Occasionally on social media I see threads bemoaning the fact that authors and artists frequently are expected to work for free (and often do). There are similar threads concerning vanity publishing—publishers who charge authors to be published—as well as agents who charge up-front fees. All of this is summarily decided to be unfair with the consensus being that workers should be paid for their work. Here’s an example of the former issue, and a sample of the latter. A quick scan of these two threads will give you a pretty good idea of the complaints.
Payment of authors was also one of the core issues in November 2019 when the questionable behaviour and business practices of a mid-sized publisher created a maelstrom of outcry—and not without reason. Usually these outcries—taking the form of podcasts, blog posts, and social media hot takes—are filled with indignant and impassioned battle cries. Again, often not without reason. However, rarely do I see any practical conversation about paying authors. So I thought I would wade in with my own thoughts on the matter.
Let me say up front, because indignity often gives way to wilful misunderstanding: I support paying authors and artists for their work. Let me be perfectly clear about that up front. So here goes . . .
Background: I run a small press in Dublin. We average about six publications per year. While I work Swan River full time, I also have a full-time day job that pays my bills. That leaves Swan River’s income free to pay for Swan River’s expenses. My financial mantra is, “Pay your bills; owe no one.” In fact, were I to stop publishing right now, I could easily draw a line under things. I’ve written a few books, and perhaps more relevantly, have also turned down contracts that were not to my satisfaction.
So . . .
Whether or not you choose to work for free is your decision. No one else’s. Similarly, how much you decide to charge is also your decision. Yes, there are occasions when you might choose to work for free—and there is such a thing as exposure or even tactical exchanges of service. There’s no question about that. But always remember: you’re the boss, you call the shots. While it is all right to ask someone to work for free (and there are many valid reasons for this), it is on you, the artist, to politely decline. Authors and artists, for all the whinging about being taken advantage of, wield a huge amount of power in this way. And, rightly or wrongly, the world of publishing is filled with pitfalls and charlatans. My own opinion is that your time is better served honing your intuition and professional savvy rather than directly trying to change that world.
Weighing up any given opportunity is part of your job. Of course there are situations where “exposure” (or some other benefit) may well be worth your while. But it is up to you to assess that situation: ask questions, not only of the publisher you’ll be working for, but also of your colleagues. What are the precise terms? Do you know anyone who has worked for them before? What was the experience like? Was there an actual benefit? How much work and money is the publisher putting into the project themselves? Are they established? Read one of their other books—is it professionally laid out and edited? What is their promotion and publicity like? In other words, you’re developing your expectations.
Unsurprisingly, you should be asking many of these same questions whether you’re working for a fee or working for free. While this might not be the sexy bit of being an author, it is realistically part of the job. So you need to do the work. Mistakes happen to the best of us too, so if you make a bad judgement (which doesn’t necessarily make the situation was wrong, but possibly just wrong for you), make sure you learn from it and adjust your goals and expectations accordingly.
But here is the hard part: how badly do you want to be published? What exactly are your goals? Bestselling author? Small press cult writer? Perennial guest blogger? The reason there are so many writers and artists working for free is because they’re often more interested in the satisfaction of simply “being published” . . . and believe me, like “being a writer”, this can mean a lot of things too. Anyone can slap text on a WordPress site or upload a PDF to Lightening Source and call themselves a publisher. And for some people that’s okay. But, let’s face it, you probably shouldn’t expect much money from that sort of thing either. So that’s the first thing I’d advise: establish your goals, assess your opportunities, and make sure your expectations are realistic.
My second piece of advice to authors and artists is much more difficult. It is this: know your worth. Ego will come into play here, because work is work. And everyone, especially creatives, believes their work is of the highest quality and value. Work is also cumulative, so putting in that work—and the decisions you make as to where your writing will be published—may ultimately influence the remuneration you can expect. You might even ask yourself if you’re at a point in your career where you need an agent.
There are plenty of guides out there explaining how to place your work: sending your newest masterpiece first to the top paying venues, then working your way down that list. Naturally, money isn’t everything, so the sequence of your list may well rank venues of repute or simply magazines that you’ve always dreamed of being published in a bit higher than the better paying one. The important thing is, you’ve done the research and made your list of venues you’d like to send work to.
Next, before submitting, you should have an approximate range that you expect to be paid for your work. If you’re just starting out, perhaps this range might be on the lower end of the scale. If you’ve built a reputation (judged objectively, not subjectively), you might be able to charge more. Other factors might include questions such as the size of the publisher you’re working for, the quality and type of publication they produce, whether it’s digital or print, the duration of the rights, or indeed whether or not you value the exposure. But before you even think about submitting, you’ll want to have at least a vague idea of what you will be happy with.
But the more practical question is: what payment can you realistically expect? Unfortunately I can’t answer that—everyone will be different, which means it’s also no use comparing yourself to others. However, there are a few ways you can at least triangulate the market. The first is by looking for any professional writers’ association that has issued guidelines (you might even consider joining one). To give an example: the Horror Writers Association defines “professional” payment as “five cents or more per word”. They also have definitions for “semi-pro”, etc. You may or may not agree with these definitions, but perhaps consider them as a good benchmark.
Next, you might want to research venues. Some of them post their rates online. Others you might have to ask—I would advise doing this in a polite email rather than publicly. In this way you’ll also get a good idea the range of the markets available. Similarly, you might also talk to other authors—your colleagues. (Really, you should be doing this anyway.) Do you know anyone who has published in the particular venue you’re looking at submitting to? And if so, what was their experience? If you’re feeling comfortable enough, you could even ask how much they got paid—and perhaps also how promptly, not to mention if it was in line with the expectations they had at the start. And what was the editorial process like? In time you’ll develop a set of criteria that is in line with where you are in your own career—to hell with the others.
I suppose that’s it. Know the value of your work and make your decisions accordingly. Keep in mind also that the creative fields are highly competitive. Yes, every writer and artist has the right to be paid for their work, but this does not mean that you are entitled to be published. And remember too: not everyone has the same goals. Some want to make money. Others simply want to see their name on something—anything. Some care about the artistry of their work, others do not. The important thing is that you make your decisions based on your goals.
So, as a writer, what are your goals?
When I started writing this, I was also going to address paying authors from the publishing side of the business. But I think I’ll go into that in the next post. Standby.
Does anyone out there have any further observations they’d like to add to the above? What have your experiences been like? I understand there are myriad aspects I have not addressed, such as editorial services, but am I at least partly on the mark? Do please leave a comment below!
If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.
My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. If you want to support Swan River Press, have a look at our books. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!