Should writers be paid for their published work? One would consider that in the obvious affirmative: of course! In the submission of a story, a poem, an article––any written work––payment should be made in the event of publication. It should be one more example of what a trade transaction should include: a seller and a buyer. But it is not. Why is that?
A favorite author of mine, Harlan Ellison, whose books I have read and re-read, blames it on the writers themselves. We who write have bigger egos than we have wallets needing to be filled. We love to see our work in print. It tells us we are loved. We maintain our own bibliography to which we add an entry each time a magazine or e-zine deems us worthy of acceptance. Some editors and publishers will go so far as to make snide remarks about how they are unable to pay published writers, but “isn’t it gratifying to see your story in our magazine, with your photo and your bio, for the thousands who read our publication?” Ellison would reply, “No. Show me the money.”
As a writer myself, I tend to agree, but what good is that? Over time, what began, I am certain, as an experiment called “Let us try to get away with not paying writers for their original work,” caught on and enjoyed the domino effect with many writers, one at a time, falling one upon the other in a pathetic display of self-confidence failure. Why didn’t those early writers, asked to submit work without financial recompense, simply walk away? Why didn’t they cover their mouths and laugh behind cupped hands? Why didn’t they ask the editor or publisher, “When did they start giving without receiving?”
If we all took the time to consider the inequity of writing for free, we would see it does not add up. It has “unfair” written all over it. Try going into your favorite grocery store, loading up your shopping cart with food for a week, and telling the checker you would like to pay for your groceries but you cannot afford to; however, you promise you’ll tell all your friends how delicious the food is that you bought from their market. How far would that get you? I don’t care how many shoppers try such a ploy, it will never catch on. Remember Jean Valjean who stole a loaf of bread and was sentenced to decades in a French prison. “My sister and her baby are hungry” did not cut any ice with the distraught baker. That loaf of French bread which he baked in his oven was worth five sous or whatever and he’d be damned if some desperate desperado off the streets will dare expect that loaf for free!
Not paying writers has become quite acceptable today. To change that would require that all writers jump into a time machine and hustle back a day before the first editor or publisher got the brainstorm idea to rob future authors blind. It’s not going to happen in the real world we live in today. Unlike workers dissatisfied with poor wages and benefits, we cannot take to the streets of America en masse, carrying “We Have Our Rights” and think for one second readers everywhere will join in our fight for justice or that editors and publishers will repent of their crime and shower us with the green stuff.
Not paying writers has become old hat in the world of publishing. We can hardly do much about it except perhaps stop peddling our word wares and do as Emily Dickinson: roll up our verses in round paper balls and toss them into a dresser drawer. I don’t know about you writers out there, but speaking honestly, my own ego won’t allow it. I love to write and be read by others. Perhaps I need to stop grumbling. After all, at my own site, The Word Place, twice a year I publish the poems of excellent poets and I do not pay them one red cent. Why, even Edgar Alan Poe earned $14 for “The Raven,” but what can I do.
Harlan Ellison’s point is well taken, but unless one becomes an established, highly recognizable author to whom readers flock, we must accept the way things are. Speaking for myself, I will continue writing and submitting my work without any expectations of payment beyond the good feeling I get inside, which will get me, along with a buck or two, a cup of coffee and maybe a donut.