Over at Big Other, Roxane Gay–author, and editor at Pank Magazine–ruffles some feathers with her investigation into author payment among literary markets. That is, the lack thereof. Is exploitation too harsh a word?

At least one commenter seems to think editors are all but demonized by a readership sharing too much overlap with a community of authors wishing for publication from the same venues they’re trying (failing?) to support. It’s a contentious issue, as the comment thread suggests.

This writer has no realistic expectation that he’ll be paid for publication by smaller markets, but maintains fantasies about lucrative book contracts against all better judgment.

Is remuneration contrary to the purity of artistic ambition?


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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

38 responses to “No Payment Plan”

  1. We live in an age of contributor-rape. Not here on TNB, because TNB isn’t raking in millions. But there are many contributor-based newspapers who don’t pay those whose words they reep ad revenue off of. Now, I’m guilty of writing for free and asking people to contribute, so am I a hypocrite?

    I think it depends on your perspective. If I were making millions, I should want to pay writers something for their trouble. I wasn’t making millions.

    Many writers are writing to get their name out there. So that’s where the line gets fuzzy. I hope to not always have to write for free. But that’s just the way it is for now. 10-20 years ago we would have all been paid. TNB included.

    Keep writing, regardless!

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      So if the publication is making money, does it have a responsibility to pay its contributors? Or is demanding payment (or refusing to contribute without it) up to each writer? The later, of course, is the rationale factories give for paying low wages–don’t like it? Don’t work here.

      If a publication makes 10 bucks, how many of those dollars should be split among the people who provided the content? 8? 5? 2?

      Should the money only be distributed to “content providers” after publication expenses are taken care of? Obviously these questions are rhetorical–the fact of it structurally indistinguishable from the “factory scenario.” But that doesn’t make it right.

      • Great questions. I’m torn. I’d like to see more writers getting paid, instead of less. In a perfect world of course.

        A lot of youngsters, or people new at writing don’t even think in terms of getting paid. We have to be careful of that culture shift. There are many great craftsmen of words who deserve payment. We don’t want them growing up thinking that they can’t.

        I started a writing workshop in my town. I charge folks $8 a head. I make a little money. I get satisfaction from that in a way. Being paid for my service…

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I’m only 20, so right now just knowing that there are people who read what I write is worth more than being paid for it.

          Although I doubt I’ll feel the same way in a decade…

        • Shya Scanlon says:

          I still felt that way at 30. 35, and I’m beginning to change my tone.

        • Matt says:

          I’m willing to write here for free because it’s fun, because there’s a social aspect to it that I enjoy, it’s helping me build a reader base (paying my dues, as Ducky says below) and because I ‘ve met Brad and trust that when/if he ever manages to monetize TNB, he’ll work out a payment arrangement for contributors.

          But that’s it. A magazine gets wind of one of the essays I’ve put up and wants to print it? Fuck yeah, they can pay for it. Even if one of my local alternative weeklies just wants 500 words on a local band playing a club downtown, they can at least cover the cost of the ticket/door fee and the cab ride home, not to mention a couple of drinks.

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Eagerness is the artist’s achilles heel.

          Be careful the precedent you set.

          I concur. I do this here at TNB b/c it’s writing that is different from what I get “paid” to do. And I like the social aspect. I don’t get to meet a lot of writers. We’re an introverted lot. But I adore writers, so this is a wonderful platform to make friends, cyber though they may be.

          But if Brad were making a gajillion dollars off us, I’d be like, “Yo, man, you better spread that shit around.”

          If people would just spread some shit around. Ya know? The world would be a better place.

  2. Ducky Wilson says:

    No. It isn’t.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      ‘Nuff said, eh? Though I think the question deserves not a little introspection on the part of any artist–it’s certainly tricky terrain, and not something to be oversimplified–I tend to net out in the same camp.

  3. Ducky says:

    I hold fast that artists should get paid just as plumbers and lawyers (and in those professions, even the bad ones get paid.)

    It isn’t right that we live in a culture where artists are forced to sacrifice basic needs because they don’t get fairly paid for their work. Health care, having a family, a roof over our head – these things cost money. How is an artist to pay for these things (something most others take for granted) if we are not compensated?

    I’m not sure who started this ‘art gets tainted by money’ horse shit. Probably a conservative who wanted to get out of paying Michelangelo. And said conservative somehow manipulated artists into agreeing with him.

    It bothers me.

    A lot.

