Working for free

I’m probably not the only person who thought it would be nice to write fiction for a living. What’s not to love, sitting in one’s PJs, stuffing in the marshmallows and pouring stories? What kind of awesome job is that? I figured, there might be competition — but the marshmallows were calling so I got stuck in.

When I started, I thought the biggest hurdle would be publication: would anyone want my stories? It didn’t occur to me that if they did, I still wouldn’t get paid. Once I realised, I figured that for now, I was happy writing for the sake of it. Sort of. At least until I’d published a novel or two, and could be taken as a ‘serious author’ (whatever that means — the subject of another post perhaps).

It’s not that simple. This week, The Guardian published an article by Liz Bury, ‘Philip Hensher stirs debate among authors after refusing to write for free’ — and it makes for sober reading.

Yes, you can be a Man Booker shortlisted, literary novelist and still be called rude names, by a professor at Cambridge, for refusing to… work for free?

That’s right.

Boo. Just, boo.


  1. claireking9 says:

    It is possible to earn money writing novels, but it’s incredibly difficult, as you know. Hensher worked a day job for the first two novels he wrote and many well known novelists today still do both. Not for the love of doing twice as much work, but because of the economics. Often authors are also journalists, or they teach writing to others, or write books on teaching writing.

    On the other hand there are writers who are able to, who give their time and effort for free, to literacy programs in schools and prisons. Wonderful.

    Still others are happy to go and do free readings and appearances, because they have a huge fan base, buying hundreds of thousands of books and that kind of PR is both a good investment, and a nice way of getting face to face with readers, who are after all what it is all about.

    But many many more authors cannot afford to give up their time. A good thousand words can take a day, easily, to write professionally, when you could be writing a paid article of getting on with the next book. Travelling to venues around the country, to do a reading or a panel discussion, in return for a sandwich, half a case of wine and maybe £20 of royalties from books sold there if you’re lucky – not a great investment, frankly.

    Sometime’s it’s possible, or you do it just because it’s a lovely day out. But sometimes it isn’t, and there are always queues of people wanting a free interview, or blog post, or story, or whatever. You can’t do them all. There are lots of ways to prioritise, and one of them has to be, for most of us, will this help put food on the table?

    I think the key phrase Hensher uses that captures the main problem is “Why would you start on a career if it’s not just impossible, but improper, to expect payment?”

    Improper? Really? Wow.

    • t upchurch says:

      Yeah, I agree.

      My son recently enjoyed attending an author visit to his school, and as parents we all contributed a token sum to fund it. I don’t know if the author was well paid or not, but she was paid — quite rightly.

      As for providing things for free… aside from promotional pieces, I think there ought to be clear boundaries in authors’ minds about whether they are appearing as “author” or “donor”, and if the latter, they should call themselves something other than author (donor, volunteer, helper etc).

      I read with children (one-on-one) in school just to help out, but I do that very much as a parent volunteer — I don’t do it as part of my “scientific writer” career, nor as a “writer of short fiction”. To me, the volunteering is just me, helping. I don’t cite a role for myself, I just muck in.

      But for a “career” appearance, where I give myself a title (scientist, writer, etc), apart from very occasional gratis moments, the client can expect to pay. Like you say, we put food on the table.

  2. susanlanigan says:

    Check out the blog to be outraged to discover how a woman who recently politely declined to work for free was treated. I’m still gaping at the institutional conspiracy involved.

      • susanlanigan says:

        it got worse though. That blog post was reinstated after a huge big fuss all over the scientific community. Scientific American had quietly deleted it and Biology Online were one of their affiliates. Then when confronted, they first said it was inappropriate and nothing to do with science, and then said it was “for legal reasons”. Which was the same damn excuse The Irish Times gave for its erasure of Kate Fitzgerald’s words in 2011. At least Dr Lee will live to fight another day and best of luck to her.

      • t upchurch says:

        Without condoning the deletion, it doesn’t surprise me. I expect a post like that rattled a few nerves (and tumbled a few conventions). There is certainly a new power of speech with the internet / blogging systems.

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