Monday 14 December 2009

Play for Pay?

Last week I read about a professional writer expressing his anger at pay rates offered by a small press internet venture. Mike Stone posted about it on his live journal and invited comments. He received a pretty mixed bag.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read and had a good think about the subject and I doubt it’ll be the last. To most it’s pretty cut and dry, but I’m still not completely sure of my own stance on the subject.

The first piece of writing I ever sold was to a Canadian magazine in 2004. The Adventures of Jack and Jill was a short nursery rhyme about cider-drinking, gun-toting psychos and it earned me two US dollars and a contributor copy of Champagne Shivers. I still have the cash and I intend to spend it in New York some day. Can’t see it buying me anything more than a chocolate bar, though.

Luckily, in the last six years I’ve improved my writing and been cannier in the majority of my dealings. I’ve received funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Screen for my writing and a couple of pieces sold kicked back more than five pence a word, which seems to be a professional rate minimum by most definitions. Does that make me a pro writer yet? Nope, because it’s nowhere near enough to feed even one of my kids, never mind my whole family.

So I work a full time job to pay the bills. And I appreciate the fact that I’m lucky enough to have a decent and safe job, even though my ultimate goal is to write for a living. At the minute, writing is something that makes my life more interesting. It’s fun for me (well, most of the time, it can be frustrating too but you can have a slump on the golf course too, can’t you?), and sometimes all I want to do is finish a piece of writing and see that it gets a decent home.

Nothing But Time, a short story I set in Maghaberry Prison, appeared on Pulp Pusher last month. It’s not a paying venue but it does have a decent following as far as I can gather. And with folk like Keith Rawson and Alan Griffiths published there, I’m keeping good company. Plus it’s run by a terrific full time writer by the name of Tony Black. So what did I get for Nothing But Time?


To be honest, I don’t think so. A couple of people left nice comments on my blog and on Facebook when I posted a link to it, but they’re people who’ve read my stuff in the past and (I hope) will read more in the future. To the best of my knowledge, the story didn’t reach any new readers. But I liked writing that piece. Enjoyed editing it. Really got a kick out of the fact that Tony Black liked it enough to include it on his website. That’s a pretty decent return in my book.

I don’t plan to make a habit out of giving away short stories, though. If I’ve let one go for free lately, I probably liked the publication or the editor behind it. What I won’t do in the future is give away reviews, articles or short stories to publications that could afford to pay me. I’ll not fill a slot in a magazine or a newspaper without a decent kickback.

That’s where I stand with the payment issue I guess. Like an accountant might do a tax return for a mate and expect nothing in return except a pint, I’ll continue to give away the odd short story for free to people I like. If that bugs you, dry your eyes. I will, however, work harder to negotiate payment for articles and the like that make it into any publication that can afford to pay. As for novels... well, that’s my agent’s job. I’m not going to worry about that here.

My ultimate point in the writing of this? Hell, yeah, writers should be paid. But not all writers are good enough to be paid right away. So the places that don’t pay and offer only ‘exposure’ or a very small payment have their place. They build a writer’s confidence and give them something to show their family and friends. But unless they aim a little bit higher with every other thing they write, they’re probably going nowhere. In which case, all the writers who want to be paid could probably chill out a little. It kind of thins out the competition in a tight market, doesn’t it?

I have one question (in three parts) about an area that I think is a little grey. Please do weigh in if you have an opinion. What about blogging? That’s writing for free, isn’t it? Why is that okay?

Related Links

Mike Stone's Live Journal

Champagne Shivers

Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Screen

Nothing But Time


Michael Stone said...

Interesting post, mate. I agree with pretty much everything you've said. Getting stories accepted for publication is a massive morale boost and part of our education. They're the first rungs on the ladder. Will we ascend to the higher rungs? Time will tell. I haven't given a story away to date, but that's probably because the market for sf/fantasy/horror is much bigger than that for crime. There's always somebody willing to give one cent a word if you look hard enough.

The guy that provoked my LJ post -- John Scalzi -- earns around thirty-five cents a word for his short stories, and has earned as much as fifteen dollars a word in the past, so it's quite understandable that he looks at the low paying markets with a wrinkled nose. The thing is, though, Scalzi was a professional novelist before he was commissioned to write any short stories. That makes a HUGE difference.

