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Pay the Writer, Part 4: Transitions and Other Decisions—a Manifesto

So after three weeks of ranting about compensation for writers, I’m at a point where I feel it’s clearly time for some new directions.

A few weeks ago I resigned from my position as Book Review Editor at The Los Angeles Review. I am currently training my replacement. I did this because I have worked for them for four years, and the job is time consuming, and it’s time I focused more intently on my writing. But part of the reason I am leaving is because the journal does not pay writers, or its editors. I can’t support that model any longer.

I’m working with some writers to plan something more lucrative, but I can’t spill the beans just yet.

Here are some things I will do and some things I understand. Call them a manifesto if you wish.

  • I will only submit to journals that pay a pro or semipro rate. I may never make a dime from my writing, and never be published again, but I will not give it away. This may fall under the category of cutting off one’s nose to spite his face. Some people will say that being published in non-paying journals could lead to pieces in paying venues, and certainly a collection of stories from non-paying places might make a book that earns money. But my research shows that a vast majority of literary authors with book deals have paying journal credentials. So I will focus my efforts there. Time to sink or swim.
  • I will continue to push for writers to be paid when published, and if I ever become famous that opinion may matter. Even if it doesn’t, I will feel good about criticizing an industry whose values have become corrupt.
  • Back when I had just completed my MFA, my thesis novel was accepted by a brand new agent (who was older than me, though). He loved the book for four months, but then showed it to some other “readers” who convinced him it needed a complete rewrite. From the agency I was forwarded to a book doctor, who was glad to take me on—for $6,500 (still, of course, with no guarantee of publication). That was when I began to pull back the curtain obscuring the writing industry.
  • Had this happened in some non-writing capacity, I would have been justified in crying “scam.” This is merely the tip of the iceberg in an industry that has the gall to portray itself as open and accommodating to all who wish to write, but more and more is becoming the domain of the affluent, those who can afford to write and not be paid.
  • But I will continue to write, and some of my writing will be directed towards the genre spectrum, where there is a better chance of remuneration. I was heading in that direction anyway.
  • I will read more, and because I’ll no longer be the BR editor, I will read things that I actually find interesting. If I don’t find it interesting, I will stop reading.
  • At our last writers’ meeting, a friend described France’s Ministry of Culture and Communication, an official branch of government that administers, among other things, books and literary journals. A society that believes in art and artists—what a concept. It’s not uncommon in other countries.
  • I will investigate additional options.
  • I may also occasionally expand the scope of this blog to more than just the writing life. As you might imagine, I have interests in other areas too.

By the way, thanks for reading, especially those of you who participate with comments. It’s nice to know there are a few people with similar viewpoints, or who at least are willing to discuss.


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.


29 thoughts on “Pay the Writer, Part 4: Transitions and Other Decisions—a Manifesto

  1. I’m impressed that you resigned from The Los Angeles Review. It’s one thing to talk about an issue, and another thing to act. I also like your penultimate bullet point — investigating other options — and I wish you the best of luck in your quest.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | May 18, 2013, 1:05 PM
  2. Dear JPON, I want to be genuine with you, as much as possible, since you and your column have always impressed me as being one of the most genuine on the Internet. When I first read your announcement of today about planning to leave the Los Angeles Review, I said to my mom, “Oh, no! This really talented writer is giving up a good day job because he’s pissed off at the way writers are treated in general. I admire him, and don’t know what to say to him–I don’t think it’s a choice I would make.” But then I kept reading and hit your reasons, among them that the Los Angeles Review doesn’t pay writers and thus there’s a matter of conscience involved, and that you have got a scheme going with a group of writers to come up with more lucrative deals for writers, and my objections caved. When I also found out that you were going to continue with your blog, and make it bigger and more diverse than before, I even felt a cautious sense of approval. I say “cautious” because I am by nature a coward, not brave like you, and I felt the trepidation, a little, not of a mother duck watching a baby duck swim for the first time, but of another baby duck watching a more assured baby duck splash into the water and go at it. Though I may be destined to stay on the shore, eating tidbits the tourists throw me, I will definitely continue to watch your upcoming career with interest as long as you are within sight (and at this rate, you may swim far downstream and beyond my purview indeed!). Good luck with everything, and please do keep to your word to continue the Saturday Morning Post–I would even read it during the “Thursday p.m. doldrums.” I wish you all the best, but I don’t want this to be goodbye.

    Posted by shadowoperator | May 18, 2013, 1:24 PM
    • Thanks much, SO, for the praise and good wishes. I did think about signing off, or taking a leave of absence, but I just have too much to say. I’m just amazed that people listen.

      Just to be clear, though, book review editor was not my daytime job. The LA Review does not pay its editors. I saw it as a stepping stone to industry contacts (of which I’ve made a few), and a way to keep apprised of what’s new in literature. I did the work in the evenings and weekends. But as with every position I’ve held, from newspaper editor to mayoral assistant to business owner, there comes a point where the returns don’t meet expectations. I suspect I’ll never be satisfied. I wish I could look at writing the way many of my comrades do, as a love of craft, no matter what else happens. I have that, but I am driven by other forces as well.

