Tuesday 1 June 2010

Should you ever write for nothing?

I have been asked to write an essay for an academic book. I could write quite a good essay for this book, and it's published by a very respectable publisher. But they are not going to pay me anything. This is standard practice with academic publishing, and is based on the rather dodgy premise that academic writers are already being paid by their academic institutions and that they need the publications to improve their rating and to gain kudos.

Now, I'm not paid by an academic institution, I don't need any kind of rating or accreditation or kudos, and I will have to take time off paid writing to do it. It looks as though there is no reason at all to do it, doesn't there?

On the other hand... the book is for students, and I have a lot of sympathy for students. I can write something that will give them insights they won't get from the other contributors, precisely because I am a practising commercial writer and not an academic who writes the odd bit of fiction and doesn't have to live on the income from it. Unless all creative writing students are going to become creative writing teachers (and I don't think that is unlikely, actually), what I have to say might be rather useful for them. But then again, the very large publisher is presumably intending to make money from this book. They will doubtless pay their in-house staff, the printers, the electricity bill and all other costs relating to this book. So why on earth should they get away with not paying the contributors, the very people who will make the book unique and uniquely useful?

They want 5,000 words from me. To write something decent will take at least two days. Even writing journalism for a worthy outlet (rather than a well-financed national paper) I could get £500 for 5,000 words. I could get a lot more writing a book that length. If I'm going to spend two days not earning, I could spend the time with my daughter, or go to see friends, or spend it in art galleries. If I'm going to use the time writing, I could write something speculative that I want to write but don't have a commission for. Or I could write for an organisation that can't afford to pay me, rather than for one that just doesn't want to pay me.

Why should an international publisher (with whom I have published many other books, incidentally, for money) be a scrounger? Is the book truly uneconomic? Can't they charge a pound more for it and pay the contributors? What kind of business model is this, and why does no-one ever challenge it? The last time I wrote an academic book - a long time ago, I admit - I got a royalty.

I have no quarrel with the editor, and would like to help with her project as it's interesting and worthwhile, but I'm not sure I can persuade myself that my time is better spent doing this than earning £500 and giving it all to the homeless, or earthquake relief, or some other worthy cause. A publisher is not a charity and not a worthy cause - why should it act as though it has a dog on a string to support and no permanent address?

Is there a good enough reason to write this essay? I would be interested to hear your thoughts, kind readers - especially if you're a publisher.



  1. I'm not a publisher. I am a working writer who likes to get paid. But sometimes I work for free. Why? Advertising. If the piece will get my name out to a substantial number of potential buyers in my genre, it's worth it. Is this book likely to reach students of library science? teaching? Then go for it.

  2. Edited academic volumes are almost dying out anyway - most publishers hate to touch them because they believe they're a hard sell. In fact even academics are now looking down on book chapters somewhat because they aren't peer-reviewed therefore won't get your department any points in the next research evaluation which will determine its eligibility for central funding!

    In other words there's (unfortunately) less than a cat's chance in hell of them changing the model to pay out royalties on edited volumes. Not even the editors make anything.

    As a non-salaried-academic your reasons to take part are basically either 'I effectively choose to pay in order to improve the learning experience of these students' or 'by donating these days of work I'm investing in exposure' ... if neither of those holds true then stay away from it.

  3. I am not a non-salaried academic, I'm a professional writer. I don't think the book will be read by teaching or library science students - it's intended for students of creative writing.

    In terms of exposure/advertising, there are very few things I consider worth doing for this. The only way it ever turns out to be worthwhile is if someone who sees it gives you a much more lucrative commission as result. For this reason I will do things such as book reviews in The Times and articles for the New Humanist. An academic book will largely be seen by academics and academic publishers, I presume.

    Is it really the case that even the editors aren't paid for these collections of essays? Why do they do them? Presumably, as editors, they are not academics and so don't need the research points? Or are they not real editors?

    I'm inclined to go for 'no'. I'll have a think about it, though, for a third reason - sometimes it's worth writing something for your own development, if the project makes you challenge and think through your own position on an issue you don't pay much attention to. The unexamined life, and all that... (And I guess there's the PLR and ALCS payments which might come to a few pence.)

  4. You can still write the 'thought' piece as a speculative article for payment elsewhere. I can't think of any reason why your response isn't plain no to the free chapter thing.

  5. Hmm, I don't really do speculative articles - too much chance of investing the time and getting neither money nor exposure! I could pitch it as an article, though, and write it if commissioned.

    Why not a straight no? Well, I'm more likely to do the thinking (which will be useful for me) if I have a deadline; it will be useful for students if I write it (and I don't like the idea that students suffer because of the financial state of publishing, though I know it's inevitable).

    I didn't write it, by the way.

  6. Fascinating blog:-) As a third year creative writing undergraduate, maybe I would have benefited from it, so would have said "yes". On the other hand I'm a mature student, and there's very little chance that I would write "for free" in your situation for that type of publication, so would back a "no" vote for it.

    I managed to get a first without it, so I'm glad you opted not to comply with the request - seems just plain greedy to me.

    Call in for a chat with me! Christine's Chatter is at :-

  7. Congratulations on your first, Christine! Well done :-) I'll take a look at your blog, than kyou

  8. As someone on the other side of this fence (i.e. a salaried academic who spends most of my time writing for nothing, and a small amount of time writing for money) I admire your righteousness, but there's not much point arguing about this. It's ingrained deeply in the entire system.

    Academia is a reputation economy. The sheer scarcity of academic jobs and research funding means that people are desperate to get published. Consider this - the majority of academic writing (some of which will have taken months or even years of work) doesnt even get published at all, as it's rejected by peer reviewers. Complaining that it's not remunerated either is like arguing that a starving person is entitled to some salt and pepper.

    Incidentally, yes I do think you should write for free, as it sounds like you've got something to say. This is how professional writers can compensate for the amount of times they write for money, despite having nothing to say :-)

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  10. I've spotted this a bit late, but "a salaried academic who spends most of my time writing for nothing" - surely, a salaried academic who spends most your time writing for, er, a salary? It's part of your job, really, isn't it?