Pay or paid to publish?

As usual I’ve got myself into a fairly inarticulate state on Twitter over the Mamma Mia no-pay-to-publish thing. There’s a bit of history to it, just for context.

Marieke Hardy, of all people, kicked off on Twitter the other day at Mamma Mia founder Mia Freedman for not paying her contributors.

I was surprised at this. I thought MM was a pretty big site (Freedman claims 1.2m visitors) and I would have thought at least paying a nominal amount to say thanks is fair. 1.2m is a big number in the Australian web scene, so the site must be doing alright. Freedman does not appear short of a bob or the influence her position affords.

Now, nobody holds a gun to these people’s heads. Bern Morley and Meshel Laurie both stuck up for Freedman, saying it led to bigger and better things. I can believe that and am pleased it worked out for them.

Freedman then wrote a lengthy piece about how she employs a number of full and part-time writers and then casually dropped that she has “about a dozen” unpaid interns. Which, in raw numbers, doubles her staff, but they’re obviously  part time.

Still, this made me extremely uncomfortable.

Most of the writers laying into her are people who make a living being paid to write or are very close to doing so. Freedman’s counter-argument is that this is the sort of exposure money can’t buy and anyway, she’s not the only one.

She’s right, unless you’re Jamie Packer and you spend lots of money advertising in Fairfax papers.

I write for free and have done so for 20 years. The vast bulk of my writing in that time has been for zero dollars. Four hundred game reviews over several sites, (some that were in a position to pay, I might add), many film reviews and probably millions of words about Formula 1.

I’ve been paid less than $15,000 in 20 years of writing. I won a writing award in 1997 which paid, I was paid a nominal amount for a play to be toured by ATYP, a magazine article or two and now am paid regularly to write about cars. It’s a nice feeling.

I’d say about 95% of the money has come from writing about cars, if you’re interested. I am extraordinarily thankful for that. And 95% of that from a website with far fewer visitors than Freedman’s claimed audience and over the last 7 months.

(I’m not including the scripts and unpublished novels, by the way)

Anyway, the point is, there has to be a line somewhere. In fact, two. One must be drawn by the writer – how much are they willing to do for free, for how long and why are they doing it for free? Only the writer can decide this and it’s really nobody else’s business. Some say those who write for free undermine other writers, but I don’t think that holds any water because that’s not how business or publishing works.

The second is for the publisher: how much free labour am I going to harness before it gets a bit silly?

I’ve been both. I published a video game website for a few years that I inherited from an impressive younger bloke and had to be completely upfront about the fact that there wasn’t a red cent in it, despite being one of the most successful sites around at the time. I felt bad.

Thing is, I’m really lucky. I have a good income from other sources that keeps me better than well-fed and housed and clothed and I am extremely grateful for that. Writing is a hobby for me and I am always pleasantly surprised by the payments I do get.

But, because I’m an egomaniac, the reward for me is that my name is in lights or pixels or whatever and my thoughts are being read by others who don’t know me and never will. I get a kick out of that.

What I don’t get a kick out of is exploitation. Sites like Mamma Mia (and I am picking on them unfairly here and on Twitter) make a lot of money (if 1.2m is true, etc etc) and have a responsibility to check themselves. And not cry about it on TV.

The power, in the end, is with the writer. If you’re not prepared to do it for nothing, don’t. If you are, but are uncomfortable with Freedman et al, don’t write for them. That doesn’t pay the bills, but neither does The Punch or The Drum or whoever else.

What does pay the bills eventually is the exposure you get for judiciously choosing your targets and setting yourself a goal – “if I am not paid after n pageviews, I will say thanks, but I’m off.” Or whatever. It’s up to you.

I just wish it didn’t have to be this way and I don’t honestly think Freedman takes delight in not paying, she just thinks it’s the only way.

It isn’t, but she, and many others, are looking after their own financial interests.

 

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I’ve Gone Back to School

The inestimably clever Van Badham is Ashfield Council’s artist-in-residence at the moment and she is running a class for writers for the next six weeks. I went to the first one on Tuesday night, not sure what to expect. I mean, I knew she’d be brilliant but it’s a class about the craft of writing, not a bare-your-soul workshop of what is invariably a class full of people wanting to tell the story of their maternal Scottish grandmother who fought in the Boer War and defeated a Zulu warlord with her fists in the Russian Civil War. Or something.

