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Business of Writing, Criticism, Economy & Society, Publishing, Writings

A Radical Idea: Pay the Writer

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.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


32 thoughts on “A Radical Idea: Pay the Writer

  1. I remember the entire concept of “getting paid” being dissed and dismissed in grad school. And god forbid you should ever, ever write genre and become a sellout.

    I’ve made $50 in the last 2 years. I can’t fill up my gas tank with that.

    And even when writers do get paid, it’s interesting. I remember an interview with Mary Karr — a financial success, certainly — where she talked about throwing away 2,000 pages while writing her latest book, that if she were being paid by the hour, she’d have made more $$ working at McDonalds.

    Posted by Teri | April 27, 2013, 1:19 PM
    • My MFA actually did pay some attention to the business side of writing, mostly to tell not to expect much money. None of us listened. We had to learn it for ourselves. Boy, have we learned it.

      Posted by jpon | April 27, 2013, 8:41 PM
  2. Hi, Jon. Though I agree with you 100% about writers not being adequately paid for their efforts, I was unable to hold out for my principles as I got older and wanted at least to be read. I have a “donate” PayPal button on my site because WordPress.com doesn’t allow the obligatory “Pay now” PayPal button, and I haven’t made a lot of money. But it was better (caught between a rock and a hard place) to allow some people to read for free because otherwise I had to spend tons of money myself (which I didn’t have) paying for submissions to magazines and periodicals and publishers and agents. As an impoverished writer, I didn’t even have the wherewithal to do these things as they used to be done, on paper with postage, and now that some submissions can be done over the ‘net, my fiction and poetry stuff is already out there, on my site, to be read for whatever people want to pay for it. I’ve simply accepted that I’m doing it for the love of the work, and waiting to be “discovered,” though I realistically recognize that you generally have to beat down an editor’s door to be “discovered.” Still, Stephen King (who’s a lot more famous and rich) has apparently published some of his stuff for free; I like to pretend that I’m following a trend: it saves my pride, a little.

    Posted by shadowoperator | April 27, 2013, 1:46 PM
    • I won’t get into how important connections can be in the writing business. Yes, the great writer who didn’t go to a big name MFA program can still make it, but like in any other business, connections can at least create opportunities many of us don’t have. The brightest light I see out there is how epublishing is changing the game. It’s decentralizing publishing, just as it has done to journalism. It will take some time, but I think it is most writers’ best hope for some kind of income.

      Posted by jpon | April 27, 2013, 8:45 PM
  3. The fact is we live in a supply and demand economy, and the demand for literary work is very very low–relatively speaking. Not only that, but the supply is huge, as you, Joe, point out in estimating the high number of submissions. Many more people are writing, and not all are doing so badly. So is there any solution?

    Books face competition from a multitude of sources for the entertainment dollar–and maybe more important the entertainment minute and hour. I know many very well educated, professional people who read very little. They might have done so at one point in their lives but now they spend their time with the internet, social media, exotic vacations, and many more hours of work per week than their predecessors. I know many people with a college degree who don’t read anything–not even bestseller mystery novels. A huge number of people think that reading a book is something you HAVE to do in school and would never consider picking up one after. Competition is fierce for the spending dollars of these people. If they go into a book store they are likely to buy a cookbook and handmade paper journal.

    Maybe not enough young people are taught to read and appreciate good writing. I’m often ready to blame corporate culture for society’s woe, but not in this case. Not surprisingly, holdings company expect profit from their publishing companies. That is more a symptom than a cause: a symptom that traditional publishing company approaches became unprofitable.

    Ellison’s comment makes me think of teachers, librarians and other unionized professions, settings in which even if the volunteers are plentiful, their use is restricted in order to protect the professionals. Could writers unionize? They are a pretty independent bunch.

    Throughout history, the arts have been considered essential to free and complex societies. And often they were/are supported monetarily by the governing body that wanted to uphold their viability. Our small efforts to do so in this country, as we know, are challenged at every turn by those think like Calvin Coolidge that the business of America is business. Even a intelligent person like Bill Gates seems to support educational reform primarily to improve the skills of the technological worker.

