Living The Dream?

Living the dreamWhat shall I write about? I pondered this morning and then – hey presto! – the postman arrived, with the latest issue of Writing magazine, in which I have an article (page 68). So, I shall write about that.

My article’s called ‘Living The Dream?’ and it’s about how much writers can really earn from writing, compared to how much the uninitiated think we earn.

I’ve written here about how a newbie in my class decided, within a term, that writing was going to be her ‘main source of income’. A flattering reflection on my teaching perhaps (I like to instil confidence!) or, more likely, bless her, a rather optimistic view of how much a new writer can expect to make.

What doesn’t help our cause, of course, is all the wannabees who will write for FREE! (and Lora Bishop’s written an article about that on page 69 of the magazine – opposite mine) and Alex Gazzola writes about it on his blog ‘Mistakes Writers Make’ here.

My own view on ‘writing for free’ is that it’s fine if you’re doing it for a charity, say or you’re a complete beginner, desperate for a few cuttings but after that, you’re doing all fellow writers a disservice if you continue to offer your writing to publications and websites without expecting payment. Because then they’ll expect us all to do the same, fees and rates will drop and drop until, in the end, it won’t actually be possible to earn any kind of living from writing. And we don’t want that, do we?

I was recently asked to judge a national short story competition (very exciting and something I’m more than happy to do). What is my fee? I was asked. That was very difficult. I didn’t want to price myself too highly and risk being told they couldn’t afford me (!) but equally, if I quoted a fee that was too low, not only was I doing myself out of valuable and much-needed funds, I was also lowering the organisers’ expectations of what they should be paying a judge. So, in effect, I was possibly spoiling things for my fellow writers.

In the end, I tried to gauge what they would be making from the competition (entrance fee x number of entries – they told me the number that entered last time – minus the cash prizes) and based my fee on this and also on how long I thought it would take me to read and judge the shortlisted stories and write a report. I was probably too cheap but as I say, not having any prior experience of being paid to judge a short story competition, it was a tricky one!

How do you feel about getting paid for your writing? Or are you so happy to see your work in print, that the money isn’t even a consideration?

PS: There are still spaces on the People’s Friend writing workshops in Bristol (featuring yours truly), Dundee, York and Manchester. More details here.

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23 Responses to Living The Dream?

  1. Alex Gazzola says:

    Ah, a favourite subject o’mine! Thanks for the mention. In a later ‘mistake’ (99), I argued that it was unacceptable to write for free (or be asked to write for free) when, among other reasons, assigning copyright was required, or if the publication could clearly afford to pay and had a policy of not paying writers despite being a profit-making venture. I do think it’s every writer’s individual call to make, but really I would urge you to never let yourself be taken advantage of.

    • I agree, Alex. If the publication or website, or whatever it is, is making money, then why should you not be paid? Even a ‘token’ £25 (or whatever), shows that they value your talent and hard work.

  2. Bob Major says:

    I think this is all a bit defensive. What parent has not been an amateur unpaid Doctor or Nurse? What home handyman has not done a bit of amateur plumbing, electrics or plastering? In my own field of computer programming (sorry showing my age) correction coding, everyone is positively encouraged to have a go.

    Surely, the difference between paid and unpaid is the difference between amateur and professional. Sometimes people get so skilled at something that they graduate from the one to the other. That is why the first time you are paid to write gives every aspiring author such pleasure.

    • Alex Gazzola says:

      What parent has not been an amateur unpaid Doctor or Nurse? All have – but for toddlers with no health insurance and limited piggy bank funds.

      What home handyman has not done a bit of amateur plumbing, electrics or plastering? I’m sure most – but for friends and family or for a fair exchange in favours or services.

      If we are a bit defensive – then good. Writers should defend the industry which they hope will support them.

    • Bob, it’s a tricky one and it’s good to see that it’s prompting such healthy debate! You’re right that it’s the difference between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ but when writers who are happy just to write for the ‘fun’ of seeing their work in print, are in competition with writers for whom writing is their bread-and-butter – and who need to earn money from what they do – there’s an issue, I think. Every time someone gives their work away for free and doesn’t at least ask about being paid, that undermines our industry.

  3. I am like your student and hope it is my main source of income one day. But luckily for me, I don’t need to earn a lot! Just enough to cover unexpected bills or if we get a drop in hubby’s income.

