I think we’re all across the idea that we’re not onto a money-spinner here – even at the executive level salaries have never, ever come close to those offered to senior players in other industries. So how did we get into this pit of quicksand, in which never expecting to make much money has rapidly morphed into being told not to feel entitled to earn any at all?
I hate saying this, because I completely understand why people do it, but I believe we’ve become our own biggest problem. We have rats in our ranks. These are rats that never meant to spread a plague – decent, hard-working rats, operating independently, never for one moment imagining they’re transmitting such a virulent disease – but rats that have nevertheless collectively brought the broader profession completely undone. Once professional writers started writing for nothing in areas where they’ve always been – and should always have been, goddamn it – paid, we were done for. It all happened so quickly... and I’m positive no one who’s been dishing out freebies realised the greater harm they’ve been visiting upon the whole. But here we are. Cannibalised from the inside out. And I don’t know how we come back from it now, I really don’t.
I’m reminded of the age-old lecture teenage girls get about the intrinsic value of their virginity (stay with me).
“Don’t give it away,” I remember being told, over and over and over again. “Once it’s gone, it ain’t ever comin’ back.” And that’s pretty close to how this new post-payment world feels... like too many writers have opened their legs a little too freely, a little too often, and now all the world thinks we’re a loose bunch of sluts who like it like that.
It’s hard to insist upon the sanctity of your profession when there’s abundant, sometimes embarrassing evidence of its continued debasement. Writers have always been vulnerable to moments of desperation, but now I think we’re actually starting to reek of it. And is it any wonder? It’s gone way past ‘internships,’ ‘work experience,’ ‘giving back, ‘retraining,’ and all the other euphemisms we have for not getting paid. Now really experienced people – industry leaders with exceptional skills – are routinely presented with the unbelievably obnoxious opinion that they should be happy and grateful to work for nix.
In his (now viral) blog post 'A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist', American journalist Nate Thayer shares an exchange he had with the global editor of the Atlantic magazine. It was emailed to me by a friend and later really caught fire on Twitter, as did author and editor Jennifer Mills’s local lament, ‘Pay the Writers’, which appeared on Overland’s blog in March.
Both are must-reads. Both are first-hand accounts tracking the alarming collapse of traditional payment arrangements between professional writers and the mainstream publications for which they sometimes write. It’s well worth following the hyperlinks, too. The hits just keep on coming.
It’s a bit chicken-or-egg in terms of which happened first, but it so happens that since free-freelance started flooding the market, commissioning budgets right across the board have been simultaneously slashed to shreds or bombed right off the grid. The phone just doesn’t ring anymore. My editors don’t call because they don’t have any work for me, and they don’t have any work for me because they don’t have any freelance budget and I don’t work for free. Over-stretched staff writers now handle most work in-house; enormously thankful still to be employed, they are highly unlikely to complain about being overworked. I should be so lucky.
I’m a deeply insecure, paranoid person – a typical writer – so once my main editor stopped commissioning articles, I began cultivating toxic doubts about the quality of my work. Once I got up the courage to ask her directly if there was a problem – which took some doing, let me tell you, because I’m a yeller belly into the bargain – she hastened to reassure me that the only problem was budgetary and that things would hopefully pick up again soon. I felt better, briefly, but things didn’t pick up and the hissing, spitting voices, those shiftless squatters in my mind, soon started up again.
I’ve been working as a professional writer since about 2006 – a flash in the pan beside a veteran of Thayer’s standing – but it’s worth noting that in that time, the media behemoth for which I mainly contribute has not increased its word rate for freelancers. I don’t think I’ve ever been paid the $1 per word the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) apparently set as its guideline 20 years ago, a fact mentioned in the comment stream after Mills’ piece. TWENTY YEARS – sob! I have no idea when my rate (75 cents per word) was set, but I do know it hasn’t moved.
While it’s heartening that a rate of pay still exists at all – I’m painfully aware it’s an endangered jungle out there – it’s telling that freelancers who are still remunerated haven’t seen a single pay-rise in at least 7 years. Not even one lousy cent per word. Or at least not this freelancer – there is ample evidence to suggest that I might be paid more (and more often) if I were a) a functioning illiterate celebrity or b) a man.
