‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ said Dr Johnson, but he could be a blockhead himself at times. It happens all the time. Most writers (poets, novelists) do most of their writing for no money. Some publish for no money – allowing their stories or poems to appear in magazines or newspapers without payment (on the grounds or excuse of ‘publicity’), or their work is put into print by the growing number of publishers who offer no advances.*
This is why payment for writers is a trickier issue than payment for plumbers, sheep-shearers and bankers. I don’t need a new book in the same way I need my blocked pipe mended. Stop paying sheep-shearers and they’ll down tools; writers, on the other hand, will continue to to write whether they’re paid or not.
For secondary writing (journalism, translation) and related work (readings, teaching) the situation is different, because these activities can be more clearly defined as jobs and are within the supply-and-demand marketplace. Organisations such as the Society of Authors and the NUJ publish recommended rates for author readings, editing, leading workshops, etc. They are not enforceable.
A few things from last week seem connected. (A) A Facebook thread initiated by an author who’d been invited to give a reading but told that because the reading was organised by a charity there’d be no payment (though tickets to the reading were being sold, not offered free). (B) A talk on Friday with a poet who’d been invited to read at a festival and asked to name a fee; who was then told a sad story and so offered to read for free and pay the train fare too; who a few days before the reading was told that 20% of any money from sales of books (books bought by the author from her publisher at 30% discount) would have to go to the venue in which the reading was to take place.
(C) A talk on Saturday night with an author, published mainstream here and abroad, who argued that authors by right should receive a living, or more-than-living, income, and that this should be determined by market forces. But, I said, there are so many authors, and so few of them selling in quantity … Because of the inefficiency of publishers, she countered; and yes, too many authors, so let’s get rid of lots of them. As for CBe, if I’m not making a decent profit then not only is it a failure but I’m aiding and abetting the system that denies authors their right to make a living from their writing. She was fierce, and I liked her, but this was at a party, with distractions and interruptions and drink.
(D) Sunday, drifting on the Guardian website, I happened upon this nugget: ‘When the banking crisis happened, the notion that we could trust everything to markets seemed to have run its course. The most surprising outcome was that we wanted to try to restore the same trust as quickly as possible.’ Yes, very much so. Way back in early 2009 I wrote (and published with CBe under the name Jack Robinson) a short book titled Recessional that was fuelled equally by anger (at the bankers and the politicians) and despair (that no way forward was being presented – this was before the Occupy movement – other than tightening the regulations** on the pre-existing and still continuing financial system). I still have both feelings.***
The man behind the Guardian nugget is Michael Sanden, a political philosopher whose recent book, The Moral Limits of Markets, I haven’t read but may do (paperbacked in May). His line (soundbite alert) is that we’ve moved from a market economy into a market society – in which values are replaced by prices, in which everything (kidneys, lungs, health-care, education, policing, literature, you name it) is for sale, in which oppositional or ameliorating initiatives subscribe to the same overall climate (children being paid to read books), and that maybe we should stand back and take a hard look. The implication being that it doesn’t have to be like this.
I’ll backtrack. The authors in (A) and (B): given that they have something (talent, reputation, achieved work) that someone else is asking them to exhibit, should they do this for free (thereby aiding and abetting, etc) or should they stick out for payment? This is their choice to make, and given that in both cases if they stick out for money they’ll probably be disinvited and replaced by someone else who is willing to read for free, it’s not much of a choice: read for free or don’t read. Market forces.
For most writers, the choice is the same: write for free or don’t write. Should writers be paid? Hell yes. But for as long as we ‘trust everything to markets’, it’s unlikely that more than a few writers will be paid. Meanwhile, many countries put writers in prison; the UK doesn’t. And in its pure form writing remains (like reading, walking, loving) resistant to incorporation into the market society – which is almost an argument for writers not being paid.
* Advances, surely, were originally sums of money advanced by publishers to authors to allow them a reasonable time without other income to write commissioned books. They became bargaining chips or auction bids. Publishers now not offering them are not necessarily doing a bad thing: the original concept is outdated, and there’s no good reason for them to sign up to the new one. (For the record – what record? – CBe does pay its authors small advances, usually £200; but then CBe is an old-fashioned kind of outfit.)
** Make a rule, people find ways around it. Tighten that rule, ditto. Tax avoidance and evasion, drugs laws – one side gets ahead, the other side overtakes. This is how regulation works.
*** Episode B, above, included talk about we do with anger. Aesthetically – watch any angry person – it’s not good. It’s associated with youth: Angry Young Men. I really do not want to move straight from that category to the one of Grumpy Old Men.