Expecting $$$ for a Story is not Improper

A recent article in The Guardian about a debate sparked by an author who declined to write an introduction for free caught my attention.  Philip Hensher, an acclaimed British author, was called “priggish and ungracious” by a Cambridge professor for refusing to write an introduction to forthcoming guide to his German literature for free.  Hensher countered that he writes for a living and wondered why it was “improper” to expect payment for his work.

This raises an interesting issue for writers.  I know many professional writers who will not submit to publications that don’t pay pro-rates, let alone publications that pay nothing.  They argue that as professionals, we must expect to get paid for our work, and if we don’t expect to get paid for our work, then we won’t, or at least it will make it harder to do so.  As an author I agree for the most part—I don’t submit my work to non-paying markets for two reasons:

(1) I spent hours writing a story, and I want to eventually make a living writing fiction, so I want my efforts rewarded monetarily.  My work has value to me and to any publication that uses it.  I don’t call a plumber to my house and expect him to do free work, so why should I get nothing for my work if a magazine wants to publish it and presumably make some profit off it?

(2) I find the amount exposure, which is often the argument for not receiving pay, is directly proportional to the amount of payment provided.  “For the Love” markets tend to have very low readership, so what is actually gained by the author for giving away his or her rights to a story?

Where I differ from some pros is I will publish in semi-pro markets.  At this point in my career, I don’t have a problem with that, and I’m not alone in this thinking.  Writers like Ken Liu also publish in semi-pro as well as all of the major pro-rate publications.  I like to have things out there, and I’m proud of my work or I wouldn’t submit it, and sometimes a story just isn’t right for a pro-rate market.  That doesn’t mean semi-pro publications are where I start when I submit stories.  I always prefer to have my work in a pro-rate magazine compared to a semi-pro.

What Mr. Hensher’s story does reveal is an interesting dichotomy between different writers.  I expect the Cambridge professor who was ticked-off by Mr. Hensher’s demand for payment, never gets paid for his writing.  Academics are expected to write and publish, but the is no expectation for payment—in fact, academics often have to pay to have their work published and often give away all of their rights when they do publish!  For academics, writing is usually considered a small part of a larger job for which they are paid.  Things are significantly different for a freelance or fiction author, and I don’t fault Mr. Hensher for asking to be paid.  I find nothing improper about it, and applaud him for standing up for the profession.

About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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4 Responses to Expecting $$$ for a Story is not Improper

  1. ericjbaker says:

    I’ve written for no-pay markets to get some writing credit (and been rejected by my share of paying markets, to be honest), but this situation isn’t about trying to get ones work out there. The author is already established and has nothing to gain from writing for free, so why should he?

    • What I found interesting was the expectation that he would write for free and then the response when he declined. While I would considering writing for free, it would have to be the right situation/project. Writing credits are nice and can keep you going (believe I know how important the encouragement is), but don’t expect a lot of exposure from no-pay markets. My philosophy: submit to pro-rate markets and work down in “quality” until no longer comfortable with the markets, then trunk it (fortunately, I don’t often get this far anymore) or self-publish it (I’m going to give this try soon).

  2. mobewan says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you discuss expectations. I’ve had plumbers come round and do work and certain elements have been for free. Either because I’ve put other work their way, they knew it was investment by firming up my loyalty or some other reason only known to them – but I never expected them to do it for free. It was their choice for their reasons.
    If I were a consultant or contractor in a professional career, I would laugh at someone who scoffed at me for not offering my time, skill and experience for free (I might scoff at their rates though!). Don’t see writers as any different. How much we value our work is a commercial choice we make, based on factors we see as important (appreciate this does’t mean we value it correctly, but that’s part of any career).
    Great post. I’d be intrigued to learn more about the difference between semi-pro markets and pro (think I have ideas, but I’d value any insight you’d be willing to share – for free of course ;-))

    • So true. The key point is we should value our writing and giving it away to a stranger so he/she can profit from it, suggests we do not value it very highly. There are other tangible forms of payment beyond money, however, and like the plumber in your example, I don’t discount those. One that many of “for the love” markets tout is “exposure,” but with rare exceptions, I think this is simply untrue. In most cases, exposure a publication can provide is directly related to the level of pay. I’m working on a post about that topic now.

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