    Sorry about getting on my soap box, Joe. This is yours. Have at me. :-)

    Posted by Betty Ruddy | April 27, 2013, 2:07 PM
    • Could writers unionize? I don’t know about a union, but I think literary writers need to recognize the realities of the market and ask themselves if it’s important enough to the writing community as a whole to create some standards such as the genre world uses. The Science Fiction Writers of America and the Horror Writers Assoc, for example, maintain professional standards that benefit their genres by encouraging professional payment rates. Screenwriters do the same. Literary? It often seems like every writer for him/herself. I’d say a large part of the issue is the fact that many literary writers get professorships at universities. There, it’s publish or perish, and whether that means for pay or not is irrelevant. But that hurts non-teaching literary writers. Perhaps it’s time for lit writers to realize the world is a little larger than the college campus.

      Posted by jpon | April 27, 2013, 10:28 PM
  4. Points taken, but I disagree strongly, partly because the key question is: Who should pay for the cost to run a literary magazine that loses money? What about supply and demand? If lit mags make money, then fine, but they don’t. Even when I wrote a review for your LA Review all I got was a contributor copy, and I thought that fair.

    If you want to make it as a guitarist, actor, athlete etc. you gotta do it for free until someone wants to pay, which means being at a high level so whoever publishes/represents you can make $$$.

    I see the LA Review currently charges $3 to submit electronically (submission fees does not make for a profitable business model, but prove me wrong), and still offers one copy as payment. Do you guys make money? Are you bathing in the profits as you smoke cigars and sip martinis on Sunset Drive, or do you spend time trying to raise funds and struggle to break even?

    Posted by Caleb Powell | April 27, 2013, 2:33 PM
    • So if a journal isn’t making money, maybe it should get out of business? Do we need 700 journals out there? Maybe this would make for a more honest marketplace and separate out the ones that are really able to work hard on behalf of writers.

      Posted by Claudia Putnam | April 27, 2013, 8:28 PM
    • In most cases, universities, arts grants or wealthy patrons fund the cost of money-losing journals. That promotes the arts, but it also creates the current environment in which good writing goes unpaid, since the funding doesn’t have to cover that to keep the journal operating. (Some do pay, but many more do not.) As I said above in the response to Betty, a divide that most writers don’t consider is the one between the academic haves and the non-academic have-nots. University/grant funded journals have created a business model the private sector can’t compete with. Now that grant money is tightening across the board, however, many university journals are being forced to justify what they do.

      As for LAR, as an editor I have long lobbied the staff and publishers to pay our writers, even if it’s just a little bit. I’d also hoped the editors might at least receive a stipend for the huge amount of work we do, but that hasn’t happened either. But as a private enterprise, we have far less funds than needed to be able to do that. Printing and distribution costs account for about 95% of that. No wonder such august journals like Triquarterly and Shenandoah have gone online.

      Posted by jpon | April 27, 2013, 10:44 PM
      • Points taken, but they still don’t explain this: “Thank you very much, but I won’t be submitting.”

        Why demand/suggest/imply writers lobby to be paid? I reread your article, as the topic is pertinent, but it says: “If no one wants my stuff bad enough to pay than I’m not going to submit.”

        I just don’t see any compelling reason for lit mags to start paying or paying more. Editors certainly aren’t going to complain if they have less submissions and slush pile to filter through. Unfortunately, art rarely earns money.

        Most of the stuff I’ve published has been for free, and the few checks I’ve received have been from $15-100. This year my wife chortled at my $25 in royalties declared on our IRS as income for 2012. To even broach the idea of “unionizing”, even with pessimism, seems weird. SAG can unionize, because they make money.

        What lit mags do is help create a buzz around a writer, and that’s how it should be. Small lit resume helps create future opportunities and attention for those writers with talent who persevere.

        To spend endless amounts of time submitting creative stuff, not to mention reviews and interviews and self-indulgent short pieces takes away from creative energy on longer projects, and I often question the reward/risk of such time expenditure. It feels like being a musician performing to an empty room in an empty bar. As bullshit cliche as it is, we do it for love. First fill the room and get the people drinking and having fun, and money will come, and if writers don’t get any then they should voice concern. But without an audience, demanding money just seems pointless.

        Posted by Caleb Powell | April 28, 2013, 2:31 PM
      • It’s a personal choice, no doubt. But your interpretation of “Thank you very much, but I won’t be submitting,” however, is not quite correct. What it means is that I refuse to support an industry model that insists writers work for free. I will continue to submit to paying journals, and whether or not they think the writing is good enough to publish is up to them.

        Don’t get me wrong, though. I love writing. It’s what I do best. But I also have to make a living. I would like to make a living by writing, instead of working all day and writing for no pay afterwards. If other writers don’t mind writing for free, that’s their decision. But if enough writers felt as I do, journals would have to pay us. (I know that’s a fantasy, but still.)

