Pay the writers

I’ve been running the Pay the writers twitter feed and tumblr for the past month, while Jennifer Mills who originally created both has been away overseas. If you haven’t heard of Pay the writers, Jen explains all here. My turn in running it ends on 1 August when Jen returns, but she’d like someone else to take over rather than her. The idea is that Pay the writers will ideally be run by a rotating list of writers who want to participate in the larger discussion we’re having about payment for writers. So if anyone is interested in taking over for a while, please email or just tweet @paythewriters on twitter to let Jen and I know.

This post is not just a call out for someone to take over Pay the writers, but also a small discussion of my own about some thoughts I’ve had while running it. I keep coming back to this article I linked by Elmo Keep. In particular, these lines:

“The pay/don’t pay writers/artists for their work argument is so old it still remembers cassettes. I feel increasingly that the ire directed at people who don’t charge for their work is misguided. The creator can decide when and for whom and for what reasons they might give their work away for free*. It is having that choice that is what matters. When the choice is taken away (no, we don’t/won’t pay you), that is where the problem lies. This is how people entering industries tacitly learn to undercharge for their work. However, being told your work has no worth and putting your work in the world of your own volition for your own reasons is not the same thing, yet it’s continually conflated.”

Yes, it’s not the same thing, but yes, it’s often conflated. I write for free many times. This decision can be based on a number of reasons – but they are my reasons. For example, I’ve just written and sent off an essay on the Holocaust for which I will not be paid if it’s accepted. I spent a lot of time and energy writing this. I put my heart into it. I don’t even know whether it will be accepted. Some people would say I’m naive and stupid for wasting my time. But the subject matter of the essay is something that I feel strongly about – it’s something that’s part of my family history. It’s also something for which I have volunteered my time and skills in other ways, like interviewing survivors, for free. I’ve made a personal decision not to be paid for this work.

Many individual writers make these personal decisions. And if someone doesn’t agree with those decisions, that’s fine. But the problem with unpaid labour and the expectation of unpaid writing work for ‘exposure’, does not lie with individual writers and their personal decisions. Even when I write for free, I know my writing has worth and value. I expect and want payment 99% of the time. I also reserve the right to choose not to be paid when I want to remove a certain piece from a monetary economy. The focus when we discuss this issue of payment for writers is, problematically, on what the individual writer does – whether by choice or necessity. The focus should, conversely, be on the industries that have created a working model where exposure is cited as a reasonable form of ‘payment’, or where writing is considered something akin to exploitative slave labour. Let’s not confuse the two.

The best analogy I can come up with is the way I view feminism: I have very little interest, for example, in individual women’s personal choices as a barometer for wider gender equality. Instead, I think the focus should be on the larger political, economic, and cultural barometers of equality. The same focus should apply to writers and writing as a profession. We’ve seen in the last few weeks Mamamia explaining its decision to pay its contributors amidst the defence that ‘everybody else isn’t paying writers, and we’re just being nice for offering $50.’ Well, putting aside the fact that the statement that “newspapers and magazines have traditionally not paid writers of opinion content” is misleading and wrong (as many do, and many have – much, much more than $50), let’s consider what writing actually is.

Writing is the use of skill, time, energy, expertise, knowledge, and talent to communicate something that people who can’t and won’t write cannot communicate. This communication often translates into profit for websites, publications and companies. Part of that profit rightly belongs to the person who created the content – the writer – and who needs that money to continue paying rent, bills, groceries and to have a life that allows him/her to continue writing. This skill, time and energy in any other industry comes with the default assumption that it requires adequate payment for the work done. So why is that default assumption not applied to writing? Why is it ok for an industry to profit from unpaid skilled labour and, at the same time, tell writers that they should be flattered for being allowed inside the hallowed halls of publication for exposure? There is nothing flattering in suggesting to writers that they should be satisfied with peanuts or nothing for work that in other professions is paid properly.

So I guess my parting words to those who have been following what I’ve been linking and talking about for Pay the writers on twitter are that as interesting as it is to consider why individual writers write for free, and as much as we should keep talking about it, judgement about those individual writers really has no place in the wider discussion about payment for writers. Instead, we should be fixing our critical gaze onto the people who tell us that our work should be exploited for free while they profit from it.