Thursday, 5 January 2012

writing for free

What I'm thinking about today is: of what value is my work? What value do I put on what I do? Why do I do it? Does what I think and write have value beyond my labour.. does it have literary value, does it have commercial value.. and if so how is any of that quantified and by whom?

All this because today I was forwarded an email by a helpful and well meaning friend who works in PR; the email was from someone at the Sunday Times, saying they were looking for short story submissions (deadline 6th January). No fee was being offered, but there would be 'broad promotional opportunities'.

I replied to the ST sender, stating that in principle I was not in favour of offering fiction for nothing, gave her links to my writing credits etc, and asked for more info. (Why did I even respond? More on that later). I thought about the four or five unpublished stories in my hopeful 'next collection' folder, thought perhaps this would be a useful opportunity for me, in light of a) the recent campaign about short story cuts on BBC Radio 4, but also - of course - b) because I have no new fiction 'out there' just now, and probably won't for some time (i.e. until I finish novel, edit another half-written novel, finalise contents of 2nd poetry pamphlet for Dec 2012, etc.)

The Sunday Times reply mentioned story length parameters, 'boundaries of taste' editorial restrictions, and being 'happy to plug your work and campaigns heavily in return.'  How nice. I hit reply and then stopped and - again - thought 'why am I doing this?'

Meanwhile, I had tweeted about it, and a number of fellow writers had echoed my own instincts about the principle of not giving away one's work for nothing.

So now I asked why"..the Sunday Times - I mean, you are the Sunday Times, a big paper, you have a paywall - doesn't feel it can pay for content by writers? Everybody expects their work to be respected as work... it concerns me that in this instance it seems ST would not place value on a piece of original work.."

The next reply was brief, and to the effect that my 'position' was appreciated, but that 'in the current climate' a fee was just not possible - however, that 'the work is very much valued.'

Well, I'm glad to be valued of course, but the way one feels valued is to be respected enough to be paid for what is - to the newspaper in question - content they value enough to publish.

I felt agitated and grumpy and irritable. (So what's  new? Ed.

After some moments of dithering about, listening to my conscience, I replied saying that, at the moment, I didn't feel it would benefit me to give the paper a story for free, though I have done so before.

Yes, I have. My story Mae West Optional was published by the Guardian, at the same time as Furthermore, my 2nd collection, went out into the world. The publicist at Polygon told me it was a useful quid pro quo, that it would help sell the book. In fact, I can't see that it had any effect on sales, which were miserably slow. Why was that? Well, there was no promotion for it (or none I was made aware of), it just limped out onto a few bookshop shelves and lay there. It was seriously depressing, but I had been told that instead the publisher would focus on promoting the (yes, much more commercial) anthology (my 4th as editor/contributor) Little Black Dress, which came out the following year.  (Why did I accept this? Naive? Yes, but also this is what happens with short story collections...)

You can read more about the publicity connected to LBD here. (Also here, but it's now behind the paywall at the jolly old Times!) A great story from that anthology, Being the Baroness by Stella Duffy, can still be read - free! - on the Guardian archives.

Back to my muttons: why should short story writers give their work free to be read by thousands online? What's in it for them? There are arguments for it. Publicity. Heightened profile. The favourable opinion of a journalist or editor (ah yes, somebody who does get paid to do their work). What else? If an author has some other fiction on the way, a book that could do with a push, or - like me with the R4 campaign - a project that could be helped by attention in accompanying bio material... then yes, I can see why one might agree, and be grateful for the attention.

What bothers me is that having enquired, having then made my principled stand and decided not to send anything, I began to register simmering levels of anxiety. 

I was anxious about saying no. Anxious about being thought (by myself?) 'silly' for not co-operating with the system, for not accepting my position in 'the system' as 'only a short story writer', I suppose. Writery-guilt. What if nobody ever asked me again for a piece of work, what if nobody ever paid me for another story, what was I doing turning down opportunities... and so on. 

Amazing how much of this stuff one carries about in the anxiety-panniers, just waiting to unpack at the slightest provocation.

All writers want to be read. We're all hungry for appreciation. But, after 28 BBC Radio story broadcasts, after being R4's 'pick of the year' for one of those stories, which is still in print around the world; after editing 4 short fiction anthologies; after writing 2 short story collections of my own; after the priceless comments of encouragement, worth their weight in gold, from authors whose work I respect, who believe I have some ability - after all that, would it be reasonable of me to expect to be paid for something I've written to be published by a prestigious national newspaper with high standards..?

You bet it would.

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