        Regarding lit mags creating a “buzz,” from the research I’ve done, it seems that the buzz is almost exclusively generated by journals that pay their writers. According to the March/April Poets and Writers, the journals lit agents read to find new writers are all paying venues. The non-paying journals are helpful to writers just starting out and to writing teachers looking to enhance their CVs. To be frank, I’ve had enough stories published in non-paying journals. It’s time for me to set my sights higher. I suspect many writers feel the same.

        I understand the consequences of my position. Hopefully next week’s blog will help make the argument a little more clear, but I don’t want to be my own spoiler.

        Posted by jpon | April 28, 2013, 6:11 PM
    • I agree, Caleb. It’s not about the money and if it is, then no writer would ever survive on their contributions to literary magazines. What’s more important to me isn’t the twenty or fifty bucks, but the connections, dialogue, exposure, platform, and — perhaps most of all — support. Most fiction editors I know would love to offer money to contributors, but it’s not in the cards. What they can offer is exposure, support, and a shared love of literature in its various forms.

      Posted by Erin Entrada Kelly | April 30, 2013, 9:56 PM
  5. We study for years. We practice our art and our craft and we present it every way we can. We promote and advertise and practically beg to be allowed into the venues that we cherish. And when we get there, if we get there, the pay if any, is miniscule. It’s time to face facts. The world no longer values hula dancers. Wait. You were talking about writing? Same thing. Supply and demand, and there is little demand for our product.

    Reading used to be entertainment, one of the few entertainments available to most people. Reading and if you were lucky, Uncle Billy played the fiddle. Not much else. Now there are virtually countless means of diversion and the consumer has decided that reading for pleasure is not one of them.

    We writers are a river of writing, delivering to a spigot of need. Not only do we over supply, the quality of our overall output is poor, stagnant and sometimes almost toxic. Everybody believes they can piss in the stream and call it water.

    What to do, what to do? We are left to sway our hips for other dancers, to hula in the dark.

    Posted by Jon Zech | April 27, 2013, 2:40 PM
    • I hate to tell you, but the SHHDA (Swivel-Hipped Hula Dancers of America) does not allow their members to work without pay.

      Yes, the demand for what we do is not what it used to be. But I have some ideas about that I’ll be offering in parts 2-4.

      But for now excuse me, I’m going to listen to a Don Ho record.

      Posted by jpon | April 27, 2013, 10:49 PM
  6. I”m in the wilderness, so I am holding my breath to hear the answer to this question. (Wondering: do you consider writing a blog to fall in the category of foolish work-for-free?)

    Posted by girl in the hat | April 27, 2013, 4:20 PM
    • He he he. The first draft of this blog (it’s not all off the top of my head, you know), included a paragraph about how I was going to start charging for SMP. I called it Buck-a-Blog. Fifty first-rate blogs and rants for fifty bucks. A ridiculously low, low price! But my wife talked me out of it.

      I decided to look at the blog as a marketing expense and keep it free. But stay tuned. In part 4 I have a few interesting proposals in store.

      Posted by jpon | April 27, 2013, 10:52 PM
  7. From what I can tell, readers are again on the rise. Younger generations are reading (albeit on electronics rather than the page) and writing more since the shift from TV to the Internet and cell phones. So I’m not entirely sure all this gloom and doom about the death of reading (something I heard first back in the 1970s) is worth our energy. When deciding what to read, I look first to the publications that pay, because I honor their professional standards, and their self-serving interest in accepting work that will pay them in turn. In other words, I value their editorial vision. I agree with Ellison that the generosity of writers is astounding, or perhaps the generosity of writers who can afford to be generous. Joe, you’ve raised the issue before that writing these days is for those who can afford to do it. Quite a while ago, when I was first getting back into writing, I asked Brenda Webster (author of “The Beheading Game”) how her life had changed since her book made it into print. Her reply: “You mean the money? It’s chicken feed, dear. Chicken feed.” It’s time we stopped scratching for kernels of grain and at least enjoyed a good meal.

    Posted by Claire Gebben | April 27, 2013, 5:10 PM
    • Ya kidz reed mor and rite 2. mor thn b4 anywayz. in 140 karctrs. cuz dey tweet.

      Posted by Jon Zech | April 27, 2013, 7:13 PM
    • I hope you’re right about the changing market. But writers also have to change the way they think about their work. We have to believe it has value, more than just a contributor’s copy or a byline.

