On Doing ‘Writerly Things’ for Free

Still on the subject of ‘How much do writers earn?’ (see last post), author Joanne Harris* (of ‘Chocolat’ fame. And by the way, can you believe it’s 20 years since that novel was published?) has revealed – in a tweet – how much she’s accepted for work in the past week. And also, what she’s turned down. This is in the interest of ‘openness’ and I applaud her for doing so.

We writers tend to be pretty coy about what we get paid and that doesn’t help our cause, does it? We might, for example, be accepting a much lower rate than someone else is getting for the same work.

I know, in the past, when I’ve been asked by an organiser what I charge for a workshop or a talk, it’s been difficult to answer. Ask for too much and you fear appearing ‘greedy’ (and might price yourself out of the job!) but ask for too little and you don’t do yourself – or other writers – any favours by underselling yourself and your skills.

I have just about worked out how to answer this one now, by the way. I calculate how long it’s going to take me, in terms of travel time, preparation and delivery of, say, a workshop. If it’s going to take a total of 6 hours and I think £10 an hour is a reasonable rate of pay, then I’ll quote £60 (plus, maybe something for petrol). It’s still a bit ‘random’ but it’s better than just plucking a figure out of the air.

This week, Ms Harris has accepted: £500 for an article in a leading newspaper, £100 (begrudgingly) for a smaller article in a different newspaper and £150 each for two festival appearances. Another 2 festivals who said they had ‘no budget for contributors’ were turned down and GOOD for her for doing that.

This ‘no budget for contributors’ is laughable really, isn’t it? Because without the writers, there would be no audience and therefore no literary festival! But the writers are supposed to do it for the ‘exposure’. Ooh don’t get me started on that one.

I replied to Joanne’s tweet (truthfully – and she gave me a *Fist-bump* for it – ooh, get me!) that the small literary festival that I volunteer for (which I didn’t mention in my tweet but which you all know because I mention it often enough, the Evesham Festival of Words), would never expect any contributor to work without payment.

Some of the writers and performers we approach, I should add, do offer to waive their fee (and even then, we still offer expenses. eg: travel and overnight accommodation). I suspect they do this because we are a very small festival and they are helping us to grow. Which is very worthy and kind of them but absolutely not expected.

What writerly things would you – or do you – do for free?

Joanne Harris has tweeted (again!) today a list of #10WaysToSupportWriters because she believes – as do I – that writers should support other writers.

A great example of this – for me, at least – was the womagwriter blog that Kath McGurl set up several years ago, as a virtual meeting place for those writing, or hoping to write, for the women’s magazine market.

It was the first time I’d ever seen information about magazine guidelines and tips for getting published, in one place. It definitely helped me and was a very valuable (and generous) resource. Hats off to Kath (now a successful novelist and full-time writer – there’s karma for you), for setting that up. (The website is still running, in the capable hands of Patsy Collins now, by the way).

I try to ‘give something back’ by volunteering for the Evesham Festival and by offering my services free of charge once a fortnight at a seniors’ writing group in Stratford-on-Avon (both of which I really enjoy, so it’s not really ‘work’).

But to return to Joanne Harris for a moment. She suggests in her list of ‘ways to help writers’, that you “think hard before making requests of a fellow-writer, especially if you don’t know them in real life. And never ask a writer to do something (editing, manuscript assessment, etc) that any other professional would charge for.” Hear, hear to that. It’s particularly difficult, I think, to turn down a request to read or edit something from a friend, or a friend of a friend.

I had an email a couple of weeks ago out of the blue, from a stranger (perhaps he/she reads my blog but I suspect not, so I feel at liberty to quote from the emails but I will of course not reveal his/her name). This person had seen my little e-book on starting a creative writing class, on Amazon.

“I would like to know if we could have a chat to exchange correspondence about how to lead a writers group or class?” was the question. Because this person had never conducted a creative writing class before. Hmm, I was very tempted to suggest that they might want to buy my book and read it BUT I was feeling kind and generous (I don’t always) and, noticing that they actually wanted to teach children, not adults, I replied:

“My book is aimed at those who are going to be teaching adults, so probably not very relevant for you (and I don’t teach children, so I can’t help, sorry!).
Kate Long has written a book called ‘Boost Creative Writing Confidence at KS2’ which would probably be more useful to you. Here is the link on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Boost-Creative-Writing-Confidence-KS2/dp/1723961175/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1550166469&sr=8-1&keywords=Kate+long
It costs £10 but if you’ve never taught Creative Writing before and you’re looking for some guidance, it would probably be a good investment!”

Quite helpful, wasn’t I? (Plus, I was helping to promote a fellow writer’s book).

But that wasn’t enough for the person, who then decided that they did want to teach adults, after all (but still didn’t want to pay £2.99 for my e-book):

“Hi Helen, thanks but I am also a graduate student in literature. Is it possible we can talk about teaching adult to write and be published? And some resources?”

At which point, I’m afraid I just wrote back and said, ‘Sorry, I don’t have time for that.’ (true!) and of course, I’ve never heard from them again.

I suspect published/well known authors (which of course, I am not), must get these kinds of requests all the time. It’s cheeky, isn’t it? Or do you think I should have been more helpful?!

* If you’re on Twitter, you should follow her: she has lots of good stuff to say. @joannechocolat is her handle.

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18 Responses to On Doing ‘Writerly Things’ for Free

  1. lindalindatyler says:

    You did absolutely the right thing when replying to the cheeky stranger.

  2. Angela Watt says:

    Thanks for this thought provoking post. I found it really interesting. In terms of not getting paid to speak at a festival, I’m totally in agreement with you. Most festivals are charging the attendees a fee to see the speaker so why shouldn’t some of this go to the person who has drawn in the audience. It seems only fair that this would be the case in my opinion.

