How much does a writer get paid? It’s no secret that the most avid readers of freelance literary writing are writers themselves. And so I’m sure many of you have found yourself reading a story in Granta or a poem in Overland and wondering ‘What is that worth?’ How is it measured? Per word? By hits? Based on how many other publications you’ve been in? How many awards you have?
The urge to find answers for these questions is, I will argue, an important kind of gossip-mongering. In an industry that seeks to appear professional to funding bodies and government, but simultaneously must hold onto certain romances, talking about money can be awkward. Without exposing the standards and expectations of editors and publishers, writers will never able to know if they are getting what they deserve.
For writers starting out, finding that monetary reward upon logging into one’s internet banking account has value in itself. Someone, somewhere, thought your writing was worth paying for. But to use the word ‘paid’ whilst ignoring the spectrum of payment that freelance must navigate is a farce. Feature reviews for street publications pay as little as $30 for pages and pages of work, while major broadsheets will pay anywhere between 50c and a $1 a word depending, it seems, on who you are. We talk about ‘paid writing’ as though the old socialist ‘waged’ and ‘unwaged’ still applies; as though the business of writing has the same ledgers as the business of dock work or manufacturing.
So here’s what I propose. A national, thorough and current resource on how much publications that accept freelance work pay. Margaret Simons, bless her, has made a similar effort on her blog at Crikey — but her focus is mostly on journalists. They are not the only writers who seek payment. I want to know what New Matilda pays, what The Brag and the Australian Book Review pay. And just as importantly, if these payments are guided by policies, aims and visions, how often they change, if and when an editor is allowed to tamper with them.
Transparency is basic. In other industries where freelance work is standard, such as graphic design, workers know what they can charge. They invoice based on an industry-wide understanding about what a graduate student is worth and what a senior art director is worth. By asking publications to regularly report what they are paying, writers will not only be able to make decisions about who they pitch to, and how much effort they put in, readers will be able to decide whether they want to support an organisation that never pays its writers despite printing on glossy stock and finding room for plenty of ads. And if publications choose not to report what they pay, then let that be noted too.
If, as appears self-evident, the industry is in a state of flux, how we treat our writers will be an important index to watch.
Bhakthi Puvanenthiran is a writer, editor and co-director at the National Young Writers Festival, which ends on 3 October.