Friday, 19 February 2010

Everything Must Go?

Something me and my writer mate Rafe McGregor often used to debate was the question of whether a writer should ever give their work away for free.  At the time, and perhaps partly due to a bad early experience, I was very much against it: even an imperfect story still amounts to hours, perhaps tens of hours work, and I didn't see how an editor could expect to receive the fruit of all that labour for nothing.  Rafe was more philosophical about the whole thing.  It can often be a huge slog getting a story hooked up with a paying market, and then the amount in question is unlikely to be life-changing.  Why sit on a story for yet more months, or attempt yet another polish, when said story could be out there being read?

We debated it back and forth and, buoyed by a few good sales, I decided on a hard-line stance - I'd sell work for semi-pro rates, (that is, at least a cent a word), or not at all.  Writing, like any business, requires a certain amount of financial investment - stamps, postage, paper and ink, and additional contributor copies don't come free - and even with those good sales, I was barely making a profit.  So why should publishers get away with the argument that they couldn't pay me because they wouldn't be able to break even if they did?  Nope, editors could pay or they could not publish my work.

Editors chose the latter.  There followed the worst dry spell I've had for sales since the day I started submitting.  And as the months edged by, inevitably, I began to question my position.  Might it not be better to get something, anything out, then to go the rest of my life without ever seeing my name in print again?

Needless to say (since it's obvious from some of the things I've had out recently) I changed my mind.  I realised that payment can come in more forms than just the financial, especially when the difference is only one of a few dollars.  I'm not, after all, writing to get rich at this stage.  If I was I'd be an idiot.  I'm writing to build a career, to train myself to be a better writer, to understand the industry, to bring myself to the attention of editors, and if I can possibly make a little pocket change on the back of that then that's great.  But I want to get my work read.  I don't want to kill a story that I'm sure people will enjoy because it's out of line with current fashions.  I want to enjoy what I'm doing, and part of that enjoyment comes from having work published. 

Moving into 2010, I suspect another rethink is on the way.  I'm pleased with how the Kings of the Realm anthology turned out, for example, but having to buy my own contributor copy from the US left such a dint in my wallet that I'll think seriously before submitting to a non-paying antho again.  Also, I've shifted the vast majority of my back catalogue over the last few months, and am writing less and less short stories as my focus shifts more to novels. 

So, for the record, here are a few alternate forms of payment I've accepted or would have considered over the last few months:

- Having someone podcast my story. 
- Having someone illustrate my story, particularly when that story's a comic script.
- Having my story appear in a well put together magazine or collection full of work by writers whose work I enjoy.
- Having my story edited by someone who really knows what they're doing.
- Having my story reprinted so it can find more readers.

All of these things can, and have been, as or more satisfying than cold hard cash.  And here seems as good a place as any to mention Stephen Theaker, who's published my stories in both Theaker's Quarterly Fiction and the British Fantasy Society's Dark Horizons, who's written convincingly on this very subject, and who I suspect I'll keep submitting to simply because he's a pleasure to work with and I always enjoy the magazines he puts out. 

Finally, a note as to what I'd strictly avoid. I've come to think that there's very little to be gained from any magazine that takes my work and sticks it on their website without paying me.  There are some great paying webzines out there, and I've been fortunate enough to work with some of the better ones, but I find it hard to believe that readers will flock away from venues like Flash Fiction Online and Chiaroscuro to ones where the editors have so little faith in the work they're presenting that they refuse to pay even token amounts for it.  The same goes for non-paying electronic anthologies.  I don't doubt that many of the people behind these have the best of intentions, or that they genuinely mean it when they promise to bring writers exposure, but experience has led me to think that those promises are nevertheless pretty hollow. 

Anyway, if anyone has further thoughts on this question, or an approach that radically differs from mine, then I'd be interested to hear about it...


  1. Hi David,

    I went through almost exactly the same phase last year - and had a great year for reprints, translations and paying webzines. I'll still consider a non-paying antho, but only if I get a contributor copy. I also had the experience a couple of years ago of having to buy my own copy. :o(
    I've also been published once in a non-paying webzine that published other stories of such poor quality that I realised it would do my reputation more harm than good.

    Maenwhile, still hoping for more semi-pro and pro sales...

  2. Hi Gareth,

    Thanks for commenting, I'm glad I'm not the only writer puzzling over this one. If I learnt one thing from the whole experience it's that if I set myself a rule I'm bound to just end up breaking it :} I guess I'll continue to take it as it comes, there are some great non-paying venues out there and I'm not ready to rule them out just yet...