“We’re All Exploited Here”: On Paying Writers and Editors

In Guest Contributors by David Duhr

How much do writers get paid for their work? You might be surprised to learn that it is often more than the editors who make that work possible.

By David Duhr

dollar billsA few weeks ago Ann Bauer, writing for Salon, called for more transparency from writers with regard to where their money comes from. “The conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have,” Bauer writes. She says that it’s a “disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.”

But what about the other side of the aisle? Should editors at publications be more transparent about where their money comes from, and, more importantly for writers, how much of that money is paid to writers? If any?

On Tuesday night at Kickstarter headquarters in Brooklyn, several editors sat down for a public discussion about those very questions. As one might expect of a Kickstarter-hosted panel titled “How to Pay Your Writers,” much of the discussion focused on the intricacies of crowdfunded campaigns. But running underneath the nuts-and-bolts talk of money-raising was an interesting conversation about how those inside the Venn diagram intersection of the writers and editors reconcile the two roles.

Freelancer and anthologist Sari Botton, who moderated, opened the discussion by echoing a sentiment common among such writer/editors: “I’m a writer who struggles to get paid, and I’m also an editor of anthologies and struggle to pay writers.”

Another anthologist, panelist Alex Shvartsman, publishes Unidentified Funny Objects, an annual anthology of humorous sci-fi/fantasy. He said he pays his writers $0.07 per word, info that is easy to find on the UFO submissions page. “Our stated goal is, everybody gets paid,” Shvartsman said. “Only one person in the company doesn’t get paid, and that’s me. If I paid myself minimum wage for the hours I spent working on these projects, we would definitely be in a huge hole.”

BOMB Magazine’s submissions page reads: “Please note that BOMB does NOT accept outside, unsolicited pitches/submissions for interviews, artwork, or articles; this content is curated and generated in-house by the editorial staff and its contributing editors.” Ryan Chapman, managing director of marketing and digital projects at the magazine, says that BOMB pays anywhere from $50 to $200 for these solicited interviews and reviews. “I can see the downward pressure on writers to work for free,” Chapman said, “because there will always be another writer behind them […] who will write for free. On the other hand, you have the editor or publisher who just wants to publish the best writing they can, and the best should cost money.”

But how much money? Lisa Lucas, publisher at Guernica, said, “If I had a dollar for every single [reader] we’d have an operating budget, and all of our writers would be paid decently.” According to Lucas, for its special issues and its print edition, Guernica pays $50 on the low end (mostly for poetry) and up to $1,000 for features, depending on the amount of money it has to play with, money raised through grants and crowdfunding. Many writers would claim $1,000 for a piece of writing to be well above “decent.” But outside of these special issues, Guernica, “with rare exceptions,” according to its submissions page, cannot afford to pay its writers.

But as Lucas pointed out several times, Guernica’s staff, like the staffs of so many similar publications, is itself in large part unpaid. Lucas said that her editors constantly receive emails from writers angry about the lack of compensation: “The lack of graciousness, the entitlement writers feel to become angry about the marketplace […] writers actually need to check it a little because so many of these editors are making nothing. At what point is editing not art? The identification [of quality work], the nurturing—you would never tell a midwife that she should work for free because you’re the person giving birth.”

In response to Botton’s question about whether, for writers, “prestige” can make up for the lack of compensation, Chapman said, “You can’t eat prestige for dinner.” But Lucas said that many of her contributors don’t mind working for free, that many of them are well-paid elsewhere and consider it “a donation” to gift their work to Guernica.

Botton said, “I’ve seen arguments online where established writers say to hungry writers, ‘Don’t undercut us; yes, you’re going to charge less but don’t give it away free, because you’re lowering the value of what we all do.’ Which is tricky, if you are young and hungry and you need to establish yourself.”

Is it exploitation to publish the work of writers for no compensation? The general consensus seemed to be that it is, but that sometimes working for free is just a writer’s lot in life—and often an editor’s too. As Lucas said, referring to both Guernica’s unpaid contributors and its staff members, “We’re all exploited here.”

David Duhr is books editor and copyeditor at the Texas Observer and co-founder of WriteByNight. He will be compensated for this piece of writing.

About the Author

David Duhr

David Duhr is a fiction editor and copy editor at The Texas Observer, and he's the co-founder of WriteByNight, which offers editorial services to authors.