The Writing Life – 2

Writing and Money

So The Monthly’s editor, John van Tiggelen, recently made public his spat with former editor (now Good Weekend editor), Ben Naparstek. If you didn’t catch it, it was all about what Jon perceives as Ben’s lack of ideas, and his willingness to poach The Monthly’s henhouse of writers by offering them more eggs.

(Note: from here on 1 egg = 1 dollar)

The number of eggs per words that Jon’s public denunciation of Ben revealed was what I found most interesting. Although calling Ben a ‘dalek’, whether the metaphor holds or not, sure was an inspired term of abuse. It adroitly blended the suction-cupped evil robot’s sonic cadence with the pronunciation of Ben’s surname. Ben will no doubt return fire. I can see The Tickle Monster now, running for cover.

But back to frying eggs. The figure of 2.5 eggs per word was flipped around. Talk about a pay shell that many writers would like to crack. Sheez, I’d translate the Bioshock 3 Manual into English for that. I’d settle for two eggs per word and a couple of dalek dolls. Original series. But, obviously, to get these eggs and daleks, our writing needs to fit publications whose advertisers have included Rolex, Mercedes, et al. Who obviously help supply the requisite eggs.

So I found myself thinking about daleks, magazines and the relationship between eggs and writing. I started blogging about it. But here I am not getting a single egg to do it. Put on your best dalek voice readers: I believe we have discovered a portal into this topic . . .extermin…

. . . but let’s not tunnel down too soon. Because this blog is about now and I want to go back a little way. A longish way, actually. To a time before the internet, to a time of recession and joblessness (insert whirry, wobbly screen with Tardis here).

I did RMIT’s famous journalism course, graduating before Nirvana released Nevermind. Soon after, I decided to become a Cobain/Bono hybrid in two unsuccessful local blues/grunge outfits. I wrote lyrics, but no journalism. Eventually, I realized I’d need to complement my lyric writing income (0 eggs) and my nurse’s assistant income (15 eggs p/h) with some work in the field in which I’d graduated.

Or else continue to eat only, potatoes, lettuce, onion and the occasional dollar.

It was Paul Keating’s recession we had to have. Many applaud and look back fondly on Keats, even attend musicals about the Italian suit wearing, antique clock collecting former leader. But I remember the unemployment queues. And the lack of eggs.

I applied for cadetships at many newspapers. The most famous of which was The Age. I got to the last six in the race for the three cadetships on offer. I stuffed up my interview when Michael Gawenda asked me, “So, Paul, what are you reading at the moment?” I could have lied and said The Guardian, The New Yorker or the latest new journalism tract. But, no, I told the truth: “Homer’s Odyssey”. The three interviewers exchanged glances and Michael finally said, “Hmm, light bedtime reading?”

Like many of my contemporaries in numerous fields, I couldn’t get a job. So I kept part-time nursing (competently), singing (okay) and writing (appalling) lyrics. I decided I needed to volunteer in order to boost my shabby writing portfolio. I marched down to the Prahran City Mission and asked them if I could do any writing. They gave me their annual report to do. And I did it. Like this blog, as a freebie.

I kept doing this kind of thing until I landed a part-time, volunteer position as assistant editor with a magazine that published in my field of interest (after writing a freebie piece for them about the death of Kurt Cobain). That position might today be known as an internship.

When I was coming up in the Australian writing ‘hood, the term ‘internship’ was only heard in America. And was seen as an opportunity for magazines, depending on their integrity, to either groom people for future work or use them as slave labour.

I’m convinced the same applies for today’s interns in Australia. Some may get lucky. Many won’t.

I worked for the publication part-time for 0 eggs per week for a year. I was eventually close to full-time. I was at last paid 200 eggs per week. Before you start phoning the union/police/RSPCA on my behalf, I agreed to these conditions. Due to a heady mix of idealism for the cause this magazine perpetuated, and because my ex-wife was able to better support us on her wage.