Finally about six weeks ago, my editor called (“I’m sorry, who is it?”) and asked me if I’d do a straight advertorial for the magazine of a weekend newspaper. I slavered down the line, giddy with relief and gratitude, ready to taste-test dog shit and give it a rave review if that was what was required. Off I went, floating on a cloud of euphoria, so pathetically gratified to have been asked. The job was worth $525 – and trust me, I earned every cent. I had to pay for a long phone call to Hong Kong, I spent hours transcribing the interview, and I wrote the advertorial to the very best of my ability, determined not to squander this (increasingly rare) chance to once again demonstrate my worth.
I filed ahead of deadline. The editor fired off an email shortly after: ‘Love that I can always count on you to do a great job.’
I must have read and re-read those words at least a dozen times before responding. I swelled with pride. I basked in the warm glow of that one short sentence. I told the voices, “See? She was telling the truth when she said it wasn’t me – there really hasn’t been any other work!” I felt soothed and re-energised all at once. I was ready for anything.
Except nothing. I wasn’t prepared for the big, fat ‘nothing’ that followed.
What was I expecting? Well, I guess I hoped I’d be ‘back on the radar,’ but perhaps the radar’s batteries remain dead flat. Maybe that truly was the one isolated piece of work she could offer a freelancer, although it seems preposterous when I put it like that. There’s no other work being commissioned? Really? Or is it partly that she knows I don’t work for nothing?
But wait. I should qualify that. I don’t work for nothing when the work is being done for a multinational media giant with staff and shareholders around the world. Those guys can afford to pay me properly, and so they bloody well should. For any ‘aspiring journalist’ who’s out there eagerly telling themselves that at least they’re getting runs on the board, and that everyone has to start somewhere, and that working for nothing is all part of the training ground, and that it’s better to be on the so-called ‘platform’ than watching it pass by like a low-budget Mardi Gras float, they need to understand that what’s actually happening is a crisis.
Just stop. Stop working for big newspapers, glossy magazines and cashed up online outlets for nothing – you’re only killing the very job you’re so desperate to get.
There’s another problem, too. If you can afford to work for nothing on a regular basis, you’re part of a very privileged class of writer that is, as both Mills and Gawker blogger Cord Jefferson point out, actually shrinking the pool of who writes. Jefferson’s post, ‘When People Write for Free, Who Pays?’ is challenging and thought-provoking. He says:
...it's incumbent upon all of us to recognize that this is the culture we breed when we offer to pay writers nothing or next to nothing, thereby immediately eliminating anyone who needs a paycheck in order to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads. Some writers may be able to hustle double-duty for a while, filing short stories during the day while waiting tables at night until their big break hits. But the field will still be overpopulated by people who came into it with money and security behind them.Cord Jefferson
The man has a point. My own efforts were, up until 12 months ago, heavily subsidised by my supportive husband’s salary. It was possible to overlook the gross disparity in his income and mine until he was made redundant on April Fool’s Day last year. Needless to say, my freelance writing career hasn’t cut it, and we’ve recently been living under his parents’ house. Even that is a privilege; it’s allowed me to keep writing.
But we can’t go on like this and I am amazed to think anyone can. Jefferson continues:
All in all, the creative landscape is starting to look more toxic than it's been in our lifetimes... publications are telling writers that they shouldn't expect to get paid...and meanwhile everyone wonders why we can't get more diversity in the creative ranks. One obvious way to reverse media's glut of wealthy white people would be to stop making it so few others but wealthy white people can afford to get into media. But in the age of dramatic newsroom layoffs and folding publications, nobody wants to hear that. So we trudge on, forgetting what a luxury it is to do what you want to do for a living rather than what you have to do to survive.Cord Jefferson
This sobering closing paragraph is humbling too, because Jefferson’s right – I love what I do, and how luxurious is that? It’s just that...well, it’s no longer a living. It was scant before – it’s untenable now.
It’s a thrill having an editor publish your work – I know that. When I started out, I was happy just having work run in the university rag. Not just happy – tickled pink. Hugging myself with glee. Soon after I graduated – my PhD an awkward elephant I was advised not to mention – I had two ‘Heckler’ columns run in the Sydney Morning Herald – no payment involved. Of course not, chaps; that column is specifically designed for the average punter, the amateur writer – there was never a question of being paid and that’s absolutely fine. There are plenty of instances – like a ‘civilian observer’ column such as ‘Heckler’ – in which it makes perfect sense to take the by-line and run. You just can’t feed, house and clothe yourself (and others) that way.
So here’s what I did: I sent a cover letter with the ‘Heckler’ tear-sheets to Jane Nicholls, then editor of Who magazine (and now CEO of The Global Mail, the not-for-profit news and features website).