    I don’t like to write for free, but as a very new writer, I have written a couple of articles for our parish newsletter, so I have something. I may do a few more freebies in other publications, but I think when I hit 10 clippings then I shall then focus more on paid. I don’t think it should be a long term thing. As Bob highlights above, it is sort of an apprenticeship.You do it for free or little money before you go for the big guns.

    On the flip side, if writing for free becomes the norm, I doubt the quality will be as good, so fewer readers would mean fewer advertisers which would equal no publication. I don’t think this is something we should worry about too much.

  4. Patsy says:

    I strongly believe that if anyone is making money from it then the writer should be getting some. Too often those who say ‘sorry there’s no budget for (insert type of creative work here) but it’s great exposure’ are getting paid themselves and our exposure is the getting left out in the cold type.

    • Bob Major says:

      In your writing are all your characters motivated only by money? There are many motivations for writing (and getting published) and while I am not arguing that anyone should be exploited I am just pointing out that a given individual may be happy to accept something other than money as a reward. Sounds like the basis for an idea for a story!

      • I think you should write it, Bob! And certainly, as Alex advocates on his blog, there are other types of ‘reward’ for our writing, that we may be happy to take.

    • Patsy, I agree. ‘Exposure’ is often over-rated and doesn’t pay the bills, does it!?

    • I agree, Patsy. ‘Exposure’ is often over-rated and it doesn’t pay the bills, does it?!

  5. Keith Havers says:

    There’s a wider argument here which includes unpaid internships but that could go on forever. I just think that if a job is worth doing then someone should be prepared to pay for it. Charity cases excepted of course.
    Apart from writing here’s also the question of presentations and workshops. I’ve run a few for my writing clubs which I naturally did for free. But should I start charging for other writers’ groups? If so, how much?

    • Keith, I’ve been paid anything from £35 – £150 for a 2 – 3 hour event eg: a writing workshop, hosting an open mic evening, giving a talk at a WI (the £35 WI talk also included lunch though!). I usually try to work out my fee by thinking about how many hours the event involves (including preparation, delivery and getting there/back). If you’re happy to work for, say £10 an hour (which isn’t actually a huge amount), then for a 2 hour workshop, with 2 hours preparation and an hour’s travelling, plus a bit for your petrol, then £55 – £60 wouldn’t be unreasonable, imo. But I agree, it’s tricky. The main thing though, is that you should be paid something!

  6. Ninette says:

    Some good points, both in the post and in the comments. I wonder if some writers don’t feel confident enough to ask to be paid for their work? Just a thought. When you’re a newbie…it’s difficult enough getting anything published and I suppose getting it out there is sometimes more of a priority than the payment.

  7. rosgemmell says:

    Looking forward to reading your article, Helen (I’m a bit behind!). It’s a controversial subject – look at the carry-on over writers getting paid (or rather not getting paid) for taking part in writing festivals. Philip Pullman really stood up for that and I must say that Edinburgh Book Festival has always paid writers.

    I do a lot of adjudications and talks at writing groups in Scotland and I always get paid but I hate when anyone asks me what I expect! The Scottish Book Trust have guidelines in place fortunately but for me it sometimes depends on the kind of group and what they can afford. Same with writing – I always expect to be paid but will do the occasional piece for a charity publication.

  8. juliathorley says:

    I have two jobs that don’t pay enough: writing and teaching yoga. I’ve written about yoga and taught yoga to writers. There is no right answer to this dilemma. My drummer son has the same challenge when he is asked to play at festivals ‘for exposure and you can plug your CD’. OK, but are the bar staff getting paid? Yeah, thought so.

    • Good point, Julia. I think there’s a real misconception about a) how many books/CDs the average writer or musician will actually sell at an event and b) how much they even make from each one!

  9. Wendy Clarke says:

    I have a regular income from magazine fiction which pays for our holidays (which inspire more stories). I couldn’t possible live on this writing income alone. I know very few people in my circle of writers, who could. Personally, I would not write anything (except a blog post) unless I was going to be paid for it. Likewise, I wouldn’t judge a competition unless there was a payment as my writing time is very precious. Maybe it depends on whether you consider your writing a hobby or your work.

  10. Well said, Wendy. I’ve written the odd thing for charities that I haven’t been paid for and that’s fine because I did it on that basis. But I’ve also pitched articles to websites and small magazines in the past and been told that they liked they idea, couldn’t pay me but I’d get a ‘by-line’ (ie: my name on the piece! wow, thanks). I politely turned them down and took my ideas elsewhere, to someone who thought they were good enough to pay for.

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