Would you drive a bus for free?

Would you drive a bus for free? I ask you, because increasingly, I am asked to work for no fee.

The enormous and growing appetite for content – on blogs, online newspapers and magazines, sprawling paper supplements, free papers, Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr posts, emails, text, tattoos – means that writers are more in demand than ever. It’s not just newspapers that commission writers but any Social Media Strategist or Marketing Exec working for companies from plumbers to PRs. But not one of them has a business model that knows how to turn a profit from of the vast amounts of content they supply their customers/readers/audience.

Which means that either writers have to be content with the ‘publicity’ instead of a fee – usually a plug for their own blog, which they also write for free – or they ask non-writers, who are plugging another business. Which means an awful lot of the content is either written in a slapdash manner by proper writers (who takes a job seriously that they aren’t getting paid for?) or written badly because it’s written by a non-writer.

Despite the fact that everyone thinks they’re a writer now, and in many ways this is nothing new (any published author has had to endure several people tell them they’d write a book too ‘if only I could find the time’), I’m going to say something very brave and bold against this: you’re not a professional writer unless you write, frequently, and are paid to do so.

I have nothing against amateur writers – I was one myself once. And I’d far rather the person who says they want to write and actually does sit down and write. But until someone publishes your work or puts on your play or films your script, thereby investing in the words you pulled out of your head, then you are not a professional.

Writing is not easy. It can be comfortable, yes – writing in my pyjamas, on my bed, or in a cosy cafe, a cup of coffee at my side. It’s not going down the mines. But simply being able to spell doesn’t mean you can write. Copying out someone else’s writing doesn’t mean you can write. Even being able to be a bit witty on email doesn’t mean you can write. It takes time to learn how to write things down as they happen; to describe a scene in a way that resonates with someone else who has experienced something similar or maybe never experienced it at all; to write down dialogue that sounds real; to put across an argument in a succint and non-hysterical way; to describe a person’s entire personality in just two or three sentences. I’ve been trying for 15 years and I still can’t do it as well as I’d like to.

But of what I have learned to do so far, I get a positive response to, quite a lot of the time. People read what I write and are moved, or laugh, or feel compelled to write me a letter. As I tend not to write shocking things, or provoke the more vulnerable elements of our society into feeling attacked and needing to defend themselves, this is not as easy as it might appear. It took practice. It still takes practice. It’s taken years of sometimes weeping over my laptop or feeling the pressure of a deadline, or fighting back tears of frustration after an editor has handed back copy with red marks seemingly on every line.

But now, I must do this for free.

Recently, I called the editor of a major online newspaper blog about writing them a column, which she had said she really wanted. We chatted for a while about what would be in the blog and it was all feeling rather exciting. Then I said – ‘oh, we need to talk about the fee.’ ‘Well, we don’t really pay our writers,’ she said. ‘Usually they can just plug their own blog or whatever.’ After a while, she said she might be able to find some sort of budget – around £25-30 for an 800 word article. To put this in context, 12 years ago, I was paying writers for the Mail on Sunday (when I was a commissioning editor) an average of 50p a word. At one point, I had to pay certain writers 25p a word, for a new section of the magazine I was working on, and this was hugely embarrassing. That would still have worked out at £200 for an 800 word article.

When I pointed this out, the editor said, ‘those kind of fees are for papers – this is online.’ So what? What of your boasts that online readership is vastly higher than newspapers? The problem is, of course, that we are still dealing with the hangover from the dotcom bust at the turn of the century. After that, publishers were so slow off the mark when it came to the interweb that they learned nothing from the music industry’s decline (‘people love the artwork on CDs,’ a high-up at EMI told a friend of mine around 2001, ‘we’ve got nothing to worry about’) and continued to shoehorn their ancient business models into the new technology.

Publishers knew they needed to build websites, but as they were already beginning to haemorrhage money on their print outlets (the Guardian now is losing something like £1 million a week), they invested zero cash. If readers were going to get stuff for free, the reasoning must have been, it wasn’t worth spending money on. Nor could they persuade advertisers to pay even a quarter of their usual fee because it was ‘free content’ and therefore not taken seriously or read properly.

Of course, all this has changed now. We know that writing is taken just as seriously online. We even know that people are prepared to pay for premium content. We know that the internet is our primary source of content and newspapers are for the old-fashioned or just anyone who doesn’t have an iPad yet and still fancies something to read on the train. (I’m aware that this is a lot of people.) The canny have found other ways to generate income if they can’t do it through content – live events (witness the growth of Damian Barr’s Shoreditch Salons, celebrating its fourth birthday tonight, having spawned further events around the globe, some of which are very poor imitators) or driving people back to print that has redefined itself, eg beautiful, limited-edition books. Or maybe, writing the blogs for the non-writers (I do this).

I don’t want to be a moaning minnie. I understand I’m in a privileged position. I was educated well, given great opportunities, and I’m doing a job many would love to do. But I don’t see that vocational jobs should be ‘punished’ with smaller fees because we’re doing what we love – cf. teachers, nurses. I love my job, but I have worked hard to get to this point and I still have to pay the mortgage and get the weekly food shop. In an era when my skills are apparently in demand, it seems frankly ridiculous that it should be the one era when I shouldn’t expect to get paid for them. (I do get, by the way, that I hardly help matters by writing this blog for free. But, the internet eats itself, and I still have to play the game – I need the public voice as much as anybody.)

There’s no real solution in sight. As I say, I’m lucky. I am still finding people who will pay me to write and I’m hoping I can make it last. But I may not be able to do it until I retire. To that end, I’m developing other skills – public speaking, for example – to supplement that income. When even the likes of international bestseller Susan Hill (‘Woman In Black’) posts on Facebook that she cannot afford to continue living in her home, and she doesn’t strike me as the extravagant type, then you know this isn’t a profession that is rewarding its professionals.

Our only hope is that readers vote with their feet: read what you feel is worth reading and has value. And pay for it.

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2 thoughts on “Would you drive a bus for free?

  1. Writers and other creative types who want to get paid should take a look at this article about the Grateful Dead, a band that was ranked in Forbes magazine’s list of highest-paid entertainers despite negligible album sales (they actively encouraged their fans to tape their concerts and trade the tapes amongst themselves):

    http://www.inc.com/magazine/19940901/3091.html

    • Thanks Katharine. This is a very good point – we need to look for new ways to generate income from our skills/product. Musicians no longer generate their best money from album sales but from live performances and product endorsement.

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