      Posted by jpon | April 27, 2013, 11:03 PM
  8. It’s hard to see this changing, as it’s been going on so long–a few dozen years. But as the number of magazines proliferates and as circulation drops, it’s hard to see what you “get” by appearing in literary journals. Say a “prestigious” journal has a circulation of 1000. But you know very well that no one keeps up with their reading. Maybe they open one or two of the issues they get in a year. Or the journal gets behind schedule and publishes one or two HUGE issues that year, which means that the subscriber feels overwhelmed when they get it, and doesn’t read much of it, if any. So, maybe just a couple of dozen people see your story. You sent in your carefully developed work for free and what did you get? Some editing? Maybe. Probably just a couple of comma adjustments. Did you get much promotion? No, because the editors are busy with teaching or studying for their own degrees or with their own writing and submitting. They’re not really editors in the old-fashioned sense, where they develop the magazine, cultivate readership, etc. Some exposure to agents? Maybe, but again, the editors aren’t out there doing that for you. Did you get many free copies? These days, increasingly only one. And it’s likely that even the more prestigious journals will go out of business or go online next year, so you can’t be sure you’ll have much to point to.

    AND there’s a good chance you not only didn’t get paid, you PAID TO SUBMIT. How does that feel?

    Posted by Claudia Putnam | April 27, 2013, 8:22 PM
    • A couple of years ago a well-known agent spotted an essay of mine in a small, university-sponsored journal. He contacted the editor, asked for my contact information, and sent me an email asking if my memoir was finished. When I said no, he asked if he could see the first 100 pages, only if I thought they were ready to be seen. I was so excited I did a very stupid thing and sent him the pages. Two days later he called and said he wasn’t interested, but that if I ever wrote another book — a novel — and remained un-agented, to give him a call.

      So while this story doesn’t have a happy ending, I tell it because it proves you can get a phone call from an agent based on a piece in a lit mag. It can happen. Keep the faith.

      Posted by Teri | April 27, 2013, 9:14 PM
      • I’m curious, why did you think it was stupid to submit it to the agent?

        Posted by 365 Days of Verse | April 27, 2013, 9:41 PM
      • Because my manuscript wasn’t ready, the 100 pages he asked for weren’t even ready, and he even told me I could wait and send it later — even months later — if I wanted more time. I was stupid for being in such a rush. And once he read it like it was, he had no interest in seeing again later.

        Posted by Teri | April 27, 2013, 10:24 PM
      • I can understand that. It must have felt like you cheated yourself. That’s one of those tough learning moments. I’m pretty sure most of us would have done the same, and would have not really believed the agent when they said to take your time, probably feeling anxious to send them something before the opportunity passed.

        Did you ever contact him again?

        Posted by 365 Days of Verse | April 28, 2013, 4:22 PM
    • Paying to submit irks me like you can hardly imagine, since I feel it’s wrong to place the burden of operating expenses on the people who provide content. But since the market is so small and overly competitive for literary writing, many journals recognize this as the only means to stay in operation. Clearly the issue is expanding the market so we don’t have to put the bite on writers. I’ll look at that in the upcoming parts of this blog.

      Posted by jpon | April 27, 2013, 11:16 PM
  9. Ooh, I’m sensing a real Rand vs. Marx smack-down coming….

    Supply and demand didn’t build the pyramids. Supply and demand didn’t write the Vedas. (Should we rethink the business model of making monumental works as one of slave labor and/or religious vocation?)

    Posted by akhoffman | April 27, 2013, 10:36 PM
    • I guess it’s slave labor, since the pay is often the same.

      But whether we like it or not, the economic system under which we live forces us to place a value on what we as writers produce. It’s why so many writers choose to place a value of zero on their work that frustrates me.

      Posted by jpon | April 27, 2013, 10:58 PM
  10. Okay. How much? How much “should” the writer earn for say, a three thousand word story in a midlevel or higher journal or mag? And after you figure out how much, you;ll need to figure out how they’ll pay for it.

    Posted by Jon Zech | April 28, 2013, 4:28 PM
  11. You guys are all jumping the gun on my next three posts. Some of this will be explained in part 2, next week.

    Isn’t this how TV shows get viewers to come back, by leaving them with a cliffhanger?

    Posted by jpon | April 28, 2013, 6:15 PM
  12. Surprised that americans still read books. Too busy thinking about sports, tv, porn, and beer.

    Posted by Nancy | May 3, 2013, 2:52 AM


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