      Posted by jpon | May 18, 2013, 3:59 PM
  3. Agreeing with Marc above, and wishing you the best in getting out of the nonpaying box. I’m looking forward to hearing what comes next for you in this world where writers get paid.

    Posted by Teri | May 18, 2013, 1:31 PM
    • Thanks, Teri. Hopefully it won’t be long. The cabal, oops, group is meeting again tonight.

      Posted by jpon | May 18, 2013, 4:05 PM
  4. We need a Pete Seegar-esque song here.
    “Ain’t gonna write for free no more, I ain’t gonna write for free.
    Words have meaning; words have worth, and I ain’t gonna write for free.” (Cue banjo.)

    One of the best things about your stand is that you’re making it public. Editors need to know that an increasing number of writers support and will try to follow your lead. They need to know what they’re missing. And readers need to know about the economics of the reader/writer relationship; that of the fifteen dollars they pay for a magazine, zero of those dollars go to the creator of the art.

    Thank you for this series.
    Pay the writer!

    Posted by Jon Zech | May 18, 2013, 2:07 PM
    • Thanks, Jon. I hope you’re right that other writers will make a similar decision. It’s the only way change will happen.

      Posted by jpon | May 18, 2013, 4:09 PM
  5. “Had this happened in some non-writing capacity, I would have been justified in crying ‘scam.'”

    A $6500 book doctor? With a kickback to the ‘agent’, I guess. I think my head just exploded. You are justified in crying scam, that’s exactly what it was. There may not be much money in publishing, but what there is of it should flow to the writer. Any reputable agent would edit your work for free and pick up his fee on the back end, as commission.

    Good for you in making these changes in your writing life. I love your sense of purpose.

    Posted by Averil Dean | May 18, 2013, 2:15 PM
    • The price is ridiculous, but the book doctor was located in Manhattan. I could see him charging those prices to the wealthy Manhattanites who came to him with their memoirs, and having no trouble getting clients. Why the agency sent me to him, though (apart from trying to get rid of me), is another story. Kickback? Finder’s fee? Who knows.? But after dropping a ton on the MFA, there was no way I was going to spend another cent when I had some great writers friends who were willing to help.

      Posted by jpon | May 18, 2013, 4:14 PM
  6. Hey Joe, I enjoy these posts, and feel, in many ways, similarly, despite slightly different philosophical takes.

    The $6,500 to a book doctor makes me nauseous. I’ve got two minds about writing programs, MFAs, conferences, etc. Writers are desperate, and thus make easy targets to be exploited. Back twenty years ago, fresh out of college, I got showered with rejection, paid a $150 reading fee to an agent which left me feeling even more bitter and ripped off, and then self-published.

    I wouldn’t say I’ve conformed or love everything about the business, but I eventually got back into writing. Money has to be secondary as far as motivation. I’ll publish at a journal run by those who love literature, where they are not trying to take advantage of writers, even if they can’t pay. And to accrue these small victories, and by making contact and being part of the conversation, makes a difference. In my case small press pub, including at non-paying venues, directly led to opportunity. I’m not saying small press publication is the only road to success, but I think its the best available option for literary writers.

    Posted by Caleb Powell | May 18, 2013, 3:00 PM
    • Thanks, Caleb. Your perspective adds a lot to this conversation, and I really appreciate it. You’re right, we’re not that far apart, but are choosing different paths, with different expectations. My writers friends here are looking very carefully at the changing nature of the publishing industry.

      Posted by jpon | May 18, 2013, 4:20 PM
  7. As others have said, that $6500 is indeed a scam fee. Companies like Author Solutions (currently being sued by writers) prey on new writers and writers who haven’t yet been exposed to the business side of things. And the Association of Authors’ Representatives doesn’t permit its member-agents to charge reading fees because that’s also considered a scam practice. Alas, publishers and agents are now turning to such vanity-press practices as a way to take advantage of writers as never before; after years of condemning companies like Author Solutions, major and small press publishers are now contracting with them as a means of charging writers for publication.

    At the same time, there are more opportunities than ever for those who look past the shoulders of “traditional” publishing. Finding a good editor used to be difficult and/or prohibitively expensive, as was cover and interior formatting. Now there are quality independent contractors. Print runs were once a pricey risk. Now we have POD. Distribution was seen as the final stumbling block, particularly for print, but now the major distributors include small press and self-publishers on a level playing field.

    In other words, you’ve got good timing. :)

    Posted by blairmacg | May 18, 2013, 5:42 PM
    • You’re right, the rapidly changing publishing industry presents many opportunities to writers who are willing to think progressively. Communities of writers everywhere are realizing they have the talents necessary to produce great books without a corporation taking 70% of the profit. The biggest difference is marketing reach, but considering what most publishers do (or don’t do) to promote their authors, it’s not such a big difference anymore.

