On Thursday, I ranted a bit about snobby, ivory tower writers who think their colleagues should shun all appearances of commercial enterprise. That’s one factor in a complicated mix of issues that causes authors to limit themselves in their money making ventures.
Another factor is how the industry encourages low self-esteem amongst writers. As aspiring authors, we’re constantly given subtle reminders that our words don’t have value. After a while, it’s only natural that some people actually begin to think this is true.
There are Thousands Others Where You Came From
A friend was offered a gig from The New York Times who wanted him to travel on a newly launched upstart airline and write about the experience. The Times has a strict policy against accepting freebies so my pal wouldn’t be able to fly the friendly skies courtesy of the air carrier. But the editorial budget was lacking so the Times informed my friend that they could not spring for his ticket. The only money involved was the $200 pay for the article.
“Well, it’ll still be a byline in the Times, so it might be worth the expense,” he said. Then he checked the price of the ticket he would have to purchase: $350. So he was going to have to pay $150 a chance to publish amongst all the news that’s fit to print.
And the unspoken, yet abundantly clear insinuation from the editors was, “If you’re not willing to do it, there are thousands who are.” I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve written where I’ve lost money, where I’ve spent more to write the piece than I made. And part of this is simply what you have to go through as you start to build a career. Unpaid internships, volunteer work, and just doing whatever needs to be done is a fact of life whether you want to be a writer, accountant, rock star, or ditch digger.
But at the same time, it’s like the stereotypical Hollywood director who still employs the casting couch method. There are ten other blondes chilling out in the waiting room if you’re not willing…
Talk to any group of freelancers and you’ll hear story after story like this. You will also hear endless tales of financial woe caused by deadbeat editors. It’s unfortunately not unusual for freelancer writers to have to hound magazines for payment. These publications somehow manage to pay the paper suppliers, and they somehow manage to pay the printers, the distributors, the designers, and all that. But when it comes to the sap who wrote the 200 word restaurant review? Well, he better hope they’re feeling flush.
I once went almost a year of begging a publication that is, thankfully, no longer in business for pay. And I had friends on the staff who were mortified and humiliated. But their boss’s attitude was, “What’s he going to do?” Unaware of the larger issues bedeviling the publication, I actually hoped for more work at the time.. And I didn’t want to develop a reputation as being difficult. So I meekly and politely and aw shucksy asked for my pay. I actually felt bad for expecting the magazine to live up to it’s contractual obligations.
Blogger Ed Champion has, pardon the pun, championed freelancer’s right to get paid for the work they perform. He once wrote me a helpful and encouraging email that summed it up well. “Writing is as legitimate a labor as anything else,” he stated and offered some very timely advice and contact information for my collection efforts.
Nonetheless, many aspiring authors do not have the fortitude to take a strong stance with editors or they don’t want to cause waves. So they accept the purgatory of being told “it’s in the accounting department” for years and years.
Now, for the record, I’m not saying that all editors are deadbeats. In fact, the majority of them are hard-working, underpaid people struggling to do a good job, no different than you and I. Even for the assholes, I don’t think they consciously think, “Screw him, I’m just not going to pay.” It’s more subtle than that. The industry just makes it a bit easier to ignore some scribe from Scranton than other vendors and business partners.
Exclusive Submissions, Busy Agents, Honorarium Copies, and all the Rest
There are tons of other factors that can cause a real self-esteem problem amongst writers. Tiny, shithole journals that do not accept simultaneous submissions but want 1 year to read a short story, agents who can’t give an interview without mentioning how busy they are at least 734 times, magazines photocopied at Kinkos that only provide contributors with two copies, editors who reject a manuscript and include a subscription card, and so forth. All of these issues can easily make a writer think his or her work doesn’t have value or that he is bothering people if he actually expects to be compensated.
Let it be said that I am not suggesting that a writer’s life should be easy. I don’t expect the industry to kneel down and lay out palm fronds to ease anyone’s passing. Since I was 14-years-old, I have always held two jobs at a minimum. I am realistic about the economic possibilities of writing as a career and willing to put in the work.
But I also realize that there comes a time for each writer where they need to truly, deep-down believe in the fact that their work has value. Unfortunately, too many of us never reach this point. Too many of us toil away, hoping for a few crumbs, but too afraid to ask.