    But so glad you’ve offered an opportunity for people to think about it.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      Do you think, Ducky, that artists should undergo the same level of training that, say, a plumber, let alone a lawyer must? It seems to me that the difference lies in self-identification. You can’t just call yourself a lawyer–you’ve got to take the bar before being able to practice. Most lawyers, of course, go through quite a bit of school also.

  4. Ducky says:

    Most of us undergo MORE training than a plumber and some (me, for one) more than a lawyer, but I don’t think our level of education should wholly define an artist’s worth. It is a different animal all together, and one can ‘practice’ being an artist outside of a classroom (this is where paying your dues comes in – working all those free projects – and I do believe in paying dues.)

    Apprenticeships must be considered, too. Michelangelo did not go to college. He was apprenticed to the painter Ghirlandaio. That’s how he learned. On the job training. Does that make him less of an artist? Does that make his work less important or valuable?

    And there is no accounting for good old fashioned living. Henry Miller didn’t graduate from college. He barely even went (I think he might have gone for a semester, but he couldn’t conform to the rules of school and dropped out.) Does that make him less of a writer? (I hope not.)

    Was it right Van Gogh lived in poverty? He didn’t go to school either.

    Couldn’t we at least have an artist’s minimum wage? Or a public option at least?

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      Yes, I agree that many artists undergo training/practice/etc. But when do we start paying them, and based on what criteria? I’m just saying that, unlike a plumber, it would be difficult to establish objective (social) criteria for judging the merit of someone’s self-identification as an artist. Obviously, we couldn’t use “talent” because that would just mimic the situation we have today: “mainstream” artists make money, and “outsider” artists do not. Would artists have to document the time they spend on their art, and after, say, five years, if they’ve proven they’re serious, they get public support? Otherwise, it would turn into the easiest job out there.

      I don’t mean to sound flip by getting into such details–I think they point to an issue underlying the entire money/art problem. The problem being: the value of art is subjective.

      • Ducky says:

        Well, for starters, we can reinstate grants that used to support artists.

        And I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that art was “easy.” Certainly not by my experiences “the easiest job out there.” Quite the opposite, I think.

        Fixing a toilet – that’s easy.

        • Ducky says:

          P.S. No disrespect to plumbers intended.

        • Shya Scanlon says:

          But my point is that we’d need to establish criteria by which we’d judge the merit of someone’s claim to being an artist worthy of support. A plumber can either fix a toilet or she can’t. Would anyone who calls themselves an artist be worthy of equal funding?

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          It’s curious that two artists are having this debate. I usually discuss this with my Republican brother (whom I adore, btw.)

          I’m fine with the criteria that exists. Cream rises to the top, eventually.

          For me it’s an issue of prioritizing. If you put your money where your mouth is, then it’s crystal clear that Americans value war over art. This disheartens me.

          And it will only get worse as kids grow up without art.

          Jobs for artists are scarce. We used to teach, but even those jobs are scarce as schools have cut their arts programs.

          Many of us wait tables. But there is no union for waiters. No one to rally for insurance benefits, no one to make sure employees are getting fairly paid (waiters do not make minimum wage and I can’t tell you how many places have cheated me and friends out of money. It’s a seedy industry, not unlike politics.)

          But this is not an argument for unionization. I have a love/hate relationship with them as well. Fundamentally, a good idea, but like the idea of communism or socialism, bastardized.

          I don’t want to get into a debate about how involved the government should get, as traditionally, I’m a Libertarian and don’t support big government, but if the recent Wall Street crisis has taught us anything, it’s that people can’t be trusted to do the right thing.

          So I have one word:

          Oversight.

          How about if we just make sure that all those artists currently working for free are paid? At least that minimum wage? (And I have no objection to timecards.)

          Surely, an artist is worth what a fast food worker makes, if not a plumber’s rate.

  5. Elizabeth Collins says:

    Yes, it is exploitation.

    And yet, we put up with it because…what are the options?

    I have a writer friend (with a serious career) who is adamant about not working for free. He will NOT do it. Because he is published by major magazines and appears regularly as a pundit on TV, he doesn’t have to. Still, he worries that things are changing, that because of younger writers simply desperate to get published ANYWHERE, and working without renumeration, that he, too, will be forced into non-payment-for-writing.

    My friend thinks we are all hurting ourselves by writing for free. He includes our personal blogs in the category “giving it away for free.”

    I agree with him–theoretically. (But I like my blog and I like that I can give myself a platform.)

    Even though I used to also refuse to write for free (and obviously, i would prefer not to…and seriously, O magazine needs to publish me NOW…and also, I have had more ideas stolen–entire pitches, complete with sources–by “reputable” magazines than I can count), I do it. Because I think I have to.

