Yes, it’s been a month since I posted. Illness is a bitch. But I’m back on track, and I have a bee in my bonnet about something I’ve spoken about before a few times. Hang on to your hats (and wallets).
I’ve just sent a short story to an indie press having some phenomenal success at the moment. They were keen to point out that they pay all their contributors, which is great, but it’s also really astounding that they had to say it at all. But then you take a cursory glance around at the places you can submit to these days, and suddenly a place that pays feels like a sane oasis in a barren, ‘we don’t pay, but it’s exposure!’ desert.
*Big massive disclaimer klaxon* In saying my piece here, I’m not casting aspersions on individual writers who choose to submit their work for free – I just want to draw attention to what I think is a growing problem. END OF DISCLAIMER.
It’s probably fair to say that the market for short fiction is booming at the moment. Every other day, I see another literary magazine spring up on social media, looking for submissions. It’s getting to the point where my spreadsheet is saturated with places. However, I’ve started to grey out places and bump them down my priorities, for the simple reasons that they don’t pay contributors and/or charge fees. And if there’s one thing I’ve had hammered into my head over the years, it’s this timeless maxim, lovingly presented to you now by me in eye-searing 80s format:
Now, I understand that there are circumstances where it’s simply not possible to pay. To take some personal examples, my first piece was published in a free book produced by a literary charity; my flash fictions made it to print with a small organisation relying on volunteers and a (tiny) membership fee from its writers; and my most recent was published by a small press, thanks to Creative Scotland funding, but due to the sheer number of contributors (70!) it made it impossible to pay everyone.
But outside of these exceptions, we live in an age of crowdfunding and alternative models of publishing. The extraordinary success of the Nasty Women anthology shows that there’s enthusiasm out there from readers keen to back the sort of stories they want to read, that they’re not necessarily getting from traditional publishers. And with that, I hope, comes the realisation that writers can’t live on exposure alone. They have, y’know, bills to pay and stuff.
It’d be easy for me to say ‘hey guys, submit your stories and I’ll publish them on my site. I can’t pay you right now, but I can give you a really good platform as an emerging writer’. Hey, guess what? As a UNESCO Emerging Writer, I was paid a fee for reading my story at the Book Festival. A fee that, like the one for my recent non-fiction piece, went towards my daily living expenses and not towards any sodding submission fees for literary platforms or contests.
Folk running the bulk of magazines and journals usually mean well. They want to get new voices out there. They’re often writers themselves. But I’m worried that the paying places will soon be drowned out by the ones asking writers to give away their hard work for nothing. (Or worse, the ones asking you to pay to get published, or piss away your first publication rights for a slender chance of the big time and miniscule royalties.) I was disheartened to see a new publication recently arguing with/blocking people who were just questioning why writers won’t be paid in the first issue in March. The responses started as ‘We’ll pay as soon as we can. We launched a week ago with no funding’. Then, it became ‘I’ve launched non-profits before and goodwill is important at the start’. Eventually, they admit they won’t be paying writers until July. Which became ‘they will be paid retrospectively as soon as we have money’. Do you see why writers like me might be a bit pissed off at this sort of flannel? I don’t take this shit from day job clients when I want paid. I sure as hell wouldn’t for my writing.
So the questions I’d ask, every time I see a site not paying and/or asking for fees, are:
- Why aren’t you paying?
- When will you be paying, and will the payment model be sustainable?
- Will there be any hard-copy editions of your publication, or is it just hosted on WordPress or similar?
- What’s the reasoning behind charging fees?
- Do you pay your staff a fair wage (including, but not limited to, editors, slush readers, and illustrators)?
- What efforts are you making to encourage disadvantaged writers to submit?
There’s zero excuse, several years down the line, for us all still to be having the conversation about the lack of writers from disadvantaged backgrounds. And while I deeply admire the work of places like Arts Emergency, we shouldn’t need them in the first place. We’re not dispelling the image of writing as a hobby indulged on the side by the affluent. There’s tools at our disposal to fund writing from working-class contributors. We should start using them.