Making a living as a writer is tough, tougher when it seems the world is out to get you unless you hustle like a maniac. Even some of the big name writers need to take university teaching jobs or other part-time work to keep their head above water. Last year the results of a study by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society in the United Kingdom found that a professional writer’s annual mean income there was 11,000 British Pounds, which is below their national minimum wage. In their case, professional writer was defined as a person who spent at least half of their working life working as a self-employed writer. A professional earning less than minimum wage? It sort of makes me want to cry.
And yet wherever you look, folks are trying to not pay writers, some are even proud of the fact that they are treating writers like their own personal slaves. Like the UK Huffington Post editor Stephen Hull who said recently, “I love this question, because I’m proud to say that what we do is that we have 13,000 contributors in the UK, bloggers… we don’t pay them, but you know if I was paying someone to write something because I wanted it to get advertising pay, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. So when somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real. We know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.” Huffington Post allegedly makes a monthly income of $2,330,00 and they can’t pay their writers?! And yet what is a newspaper without writers? A bunch of blank pages— or blank screens in this case.
Or how about the uproar caused at the end of last year when Philip Pullman pulled out as a patron for Oxford Literary Festival saying that he could no longer support a literary festival that did not pay its writers. He let that dirty little cat out of the bag— the fact that most literary festivals don’t pay writers for the work they do, even given the fact that a literary festival is basically tents and empty chairs without writers. These festivals might pay the very biggest names, but not the others. The Hay Festival, one of the most prominent festivals in the UK, pays some writers and not others. The writers they pay, they offer to pay in cash or wine (!?!). I mean honestly. You really cannot make this stuff up. I think next time I’m at the till at Choppies I’m going to offer to pay in dung beetles, I wonder how that’s going to go over.
Last week Chocolat author Joanne Harris pulled out of a UK litfest because of the very restrictive demands. The organisers required that she not do any events in the area for six weeks around her appearance at the festival, they wanted unrestricted access to the filming of her event, and five free copies of her book. And for that she was going to be paid 50 British pounds!?!
How do we even deal with this? It’s tricky. For publications that don’t pay writers you don’t write for them. Straightforward. But what about the literary festivals? What if you have a new book out and a literary festival invites you? They’re not paying, but they’re giving you a place to market your book— a bit of a grey area. But it’s important to always be vigilant and to think thoroughly about your own personal actions in these dodgy spaces— are you as a writer doing things that make it difficult for other writers to get a fair wage? If you fill up the pages of Huffington Post with your free writing, are you not making it more difficult for writers to make a professional wage? Instead you can do like Joanne Harris and Philip Pullman did and say, no thanks. Already in the news last week it was reported that the Oxford Literary Festival is trying to find ways to pay the writers now.
So, small drops really do fill the ocean.
(This first appeared in my column It's All Write in 4 March 2016 issue of Mmegi)