Thanks to a thoughtful post on Overland by Jennifer Mills earlier this year a hearty discussion has ensued online about the need to #paythewriters. It’s a principle I support and a discussion I respect. We live in a capitalist society and what keeps it (and us) economically viable is the notion of profit from assets. For the vast majority this means selling our labour in exchange for payment.

But as writers who want to get paid, we need to look carefully at our assets and our business models. Writing for money isn’t only about crafting engaging prose. To get paid for our writing means we have to write something that’s sellable. As Mary Masters, General Manager of the Small Press Network (SPN) says, ‘Writing is just like any career. You have to be employable and you have to be doing something that people want to pay you money for.’

As much as I like writing for publication I realise that (broadly speaking) it’s not the most lucrative form of writing. As a new writer I don’t always get paid for my work. When I do get paid, a breakdown of time invested against money earned yields a low hourly rate. I’m OK with that for now – I have a five-year plan – but as far as profiting from my own assets, I’m not doing that.

As for my publishers profiting from the surplus value I offer as a supplier – well, I don’t believe that always happens either. Across the sector, many publications are supported by resources beyond their actual revenue (be those resources benefactors, volunteers, interns or grants). When I get paid in this context I am of course delighted and appreciative. But I can’t help but look at the bigger picture and see that the business model we’re working under is flawed.

The limitations on what I get paid as a writer are seldom fuelled by a lack of generosity on the part of editors or publishers. They’re fuelled by market forces. And for now, the market isn’t strong enough for everyone in the industry to profit. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it (nor does it mean the market can’t grow) but it does illuminate the realities behind the notion of getting paid. If we want writers to be paid, we have to have business models that support that.

In his 2006 essay The Decline of the Literary Paradigm, Mark Davis charts the effects of the information revolution and changes in government policy on literary publishing. ‘Perhaps the biggest problem with the literary paradigm was that it did not prove profitable, and always required external, non-market support to survive. It was a paradigm driven not by its commercial viability, but by cultural nationalism, communities of enthusiasts, the education system and government funding,’ he writes. He reveals that despite the growth of a literary culture in the 60s, 70s and 80s, publishing was not always a profitable business.

Literary journals are considered exceptions by some in the #paythewriters debate. It’s understood that these publications work for some kind of greater good, a literary and artistic end, the nurturing of our small community. Many of them stay afloat thanks in part to volunteer editors, writers, designers, marketing and admin staff. We seldom look at these journals as businesses per-se. But as Masters notes, small and independent publishers should be sustainable: ‘Surely if you have the passion to put out a publication you’ll want to keep doing that forever. A goal of SPN is to help publishers be viable and generate enough sales or funding in order to survive into the future,’ she says.

It’s ironic that while some writers are prepared to forgo payment from literary journals, most of these journals are members of SPN – and paying writers is one of the criteria of membership. ‘All of our publisher members recognise that if they’re not paying writers, then writers aren’t writing,’ says Masters. Interestingly, payment for other roles (like editors) is not specified. ‘It’s not something that we place a dedicated criterion on because it’s not common to get that for free,’ says Masters. Plus, the non-writing roles are often the assets that publishers bring into their ventures (i.e. they bring the skills of editing, designing, marketing, publishing and so on and they’re prepared to invest that labour for free).

Once we peel literary work from the #paythewriters debate we turn our heads to the opposite end of the publishing spectrum. In the case of non-fiction, this is to commercial publications like The Australian and The Washington Post. But neither of these is profitable. They are both published by wealthy benefactors, who (for whatever reasons) put money in to keep these businesses afloat. In literary fiction, it’s understood that successful writers essentially underwrite the risks of publishing new writers. In all of these business models it seems that someone, somewhere is taking a hit, be it writers, editors, publishers or many of the other individuals who make a publication possible. This is generally not so in other areas of writing (such as some genre fiction, corporate writing, copywriting and content strategy). Those areas pay the writers and profit their employers.

Over recent decades our local industry has been in transition. It’s been disrupted by new technologies, challenged by declines in sales and changes to arts and literary policies. Masters says that a publisher’s primary income should be through selling publications (with appropriate margins). Yet she also says, ‘There are many different models that publishers will use in order to generate revenue.’ Both big and small have diversified, providing services like training, education, publishing, editorial and licensing. The profits aren’t always being made from our writing and in order to make ends meet, publishers are pursuing other sources of revenue.

‘There’s a market. There’s an industry. There are publications being sold,’ says Masters. ‘A problem exists if people don’t understand the market, or if they’re not publishing for the market or writing for the market.’ That’s when it gets harder for contributors to be paid. As Masters says, ‘If the publication can’t afford to pay a writer then that’s not a viable publication.’ I would add that it’s not a market a writer who needs to be paid should pursue.

When it comes to the idea of payment, writing and publishing become commercial enterprises, subject to market forces and the rules of business. If writers want (or need) to be paid, we should simply pursue the markets that pay. If we want more diverse markets we need to find better business models to support that. For example, as writers we could work with our publishers to increase their readership by both subscribing ourselves and introducing new subscribers.

For writers to profit from our assets we need to apply a question to all the markets we pursue. Is this a market in which I can viably sell my work? Calculating the answer is simple. It either adds up or it doesn’t.

Pepi Ronalds is a Killings columnist. She has been published in Meanjin, Open Manifesto, A List Apart and more. Her blog, Future of Long Form, was an Emerging Blog for the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival. She’s on Twitter and Facebook, and has a website.

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