Fair pay for writers

Fair pay for writers – it’s not a term you hear bandied about very much is it? Besides, don’t authors earn squillions from the huge royalties they rake in? Well, maybe if you’re EL James or JK Rowling. The rest of us take on lots of other different kinds of work so that we can afford to stay at home and write books, some of the time. This work can be anything from teaching to author talks at libraries, to presenting workshops at schools.

When I first started being invited to do author talks and workshops, which was about two years ago when What is Left Over, After came out, I was a little ignorant about the idea of fair pay for writers. I looked up what the Australian Society of Authors – of which I am a member – had to say on the matter and was pleased to see they had a list of rates for all different kinds of talks and events. But I very quickly realised that many of the people who ask authors to be involved in events have no idea about ASA rates and it is up to the author to ask for whatever pay they think is fair. Using the ASA rates to work out this fair level of pay should be a no-brainer, but I was often told that no, the organisation couldn’t afford to pay that, how about we pay you $x instead, $x usually being about half of what the recommended rate is.

In fact, I remember being asked to present a one hour workshop at a school by an English teacher, which I agreed to. Stupidly I didn’t bring up the pay issue and nor did she. It was only after I’d delivered the workshop that I realised the school had no intention of paying me anything for the time it had taken to both put together and deliver the workshop. The school paid the teachers to teach the students but apparently it was quite acceptable to get an author in to do the work a teacher would otherwise do, for free. Yes, it was my fault for not clarifying this up front and boy did I learn from that mistake.

Of course there are occasions when an author is happy to work for less than the recommended rate – authors are all happy to donate their time working for charitable projects aimed at helping prevent illiteracy, aimed at encouraging children to read etc. Authors are also often happy to forgo a fee in order to have the chance to promote and sell their books, deciding that the publicity benefits outweigh any potential fee from the event.

But, overall, if an author is providing a service, such as teaching people how to write and those people are paying to attend the sessions to hear the author, then shouldn’t the organisation involved pay the author fairly for their time? Of course they should.

If authors always accept a fee that is lower than the recommended rate, then no one wins. It makes it difficult for anyone to ever get the fees back up to reasonable levels and it sets a precedent so that authors following in our footsteps also feel obliged to accept less money. It also gives those who pay to attend these events an unrealistic idea of how much an author’s time and expertise cost – the organisers should surely charge the participants enough money to be able to pay the author an appropriate amount of money. If they don’t, they’re devaluing the skills they are selling.

I’ve been lucky enough to find a few organisations in Perth who are very happy to pay ASA rates. They charge their attendees an amount that covers those rates and guess what? The workshops or events are usually booked out. Everyone is happy, from the host organisation to the people who come along, to me, the author who feels valued and who probably puts more effort and energy into the workshop as a result.

So I’ve decided that, this year, I’m only going to work with organisations who pay fairly, except if it’s for a charitable event or some other purpose that I’m willing to give and take on. I’m going to put a fair value on my time and I’m going to get better at saying no when I don’t feel the value both parties are gaining is equal. What I’d like to do is encourage other writers in WA to do the same, to make a declaration that our skills are worthy of a certain level of compensation and to help make a difference to those authors who come after us. Who’s with me?

11 comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. It really is bizarre how so many parts of society expect authors to do things for free – I really don’t understand how that has evolved!

    On the topic of event organisers charging the right amount – totally with you on that one too – and I certainly think they underestimate the willingness of people to pay something for the privilege of seeing someone speak. I do quite a lot of library talks (not as an author … one day?!) and the largest attendance usually comes when people have had to pay something! Being free often devalues the whole event, I think.

    • I agree – I think organisers do often underestimate what people are willing to pay to learn good skills from a talented professional – such as myself! No, all jokes aside, I think you’re right – assigning the right value to something just makes sense and makes everyone so much happier – obviously it means there is an expectation on me as a presenter to deliver value if people are paying money, but as a professional, I (and you) would always strive to do that regardless.

  2. This issue affects all artists. There is the assumption that artists want exposure and should therefore give their time freely. There is the assumption that the group listening isn’t actually learning something from the artist that they themselves can go on to use in their own careers; so why pay? There is the assumption that the artist’s talent did not come about from bloody hard work and sacrafices, but rather naturally flows and should be shared by all. If the CEO of a company was asked to talk about anything, no matter how banal, they would be paid. The same should be true of artists.

    • You’re probably right Margaret – it probably does affect all artists. It is a shame that people see that an artist using their talent and expertise to present a workshop to teach people about their art is seen as exposure and thus pay is not warranted, rather than being seen as the result of long years of work, practise and dedication to their passion.

  3. Hello! I agree with all you have said here, Natasha – in fact, it’s something we writers, as a community, should talk about more, and I give you full kudos for addressing the subject as you have done. Thank you.

    • Thanks Sara – it’s a difficult issue isn’t it? Especially here in Perth where it is such a small community. I don’t want to be seen as being difficult or demanding, just as someone who will ask for what I think is fair for all parties.

  4. Marlish Glorie

    Ditto! Full kudos for addressing this complex subject Natasha, and I agree with what you had to say. But some authors might accept less because their financial situation is quite precarious. There are times I’ve accepted less because money has been very tight. I’m married to an artist, which means that more often than not, our combined income can be quite low, and which make us, vulnerable to accepting less. Sadly, people will screw you, to put it bluntly. But over the years we’ve tried to minimize that. Thanks for the great blog Natasha.

    • Thanks Marlish – you’re right, and wouldn’t it be nice if those artists who are in financial difficulties could be helped even more by simply being paid the right amount for the work they are doing. I’ve certainly accepted less or even, as I mentioned in my blog, nothing, simply from just assuming people would do the right thing and from not having things committed in writing up front.

  5. I kind of feel this, although more in the way of working for free as a recent graduate. It seem’s that most places will offer you unpaid internships/experience with no intention of hiring you (Or at least not for a year or so). It seems that people in the arts are the only people who while they are training or starting up in a company are expected to do it for the love of the work, compared to actual money.

    • You’re absolutely right – law students working at internships get paid for their time, so should arts students. I find the kinds of issues I’m talking about in my blog are even more relevant when someone is starting a career because that is when you are more likely to take something on for ‘experience’ – I know I did a lot of that when I first began writing – anything to get a publication record or to make contacts, without really thinking about the fact that I was providing content to journals for free! Good luck with the job hunt – I hope things improve by the time you publish your first novel – which will be soon, won’t it?!

  6. annabelsmith

    I’m so glad you raised this issue in a post, Natasha. There’s a sense of shame and secrecy when it comes to talking about money in the arts which makes it hard for people to understand what a fair rate is, let alone have the courage to ask for it. I was recently invited to present a workshop at a local writers centre for a fee which was approximately one third of ASA rates. When I calculated prep time, delivery time, travel time and petrol money, I would have been paid less than the average cleaner gets paid. (And they get paid in cash!) This is despite the fact that I have a PhD in Writing, and have spent more than a decade learning my craft. It seems ironic that a writers centre would provide value to their members by offering cheap courses which result in them underpaying those they invite to deliver the course. The implicit message is: we’ll help you to become a writer, then you can come back and help other aspiring writers…for next to nothing. I agree that it’s important for writers to show solidarity on this issue, yet I also see Marlish’s point of view – that sometimes we have no choice but to accept a rate we know to be too low, because the bills still have to be paid.

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