Franzen have each in the last year railed with varying degrees of seething anger against the new market realities inflicted on their trade by a cheap digital goods market.
Almost every writer who wasn’t obscenely famous, and even quite a few who were, did work apart from writing to sustain their career, and most continue to do so today. The skill of the writer—cogently communicating complex ideas—is extensively transferrable to other, well-paying fields. Not least to one of the most vital jobs there is: teaching. That’s what you should do too, especially in the climate our industry is in now. Jobs are great! They are also by far and away how most people who will ever read your work spend most of their time. That is your audience, not the person who never had a job other than writing and who labours under the misapprehension that this gives them insight into how people live. It doesn’t—that kind of life is alien to almost everyone, except the writer.
Speaking personally, I derive 100 per cent of my income from writing, but almost none of it comes from what I consider to be meaningful writing—essays like this, criticism, reporting on weird places, a book I am killing myself over. That stuff is (mostly) enjoyable for me, but I don’t expect that I will—or even should—earn a living from it. The market doesn’t lead me to think that I should, so I’m not going to stick my fingers in my ears and pretend that this profoundly broken market is going to magically provide me alone with fair recompense for my labour. I work as a consultant in an office part time, doing a lot of what could be described as dry, corporate writing and editing which confers the twofold benefit of paying very well and forcing me to work with language very economically within the narrow confines of a certain style.
I’m going to continue to work a job that pays my super, my tax, my HECS, my rent, and apply for grants where I can and then spend the remaining time doing the work that I really care about. If a miracle comes to pass in the next few years and a new metric-measurement model results in digital rates on par with print rates, then I might try again to earn more money from meaningful writing. Or not. All I care about is being able to do the work that I want to do, that matters to me, that I think is important. I hope people read it. I hope they like it. I hope they think about something afterwards they might not have before. I hope I can be better, I hope I can work with great editors. I hope I can be, one day, eventually, actually good.
I also intend to never, attach my byline again to anything only for the money. I will never again write anything that I am ashamed to put my name to, because Lord knows there’s enough of that out there for anyone who wants to find it, and sometimes I wake up at night in a sweat, fresh from dreaming of a way to hack the Way Back Machine. That kind of work is personally worthless, detrimental to the professional market, and not least, corrosive to public discourse. ‘Do I contribute something worthwhile with this piece?’ not, ‘Shit, I have to get paid!’ should be the motivation for the working writer.
More than anything I hope people learn to tell when they are being exploited and when they are being given a real opportunity; to differentiate between when they are watering their own little piece of turf and pissing on everyone else’s. Because although technocapitalism undoubtedly screwed most of us, there are still some people who have worked out how to make money in this new economy—mostly on the back of free labour. And like it never did before, nothing is trickling down now. Don’t be a serf, be free. But don’t give away your work for nothing in return.
27 Nov 13 at 11:04
As far as I’m aware the fulltime paid staff at Crikey are on less than 50k. Closer to 35-45k. Not that it justifies asking people to work for free, but yeah.
28 Nov 13 at 13:56
An excellent article and an excellent guide. Happy to contribute if you find my scribblings of interest. Cheers, Edward Eastwood Editor, writer, chief cook and bottle washer at The Mugwump Post
28 Nov 13 at 14:35
If you want to feel fortunate about being a writer these days, consider being a photographer – and on similar rates, keeping about $80k worth of camera gear at the ready, including updating it every two to three years. Plus data storage, duplicate / triplicate backups, powerful laptops for image processing, colour-accurate monitors, insurance for all that stuff, and so on – that’s a big mess of extra overheads you don’t have to worry about, right there! Yay, writing is ace!
02 Dec 13 at 19:43
Take it from me, Anonymous, even the most junior reporter at Crikey and its offshoots is on more than $45k – even by just a tiny amount. Feel exploited now?
14 Jan 14 at 13:42
I think the currency that writers are now chasing more than ever is prestige. It is still a somewhat intangible thing, but once you have established your name, the money should follow. Employers will look for evidence of ability and being a well known blogger or journalist is getting better recognition all the time. Your employer might not be a national newspaper but there are a lot of other employers who value good writing and they are more likely to let you carry on with your online pursuits so as to maintain a reputation.