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Business of Writing, Craft of Writing, Economy & Society, Publishing

How a Libertarian’s Insane Argument Exposes a Lit World Paradox

A blogger friend this week hosted a discussion about the US economy, and added a clip from a recent “PBS Newshour.” The clip featured libertarian and economics professor Richard Epstein, who incensed my friend’s readers by suggesting that minimum wage laws be repealed, and that people work for whatever wage business owners offered, even as low as two cents an hour—the theory being they get valuable job skills and connections (never mind the fact that in this version of the American Dream workers would starve to death before realizing any of those wondrous benefits—or maybe that’s what Epstein wants).

Outrage was unanimous, with one commenter suggesting Epstein be kidnaped and forced to clean toilets, or worse (okay, that was me).

But later, I realized that a lot of writers who are outspoken about living wages, and who would fight like hell for equitable pay for all, are among those who happily give their stories, poems and essays away for free to virtually any journal that will publish them.

Excuse me while I shake my brain.

I can think of only two explanations for this. Either too many writers have been conditioned by the publishing market and society in general to believe that writing has no monetary value, or, they just have yet to see the irony that they actually agree with Epstein’s insanity.

Lately, I’ve noticed diverging trends in the writing world. More and more writers are turning to business-oriented models of publishing. These include self-publishing books, or as in my case, starting journals that charge submission fees[1]. But other writers have begun something of a backlash against this model. I’ve seen blogs and facebook posts excoriating journals that charge fees (although these folks seem to have no problem with paying $10 to $30 to enter a contest, the logic of which also escapes me). Some referral sites won’t list journals that charge fees. Duotrope, that mainstay of the writing world, relegates fee-based journals to a back channel that is almost impossible to find.

I hate to see the writing biz head towards the type of polarization that threatens so many other aspects of our society, but it seems inevitable, at least until one model comes to dominate the literary landscape. This to me is like the high tech world, where hundreds of companies vie to create apps and systems that will rule their fields.

But for writers, what it seems to come down to is this: is your writing work, or is it art? That’s a huge topic, and I’ll begin to take a look at it next week.


[1] The reasons for charging fees are many, but center on these two: I really believe in paying writers (and that’s where the fees go), and I’m not rich enough to foot the bill myself. Obviously there is much more to it, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time.


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.


18 thoughts on “How a Libertarian’s Insane Argument Exposes a Lit World Paradox

  1. Hi, Joe. I was first helped to publish a poem in a teacher’s journal when I was in the sixth grade, and since then, I haven’t been published, though I have won awards when I entered contests. Either I’m not good enough, or there’s something wrong with the world (and I’d rather think there’s something wrong with the world, since no one wants to think they’re that bad themselves). One good thing: I know that you’re our voice for change, and that’s something wonderful. It’s good to see you blogging again; I hope your new home is treating you well.

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 2, 2014, 11:48 AM
  2. Another thought-provoking post, Joe. Someday, hopefully, the publishing world will catch up with your way of thinking. It’s renegades like you who are often the impetus for change.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | August 2, 2014, 1:35 PM
  3. “Ponepinto’s Renegades,” I like that! :-]

    Aye, change is coming…but it is interesting how in today’s world where everyone has a say (the über-connected “Electronic Age”), how rapidly things ARE changing. Before it was only those who worked in whatever field-of-concern…but, now, with everyone able to voice opinions, it had truly become a whole new landscape….

    Posted by fpdorchak | August 2, 2014, 2:20 PM
    • Everyone has a say, yes. But is everyone’s opinion valid? The question to me is, who do we listen to? Who should we listen to? This digital age struggle may eventually give us some answers, but not yet.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 2, 2014, 5:01 PM
  4. Great piece, Joe. I agree with you on every point. Scratch Magazine is a digital magazine (launched by Jane Friedman) that explores the intersection of writing and money. They have a section called Who Pays Writers (they do, btw). It’s informative and a blast to read. They offer some content for free, but readers pay a subscription fee (it’s how they pay contributors). I enjoy Scratch because it shines a light on a taboo subject. Just like you’re doing.

    Hope all went well with your move. I’ve been so busy on the farm with new foals, chickens, and a newly planted garden. Sorry I’ve missed some of your blog posts. I’ve missed you. And Henry.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | August 2, 2014, 2:36 PM
    • I like Scratch a lot. At TLR, we are talking to them about possibly partnering for an event at AWP 2015. Jane Friedman seems to understand the economics of writing in the same way I do.

      I’ll tell Henry you said hi. Hope all is going well with the farm and the writing.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 2, 2014, 5:03 PM
  5. I won’t pay to submit, it’s true. That’s just where I draw the line because if I did, this writing thing would be very expensive and I just don’t think it’s a sustainable business practice. Plus, even if the writer pays, they usually don’t get anything for that money (it still takes 6 months for a form rejection). But I do buy books and magazines.

    Posted by girl in the hat | August 3, 2014, 4:35 AM
    • There’s no doubt writing can become an expensive undertaking. When we started TLR we realized that asking writers to pay submission fees was putting a burden on many. To offset that a little, we give submitters access to a password protected area that contains dozens of craft articles and interviews. It’s not much, I know, but it’s a start. Once we have a few issues out we plan to seek other forms of funding to offset and lessen the fees.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 3, 2014, 4:45 AM
    • I think I’m with Anna on this one, partly because I don’t have the money to submit widely and partly because I know that other writers are in the same position and the practice of collecting submission fees excludes them. Anyway, in this scenario, payment for the accepted work would only offset some of the expense of submitting in the first place.

      Some forms of writing are always going to be labors of love and not profit. That’s true of all kinds of art, and I think it’s okay. I don’t know that it’s necessary to assign a dollar value to a piece of writing in order to find the artistic value.

      It’s a complicated topic, this entwining of art and commerce. I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts in the coming weeks.

      Posted by Averil Dean | August 3, 2014, 1:32 PM
      • Believe it or not, I’m pretty judicious about paying submission fees too. Never to a nonpaying journal, for sure. I would have to say submitting short stories or poetry in order to establish oneself in the biz is almost always going to be a loss leader. There are a few writers who can make a living at this, but not many. But it’s important to do it because it builds the cred (and the writing experience) necessary to move on to book-length works, where there is at least the promise of an income stream. At least, that’s been my plan.

        As you’re now becoming an established novelist, it makes me curious to know whether you spent much time writing short stories before you turned to novels, or just went for the long form right away.

        Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 4, 2014, 1:11 PM
      • I have never published a short story and have only written four. I wonder if the short-to-long form process is more of an MFA thing.

        Posted by Averil Dean | August 4, 2014, 3:02 PM
      • Indeed it is. Most MFA programs are structured around the short story form, since it is much easier for students to learn.

        Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 4, 2014, 3:16 PM
      • Yeah, I see why that would be the case in a learning environment. But no one in publishing has ever expressed an interest in whether I have or haven’t published a short story, or asked for my bona fides. All you need in publishing is a book with a well-defined niche, regardless of what comes before it.

        Posted by Averil Dean | August 4, 2014, 3:33 PM
      • That makes a lot of sense, and a lot of would-be novelists would benefit by knowing it. The short form is not mandatory. But I have also read articles that indicate many agents peruse the major journals in search of writers who have proven themselves in the short story arena, and then contact them to see if they have a novel.

        Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 4, 2014, 3:39 PM
      • That’s true. Publishing is a house with many doors, and a writer should do whatever it takes to find the one that opens.

        Posted by Averil Dean | August 4, 2014, 4:00 PM

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