Yes, writing for one cent a word, or even five cents a word, is slave labour compared to any other occupation, but I see it as an apprenticeship. I'm just a teaboy at the moment, but f I watch and learn how the masters do it, and practise, practise, practise...well, someone's got to take their place when they retire. :)

adrian mckinty said...

Ger, Mike,

The reason actors have a union is because all actors would basically work for free to get the exposure, but the union protects them from doing that; in the SAG for example there are certain guild minimums every actor must get otherwise no a second of footage will be shot. In publishing there are no guild minimums and publishers are free to exploit writers as much as they want knowing that there will be always be someone who is just desperate for the exposure and who will take any amount of money (often nothing) and who is probably younger, hipper and more marketable than the writer who's manuscript is in front of them and whose agent has the effrontery to ask for a living wage.

I have no solutions for this problem. Just cosmic rage and despair.

Gerard Brennan said...

Mike - Yeah, man, if you're already a successful novelist it makes a world of difference. From one teaboy to another, best of luck with the promotion!

Adrian - Just so we're totally clear, I'm with you on the payment thing for novels. A novel can take up a year or more to complete. It'd be lovely if the average writer's first advance resembled a year's salary and then increased in line with the writer's popularity...


Anonymous said...

Maybe it's easier (on your own morale) if the giving away stories only happens after you've got paid for something else. That way you can justify it as exposure, profile-building, etc - and not as beginning as you fear you may forever carry on.

Michael Stone said...

Adrian, a writers' union would be a terrific thing, certainly at pro level, and I don't see why such a thing couldn't be made to work.

If it were implemented at small press level though it would sound the death knell for 99% of small press publishers. It'd sort the wheat from the chaff, but we'd be losing the baby with the bath water (hey, I can mix metapors with the best of em!). I don't see how that would benefit anybody.

I just read the comment on your blog about Scribner and DIWMB. I can understand the cosmic rage and despair thing, mate. It's bloody annoying to hear that kinda thing as a reader, never mind as a writer. Bring on the union!

Alan Griffiths said...

Hi Gerard,

I read your post with interest (all your posts are interesting by the way) and was amazed that I got a mention – thank you very much sir.

I had my first short published just over a year ago on A Twist of Noir. I was gobsmacked when Rat Fink was accepted by Chris Grant and the buzz I got from that inspired me to write some more. Like you I targeted Pulp Pusher because I liked the feel of the site and the quality of the writing, I thought, was very good (it still is). I’d heard that Tony Black set high standards so I wrote a piece specifically for PP and was pleased as punch when Tony replied to my submission and suggested some changes. I made the changes and was delighted when Tony accepted the piece.

What I’m trying to say here is that getting these pieces published and on other webzines like Thrillers Killers n Chillers has done great things for my confidence, which in turn, I hope, has improved my writing. I say improved because one thing I do know is that I am writing more these days and that, I think, is a key point. Write, write and write as well as read, read and read is essential to any inspiring writer.

My writing is still sporadic and that’s one of the reasons why I started a blog four months ago, hoping that this would give my writing a kick start, which, I think, it has.

I completely agree that writers should get paid for their work, particularly longer pieces, novels and novellas etc but for now the unpaid short stuff is fine for me because it gives me a chance to see my work published and the confidence boost to write some more. I also think it is important for writers to support these sites and submit material to them. Without submissions these webzines will fold and that will be another vehicle lost to budding scribes like me. And don’t forget that these places are run by some fine people who do it just because they love reading and writing fiction and they do not get any monetary profit from them (or I don’t think they do).

I also agree that writers need to challenge themselves and progress. I still class myself very much as a rookie but I hope that someday I’ll see my work published in hardcopy print, an anthology is my goal or a maybe a magazine.

Thanks again for the hat tip Gerard – much appreciated.

MRMacrum said...

Interesting post and excellent comments. While I cannot address the monetary aspects of writing, I can share my view as a blogger who has been doing this writing thing for free these last five years. I write because I have to. I have no other need to satisfy other than this obnoxious itch to put words together. Blogging has satisfied that itch so far. That others might enjoy some of what i write is icing on the cake.

