It’s time for writers and thinkers to change how they view their work
In signing over the rights, I agreed to give – for no payment at all – what essentially amounts to a gift of my ideas and my hard work. The paper was the culmination of knowledge accumulated over five-odd years of dissertation work. Plus, then it took at least another 20 hours to write up the chapter so that it adhered to the long list of stylistic demands that, in a commercially fair world, would be the job of someone who’s paid to do them. Thing is, the chaptered book that is made partly of all this free work from contributors has the potential to inform readers for as long as it’s in print.
And of course, the publishing house will make profits on the sales of the books made from my chapter and others like it.
Suck it up, other writers tell me. That’s just how the ‘system’ works. Besides, the more you publish, the more chance you have of…being published? For me, this argument sounds like a system intent on perpetuating the myth of the validity that comes with being published. The myth works in favour of publishing houses and universities that yield profits from the at times free labour of writers and thinkers.
The more broke writers and thinkers are, the more ethical and talented we appear.
“Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of the writer,” wrote the great writer Kurt Vonnegut.
What does Vonnegut mean by this statement? On one level, he’s referring to the expectation of material poverty that accompanies the ‘noble and virtuous’ life of the writer. From my reading and discussions with writer friends and colleagues, there seems to be a celebration in writing cultures of the lack of financial reward from writing.
On the same day I gave away my paper, a friend of mine announced on Facebook he’d received his first ever royalties cheque.
“ The more broke writers are, the more ethical and talented we seem. ”
This cheque was payment for a monographed book that took him years to make. The cheque was for $281, which may pay an electricity bill. If he’s frugal.
Now, in the instances of my friend and me, we no longer completely own our work.
And for both of us, our work represents intellectual capital that, if developed strategically, could not only disseminate our ideas, but could also provide a living for ourselves and our families in the present and into the future.
And that living part – it’s important.
Thinkers and writers who are tenured academic staff effectively exchange their services to the university for payment, and as a consequence are expected to produce published work. Any books they publish are seen as a means of secondary payment: their wage from the uni. But tenure is increasingly difficult to get and many scholars and academics are employed on sessional semester-based contracts.
And what about untenured thinkers and other non-fiction writers who work casually or independently? There are growing numbers who write ‘outside’ the system and who would benefit from challenging the conventions of traditional publishing.
Otherwise? There is a growing group of highly-skilled professional people without any means to make a just living.
Recent statistics show that most writers earn less than the minimum wage, with 17% of all writers not making any income at all.
As writers and thinkers, we’re often asked to make contributions to all forms of content for zero payment. The argument is that we need exposure of our ideas to build our reputations, so we ought to take what we can get when it comes to media and publishing opportunities.
Many writers and thinkers accept that providing free content when you’re just getting started is a good way to build a portfolio and develop skills in the ‘real world’.
I’m not convinced of this path. Not because I’m against doing things for publicity or brand-building, but because often creators have no say in what they give away and what they charge for. The expectation is that generally their labour will be free.
Apprentice plumbers, lawyers, waiters (keep going…) are all paid to learn their trades and professions.
Quid pro quo, right? So why do we perpetuate a culture that says thinkers and writers should do the same?
“ My writing means business. ”
Many of my colleagues are critical of my decision to work independently of academic and publishing institutions. They question, either implicitly or explicitly, my focus on making an income. Instead, says the critique, I should be on the more virtuous path of writing for free until eventually I gain tenure or I’m recognised through traditional publishing.
Fact of the matter is, I may not gain tenure, and chances of getting published are contingent not so much on the quality of my work, but on the schedules and budgets of publishing institutions. Even if I do achieve either of these – at this point – I am not sure I’m prepared to line the coffers of universities or multinational publishing houses at the expense of giving away what I’ve made.
Perhaps I’ll have to ‘water down’ my work so it’s accessible to a broader audience who will buy it. But what’s so wrong with doing this? If our ideas are good ones, surely they have potency across broad audiences and the capacity to be broken down and made elegant? In any case, isn’t it incumbent on us to ensure an ethical dissemination of our ideas that has the capacity for on-the-ground social impact?
We can continue to kid ourselves we’re working virtuously by abiding the traditional career pathway.
Or we can own what we make, stay in control of how it’s used and produce a fair and honest income so that we can feed our families.
Is this ‘selling out’ or simply acknowledging the reality that many writers and thinkers are denying?
In coming posts, I will begin to unfold strategies thinkers, writers and creatives across a broad range of industries and disciplines can stay in control of their work, and make a living that is not wholly dependent on institutions and corporations.