Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Getting paid to work

Ever since I was about six years old, I've wanted to be 'a writer'.  On my eighteenth birthday, I brought myself a bottle of Champaign which I planned to open and drink when I got my first book deal.

What it means to be 'a writer' is a question that's kept me tossing and turning in my sleep for the past twenty years or so.  Is it when I get my first book published?  When I earn the majority of my income from writing?  When other people start calling me a writer?

By the time I was nineteen, I'd written two novels.  They were high fantasy and probably not great, but it took dedication and inspiration.  Those are the two things that have keep me plugging away at this whole 'writer' thing and kept me convinced this was the path I'm at home on.

I started writing short stories because that's where people like Asimov and Bradbury started (at least, that was my understanding at the time).  In the last few years, I've realised that science-fiction and fantasy short stories are not just an art to themselves but a whole world to themselves. 

Always with an eye on that bottle of Champaign (when I can call myself 'a writer'), I've been following this whole, 'pay rates fail' thing which has been blowing around the blogs at the moment.  How much should writers been paid, and when a writer can call themselves a professional?

The Steampunk Soiree was, financially, a bit of a disaster.  Everybody who attended had a great time and would love to come again, but everybody who attended isn't going to come close to paying for all the bands.  Less professional, and more farce.  A very fun farce, but a farce non-the-less.  We're yet to do the sums, but if we can pay people's expenses it's going to be a miracle of some description (hey, we have our hopes up--it's Christmas, after all!)  Effectively, the artists had to pay to work.

Issue #6 of Steampunk Magazine was, financially, a bit of a disaster too.  It was a lot longer than normal and there wasn't enough money in the kitty to cover expenses.  It was supposed to be my first ever payment for something I'd written, but I waived it and have already happily foregone any payment for anything I write for Issue #7.  And, of course, SPM is released under Creative Commons non-profit accreditation licence, so someone can take Of Mice and Journeymen, reprint it and re-write it as much as they like.

So, let's say a reasonable pro pay rate for a short story is 5 cents a word.  £1 is $1.1211 at the moment, so 1p is 1.1211c.  So, for every word I'd get 4.4599p.  I need about £900 a month to survive.  That means I'd have to sell 20,180 words (or there abouts).  Assuming an average story of mine is 7,000 words, that's three pro-sales a month.   That's also assuming there's no cap on pay and magazines don't mind paying me $350 for a story.  (Of course, this doesn't take into account charges for changing currency which is something that's yet to come up in the Great Pay Debate.)

There's three immediate problems I can see with this:
1) If I quit my day job, I could probably rely on writing one 'as good as I can write' story a month.  A good month could produce three, if it was a really good month;
2) Selling three pro-rate stories a month would mean an awful lot of socialising and networking for me, and people scare me;
3)  After 36 stories in the first year, people are going to get pretty damned sick of me.

There's non-fiction--which is apparently even harder than short story writing to make money out of--and workshops--which runs into 2)--which could top up my earnings.  Maybe there's other avenues I'm not aware of at the moment.  For the moment, though, I've not really got any qualms about ruling out making a living from my writing.

As a result of the pay debate, I've decided to start sending my work to pro- and semi-pro markets.  Maybe I'm not good enough yet, but I'll keep striving to get better.  Am I doing it for the money?  Well, a couple hundred quid would be more than welcome but the short answer is, 'no'.  I'm doing it because the slush pile at those magazines is huge and you've got to really shine to be picked out.  And, probably more importantly, because the people whose work I love reading sometimes read those magazines. 

When one of my stories appears in Interzone along side Jason Sanford, maybe then I'll crack open that bottle.  Or maybe I'll wait until John Reppion says, 'hey Foxie, loved the story--it gave me an amazing idea!'.  Of course, my snarky side wants to wait until one of my stories triggers its own xyz-fail shit storm.

The money=good thing is something deeply embedded in my psyche by a middle-class upbringing (I gave my Dad a copy of 'Mind Games' to read, because I thought he might like to see what his son was doing with his life, and his first question was, 'how much money did this make you then?').  Hanging around with Steampunks is really making me challenge and question that, and more and more I'm convinced that's wrong.  Is playing to a crowd of 40 at a loss better than playing to a crowd of 200 with a nice paycheck?  You can't make a habit out of it, but if those 40 people are inspired and those 200 are just drunk then, well, it probably is.

If I wanted to make money, I'd have followed my brother's lead and become an accountant.  If I want to make money from writing, I'll follow James Patterson and top my bank balance up writing whargarble for the Murdoch press.  I'm not saying these things are easy, but that's where the money is.

If I get myself in the pro markets, maybe in twenty years time someone will offer me a T.V. show.  Maybe by the time we've gone through the sixth Soiree, we'll be able to make a profit, I'll enjoy socialising and people will be saying, 'talk to Foxie, he'll make it happen for you'.  Perhaps people will be thinking, 'I need an opinion on this, what's Foxie thinking?'.  Five years down the line, yeah I'll probably still be in the day job.  Ten years, maybe.  Twenty years?  Thirty years?  I don't know.  Money is nice, but transitory.  Reputation is permanent, and it takes decades to build up one of those.  I've been at this twenty-five years already and maybe I won't be opening that bottle for another twenty-five.  I'm okay with that.  I'm a writer.  As sure as some people are homosexual or Olympic athletes, that's who I am.  That's who I'm going to be until the day I die, so I'm okay going slow and steady because I've got the time.  Hell, that's really all I've got to do with my life.

Writers should be paid a fair wage for their work, but that's never going to happen when there's so many of us.  Unless your name comes out the cosmic lottery machine, you're never going to make a living from just writing fiction.  (Oh, people win every week but you'd be daft to count on paying your mortgage with a lottery ticket.)  The underlying problem which no amount of e-ink can change is that there is not the audience to support SF/F writers.  Even with the success of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek:  Reboot, the general public don't particularly want to read thought-provoking, innovative SF/F short stories.  They want Opera and Will Smith.  They want to give their money to franchises they can trust, actors they know and authors who entertain without challenging.  It takes a degree of imagination and intelligence to gain something from the SF/F short story world as it is at the moment, and the general public are increasingly wanting to just dumbly consume. 

So if you're arguing that writers should be able to make a living from their work, you've lost before you've begun.  There's not enough interest to generate enough money to make that position viable.  It's not the fault of the magazines or the writers or the advertisers.  What we produce simply isn't what the masses--the paying public--wants. 

We publish to talk to each other, to inspire each other.  A story in a pro magazine means that an editor with a towering slush pile has decided this piece has something to say.  That's why I'll read and think about everything in Interzone, regardless of how much I personally enjoy the story.  I don't think I'm the only one who thinks like that, either.  5c a word is the honey which brings in the bees, and the editors need to fulfil their end of the bargain by picking the diamonds out the slush.  That's their reputation and track record.  The currency itself becomes a value, a number in part of a larger equation and independent of what goods and services it can be exchanged for.

But that's just me.  If the majority of writers in the SF/F world agreed, John Scalzi and everyone else wouldn't have batted at eyelid at Black Matrix, instead just deciding that the number the equation came out with was too low and passing on to other things.

1 comment:

Jo Thomas said...

I think you just hit the nail on the head :)