      Posted by jpon | May 19, 2013, 10:39 AM
  8. I agree. It’s time for writers to make a stand. Why should writers make the least monies from their literary endeavors?

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | May 18, 2013, 6:43 PM
    • New technologies make it all possible. Do I hear a bell tolling in the distance, heralding the end of traditional publishing?

      Posted by jpon | May 19, 2013, 10:40 AM
  9. I’ve read these post with interest and the comments as well. New technologies have clearly changed the role and influence of the traditional gatekeepers. In terms of lit mags that pay or don’t pay, isn’t there also a perceived difference in the quality and sophistication of the writing?
    Looking forward to hearing more about your collaborative endeavor.

    Posted by Lori Eaton | May 19, 2013, 11:44 AM
    • I’d say there certainly is a difference in the perception of journals by most agents at least. Articles in P&W seem to back this up.

      Posted by jpon | May 19, 2013, 6:11 PM
  10. I love reading your posts, Joe. I’ll look forward to learning about what’s around the corner for you. I very much enjoyed (and agree with) the points on your manifesto.

    Posted by Gwen | May 19, 2013, 12:42 PM
    • The writers I’ve been meeting with are as excited as I about our plans. Wish I could say more, but I don’t want to jump the gun.

      Posted by jpon | May 19, 2013, 6:13 PM
  11. “Do I hear a bell tolling in the distance, heralding the end of traditional publishing?” Yes, Joe, you do hear a bell, but many traditional publishers are tone deaf.

    Best of luck! I think it’s great that you have a plan. I’ll be cheering for you.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | May 19, 2013, 2:50 PM
    • If they are it will only allow the rest of us to determine the future of the writing industry. I’m doing my best to hurry it along.

      Posted by jpon | May 19, 2013, 6:15 PM
  12. I think the future of Big Publishing is secure. They will (grudgingly) follow the path of the Big Three American car companies. The “small” foreign manufacturers came ashore with clever, economical automobiles that actually addressed the needs of American drivers. It took near bankrupcy, but GM, Ford and Chrysler now produce cars that appeal to drivers. But they had to change. Big Pub will feel the heat and change, too. And there will be room for all.

    Posted by Jon Zech | May 19, 2013, 11:13 PM
  13. Joe, I APPLAUD you!

    There are other options, and I’ve decided to explore them myself. Let’s call it…”Indie publishing.” In the music and film industries, “indie work” is not looked down on. It’s kinda looked at as avant garde. I don’t know how well it works for the literary, but for the genre, it appears to be booming. I’ve jumped in all the way, as much as I swore I’d never do it again (first attempt was 2001). I’ve grown extremely disappointed in the traditional world—not to say I’d never consider it again—but it really needs to change and get over itself.

    And, thing is, nearly everything out there can be “improved.” Define “improved.” One person’s improvement is another’s bane. Think about the fact that the one “improving” your work is just that “one person,” and we all know everyone has an opinion. And, really, how much improvement is really needed in a piece? Isn’t that also subjective? So, where does it all that end? There are all kinds of arguments pro and con for what you’ve described above, but I really don’t think every piece of writing HAS to be absolutely perfect, in the pure Zen version of the word; it has to be the best you (and by “you” I mean you and any “team” you might assemble around you to help you out) can make it. What YOU believe is the best for the story. There’s always someone out there who wants more out a secondary character or for you to clean up your split infinitives. Really, what’s the point? Have them go write their own stories with expanded secondary characters and zero split infinitives.

    Be true to yourself. As Marc said, I’m impressed. Stay the course, Joe! :-]

    Posted by fpdorchak | May 25, 2013, 5:11 PM
  14. Wow — mind blowing series, and end. Good luck ( I know you’ll make your own).

    As you know, Joe, I’m a fiction writer with the ultimate goal of publishing novels. Somewhere along the way I fell into poetry (yeah, big bucks there). Last year I published four pieces (one with some familiarity with the editor — a co-student — another by invitation with David Wagoner as curator. Quite a coup, I thought. I got paid nothing. I sent out over 80 pieces of poetry over the year with little result. My ROI was in the red. As much as I’d love to see my work getting published, it made no sense to me to continue spreading the healthy manure across the globe.

    Recently, I published my own chap book of poems through CreateSpace. People can say what they want, but I’m a broke student and I have to do *something.* I’ve made a little over $10 in three weeks, which is more than I made last year. Now, when it comes to fiction, I’m not at a place where I’d like to produce/edit/publish my work, but I do feel competent in the field of poetry, thanks to my training and passion. Will anything come of it? I don’t know, but it won’t be from a lack of trying. And at least now I can get a six-pack for my troubles.

    Posted by Robert Hoffman | June 25, 2013, 6:10 PM
    • You’re looking at publishing and submissions pretty much the way I do, and the way thousands of other writers do. The “system” appears to many to be unfair, so it’s natural that we look for other ways to get our work in front of potential readers. I’m really glad to hear you chose to try a self-publishing project. It’s definitely the way of the future.

      Posted by jpon | June 27, 2013, 12:12 PM

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