Writers' Prey and Getting Paid


The blogosphere has been buzzing in outrage recently over controversial author James Frey's newest publishing venture, Full Fathom Five, a fiction factory that pays a stable of young writers just $250 for commercially viable young-adult novels, and offers them an exploitative, nonnegotiable contract. But Frey's cynical maneuver is just the latest, most visible attempt to take advantage of writers.

Recently, I submitted a piece to a well-known glossy women's magazine. The editor responded: "I'm sorry I can't take this for the print version of the magazine (our space is far more limited right now than we'd like), but we'd be happy to have it on our website. Let me know what you'd like to do; I'll understand if you prefer to continue looking for a print home, but the offer stands."

I'm well-aware the publishing industry is in flux. Ad revenue is down; space for editorial content is limited. Publications are still figuring out how to monetize their online presence. I emailed back: "I'm delighted that you'd like to have my piece on your site. What rights would you be buying, and what is the fee you pay for an article online?"

Her reply: "We don't pay for pieces online, I'm sorry to say."

I've written for the glossy magazines in the past and have always been paid. Even when one of those magazines folded suddenly, ten years ago, the editor insisted on paying me full price for the piece she'd commissioned. Still, I weighed the offer: I'd never been published in this magazine. I wanted to add it to my clips. But it's one thing to rationalize the lack of payment when it's a prestigious, reputation-boosting, but low-circulation literary publication; this was a for-profit, mainstream magazine read by millions. Even in this tough market, they were still paying for staff and overhead. How could they justify not paying the very people who supply the content that makes their publication possible? Accepting would set a bad precedent for professional writers everywhere. I wrote back: "I'm surprised to hear there is no payment for your online version. Although I would love to publish the piece there, I am accustomed to getting paid for my work, and must therefore decline."

For a beginning writer struggling to establish credentials, getting published somewhere -- anywhere -- gives her credibility and an audience. (Not to mention the pleasure of seeing her work in print.) But I've been writing and publishing for thirty years and yet lately, more than ever, find myself being asked to write gratis. I didn't become a writer solely to earn money, and it's still not the primary thing that motivates me. I write because I love it and can't imagine doing anything else. But getting paid validates a writer's professionalism. Without their writers, publishers would have no product to peddle.