Who pays the writer?

By Matthew Lamb, Editor of Island magazine from 2013 - 2015

There are two related items that I’m going to discuss here. One item is Island’s new contributor fee policy. The other is the more general notion of writers getting paid for their work. As this more general notion is the background against which Island’s new contributor fee policy was formed, I’ll begin with outlining this context, before moving on to a more particular policy discussion.

That writers ought to be paid for their writing is a pretty basic assumption. However, as campaigns such as Pay the Writers have shown, such an assumption often does not tally with reality. It should. And it is toward this end that we ought to be all working.

However, for this campaign to be successful, the scope of the analysis of the problem, as well as the scope of action to follow that analysis, needs to be broadened. The directive to pay the writer is a good starting point. But the next step needs to include the questions: Who pays the writer? And how?

A response to the question of who pays the writer? seems simple enough. It is the publisher, of course. However, the discussions to date have mostly treated the notion of ‘publisher’ as if they are all the same size, all the same type, and all have a uniform funding model. But they aren’t, they’re not, and they don’t.

I am not suggesting that taking this context into account needs to change the final response (that writers should be paid), but that it should change the approach—or approaches—taken to solicit this final response from each type of publisher. At the very least, it should make the discussion more interesting, and less simplistic.

In what follows, I am only concerned with a particular type of publisher, associated with literary magazines here in Australia. These are small, often very small, in size. They are usually not-for-profit organisations. So the associated question of how to pay the writers? is often very acute. And it is intimately linked with other related questions:  how to pay the editors, the sub-editors, the proofreaders, the admin staff, the designers, the printersthe postman, and so on. None of these pressures should be used as an excuse for not paying writers. But writers need to realise (as many undoubtedly already do) that their writing does not exist in a vacuum, and it is this publishing infrastructure that is the necessary support system for their work.

For the most part, lit mag publishers rely on a mixture of government funding, philanthropic donation, and revenue drawn from sale of the magazine and associated  events. But receiving government funding is often not enough. And even this is an uncertain source of support nowadays. But there are many more small lit mags out there that don't even have the luxury of receiving government or philanthropic funding for their efforts. And they rely solely on sales to recoup their own invested capital (and time).

In 2012, Wet Ink folded after seven years. The previous year, HEAT folded after 14 years. Both lit mags provided an essential space for emerging and established writers to be published. More will probably follow over the coming year. Until very recently, it was thought that Island may have been one of these, and it is not out of the woods just yet.

But such a loss is not simply the loss of a little magazine, but the loss of an environment which has sprung up around each of these magazines.

They are all linked to events, launches, lectures, and discussions, far greater than their subscription base. ‘In this way, it’s still really important for government arts strategies to continue supporting the cultivation of literary culture through literary magazines,’ Dale Campisi, former editor of Island, said to me last year: ‘Because, you know, literary magazines are much more than mere magazines.’

But, unfortunately, most magazines will stand or fall, depending on the strength of this circulation base. Good will and good ideas, sadly, cannot pay the bills (and cannot pay the writers). And so it is here that any discussion of publishers paying writers, and how they are able to pay them, must begin and end.

Let’s put this into perspective. Only a couple of our lit mags have annual subscriptions / circulations much greater than 2000. The majority are well below 1000, with many below the 500 threshold which is required for that lit mag to be eligible for funding from the Australia Council.

And yet, on average, these lit mags have twice as many submissions each year than they have subscribers. This figure is skewed by the few relatively more successful lit mags, which have slightly higher subscription levels. But on a case-by-case analysis, most of these ratios sit between two to five times more submissions than subscriptions. I know of one that even has a ratio of ten times more total submissions than total sales.

What does this tell us? Well, it suggests that Australia has more writers that want to have their work published by these lit mags, than we have writers that want to subscribe to them. In other words, many of our writers want to be supported by, but they do not, in turn, want to support the very infrastructure that provides them with a potential platform to be published.      

Let’s ponder that for a moment.

Describing this malaise in the U.S. literary scene, Becky Tuch, an aspiring writer, and founding editor of The Review Review, has provided a rare moment of honest self-consciousness:

I was not reading any literary magazines. Not only did I not subscribe to any, I hardly cared what was in them. There were even the magazines in which I'd had stories appear, magazines in which I'd won contests. Even those I didn't read.

Worse, I was not the only writer like this. What I found when I talked to my peers was that everyone wanted to be published in these magazines, but no one knew who published what, who edited which magazines, which ones were printed from universities and which were independent, or at the very least which magazines they liked and which they didn’t.

Wanting to get published in lit mags had started to feel like doing community service so that it would look good on your college application. That is to say, lit mags did not represent pleasure, engagement or intellectual growth, but merely a stepping stone toward recognition from book editors and maybe agents.

Having spoken to aspiring and established writers in Australia, I can say that this experience reflects our own situation.