    Because I hope someday things will change.

    Yes, if writing–if ART of any sort–is to be deemed truly worthwhile, then money has to enter into the equation. After all, as my painter-aunt once told me, “Art is worth what people will pay for it.”

    It’s subjective that way.

    We can all only hope that as soon as it is feasible, we WILL be paid for our valuable work.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      I can sympathize with this sentiment, but I think it’s quite different for fiction than it is for nonfiction. For the former, an author is (presumably) writing whether or not she is being published, pay or no pay. So the decision comes down to whether or not she wants her work to be read. Holding out for a paying market pretty much guarantees obscurity. One builds an audience/following through publishing for free. Perhaps nonfiction is going the same direction.

      • I agree about the difference between fiction and nonfiction–and yet, I’ve been paid for my fiction. Not much, but I have been paid by literary journals.

        The only time I was paid for my nonfiction (apart from when I worked as a reporter) was when I won writing prizes. I don’t count copies of the journals as real payment.

        In terms of getting paid for nonfiction, the market is magazines. I love to read magazines, but I am angry at the magazine establishment in general–I can write, as I mentioned, a good pitch for an excellent story, and then, instead of paying me to write it, the exact story is assigned to a staffer. I am just too frustrated to pitch any more.

        It is true that a writer should just write, though–and get her/his name out there. We do what we have to do.

        • Shya Scanlon says:

          Your experience with having your pitches poached is terribly disheartening. My GF works in the magazine industry, and something she’s found along those lines is the poaching of ideas from edit tests. When you apply for an editorial position, you’re asked to create an extensive proposal outlining what you’d do, given the job. This often involves explaining many ideas for columns, market positioning, strategic partnerships, and individual stories. Even if you don’t get the job, however, the content of the edit test is treated as the property of the magazine. I don’t know the legality behind this, but it seems to be standard in the industry, and has happened to my GF–and many people she knows–pretty frequently.

          That’s a little off-topic, but it’s just another symptom of an industry hungry for content, and willing to do whatever it can to get it for free.

  6. That exact same edit-test poaching happened to me, too! That was the last straw for me. I spent more than a week of my life crafting several articles for PREVENTION magazine–maybe I spent TWO weeks–and they 1) did not give me any job 2) did not pay me and 3) used all my stuff later.

  7. Ducky Wilson says:

    The problem is people aren’t really paying for art. Piracy is rampant, corporations cheat artists. Again, no oversight.

    But artists are to blame, too. Perhaps we are the biggest contributors to our own misfortunes. We allow ourselves to be exploited.

    What if all the artists in the world got together and went on strike? Every single one. From Norway to Nigeria. Nepal to New Orleans.

    What would a world without art look like?

    Maybe then people would realize what a sad and desolate place this is without art. They would realize the harsh cruelties of the world without their beloved distractions.

    Maybe then…

    • Matt says:

      I don’t know if it’s the artist’s fault or not, but I’ve repeatedly been faced with a public who is either apathetic or hostile to the notion of paying for art. From time to time I work as a freelance copywriter, and whenever I place an ad I get a frighteningly large percentage of potential clients who are genuinely shocked when I bring up payment–and not just from students looking for editorial help on a term paper, either. Evidently, despite my seven years of schooling, I am supposed to craft your company’s press releases and public service announcements for free. Ummmm…what?

      This discussion makes me think back to the Writer’s Guild strike a couple of years ago, and all the talk I heard about “greedy writers” who were just grubbing for more and more millions of dollars. Evidently the notion that the majority of writers are solidly low-middle/middle-class craftsmen is one that just does not exist in the public consciousness.

      Who’s fault that is, I just don’t know.

    • The Art Strike–that’s an intriguing idea.

      I like it.

      But you know we’d have scabs among our artistic ranks…

  8. Ducky Wilson says:

    Yes, you hit it, Matt. I do believe it’s a cultural belief that artists don’t matter. That what we do is frivolous. And I hate that attitude.

    And YES YES regarding the writer’s strike: the average WGA writer makes 36k a year. So, that strike was for THOSE writers, not JJ Abrams (who deserves whatever he makes, btw).

    But then the devaluation of artists is nothing new, I suppose.

    • Matt says:

      I think part of it has to do with the long-held notion that all writing comes through some effortless, epiphanic moment of realization (or, conversely, in a booze-and-drug addled haze). So many people just don’t seem to realize that writing is WORK, like any other job. You apply your ass to the chair in a lonely empty room for hours upon hours upon hours. Someday’s it’s easy, and somedays it’s a massive Sisyphusian battle uphill, sober or otherwise.

