Would you drive a bus for free?

Aside

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.

*Feels oddly nervous* – or, what is it to be a writer today?

 

I’m chairing a panel of literary types tonight for a discussion on ‘what it is to be a writer today’. A loose kind of subject but so much is changing in the publishing world that it merits an exploration rather than a debate. My own view is that it’s not as black and white as saying one is either for or against digital publishing. It just IS, and now we have to change the business models to accommodate that.

Not that I am alone in this view. Some publishers – on the whole the smaller ones, although Penguin always seems more willing to look for another route, if not an entirely radical one – are coming up with whole new ways of reading books. In a time when ebooks are outselling hardback and paperback sales on Amazon UK, they’ve simply got to do this. That said, ebooks still only account for 12.9% of the entire publishing market.

What I hope is that the publishing industry takes the best of what the music industry learned from the digital revolution, and avoids its more costly mistakes. I can see a world in which smaller, unknown writers are able to self-publish and garner their own readers (and therefore profits), leaving the publishers to bring out the behemoths – the cookery books and, dare I say it, TV companion books. Readers will buy digital books more frequently, when the cost is less per book, and then buy occasional, more expensive print books because those are the ones they love, look beautiful and demand to be kept. (Few of us have the space, quite apart from anything else, to do more than this. My own books have lain in storage for five years.)

And while writers are never going to sell out the O2 for a reading (though, you know, JK Rowling might), live events are growing all the time. Just watch the extraordinary success of Damian Barr’s work with his Salons, which began (and still run) at Shoreditch House with a small room of about 30 people or so and now have the guestlist of 300+ full within 15 minutes of announcing the dates. The product sells but so does the experience.

There’s another thing. While many believe it is their right to download music and movies for free online, I think books are viewed as something to be paid for. With the price wars smashing the cost of some Kindle books down to as little as 20p, and many of the out-of-print classics down to nothing, it’s questionable as to how long that will last. (And those battling publishers will only have themselves to blame.) They can increase the value of a product by making a book more of an experience online – you can watch it, read it, listen to it and so on. But movies are arguably a huge experience online and people still download those for free, with nary a shadow on their conscience.

Finally, there’s another big thing which has changed the nature of publishing – we’re all writers now. Much to our surprise, the chief form of communication in the 21st century is writing. Whether you’re texting, emailing, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking or penning a first novel in longhand, you’re getting busy with the alphabet. Every business from plumbers to PR has to have a ‘content strategy’. Either this makes the successful writers more precious – because readers recognise that while everyone has a go, only some can actually do it. Or it will cheapen the entire enterprise – what’s the point in honing the skill when everyone is doing it AND getting published?

So the real question is – will writers still be able to earn a living 20 years from now?