Writing Tips #9 (Money)

It’s been a while since I posted one of these tips. The half-serious, half-tongue in cheek series is something that I wanted to continue over the summer, but what with one thing and another, I let it fall by the wayside.

I want to start it again by referring you to this post from Jane Smith on How Publishing Really Works (along with the accompanying comments) and Nicola Morgan’s response (plus more comments) on Help! I Need a Publisher. I’m a bit late to the party to weigh in, but these posts are well worth reading and my two penn’oth is below:

It’s not okay to work for free. If you can afford to work for nothing, that’s great – but unless you’re getting something else that is valuable you should charge a fee anyway (especially for teaching and editing/appraisal/consultancy) otherwise you’re unfairly taking work from a writer who can’t afford to work for nothing – which is the vast, vast majority of writers. (Insert depressing Soc of Authors figures here) Donate it to a charity if you’d prefer to, but make sure you get paid.

Work includes: writing a story, article, review, or report. Reading and commenting on someone else’s unpublished writing*. Delivering a workshop. Helping someone design a workshop which they will deliver. Researching. Reading from your writing to an audience who has paid to come and see you. Doing a Q and A. Fundraising. Giving a talk or a lecture to a book group, writing circle etc. Hosting, organising and promoting events.

Even if you have a day job and you do these things in your ‘spare’ time, it is still work. Even if your day job is really well paid. Even if you’re a millionaire. Even if you really, really like doing it. Even if you worry that you’re not as famous as they think you are. Whatever. It is still work and a renumeration is appropriate.

BUT this renumeration might not only come in cold hard cash (although never decline this – even if you’re getting an advance every couple of years, publishers don’t offer pensions). In the past I’ve worked for a very reduced fee or even for no cash at all because the ‘fee’ or the benefit to me has included one or more of the following:

Chance to gain experience in a sector or with a client group that I haven’t worked in or with before.

Chance to work with another writer that I’d really like to meet / work with / pick the brains of.

Publicity / promotion / networking opportunities. Prestige, reputation and other forms of stroking (though be careful of this – if the work was that prestigious, they’d be able to pay you).

Raising funds for a cause I believe in (in this case, I’d expect to be offered a fee, and the choice to waive or reduce it would be mine to make as I see fit).

To support a fledgling organisation / event with the understanding that they were aiming to pay writers for their work in the future – in effect, I’d be helping other writers get paid somewhere along the line, and if I had faith in the organisation and was able to pay my rent otherwise, I might agree to that.

In exchange for services (I am very happy to work in exchange for services – never be afraid of asking me this as it’s something I’d like to do more of).

I have also, very often, done things that I usually get paid for, for free, because a friend has asked me, because no-one’s getting paid, because I think it will be fun, because it will give me an excuse to go and have a night out in a new place, because I want to, because I feel like it. In this case, I put the event under ‘social life’ rather than ‘work’.

I’m flagging up Jane’s post even though in blog-time it’s almost old news because I know a lot of the people I teach writing to eventually find their way to my blog and I’d like to give them a nudge towards these posts and urge them to think all about these issues – which are not old news and not likely to become so. Even if you’re just starting out with informal readings at live lit nights, ocassional volunteer placements, internships etc it’s still important to think about how much your labour is worth, and to whom.

(Yes, writing is labour. Reading to an audience is labour. I’m as working class as they come but even if you don’t sweat or get dirty it is still work.)

I made loads of mistakes when I was starting out – saying yes to everything and feeling grateful that someone would want to offer me work at all. It took two sets of mentoring, a couple of stern talking tos from a good friend of mine and a lot of soul searching before I was able to put a number on what I do. It is still something I find difficult sometimes – perhaps because I come from the public sector and am used to being badly paid for my skills, perhaps because I’m still working out the worth of my various labours myself, perhaps because when your work is so close to your heart putting a number on it feels very much like putting a number on youself.

How much would I charge for looking after my children? My childminder manages to work out a business model that works, we had to put a figure on it when buying life insurance recently** and I have learned that it’s okay to be cold hearted about your writing when it comes to talking invoices and contracts.

Don’t be surprised when people are shocked or even offended that you want a fee. Tough it out, pretend you aren’t blushing and say, ‘this is what it costs.’ While it is true a lot of events run on goodwill and volunteers (who are, I would argue, getting work experience, contacts etc) the writer, without whom none of it would be possible, is expected to work for nothing too. I often wonder where, in that case, all the ticket fees go to.

