What's the difference between a writer and a plumber?
Many would say that a writer works more unsocial hours and a plumber is seen as having a more noble profession. But, for me, the main difference is that you wouldn't ask a plumber to work for free.
Writers though, particularly at the start of their journey, are often expected - in print or online - to work for 'compensation: nil' as an opportunity to raise their profile or gain valuable experience and a readership. One could argue that it's now part and parcel of a working apprenticeship, although when I last checked, apprentices were still being paid.
So why does it happen?
1. I think the democratisation of writing is part of the problem. If everyone can write then anyone can write. Which means there will always be someone else out there willing to answer the call for a freebie.
2. Another reason is the ambiguity of the term ‘writer’. It’s a catch-all for a range of skills, experience and qualifications. For starters. There is journalism, copy writing, poetry, novels and comedy writing – these specialisms all have their own requirements and it would be a rare soul indeed who was comfortably proficient in all of them. Okay then, Clive James – I’ll give you that.
3. Another factor is the lack of a standard rate of pay, even for web articles. It really is a buyers’ market and any polite noises towards the existence of a minimum wage will quickly find out opportunity-less.
4. Until they are published – and often afterwards – most writers are fantastically insecure. The very idea that someone is interested in and willing to use our words is music to our ears.
5. The ‘industry’ knows it has us by the gonads because writing is now really sexy with a creative writing course on every street corner.
This is a REAL issue affecting countless writers today. Bad enough that many of us earn less than £10,000 a year from writing alone, we also have to contend with an ocean of upcoming newcomers who have become convinced that working for free is the only way to get a start in the industry.
I’ve done it too. Of course I have. So far my gratis proof-editing, copy writing and comedy material has been limited to friends, non-profit organisations and one or two occasions when I believed I was getting in on the ground level (few of those are still standing). But I can’t help thinking that every time we support a business – where everyone else is being paid – by submitting to the tyranny of ‘compensation: nil’ we are just undermining ourselves, our fellow writers and the future prosperity of writing.
Wait, I hear you shout. What about the print publications and websites that would cease to exist without the input of freebie writers and enthusiasts. It’s a fair point and so is the counter-argument; that if they’re a business and their business model relies on having people (who have their own bills to pay) working for nothing – for any time at all - then it’s little short of scandalous.
So what’s to be done?
I’ve given it some thought and I think we need a union. No subs though, no committee power struggles and a simple manifesto. After a dozen pieces of work, maximum – which are signed off by the client as meeting their needs and supplied to prospective employers on request – all work undertaken thereafter has to at least meet the minimum wage.
Or we could retrain as plumbers.
And to end, let’s hear a few words on the subject from the highly respected and successful writer Harlan Ellison. Check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE