Monday 18 January 2016

Shock, horror, authors don’t get paid

Philip Pullman resigns from being a patron of the Oxford Lit Festival because they don’t pay their attending authors and people sign petitions and letters to The Bookseller and it’s news, again, again. Of course it’s not good but it’s not exactly Syria and it really isn’t putting a stop on any writing, any publishing, any reading.

I’m not keen on festivals taking advantage. See previous post: ‘to have this work taken advantage of by other arts organisations that are in receipt of large amounts of public money – no’, etc. But I’m not keen either on authors requiring payment as a right. ‘We are essential to the culture’ – the culture will decide that, not me or you. The days – early 20th century – when a writer could make a decent annual income by selling a short story or two to Strand magazine are long gone. Get over it.

Far, far more harmful to the literary scene is the non-payment by publishers to interns. A few do pay: Verso, and some other (surprise) left-wing publishers. Most don’t. Some excuse themselves by saying that their interns are drawn from publishing courses, so they’re already in debt anyway and let’s just take advantage.

When I started work in publishing, back in the 1970s, the staff of many publishers were members of trade unions (often, in editorial, the Book Branch of the NUJ; I was ‘Father of the Chapel’, as it was quaintly called, for a time); pay, conditions, holiday allowance, what to do about the stink in the toilets, were discussed and negotiated with management. Taking on free labour would have been resisted. The easing out of the unions has led to the present situation – in which to start a career in publishing you have to apply to be an intern, usually unpaid, and then another internship after that, and have enough income from other sources to pay your rent and your bills. In London. Which, to say the least, is preserving the status quo of mainstream publishing: middle class, white, a dollop of privilege. The young and bright interns have no negotiating organisation. This is where I’d sign a letter, do the protest thing. Not for authors not getting paid for turning up in Oxford and charming an audience they haven’t worked to bring in and selling their books off the back of it: just say no. As things stand in publishing, people wanting to work in this profession don’t have that option.

I wonder how many of the authors protesting about not being paid by festivals actually know what their own publishers' policies are regarding interns - i.e., whether they themselves are profiting from unpaid labour.