People will say things like this:

‘You do it for the love of it, though, don’t you,’

Yes. I love my job. I bet my web-designer and my accountant and my agent and my editor love their jobs too. They certainly approach their respective tasks, like I do, with enthusiasm, creativity and dilligence. Why is it okay they get paid fairly and promptly but I don’t? I bet my landlord loves getting his monthly check from me***. I bet the supermarket loves how much money I throw into their tills each month. (Cheesy peeps!) It isn’t only people who hate their jobs who deserve to get paid.

‘Well, so and so will do it for free…’

Okay. Go and ask so and so then. I’m sure if so and so were that good, they wouldn’t need to do it for free. You get what you pay for. This is my job. There’s a difference between a hobbyist and a writer and I am a writer. (I know it is hard to say this.)

‘It’ll be a brilliant promotional opportunity for you,’

Question this. How brilliant is brilliant? Exactly. Be an arse about it if you have to. If they are expecting loads of people through the doors, and those people are paying a ticket price, then they can afford to pay you. If ticket sales aren’t that great, you’re not getting that much exposure. Do they mean book sales? First, book sales at events are over rated and can be unpredictable. I’ve sold and signed over seventy books at a well attended local event at a near-anonymous venue (that I was also paid to attend) and three books (which I suspect were pity buys) at one of the most well known book festivals in the world (yes, that one – although I was also paid to attend, and very fairly at that.)

And second, so what if it’s a brilliant promotional opportunity for me – you’re charging people to come and see me, not come and see my book. If I’m not preparing for this event, travelling to this event or doing this event, I could be earning money doing something else. If the musician who plays during the break and the graphic designer who did the posters and the man who sells the tickets and the woman who dishes out the half-time wine get paid, I should be getting paid too.

‘It’s all for a good cause..’

That’s for me to decide, thank you very much. I have not got a heart of stone. If I want to donate to your charity or support your organisation, I will do it without being guilted into it.

So this is my writing tip: do not undersell yourself. If you insist on a fee, you generally get treated better than if you’re willing to turn up for free. If you decide to waive your fee because you’re getting some other benefit, make it clear you are waiving a fee that you would usually charge AND make sure you get your train fare.

*if you email me your great unpublished novel, I will email you my consultancy fees list, no probs.

** aha! So that’s why banana skins have been appearing at the top of the stairs at Ashworth Towers these days…

***despite refusing to fix my rickety windows for nigh on two years now.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy my other Tips for Writers. Although they are worth more or less exactly what you pay for them. Comments and questions welcome.

EDITED TO ADD: this link to Daisy Baldwin’s post on voluntary work and internships – required reading for the arts grads amongst us. 

17 responses to “Writing Tips #9 (Money)”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jenn Ashworth, Jenn Ashworth. Jenn Ashworth said: Writing Tips #9 (Money): It’s been a while since I posted one of these tips. The half-serious, half-tongue in chee… http://bit.ly/abCRqt […]

  2. Marisa Birns says:

    I did enjoy this post very much!

    They are so many online magazines, blogs, etc. that are always asking for story submissions. They never pay and I know many people who do it and are thrilled that they are “published” and don’t mind.

    Of course, several of these online places have left the internet, along with the publishing credit the writers can no longer highlight.

  3. Marisa: hello!!

    I’ve submitted to many, many online mags that don’t pay, have been published in a few of them and continue to, very thankfully, promote them for the exposure and faith they placed in me my continuing to link to them via my blog.

    The editors of these mags aren’t getting paid either (usually), and I (at the time) treated publication itself as payment in kind because of the exposure they gave me.

    I never felt exploited, although now I am at the stage where I expect to be paid and don’t submit to non-paying markets anymore, I think they key is to choose your market very carefully – if they are reputable, the ‘prestige’ or the ‘publicity’ will be worth as much as a fee.

  4. You hit the nail precisely on the head! Well said. And it can’t be said too often, because it is something we need to remind ourselves about all the time, Thanks, Jen.

