Writer needs job? or work? or just to get paid?

It’s getting a bit depressing out there. It seems there’s articles being written daily on how hard it is to get paid as a writer, let alone get a job. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if writing about how impossible it is to get paid to be a writer might be a valid career move as it seems a pretty popular genre.

Bethanie Blanchard in her Lit-icism column on Crikey did a great piece on the writer’s dilemma this week, ‘Why don’t you know what you’ll get paid?’. It’s so true that how much you’re going to be paid for a piece of writing is left off the table or not even discussed, unless you specifically bring it up.

But the quote in Blanchard’s piece from Elmo Keep, stuck in my throat a bit. It was said, at the Emerging Writers’ Festival event Get Money, Get Paid last week: ‘If you define yourself as a writer only if you earn your living from writing, then – are you an idiot?’ Apparently, I’m an idiot. Because it really was only when I was earning my living from writing, and then after a some time of having done so, that I dared to label myself as a writer. Many actor’s I’ve known have faced the same dilemma, that embarrassed unable to look you in the eye quibble of whether you really are what you say you are if your names not up in lights and no one’s ever heard of you. Can you really call yourself a professional, if you’re not being paid for it?

I too, remember how excited I was to actually get paid for something I’d written. It was a feature article in ‘Ride On’ magazines and I spent an enormous , quite excessive amount of time researching and writing it. I did three or four interviews, read everything I could, drafted over 5,000 words or more before culling it down to the required length and hijacked the printer at my office job to print out reams of international studies on urban cycling path planning. All for $150.

Which comes back to the dilemma, if you’re not going to get paid much if anything to ply the craft of writing, maybe self-labelling is essential. Defining yourself as a ‘professional’ by the criteria that you get paid to do it is a bit old-fashioned isn’t it?

The Emerging Writer’s Festival initiative to create a database of what publications pay is a terrific one. It’s certainly interesting to look over the fence at what other people are getting. Or is it just another depressing reality check. The thing is no matter what other people are getting paid it may not make any difference to what a particular writer gets. So much is dependent on factors outside of everyone’s control, budgets (what’s been allocated, what’s already been spent), promises made to cover this or that, someone dropping out or leaving, a switch in advertisers, and what at any particularly point in time is attracting views, social referrals or sales.

If you’re unknown you will almost certainly get the minimum and there’s got to be some big shove somewhere to provide any incentive for an editor to increase what they’re offering. It’s also pretty amazing how good the supply of ‘free content’ being offered can be, so why pay if you don’t have to?

It does however feel somewhat anachronistic to still refer to writers rates by the word, especially online. In print where there is a space to fill with words, paying a writer for the number of words they produce that fill that space, makes sense. Online isn’t about the space you have to fill – it’s about hooks. It’s about content that grabs a readers attention, pulls them into your site from the data stream and is of sufficient relevance and quality that the reader doesn’t feel they’ve wasted their time reading it, so good that maybe they’ll even recommend it to their ‘friends’. Just as advertisers now demand to be pay for ads by the views, it would make more sense if writers got paid in royalties, for how many views their work attracts and continues to attract to a site over time. But that introduces enormous overheads, tracking problems and risks to everyone involved doesn’t it?

Looking at the general pay-scale makes me feel like I’ve been in the right ball-park, even though it hasn’t been much and is pretty tough. As a newbie I figure that’s to be expected. For most of the past 2 1/2 years I’ve been on something close to 18c a word (in the last 12mths that’s climbed up a bit). That number is hard to judge, however, as I was on an hourly rate, not a word rate. At times it may have been more, more often less but what I did have was certainty. I also gained the benefit of that vital stuff everyone trying to get their foot in the door will attest to, experience. Working part-time meant I was dealing with the demands of weekly deadlines, editing and subbing my own work, working in and managing a team, commissioning, developing strategies and learning, learning, learning from everyone I spoke to. I also came to understand many of the commercial realities of the online business world.

What’s seems critical to me for a writer is relationships. And relationships are built on trust, reliability and grabbing anything that’s suggested, running with it and delivering something better than anyone excepted it could be. Then maybe you’ll get paid. Maybe.

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