    I also think it was a good response to the cheeky email. You were polite yet firm. I’m going to try and remember that one for the future.

    • Thanks, Angela. You have to draw the line somewhere, I think! I did send (what I thought/hoped was) a helpful reply but they clearly weren’t happy with that and wanted more. Which was just a bit too much!

  3. Alex Gazzola says:

    I think you did the right thing. Not that I’m scared to talk to people on the phone, but I am slightly wary of someone who immediately wants to ‘talk’ rather than email, because while I’m happy quite often to give pointers by email, if a query is so complex that it requires discussion and can’t be expressed in a few written words, then it’s likely to be time-consuming – and for that, I’m afraid there’s a charge.

    I’m also far likely to be more charitable if someone approaches me and says “i’ve just bought your writing book – but can you help me with x and y, which I’m stuck on?” I regularly and happily do that.

    Another point (I may have to blog on this too …. ), but I’m also far likely to help someone with whom I’ve established a rapport with online or at least some form of friendly contact or exchanges. Helen – if you were to ask me to edit your 120,000 word novel I’d probably do it and send you a box of chocolates to boot. It’s when strangers come looking for a favour out of nowhere that I can get a bit narky!

    They should have just bought your book. To make up for it – I just have.

    • Aw, thank you! Now then, about that 120,000 word novel …..!

    • Helen Yendall says:

      And yes, I agree with all you’ve said. Had the person started their email with, “I’ve just bought your book and could I ask….” I’d have been much more receptive to them! But it seemed like they just wanted to by-pass the book and go straight to the horse’s mouth! It was a bit like me emailing Joanne Harris and saying “I’ve seen you’ve got a novel out called Chocolat. Can you just talk me through the plot, the characters and the ending, please?” (because basically I can’t be a*sed to buy it or read it).

  4. An interesting post Helen. Re: working for free, I’m happy to donate some of my work to charity. Short fiction has been accepted by the Stories for lip reading project. As for 10 ways to help writers, I set up an email crit group for womag writers in 2011 – and it’s still going strong today. It’s free to join too!

    • Helen Yendall says:

      That’s great, Sharon. Thanks for your comment. Is your email crit group still open to new members? (just in case anyone would like to join?)

  5. Tracy Fells says:

    I absolutely believe you did the right thing and you were helpful with initial response in recommending where they can find more information. I was approached last year to run a workshop for a writer’s group – at the end of the email they did ask if I charged a fee. I told them the usual amount and then learned they did usually pay but not that much. I felt misled in that they clearly were hoping I’d do it for nothing. I will always review/comment on work for writers I know well because I’ve had so much help on my own mss from writing friends, but I would never do this without payment for someone I didn’t know. Writing is our profession and we should be treated like professionals.

    • Helen Yendall says:

      Thanks for your comment, Tracy. I think it’s mean (and unreasonable) of writers’ groups to expect a fellow writer to conduct a workshop for no payment. Even if there are only 8 or 10 of them in the group, if they all contributed £5, they could pay you something! I’ve been asked a couple of times if I’ll do a workshop for a group that’s run by a former creative writing teacher of mine. I count him as a friend (and someone who really helped me, early on), so I’m only too happy to help his group out. I see it as a way of helping to pay him back. They are alway very apologetic about the fact that they can ‘only’ pay me £50 but I think it’s the gesture that counts and I appreciate it.

  6. kathmcgurl says:

    Excellent blog and thanks for the mention! I totally agree about helping other writers as long as it doesn’t stray into “taking the piss” territory.

  7. juliathorley says:

    Cheeky beggar! I’m about to be a judge for an event that will take half a day of my time. I’m not being paid any money, but I’ll get a goodie bag and a bit of exposure. I shall also get a lot of joy from this: I know because I’ve done it before. However, these days I always take a moment to consider any requests, and if they are made face to face I always have to ‘check my diary and get back to you’. This stops be being swept up in the moment and finding I have to go to Carllise at my own expense, or somesuch. Another useful line is ‘What do you usualy pay? I think good causes and reciprocity will take us so far, but we must never forget we are professionals.

    • I agree, Julia. There are lots of people out there quite happy to take advantage of connections and who also think (for some strange reason), that, as writers, we’ll be only too delighted to read their work (as though we’ve got nothing better to do!). I don’t mind doing it for friends (but I prefer to do the offering, rather than get asked) or if I’m being paid but otherwise, sorry, but I’ve got little enough time to spend on my own writing!

  8. Keith Havers says:

    Interesting post. The comments and replies are also very useful. Thanks for that, Helen. If I’m doing a workshop for any of my writers’ clubs then I do it for free of course. It’s ‘just giving something back’ as you say. I also offer a freebie for some of the clubs that we have links with but they often insist on giving me a token £20 or £30 anyway. I worked hard to get where I am. I read the blogs, including this one and womag, I went on a few workshops and joined a couple of writers’ clubs. I don’t see why others can’t do the same. All the info is out there.

    • I agree, Keith. Some people just want the ‘short cuts’, don’t they? (lazy!) As you say, all the information’s out there and not difficult to find. When I started out – and it was probably the same for you – there were no blogs, or information on-line. You had to find it out for yourself, somehow (often just through trial and error!). It’s ‘easy’ in a lot of ways for people starting out now.

  9. Sharon boothroyd says:

    Hi To reply to your query Helen – my email crit group,Fiction Addiction welcomes new members but interested parties should have some womag publication history. We don’t expect them to have tons and tons of stories published, but we are all published womag writers. The group isn’t
    really aimed at beginners.

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