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jenn Ashworth, Claire King. Claire King said: Writers – you may not earn much but you should earn something. Chez @JennAshworth http://t.co/5rJmp1x (via @valerieoriordan ) […]

  6. […] has written a great post over on her blog about money and how as a writer you need to ensure you get paid for your work.  I […]

  7. Thanks Catherine.

    I’ve since had a few emails from writers who agree with my point, but want to know how they can ask to be paid – how, exactly, do you go about demanding a fee from an organisation that expects you to turn up and work for nothing?

    I’m going to do a follow up post about making the move from hobby writer to professional writer, I think – because it’s linked to this idea of money and not enough writers talk about it.

  8. Tom Vowler says:

    Fascinating post, which has got me thinking. I think because inevitably writing begins as a hobby (I don’t know anyone who’s never written a word suddenly awake one day to announce themselves ‘a Writer’ – at least not with any justification). And so when you first make that leap, perhaps your first book is out, you’re rather overjoyed that people want you to perform, read, advise…that you offer your valuable services for free.

    I read at my local library recently, and although I was happy not to charge, despite the audience paying a small entry fee, it took hours of preparation, plus the night itself. Again I’m reading later this month at a local arts centre. Small charge to get in, but not from me. But then can a new writer expect to command one? Your post has made me think the answer should be in the positive. And by way of comparison, the same venue recently hosted a very well-known poet whose fee for the evening, with expenses neared four figures.

  9. AliB says:

    Hello Jen and thanks for a great post which is very timely for me. I have recently given up the day job (not just to write – an age-related decision!) but as a result have started looking at my writing as a skill that’s worth money – or should be – even if I also do it for love. I feel I have a decent record now in non-paying markets, competitions etc and think it’s time to look for recompense. Looking forward to any future advice you can offer!

  10. Emma Lee says:

    Great post.

    Naturally, there’s a balance. Most poetry magazines can only afford to pay in complimentary copies because the subscriptions just about cover production costs and the editor is working for free so expecting to get paid will mean you won’t get published.

    If asked to do an event, ask how you raise an invoice and get paid. The answer will tell you if the event’s worth doing. Generally if the organisers and staff present at the event are being paid, the writer should be. If it’s for charity, still ask for a fee but consider donating the fee to charity so the charity doesn’t lose out but there is still a recognition that you deserve payment. You always have the option not to charge if you know the event is being organised by unpaid volunteers, but that decision should be yours, not one made by the organisers on your behalf. Also check what expenses the organisers are willing to pay as getting a fee and then finding it’s absorbed by travel costs that you’re expected to fund is not practical.

    Even new writers should expect payment as the organisers clearly value your writing enough to ask for a reading and readings should be paid for: you are giving up writing time, preparing and rehearsing.

    I won’t comment on charging as that’s going to be a future article, but you can have a sliding scale depending on how long the event is due to last and whether travel expenses will be paid or not.

  11. Deirdre says:

    I got a useful tip from Lynn Adgar of http://www.innovations.co.uk, who suggested always sending in an invoice for your full fee, even if you waive some or all of it (for good reason). That way, you are making the exact value of your work clear. It may seem like renaming your ‘free’ work as a donation, but that is more empowering than working for nothing.

  12. Deirdre says:

    Sorry, I gave the wrong website for Lynn; it should read http://www.lynnovationarts.co.uk. I apologise if I sent anyone astray.

  13. thanks for your input, everyone – especially from the people who I haven’t met before. Hello!

    I’m not going to say too much here, because I’m planning a follow up blog post to this one in which I plan to go into the specifics. My suspicion is that what is normal and acceptable for a poet published on a small press might be totally different for a self published local history writer, a freelance journo and a novelist published with a mainstream publisher. I also think the key to it might be knowing what your own worth is in the market… and I’m underqualified to diagnose that for myself sometimes, never mind anyone else.

    Anyway seeing as this post has raised the hackles of a few of my regular readers and struck a chord with the rest I will be coming back to it. But before I can jam in any more clichés into this comment, I will sign off…

  14. […] break from my ranting about cash, here are a few things to look at while I’m busy Checking The […]

  15. Thanks for this, this is a great post and should be said.

  16. Jane says:

    Excellent and timely piece Jenn. I think it’s important for writers to discuss money openly because one of the things that companies often do is try to make out we’re the greedy ones – even asking for a half decent fee.

    Sometimes you just have to butch up and remind them as you say that you’re not a ‘hobbyist’ and you get what you pay for.

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