In the last year though I have toyed with amping up my efforts with writing in general. Fiction specifically. I feel I either need to strive for that next level or back off and write only when the spirit moves me. My visit here is an indication of that effort.

Thank you for this candid post.

David Cranmer said...

I'm not sure if its my place to speak but here I go anyway. I run a small e-zine that does its best to put out quality every week. I have a professional editor that works with the writers of stories I've selected. We can't pay for the material at this point and I'm not sure when or if we will. But Sophie Littlefield, James Reasoner, and this week Robert J. Randisi have all contributed stories. The audience is growing and the positive feedback I receive from writers and readers tell me there is a place for what we do at BEAT to a PULP.

Gerard Brennan said...

Blackwatertown - Seems a sensible enough approach.

Alan - Yeah, you're right. We all need to start somewhere and if the publication's editors and readers are good people, then how could that be a bad thing? Just wish there were more like-minded people out there who could afford to pay us.

Good luck with getting your work in print. It's surely just a matter of time.

MRMacrum - Thanks for stopping by. Go for it, man. Write whatever floats your boat (or hikes your bike).

David - It is certainly your place to speak. I'm delighted that you've weighed in. This post is pretty much about you and others like you.

There is definitely a readership for your site and others like it, and there's no arguing with the fact that you publish quality work (with Elaine Ash's help).

I hope you're in a position to pay the writers at some point in the future, and I'm sure you do too.

Keep up the great work.



Chris said...

I agree with David that there's a place for quality non-paying markets, and in fact, they can yield tremendous benefits beyond simply padding one's resume.

I've been published in markets that pay professional rates and heard zip about the stories once they've gone out. I've been published in non-paying markets that have yielded award nominations and attention from agents. And of course there's the story of Stuart Neville; all he got out of his appearance in Thuglit was a T-shirt and an audience with an uberagent, which led to a book deal and a host of best-of-2009 list appearances.

Truthfully, I think too much is made of pay/no pay when it comes to shorts. The key is the quality of the editing, the profile of the publication, and the vision of the people at the helm. As long as you do your due diligence and make sure the publications are edited and legit, the pay rate is academic. Shorts are never gonna pay the bills, but they might just give you a hand toward getting there.

Unknown said...

I'll agree with Adrian about novel writing. Anything that takes as much time and energy to write as a novel should be fairly compensated.

With Short fiction and publishing in the zines, I personally consider the zines to be the training ground for many, many writers (Myself included.) it's also a great way to build an audience, so that when you eventually sell a longer work, the audience you've attracted through the zines will hopefully be willing to pay fifteen-to-twenty five dollars in order to read your new work.

And David, BTAP is an absolutely vital market and the writing community is a better place because of its existence.

marco said...

With regards to Mike's point, Scalzi addressed a particular market (sf/fantasy/horror) which paid 1/5 of a cent per word while planning to sell their (not particularly refined) printed product at 2 or 3 times the cost of accredited magazines.
A very dubious endeavor, which calls to mind vanity presses that try to make money out of would-be authors more than the various free online webzines or the printed fanzines which pay in contributor copies and aim at breaking even.
Many of the authors who intervened have said that they had no problems at selling their stories at lower rates then normal or even giving them away for free when they trusted the editors or the project.

Sarah Monette says it very clearly:
"there's a difference between markets that don't pay well (or at all) and markets that are trying to exploit writers. That's the difference you need to learn to see, and it isn't necessarily blazoned forth in the pay rate. All Hallows may not pay, but they love ghost stories as much as I do.

*ETA: I am not in any way, shape, or form arguing with John's denunciation of Black Matrix."

adrian mckinty said...

My problem isnt really with the zines but with the publishing houses who protest about straightened economic times but somehow arent reducing salaries or laying people off or even printing books on cheaper paper. It doesnt take a genius to see how they are making the requisite savings.

seana graham said...

Great discussion, guys. I think I agree with parts of what everyone says, and am really trying to think what would be most helpful to someone who is trying to get work published, because I think we all have illusions about what writing is and is not in the contemporary landscape.

I've gotten maybe 12 or 13 stories published in the last few years, mainly by making a very concerted effort to do so. I have ended up making a small amount of money on some of them, but all of them were submitted blind without regard for that. I wouldn't want anyone to think that they shouldn't submit to a magazine just because they can't afford to pay writers, because sometimes that leads on to other things, and although I think writers should be paid for their work, I don't think that that is the primary reason writers usually write. I also think that some of the rewards turn out to be something different than the monetary ones.

