Wednesday, 30 January 2013

On showing me the money

Yesterday, while doing a little bit of research for literary contests and whatnot, I came across this article in the Globe and Mail. It's from last year, and I've made mention of this article, Mr. Morrison, and his general concerns before, but it's been crowding my head ever since and so I figured I'd put a few little things out into the blogosphere again, and take another look at the discussion.

Early last year Lynn Coady wrote a fabulous piece for MoneySense that centred precisely on how and when a writer should stand up for their work and fight for payment. Novelists, she says, generally don’t—and can’t—make a living off the money they earn selling their books. We live off the work subsidiary to book-writing—speeches, readings, workshops, residencies, or writing essays like this one.

There you are: open acknowledgment of the fact that writers do not in general make a living off of selling their books. (Unless, of course, they are E.L. James.) Instead, in most cases they'll look for other writing gigs as a way to pay the bills. They make money off of the things that come into the territory--readings, residency gigs, teaching, etc. And there's a passionate plea in the article for the work of the novelist, and these subsidiary gigs, to be recognized as being worthy of adequate pay.

My question today: given the overwhelming amount of publications out there that are unable to pay their writers (publications that are nonetheless excellent places for a writer to showcase their stuff), and given the growth of digital media and the whole "content farm" problem that Ewan Morrison so vehemently rails against -- where does one draw the line?

I've made a little bit of money from writing in the past year. Not nearly enough to put food on the table, but certainly more in comparison to previous years. But I've also continued to submit and publish pieces in magazines, both in print and online, that don't pay. Sometimes I make decisions like this in the name of exposure -- it would, for example, be wonderful to have a short story in Joyland, and if I ever get an essay in The Rumpus I will die a happy woman -- and sometimes I make these decisions just because I like a particular publication, and admire their commitment to the craft. Sometimes journals can't pay. In an ideal world, of course, all journals would -- but when has that ever been the case?

But I know of and have heard some people in the literary community talking about how this is just not on, as they say. As a writer, you should aim to get paid for your work. When you give your work away for free, so the reasoning goes, you cheapen the industry for everyone, and make it that much harder for those who fight to be paid to achieve that very thing.

Last weekend, at our first LitLunch of the year, one of the attendees brought up to subject of content farms, a la the Huffington Post, who are all too happy to take advantage of that writer eager to see their name in print.  We'll publish you, give you a byline, etc. etc. This particular writer had been writing for various web and print publications for the better part of the last twenty years, and was now having to write many of his articles for free in exchange for industry perks -- tickets to film premieres, things like that. The world, folks, she's changed a lot. And it definitely isn't fair.

But then -- what to do? I certainly want to be paid for my writing. But I also recognize that much of the work that led to my book deal and other, subsequent work for which I got paid--an article here, a story there, and so on--was, in fact, work for which I received no recompense at all. I wouldn't be surprised, in fact, to learn that this here blog has managed to get me more reach than anything else I've done to date. And I haven't made one red cent off of Waiting For An Echo, despite the hours and hours and hours that go into it.

And I'm fine with that. I feel like there's a currency in the online world that might not translate into dollars and cents--not immediately, anyway--but nonetheless has its own kind of power. Look at the following that Cheryl Strayed managed to amass in her two years as the anonymous, unpaid Sugar. Look at what happened to Deb Perelman after her years of labour on Smitten Kitchen (and yes, I know she's made money via advertising on the site). Of course it's a gamble, but all of those written-for-free stories that end up in good Internet publications, or via plain old blogs, or whatever, do sometimes add up. Sometimes, you get paid through having one more person learn your name. Because when that book comes out, that might just mean one more person who's likely to buy it.

Am I playing wholeheartedly into the idea that allowing some of your work to go for free risks making all of it unworthy? We hear talk every day of how the publishing world is going down in flames. (Thank you, Mr. Morrison.) We much more rarely hear or read about how writers are, in many ways, living in a golden age. I wish sometimes that we'd find the strength to look past the doom and gloom and think about the possibilities that lie around us. (I've whined my fair share in this little online space. I know. But Waiting For An Echo is an ongoing project--as such, I reserve the right to grow and learn and at times be contradictory.) Words will always find readers. Someway, somehow. And sometimes you get a reader first, before you get the money.

Of course it's all well and good for me to say this, I know, snug as I am in my cushy nothing-to-do-with-writing job. Sure, she can send a story away to a magazine that's going to give her jack, because what does she care? Her writing doesn't put food on the table. 

But when I think about all of those little journals in which I've published, all of those lovely little places that celebrate words and hand out contributor's copies and pay just as much attention to the flow of a sentence as the big multinationals, I'm so glad to know they're out there. I wouldn't have managed to get to that book deal and those paid gigs and whatnot without them. And for that reason alone, I think they're all so very important.

Am I impossibly naive?

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