Part 1 of 4
Here’s a random tweet I saw recently, one that’s far too typical.
The Xxxxx Review (Fiction: $0 Poetry: $0 Non-fic: $0, G) reopened to subs.
Thank you very much, but I won’t be submitting.
I spend anywhere from two weeks to a month writing the first draft of a short story, into which I pour a lifetime of learning and experience, and a passion for the craft. Then I revise two, three, sometimes as many as eight times before a story is accepted in a publication. That adds up to a lot of work. And these journals want me to what? Give it away for free?
I know of no other field in which people are expected to work at a professional level for years for little or no remuneration. Why is writing so cursed?
It’s a question that plagues me as I endure the wilderness years, the time the experts say it takes to establish oneself as an author. A quick check of the Duotrope database showed they have 4662 listings for current journals. Of that number, only 107 are shown to pay pro or semipro rates for fiction. Remove the children’s, genre, regional and specialty journals, and for an adult literary writer like me, that leaves maybe 50 to 60 journals worth submitting to and competing with the 1,000 to 2,000 submissions such journals typically get each month they’re open. Not very good odds.
How did the world of literary writing fall into this self-perpetuating trap?
I’ll spend the next few weeks exploring various aspects of this illogical, unfortunate, unique, idiotic, un-American industry model.
First, take three minutes and listen to what Harlan Ellison has to say about pay for writers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE. Get past his frustration and you’ll understand that he’s right.
We live in a market economy. For better or worse that means we survive as individuals by offering something of value in return for compensation. That usually means a job skill, but it can also mean expertise, a product, a painting, a song, or, yes, a story.
Why then is so much writing considered to be without value by the very people who produce it? By that I mean not only the publishers of journals that don’t pay, but the writers who submit to them. What kind of person allows his cherished work to flit away for nothing?
The thinking, apparently, is that by giving stories away, a writer will be “noticed” and build a resume and eventually will start to get paid for writing. It’s essentially considered an internship or apprenticeship. But isn’t that what a BA and MFA are for? What we have instead is a system in which the monetary value has been removed from most writing. Writers submit stories not expecting to be paid. Writers start journals not expecting to make a profit. The public then, looks at writing as more of a hobby than a profession. And if we don’t take ourselves seriously, why should they? As Ellison says, all the amateurs who work for free make it almost impossible for professionals to command adequate pay for their work.
Corporations (and let’s not forget who owns all the major publishing houses now) see the system as a way to develop talent without spending money, and when they do contract with a new writer, they typically offer remuneration that’s ridiculously low compared to the work involved, and that’s not even counting what they expect writers to do in terms of handling their own PR. I have friends who’ve published books and were contractually bound to pay for such things as the author endorsements on their jackets and the costs (travel, lodging, food) for a book tour. These are expenses the publisher should bear.
If writers continue to go along with this warped reality, it will never change. I know what some of you will say—writers and writing have been marginalized; we can’t compete with TV, movies and music. We’re lucky even a few people still read books. And besides, we writers do it for the love of the craft and the opportunity to tell our stories.
But that is wrong. Very, very wrong. And as I explore the broken business model that is literary writing in this nation, I hope to figure out why, and what we can do to fix it.
Next week: the world of genre. A look at the dark side of literature, where a much larger percentage of journals pay their contributors.