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.