      • tijuanataxi says:

        You hit it again.

        If people knew how much money I spent on flooring!

      • Good thoughts on art and why artists aren’t paid enough…I think the low pay or lack of pay may stem from two areas:

        1. Too much competition–too many would-be writers all clamoring for attention, desperate for an audience. We screw ourselves, all of us, when we agree to work without payment. And yet, there are too many people who will give away their writing, just to have it seen, and I completely understand this. I’ve done it myself.

        BTW, I am incredulous that The Huffington Post doesn’t pay. Arianna Huffington could certainly afford to pay her writers, wouldn’t you think? That just goes to show if the venue seems good enough, if the circulation is big enough, then the publisher can get countless writers who will just be happy to have their work seen.

        (I do see a difference between blogs and tangible, hard-copy publications, though. The former still is new enough and complex enough when it comes to monetization that I can understand why it doesn’t pay.)

        2. Artistic fields are seen as glamourous (which, again, leads to more people desperate to have those jobs, which seem more interesting or fun), and glamour jobs always pay pitifully. I have had a series of glamour jobs in publishing, and the most money I ever earned was $42,000. That is pathetic. I realize that may be slightly above some national average, but $42,000 after taxes and health care deductions is not a livable wage).

        When corporate America thinks you are having more fun, they also think you are goofing off and no one cares how little you are paid. Also, glamour jobs have typically been the hobbies of the rich…I don’t fall into this category–unfortunately–but again, I think the idea is: “You don’t need money anyway; you’d do this for free just because it’s amusing, so why should we pay you?”

  9. This is such a relevant discussion, and really THE issue for writers/artists of our era. Back in the days of Hemingway, it used to be possible to survive by writing short stories, which paid pretty well (!), while a writer was crafting a novel. Those days soon passed, and short fiction became something you were lucky to get 100 bucks for from a literary magazine, and that most journals paid nothing for at all. Still it remained entirely possible to make a living as a journalist, and even those of us who wrote and edited fiction for free or nearly free were able to get decent pay doing freelance nonfiction pieces for newspapers and magazines.
    Now, with the onslaught of online venues, where even the most prestigious among them like HuffPo, do not pay, the “career journalist” may be virtually a thing of the past, and writers are teaching classes where you get paid 4K for an entire semester, instead of getting 4K for a freelance piece you maybe wrote in a week. There is no money in writing anymore unless you’re a Today Show Book Club pick or have a regular column in a glossy magazine.
    The irony here is that the internet is supposed to be a great equalizer of literary culture, and in some ways it is. But it also seems that, as more and more people have access to material online and more venues in which to publish their work, thus making the playing field more level and less “elite,” the fact is that if nothing in the writing industry really pays, nobody who writes as more than a “hobby” can really come from anything but a wealthy background, with a trust fund or parents who pay their rent, or at least people who marry well and are financially supported by a spouse. So just as we have greater access to diversity through online publishing, we are also facing a crisis where only the rich can “afford” to write.
    Stephen Elliott talks about this: how if you aren’t rich, and you want to devote your life to art, you basically can’t have dependents, or property, or any of the things that other people in other professions get to view as a given or as part of their American Dream, and that you can’t exactly whine about it either because we all know this going in, or should, and we’re making a choice to do what we love, when most people in fact do not make that choice and don’t love their work or feel transported and possessed by it the way artists/writers do. Yet to be true to art and yet not come from money means pretty much accepting a life of poverty and transience. Hmmm. That may be overstating it, but it does seem pretty fucked up, doesn’t it?

    • Gina, you have described our plight so well. I see this everyday in the news world that I’m a part of. It’s horrible. It’s tantamount to rape when writers can’t even be a wage-slave.

  10. tijuanataxi says:

    accepting a life of poverty and transience

    yes. it’s true.

  11. When I was younger I always imagined growing up and being paid to write… But now that I’m older I realise that I don’t want to be paid to write. I mean, it would be great if someone gave me a cheque and said “Here, write whatever the fuck you want,” but I prefer to write what I want, how I want. I don’t want to make writing into my career for fear of burning out; becoming pissed at having my writing dictated by others… I like that writing is one thing in my life that is not constrained by finances.

    Of course, if you are a professional or paid writer, then it sucks that you’re getting jacked by the man.

  12. […] we saw from an earlier post about whether and how artists should be paid, the place where art and finance meet (assuming such a place exists) is a site of contention, […]

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