I’m being mean. It was a great group and Van started us off by talking about tone, something most of us struggle with. We had to describe the room in a spooky way, so I thought I’d post it for posterity. It was a bit of a giggle and I’m sort of quietly proud of something I banged together in ten minutes…

The room was divided in two, halfway down, the large folding doors framing the dark core of the fireplace at the far end. Cables hung limply, like tendons liberated from their owners and hung to dry. The walls bore the scars of crimes unspoken, some of them painted over, some of them still bare, raw. The tables, too, bore further signs of mishaps, the marks bearing the colours of blood and bile and things that once oozed were now hard and dark, the horror of the event frozen in time. The lights threw shadows across the ceiling, the perforations in the barrels making the light look like blood spattered across the plaster.

Another fireplace was cracked, it’s dark heart cold and forbidding. Drums lay scattered on the floor, as though abandoned in a hurry. It was unlikely their taxi had arrived in the middle of a jam session. It was silent but for a quiet whirring – I could not locate the source. Cries of catch ‘im! catch ‘im! floated through the opposite wall…

Really looking forward to the next five sessions. I hope I can make them all, because as a writer, you never stop learning and never, ever get to be perfect.

Follow Van on Twitter @vanbadham

Buy and read her book Burnt Snow from Amazon or iBooks.

Read her rantings at http://www.vanbadhham.com/

Why? Because she’s awesome and I don’t have the space to tell you how amazing she is.

– This was originally posted on my Tumblr which I abandoned because Tumblr isn’t that good. –

Towel Day #10

More than any other writer, Douglas Adams has influenced the way I write, read and consume entertainment. He is a reference point by which I navigate the world of being a writer and a part of the audience of other artists. His writing defined my sense of the absurd and his gentleness and verbose-without-being-verbose way of writing genuinely thrills me, still does, ten years after he died. As my friend Van would say, he squeezes words.

When famous people die, especially the good ones, people throw themselves into a funk and eulogise them tearily, endlessly and often recreationally. I’ll say, ‘Oh, so and so died, that’s a shame,’ and move on with my day. But Douglas Adams’ death really upset me in a way very few deaths do or have since. I was sad.

Sad because at the time I felt he was underrated and I may even have mourned him more intensely because despite the huge effect he’d had on pop culture, he was not mourned in a way I thought he should have been by the general media. I love Towel Day because it’s something that is deeply connected to Adams’ wonderful world of H2G2 but isn’t mawkish or drippily sentimental.

My iPad features a giant Don’t Panic as its lock screen and I enjoy being part of the club – the knowing smile you get from fellow fans. It’s like owning an old Alfa Romeo – there’s no histrionics from fellow owners, just a nod and a ‘What year is she?’ The Adams ‘What year is she?’ is ‘Which is your favourite?’ and there’s never, ever an argument. Doesn’t matter if it’s Dirk or Hitch, fellow Adams fans just love that you are a fan too.

And I think that says much about the man who in a way led the movement, his fans. I don’t ever remember reading anything where he had been anything other than good-humoured and approachable and just plain nice. I loved the way he, in retrospect, gently skewered his friend Richard Dawkins with the arguing philosophers in H2G2, the computer Deep Thought telling them how much money there is to be made arguing about the meaning of life. On the eternal frustration that his wildly successful books couldn’t be made into films, he wrote:

‘Getting a film made in Hollywood is like trying to cook a steak by having a bunch of people come into the room and breathe on it.’

He was funny, clever and above all, as I say, a gentleman.

I was very privileged to be able to talk about Hitch-Hiker’s on Radio National’s Future Tense. I am absurdly proud of that.

I hope one day to get a book published that I can say was inspired by his great writing, I’ve started it and I hope that people will read it and say, ‘You know, that’s a bit Douglas Adams.’

And that will mean it’s funny and gentle and clever and makes people smile or laugh long after they’ve put the book down.

I still mourn his death and that he could not continue making us all laugh in new ways, appreciate the world around us and write characters like Arthur, Dirk, Zaphod and Janice.

The world is genuinely a poorer place without him. Happy Towel Day.

– This was originally posted on my Tumblr which I abandoned because Tumblr isn’t that good. –