For Love or Money?


monopoly-money

Writing isn’t generally a lucrative source of income; only a few, exceptional writers reach the income levels associated with the best-sellers. Rather, most of us write because we can make a modest living, or even supplement our day jobs, doing something about which we feel passionately. Even at the worst of times, when nothing goes right, when the prose is clumsy and the ideas feel stale, at least we’re doing something that we genuinely love. There’s no other reason to work this hard, except that love.
– Melissa Scott

The quote is by the SF writer, Melissa Scott, not the porn-star-turned-televangelist of the same name. Just wanted to make that distinction.

With all the whining and grousing I’ve been doing about not having enough time to write lately, it comes down to this. I love doing the writing. The act of sitting down and letting the ideas run amok in my head, finding their way via the fingers into the physical realm, reading back over the little microcosm I’ve dreamed up, spending time with the characters as they take shape, grow, change, unfold. Listening to these voices in my head. Writers are probably the only ones who can say that and not get committed.

This is not to say I think writers should expect not to be paid for what they do, simply because they love it. We don’t not pay doctors because they love what they do, or engineers, or musicians. Start-up publications that excuse their policy of not paying writers are very likely paying other staff. Why does the writer come last when it’s time to cut the checks? I moderate a writing group, and we had an ad come in today asking for writers for a non-paying market. I allowed the message, because some writers are willing to do this, and I didn’t think it was up to me to make up someone’s mind for them on this issue, but I did send a reply to the group pointing out that the site does not pay writers. I don’t expect to get rich writing, I really don’t, but I don’t think writers should work for free, either. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be tearing my hair out trying to find time for it.

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15 thoughts on “For Love or Money?

  1. I did not know there is a porn-star-turned-televangelist by that name. Good to know.

    Writing, and writing fiction at that, is clearly one of the few careers people choose for the love of it rather than for the business potential. It seems, more so than acting or painting or most other creative pursuits, writing is about inspiration and even a compulsion to write, to create. The reason the industry can get away with paying writers a pittance is because we see this as a calling rather than as a profession and as such feel hesitant to pursue money. In this, writers are more similar to social workers and volunteers than to engineers or musicians or doctors. I do know some doctors who see their job as a calling and therefore despite being brilliant doctors never made much money because they hesitated to demand it while I know inferior doctors who approached it in clear, business-like fashion and are now wealthy.

    If writers changed, banded together in a guild and demanded better pay then that would come. We should start one.

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    1. If only we could get all writers to sign on for that! There are several writers organizations (unions) that try to negotiate for writers’ rights. The Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) East and West chapters went on strike in late 2007 – early 2008, which you may remember. It wreaked havoc in Hollywood. Organizations like that are only open to people who have amassed a certain number of published writing credits (the SFWA is similar but requirements are far less stringent).

      The problem is always going to be people who are actually WILLING to work for peanuts, in a desperate attempt to get clips.

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  2. As you said, people are entitled to take up their own minds, but if I’m going to write for free, I’d just as soon do it on my own blog. Am I wrong in thinking that telling a potential client/employer “I don’t have too many clips b/c I won’t accept unpaid assignments” is no worse than saying “here’s my portfolio – as you can see, none of them are from paying publications” ?

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  3. Well that’s the thing. You’ll probably get as good exposure writing your own blog as you will on any of those kinds of sites.

    I’d go with the former, on explaining lack of clips. I don’t think you can even use those things as legitimate clips. Those kinds of sites generally offer no editorial oversight, so there’s no prestige in being published by them. If the site/market is desperate enough to accept submissions from people who are willing to work for free, I think that says a lot about the quality of the content. Granted, there are probably some good writers who will bite on these things, but not for long.

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  4. My point exactly – if the client actually reads the clips, why not just include your blog posts, or exam prompts, or unpublished stories – whatever you really feel is good? If they don’t read the clips, you’re shafted anyway unless you’re a con artist like Jayson Blair.

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  5. Hey D D,

    Thoughtful post- and I agree. Of the short stories I’ve had published, there was only one time that I wasn’t paid. This was when I was first starting out, and it was a very tiny, Pagan-themed print magazine. I was just very happy to hold something in my hands with my name on it.

    But since then, I only go for publications that pay. Some years ago, I sent a story somewhere. The editor wrote back that they usually only accepted agented submissions but they would be willing to make an exception in my case since they liked my piece… but, would I be willing to have it published without pay since I didn’t fit their usual criteria of “agented author”? Uh-no. Perhaps I would have bit if it was a renowned magazine whose name would be great for my publishing credits. But a small magazine whose usual payment was ten bucks? They wouldn’t pay me ten bucks because I didn’t have an agent? Forget it!

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    1. I gasped out loud when I read that publisher’s comment, Tasha. Wow, brass cajones. That’s just outrageous. If they liked it enough to publish it, they should have been willing to pay for it, like all the other pieces they publish. Oh my god, I can’t even imagine bothering with an agent if all they can get you is $10 anyway!! The first piece to the pagan publication I can understand, most of them are operating on a shoe-string budget anyway.

      What gags me is most of these no-pay markets are making plenty of money off the authors, and have ads and various sources of revenue. And you know the rest of the staff is being paid, so why not the people who actually provide the content that drives their revenue??? That’s what sends me off the deep end.

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  6. “They wouldn’t pay me ten bucks because I didn’t have an agent? Forget it!”

    Wise words, Gypsy – we’ve all concluded that we love it so much, we’ll do it for free, but any publication that doesn’t have $10 in petty cash for a piece that is clearly AS GOOD as the “agented submissions” they’re getting is not worth working for.

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    1. Well said, MJ. And I have a hard time believing anyone with an agent is submitting to a publication that only pays $10. After the agent’s cut, how much do you net? $8? Why would anyone even bother?

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  7. D D and MJ, both of your responses cracked me up.

    Regarding this, “And I have a hard time believing anyone with an agent is submitting to a publication that only pays $10”- Exactly! Looking back, I’ve often wondered if they gave that spew to many beginner writers. I can picture them thinking, “Okay, we’ll get out of paying them by pretending we usually don’t accept anything from beginners, but *their* work is so good we’ll make the exception…” Ya know, make the rookie feel special and then screw them.

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  8. I had to think through this issue before I put up my blog.

    I agree with you.

    It’s better to blog, and get to know other writers, than to slave over a piece to just give it away. There are plenty of websites where I can give away my work. I’d rather tap out a blog in 30 minutes than spend days working on a piece to get $10 for it. (gag me!)

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    1. Hi Kat,

      I am just astonished at how many writers are willing to do that kind of work. And there are all those pay-per-click sites that pay pennies for articles… I just don’t get it.

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  9. I just wanted to add that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing for a publication that pays a small sum. It’s so difficult getting into the high paying markets, that the smaller markets can be a good place to start. They are a good learning experience – not just of the writing craft, but of penning cover letters, facing the fear of sending out submissions, and then (hopefully) seeing your name in print.

    I’m past that stage, but I don’t regret that I started there.

    The ones I’m wary of (as others here have pointed out) are the ones which don’t pay *anything*, yet are getting money from advertisement. The writer is just being used. *And*, I’ve seen some magazines that don’t even give a free copy to the contributor! To expect a writer to pay to see their own work is a scam through and through.

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  10. Absolutely, the low-paying markets are fine, they’re open about their rates and I have no problem with that. Not everyone can pay what Playboy pays their writers and contributors, but at least they’re paying something. And for writers starting out, as you said, they get some experience under their belt in the professional side of writing and publishing, which is invaluable.

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