As an aside, I was listening to a radio show last night where to reviewers were reminiscing about the late Michael Crighton. Crighton wrote his first novel while he was in medical school. He sold it eventually as a movie, but he did not take money as payment--he asked instead to learn how to direct. And he did and a lot of his fortune ended up being associated with his savvy around the movie industry.

But back to my own experience. I liked getting the stories published and I think there is a kind of wonderful if ingrown community around the literary short story. Everyone involved works hard and pretty selflessly in support of this highly abstract greater end. But a feeling of dissonance grows up. Who are we writing to and what are we writing for? What does it really matter that we publish?

I still don't know the answers to that, but having just done
this month, I do find that writing fiction uses my brain differently than anything else and I enjoy it. I'm still somewhat disengaged from the whole process, but I no longer think that figuring everything out is really necessary, or probably even possible.

seana graham said...

Oh--I forgot that I was going to post a link to this rejection poem which I found on Martha Silano's blog.

Gerard Brennan said...

Chris and Keith - Amen, brothers.

Marco - Interesting point. Looks as if I might not have looked all the way into Scalzi' complaint. So he's more annoyed about the trustworthiness of editors than the rates they pay?

Adrian - It makes no sense, does it? The only reason the publishers have a product to push is because writers create them, and yet the writers are the ones who get shafted!

Seana - Don't even bother trying to figure things put. Just have fun.

How did NaNoWriMo work out for you?

And if you've any links to these published tales, please do share them here (I don't care if they're not crime fiction) so we can have a look.



seana graham said...

Actually the Nano experience worked quite well for me this year. I've got the very rough draft that could be a longer novel if I wanted to put the effort into it.

It was actually quite dramatic at the end, because I'm a bit technologically challenged at the moment and wrote it all on this little word processing machine, which then had to type the whole thing on to my computer, and it was a race to see whether it could actually do that before the closing hours. But in the midst of that, my friend, who I had really done the whole experience in aid of called me. I said, you weren't supposed to call me till tomorrow--because at that it seemed I had a couple of more words to come up with. But she had to call me because, at the eleventh hour, her computer had just died and she had no back ups. It was sad, and would have all been quite tragic, except that a computer repair place was able to help her retrieve her files a few days later, which was the part I was really worried about.

Here are a couple of links if you're interested:

the Living

Unless Soul Clap Its Hands and Sing.

The first borders on crime fiction, the second definitely doesn't.

Thanks for asking.

EA said...

I can only speak for myself. I'm the Editor at Large for Beat to a Pulp, owned and operated by David Cranmer. David started the site out of his own pocket and recruited his highly talented wife as web designer.

David runs no ads on the site and garners no income. As Editor at Large, I get paid exactly the same as David. We read every story that comes in, and log many phone calls working with deserving writers who need the help. We will go to any lengths to polish a story till it's the best it can be. It's all for the love of stories that we do this.

After one year of a lot of very hard work, we reap the identical amount of money as our writers: $0.00.

Am I complaining? No! As the site gains traction with a readership (about 10,000 hits a week right now and gaining) we can look at expanding into ventures that actually make money. Our writers will be remunerated right along with us.

I am very thankful to hone my editor's craft at BTAP. I look at it as an education you just can't buy anywhere. I am sincerely grateful to all the writers who submit, contribute and accept editorial input.
Elaine Ash

Gerard Brennan said...

Seana - I really enjoyed The Living. Grim but funny and full of heart. Nice work. I'll save the second story for tomorrow's teabreak.

Elaine - Thanks for taking the time to say your piece. Keep up the great work.

10,000 hits a week, you say? Very nice.



seana graham said...

Thanks for reading that, Gerard. the funny thing about putting these two links up is that I suddenly saw a parallel between the two stories that I had never noticed before. You'll have to take on faith that the rest of my stuff is not quite such a variations on a theme thing.

I liked Elaine's comment. It rings true for all the magazine and zine editors I've yet encountered. It's a labor of love for them and though they and the writers they publish get many things out of the experience, money is not usually high on the list.