Paid Per Word?

29 Apr

There is a frequent and often-bitter debate amongst writers over just how much it is reasonable for a writer to be paid. At the extremes are those who feel that exposure (getting your name into print) is sufficient reward and those who regard any writer who fails to earn money as a traitor who is undermining the ability of writers to be paid. I certainly sympathise with the latter group – seeing your name in an anthology or magazine might be nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills and anything that drags down rates of pay is, thus, a ‘bad thing’ – but, demanding that all published work be paid overlooks the fact that a lot of what is published fails to make a profit; not because it is bad, but because it is niche.

The important thing is that a writer understand what they want out of publishing and that they understand what different outlets offer. There is a world of difference between a hobbyist who just wants to share their work, an amateur who wants to hone their craft and gain exposure, and a professional who hopes to make a living from their craft. About the only point that can be universally agreed upon is that a writer shouldn’t be expected to pay to see their work in print, whether directly to a vanity press or to receive a copy. But, as long as they aren’t paying for the privilege, there are situations where it is perfectly fine for a writer not to receive anything for their work – such as its inclusion in a free ezine or on a free to access website; equally, the provision of an electronic copy of an anthology fulfils this criterion (although, as many writers will doubtless want to possess a print copy, it is arguably a grey area).

Leaving aside competitions and self-publishing (which involve costs, but have specific aims), there are a couple of grey areas. The first are publishers who don’t offer a copy, but have some sort of editor’s award for the best story in the collection. It’s up to the writer to decide whether not receiving a copy is worth a shot at that award (in much the same way that you must judge whether the entry fee for a competition is reasonable for the prizes offered). The other consists of those publishers who offer a royalties-only deal. Once more, the writer must make a judgement call, in this case: jam today versus potential jam tomorrow. It may be that the book will sell well and they will make a decent amount of money. Equally, the book might not sell enough to meet the minimum sales to activate royalties, meaning they never get a penny.

Generally, though, a writer should always expect recompense for their work. But, remember what counts as recompense can vary from person to person and from piece to piece. Generally, poetry doesn’t pay as well as fiction, and the more niche a piece is, the less you’re likely to be paid for it. Sometimes, even a writer used to professional rates will have to accept that a complimentary copy is the best they will achieve with a piece, while a hobbyist might just be happy with a complimentary copy for anything.

In addition, it is worth considering the intangible benefits. To take Atlantean Publishing as an example, I only provide a complimentary copy. However, I am always happy to help publicise contributors’ work in the magazines and on the wiki, and will send out review copies wherever reasonable. Thus, although the contributor was ‘only’ paid with a copy, they may benefit from additional sales through advertising. This is why it is well worth making the most of bios. Likewise, having something publicised online or a copy-only anthology may still be worth it even for successful writers, as doing so may gain them new readers. Naturally, this is where an understanding of rights and the use of reprint-friendly markets are a necessity – wherever possible, get paid for a piece before ‘giving it away’ for publicity purposes. A successful writer will also seek to make the most of reprints in order to increase their income.

By understanding your writing aims and the benefits and pitfalls of different publication options, you can achieve a level of success suitable for you and your work without the need for a one-size-fits-all approach, just as long as you remember that you should never come out a publishing deal worse off than when you went in.


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