For months, nothing happened. I began contributing to the media giant, always at 75 cents per word, while I worked on my terminally ill fiction manuscript (Exhibit A of the white, educated, middle-class writer in Jefferson’s sights). Then, miraculously, Jane Nicholls emailed me. She said my letter had sat on her desk that entire time, but she’d had nothing for me until that moment, when she was caught temporarily short-staffed. Would I like to come in and meet her? It was a dream response. Jane went on to give me a massive break: an in-house, full-time freelancing gig that lasted over four months. Properly paid – I don’t think it occurred to either of us that there was an alternative model. I owe that woman – and the terrific team she’d gathered around her – so much. And I wonder now if the chance Jane gave me even exists anymore. It used to be that unpaid published writing was a reasonably effective demonstration of passion and aptitude – not a promise to put out until the end of time like the town bike.
The impact of the Internet on the business of being a writer has been profound. As someone whose mind tends to leap ahead to anticipated consequences, I doubt we’ve seen more than a fraction of the long-term effects of all this volunteering. I regularly maintained a blog for over six years and I write unpublished (not to mention unpublishable) fiction, so not only have I participated with great enthusiasm in the virtual space, I’ve also consciously invested countless – truly incalculable – hours working on writing that has no potential to earn my household an income. None. (Hello, Mr. Jefferson, you’ve caught me at it again.)
The blog didn’t become a book and I didn’t become an Internet sensation, and the only thing my fiction has generated to date is a series of (sometimes very kind) rejection letters. I’ve also spent more coin entering short story competitions than I’m ever likely to recoup. Like many writers, I’m also happily committed to a substantial degree of work in kind, when payment is little more than a show of goodwill, a paper handshake – and token payment is not only much appreciated, it’s a lot better than no payment at all.
Many freelancers (myself included) are very happy to lend their skills to publications and organisations they believe in and which could never afford professional writers otherwise. We’re sympathetic to limited finances; these small outfits feel the hit every time they scrounge around to pay writers what little they can. And that predicament is fundamentally, crucially different to publications propped up by vast, profit-making corporations. Which is why, as a journalist, as a professional writer in the mainstream press, I refuse to work for nothing. Why should I? And if editors are planning to stop paying no matter what I do, then...well, shit, I guess that frees me up to keep writing fiction! It’s already looking like I’ll have to leave media and find a proper income elsewhere, but of course I’ll keep writing. I’ll just stop producing the kind of work I’ve always done for money.
I worry a lot about what’s happening. It’s directly affecting all writers and yet as individuals, most people I talk to feel powerless to stop it. We can hold fast to our principles, to our reasonable belief that we ought to be adequately remunerated for the job we do, but that won’t stop the swirling winds of change, it won’t stop the current twister from gaining strength and speed and eventually levelling the writer’s landscape.
What seems clear already is that if writers – experienced professionals and hungry amateurs both – continue giving it away, well, media outlets will stop paying the lot of us. Why wouldn’t they? They’re businesses, and all these willing volunteers add up to nothing so much as a lovely bonus for any company’s bottom line.
For your diaries ...
May is Sydney Writers’ Festival time, yippee, so get along and support Varuna’s fabulous Blue Mountains program.
Alumni including Tegan Bennett Daylight, Mark O’Flynn, Jesse Blackadder and Diana Jenkins will be participating in SWF events in Sydney and/or Katoomba.
Click here for program information and booking.
You may remember a 2012 feature by News Editor Diana Jenkins on 5x15 London; now she’s presenting at the Australian launch of 5x15 as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Saturday 25 May at 5.30 pm. Speaking are Amelia Lester of the New Yorker; Scottish author Jackie Kay; hip hop artist and manager Urthboy (a.k.a. Tim Levinson); British novelist Kate Mosse and renowned cosmologist Lawrence Krauss. Don’t miss this storytelling smash. Tickets are $20 and you can book online here or call 9250 1988.
And for all alumni poets and appreciators...don't miss the Red Room Company's fabulous SWF event, Unlocked! Sunday 26 May, 3-4 pm, Philharmonia Studio.
Unlocked: poets, police and prisoners – a series of poetry readings from, and a panel discussion inspired by, a poetry program running in NSW correctional centres. Poets include Anthony Lawrence, Philip Hammial, Solo, Gareth Jenkins and Lorna Munro. Presented by Johanna Featherstone and The Red Room Company.
Best of all, it’s FREE and no booking is required. For more information about participating poets, please Click here.