writers and compensation

Let’s get one thing straight. None of us are in this for the money. There are loads of easier ways to make more money, and I’m not talking day trading or becoming a pro athlete or other careers that would net you millions. I’m talking working as a receptionist, or waiting tables. Yeah, most writers, if they could support themselves and have a little left over at the end of the month from writing alone, would be over the moon.

But I’m not here to whine about how little writers get paid. You can find plenty of that on the Internet. I’m not even here to complain about venues that don’t pay their writers, because I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I’ve written for fiction markets that don’t pay, in each case labors of love by their editors, with money for producing their magazines coming straight from the editors’ pockets. In the couple of cases where I’ve done so, it’s been because I had a story I believed in and was handing it over to editors I thought would present it well. I’ve also written nonfiction for free, mostly when I wanted to promote something I believed in or ran across a project I was excited about. I do believe writing is a skill that deserves remuneration; on the other hand, plenty of professions do pro bono work, and no one suggests it lessens the perceived professionalism of the person volunteering their time and expertise. Writing for free is something I do on a case-by-case basis, and I imagine I always will. (Hey, I’m writing for free right here, for that matter.)

However. What I do object to is the idea that there is something wrong with writers expecting to be compensated for the work that they do in the same way anyone else who works hard to hone their skills in any other area would be. What prompted this post is the experience someone I know just had: they emailed a budding publication about pay rates for journalistic/critical pieces. Someone at the publication responded that they were currently unable to pay writers, but that “if compensation is all you are after” they had best look elsewhere.

Watch me slow burn for a bit until I burst into full-on conflagration. If compensation is all you’re after? Yes, how unreasonable for someone who writes as a profession and is paid for their words elsewhere to expect to be compensated for the time and effort they spend contributing to making your publication better. How unreasonable for them to balk at taking time away from work they are actually paid for to provide content for you. Do you expect your plumber, your doctor, your children’s teachers, your restaurant servers, your car mechanics, everyone you encounter day to day for various goods and services, to work for free and then snarkily suggest that if they actually want something so crass as (gasp!) a paycheck, that compensation is all they’re after? Why, then, are writers supposed to be any different? Inherent in your response is the truth: you don’t really value the writer at all.

It would have been different if the publication had worded it differently: We can’t pay now, and we’ll understand if that doesn’t work for you. Something along those lines. As I stated above, I have no inherent problem with no-pay venues, depending on the circumstances. Instead, it managed to imply that anyone so crass as to ask to be paid for their words is somehow greedy.

I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on that budding publication. With an attitude toward that like its writers, those who provide its content, its very guts–well, is it wrong that I’d be hoping that maybe it doesn’t exactly survive and thrive?

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