Writing for free undermines profession

 

Sir, – I’m a full-time writer and illustrator and was approached recently by an editor working for a reputable company who asked me to contribute a piece for an anthology of contemporary Irish writers. There was to be no fee. The company expected me to to provide the work for free, because of who they were and, presumably, the exposure I’d get for it. It was a commercial business, not a charity, although it said that any profits would go towards supporting emerging writers – as if established writers don’t need “support”.

I said no, because I don’t work for free, but I gather enough other people have said yes for the project to go ahead. I don’t want to name this company, because I do have a lot of respect for it (which is probably why others have said yes), I’ve done things with them in the past and probably will again. But it highlights a problem that’s as much to do with writers themselves, as it is the businesses they work with – and in journalism as much as book publishing.

While writing as a career has become increasingly professional, with authors taking on more and more of the promotion of their books, we are also expected to pitch far more finished products to publishers, put up with smaller advances, less thorough editing, shorter shelf-lives and the income from our books being eaten into by discounting in an online race to the bottom. We have to live with the fact that experience and expertise are valued less than a fresh face or a social media presence, that celebrity deals will put money in the pockets of people who, most of the time, do not write, and consider books sideline merchandise, depriving other books of marketing budgets and professional writers of income.

In the midst of all this, writers are allowing our expectations of what our industry owes us to be lowered, instead of raised, as the demands on us increase. Because people think it is okay to ask a writer to work for free, we assume we have to accept this as normal. Do try this on any other profession whose services you pay fees for.

If someone is a newly published writer, and they’re asked to write for free, I know how keen they might be for a chance to show what they can do, but I’ve been there. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can assure them, if you work for free, you’ll just end up getting more jobs that pay the same amount – not a great foundation on which to base a career. It simply isn’t worth it in the long run. If someone wants to be taken seriously, they have to take themselves seriously.

If someone is a well-established, or even an A-list author, they really need to think about the environment they’re helping create and sustain for other writers. If they do work for free for a commercial business, because they can afford to make the grand gesture, they undermine their own profession, and the ability of others to earn money from their work. If established writers don’t take a stand on this kind of thing, nobody else will, and nothing will change.

I’m not anti-tech or against all the progress publishing has made, nor do I think there was some golden age when art was universally respected and considered a rational career. But even as writing becomes increasingly commodified and distributed with greater ease and less cost, the money made from it is being drawn away from the people who create it. Look at everyone else who works in the book industry. Editors get paid. Designers get paid. PR people and administrative people and marketing people and receptionists get paid. Printers get paid. Distributors get paid. Booksellers get paid. Librarians get paid. None of these people would have anything to work with, if not for those who create the stuff in the first place. Writers (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) are the only ones who can’t realistically expect to make a living in publishing. I would ask all writers who are, or wish to become, professional, please, please, please don’t work for free. If we don’t value our own work, how can we expect anyone else to? – Yours, etc,

OISIN McGANN,

Athboy, Co Meath.