My experience of the relationship between writing and money has been a mixed bag of licorice (i.e. some of those nice ones with the pink icing, and quite a few of those crap, salty black ones). Here’s a quick dip in the bag:

  • an egg per word in the early noughties writing for a US Christian magazine about pop culture;
  • getting paid (stupidly) fewer eggs than I deserved for being the written voice of the Crumpler brand for a decade;
  • writing/editing freebies for causes I believe in;
  • getting paid the same freelance word per egg rate at a major Australian media outlet for more than a decade (whatever happened to the CPI?); and
  • getting an Australia Council egg Grant for one blissful year of not having to work as hard on my professional writing business and teaching.

Overland editor and author Jeff Sparrow recently wrote in New Matilda about why creatives put up with no eggs, throwing a decent left hook at the culture of internship (Overland previously didn’t give eggs to its bloggers, but I believe it now does? Feedback welcome). Jeff bemoaned a culture in which writers accept conditions and eggs (or lack thereof) that heavily unionised blue-collar workers would never accept. That freakin’ free-range chickens wouldn’t and don’t accept! At the same time, he raised the point that there is not necessarily a connect between eggs, writing and value (something I’ve boiled on about before).

In keeping with the practical bent of this blog, I’m not going to weigh into that debate. Except to say that every chicken is worth his/her eggs. I believe that every word written for a commercial publication, whether online or in print, should be paid some eggs. And the better the line, the bigger the fish at the end, yeah? Or fish egg? Caviar anyone?

When it is made clear from the outset that we won’t get an egg for our writing, it is obviously up to us whether or not to accept the fry pan. I know I won’t be paid eggs for poems I have published in Arena. However, I send poems to Arena because I trust their editorial judgment, I get readers for my poems, and I get gift subscriptions. I write journalism for The Big Issue, which gives smaller eggs than most print magazines, but publishes content that many magazines won’t touch. And you’re also contributing to a good cause.

What pisses me off is the profiteers. Those who will in a lovely, cuddly way say they’re giving writers opportunities, but are actually making a decent dozen eggs times twenty out of people’s desperate desire/need/hope for a byline. Some cases in point:

  • an Australian online entertainment magazine that features high quality photography, banner ads from the Bank of Melbourne and pays its writers 0.1 eggs per word. I guess the Bank of Melbourne can help the magazine calculate what each article adds up to, and then the publishers can laugh all the way to them.
  • A semi-independent publisher who puts out a print book per year and runs a website (but doesn’t pay writers, but has noice banner ads). The publisher formerly paid its many writers nominal eggs for work in the print book. This year, however, those eggs were taken from the pan. With no fanfare. The publisher has now moved into another subject area and will be publishing a second book annually.
  • A blog/magazine/hybrid of radical, on-the-edge crazy as all shit man writing/art, etc. They proudly don’t pay anyone. Because, the editor says, no one ever paid me! A friend contributed a poem. I thought I’d check it out. I clicked some links and found that this no pay for writers site included a full page of available merchandise. Yes, you can buy a baby’s jumpsuit with the site’s logo for 65 eggs! Plus shipping. My friend was way pissed off. He contacted the editor and accused him of being a profiteer. The guy threatened to beat up my friend before saying It’s the internet, man, no one gets paid. I told my friend about the eggs I’d been paid for online writing over the years and on and on the battle cooked . . .

. . . as it does and will for all writers. Especially if we consider what has happened with the digitization of music. What will the next five years (let alone decade) hold for writers when books freely pass from screen to screen like a song in MP3 format? Oh, well, I guess we can all just do highly paid live gigs like the thousands of musicians that seem now so happy to come to Australia.

You might not realize it, but we’re back to where we started. That portal I mentioned. The Return of the Dalek: I’m writing this and not getting an egg . . .

I chose to write this blog and knew there were no eggs. I believe, however, I’m worth some eggs. But I do understand that it is a question of the funding hatching, etc.. However, Going Down Swinging and all literary journals will, hopefully, catch on and realize the web ain’t free anymore. It’s no longer a free-range heaven for publishers.

And writers who aren’t getting eggs should be boiling a little more vigorously.

 

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