Tuch’s conclusion is also relevant: ‘How could we expect lit mags to care about our work, when we didn’t care about theirs?' Why would anyone make time or pay money for our stories if we were unwilling to take a lit mag on our morning commute or shell out the twenty bucks a year for a subscription?’

Let’s put this into further perspective. There are in Australia around 17,000 members of writers’ centres across all states and territories. There are many more writers again, both aspiring and established, that are not members of a writers’ centre. Just as there are many more aspiring writers, currently enrolled in creative writing courses across the country.

If each of these individuals only subscribed to three or four of our leading lit mags then most of their funding pressures would be eradicated at a stroke. Even subscribing to one would have some measurable benefit.

The flow on effect of this, of course, would mean that lit mags could then do at least one of four possible things, or a combination of all four. First, they could publish more work in each issue. Second, they could possibly publish more issues each year. Third, the overall cost of each issue, and so of each subscription, could be reduced, thus attracting more subscribers. Fourth, and perhaps most important, they could pay writers more for their work.

Every one of these possibilities benefits writers; by increasing available space for your writing, by increasing the audience for your writing, and by increasing the amount you are paid for your writing.

An additional benefit is that subscribing to the lit mags you are aspiring to get published in also increases your chances of getting published in them. How? Because familiarity with what they publish—the tone and type of pieces they publish—will help you tailor your own submission to the lit mag best suited for it. Such familiarity comes from reading several copies of a particular lit mag. Many submissions in slush piles are rejected because they just don't fit with the publication and it is clear that the writer has not familiarised themselves with it. They have probably done a blanket submission of the same piece to several publications at once, under the deluded notion that this will increase their chances of getting published. It won’t.    

I won’t consider the flipside of this situation in any great detail here: the role of general readers in subscribing to our lit mags. They are, after all, absolutely essential. But we should not push this (false) binary too far: after all, writers are readers, too. Or rather, they ought to be. That they are not is the problem. And that is the point. Because, ultimately, the question of who pays the writer? and how? is that it is the reader, and the first, and most dedicated, most engaged readers, to Australia’s lit mags that ought to be the writers who write for them, and the writers who aspire to write for them.

Your writing is only worth getting paid for if you believe that the writing of others is worth paying for.

This leads into Island’s new contributor fee policy. It comes out of the above analysis. The endpoint that we want to reach is that all contributors to the magazine are also subscribers.

Three points followed:

  1. We did not, however, want this to be a precondition for submitting.
  2. Likewise, we still wanted the flexibility to commission pieces, and so wanted those negotiations to operate on the same, fair playing field, as our general submissions.
  3. We did not want to penalise current subscribers, in the push for attracting new subscribers.

So the policy developed is predicated on the notion of making a subscription a condition of payment for contributors. The cost of a subscription is included in the fee structure.

It works like this. Let’s assume that the fee for a particular piece is $200. A domestic subscription to Island costs $50. If you are already a subscriber, then you will be paid $200. If you are not already subscriber, then you will be paid $150 + an annual subscription ($50).

This is a first, necessary step in a long-term strategy to build circulation, and so, in turn, to increase the amount that we can pay contributors. And it is toward this end that we ought to be all working.

For the most part, contributors have understood this new policy, and approved of its intent. But there has been some pushback from some contributors, or aspiring contributors.

One argument that doesn’t work, in this instance (and it has been attempted), is that receiving partial payment with a subscription will not pay the rent. But that is like a barber saying that buying a pair of scissors and a barber chair will not pay the rent. Well, it will. Because it is an investment in the tools required to ply your trade. And a subscription to the publications where you hope to get published is as essential an investment in your own profession as is purchasing a laptop or a pencil sharpener or a notebook.

As a final point, I want to clarify that all of this is leading toward creating better conditions for writers, especially when it comes to paying the writer. It may seem, however, that I am placing too much undue pressure on writers to take on the financial burdens of publishing. But I am not suggesting anything that I, in my capacity as a reader and a writer, do not expect from myself. It so happens that I am also involved in the publishing side of things, and so what I offer here is merely a necessary counter-balance to burdens already taken up by small publishers, especially of literary magazines.  

There is, however, something that publishers of lit mags could do, to help clarify the situation for writers. And that is to come up with a shared, and agreed upon, standard of minimum payment for contributors that all lit mags could aspire toward achieving. Many already would, I’d imagine. And some would already be paying well above whatever would be agreed upon. But there is much variation in the field as it currently stands that I can appreciate how confusing or daunting it may be for writers, especially emerging writers, to know or to negotiate for fees.    

On the flipside of this, writers need to appreciate that there are many obstacles that would hinder some lit mags from achieving even such minimum standards of payment. It would then be up to all of us to work together toward overcoming those obstacles in order to create a sustainable writing and publishing culture.

It starts, of course, with supporting our reading culture. And a subscription is still the best point of entry into that culture.