Monday, May 2, 2011

How to Compensate a Writer

I’m not exactly sure what precipitated me writing this blog post. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had an unusually high (for me) volume of smaller pieces published over the last few weeks, each one arriving with a different definition of “payment” attached to it (each of which I’m grateful for). Or perhaps it’s because I’ve recently listened to this hilarious interview with novelist Gary Shteyngart where he mentions how, when he wrote his very first story at the age of five, his Russian grandmother paid him for it in cheese – and then jokes how Random House continues to pay him in cheese. Or perhaps I’ve just been thinking about what I consider to be fair compensation for a piece of my writing and where my own threshold of payment resides.

Now maybe you’re one of these young go-getters looking to break in to some facet of the publishing business. Perhaps you want to start your own small press, launch a literary journal (either online or in print) or found a brand-new reading series, and you’re wondering – how do I go about paying a writer anyway? How do I make sure I adequately compensate an author for the work he or she has created? Well don’t fear, because I am here to help you out.

Now before I begin, please keep in mind that this is a) not an exhaustive list, b) not to be considered in any sort of hierarchical order and c) not an either/or scenario. These are more like guiding principles, tips you can use when wrestling with how to “pay” a writer whose work you are using. Feel free to mix and match them as needed. And if you see some obvious omissions to this list, by all means add them to the Comments area below.

Without further adieu, you can compensate a writer:

  • With cash (natch!): Never understate the power of giving an author hard currency, even if that author is purported to have a “day job.” Chances are, she resents her “day job” for keeping her from her art, and so the money she earns from her writing, especially her creative writing (especially if it is extremely creative writing – surrealist poems, comic books with no words, ‘really out there’ erotica, etc.) will be that much more rewarding to her. Cash can come from a variety of sources for a writer: royalty cheques, PLR payments, arts council grants and/or reading fees, prize money, publication in paying journals, and the hand sales of books. Combined, these can often add up to a not-insignificant amount of dough. But even a pass-the-hat at a reading event or a $5 cheque for a poem can make an author feel compensated.

  • With contributors’ copies: A lot of journals in the literary space (especially if they’re online) can’t actually afford to pay contributors cash for their work, which is perfectly understandable in my books provided that nobody else in the food chain is making any money either. A contributor’s copy can often count as a form of non-monetary compensation, giving the lowly scribe a nice little release of endorphins at seeing his name in print, a joy that never really goes away. Even if a journal is strictly online, the editor can still send the writer a contributor’s copy, simply by emailing a link. A couple of helpful hints, though, if you rely on contributors copies as a way of paying writers. Try hard to ensure that the author gets her copy before subscribers and newsstands get theirs. There’s nothing worse than knowing other people are out there reading your work before you’ve had a chance to see it. When in doubt, always treat the contributor copy the same as you would a cash payment. In other words, don’t be tardy in getting it to the author. I once had to wait nearly two years for a contributor’s copy and felt somewhat hard done by. Besides, some of us are really anal about our archives.

  • With recognition, and by sharing the recognition around: Feeling like someone else made an effort to pin a rose on your nose can be another fantastic form of non-monetary payment. I love the trend I’m seeing of journals that hold launch parties for each new issue; it’s a wonderful way to celebrate success and grow an audience. I’ve also seen journals’ websites that congratulate contributors when they’ve won or made the shortlist for a big award, which is very classy. Even a simple email, sent to your contributors letting them know that the work is out and thanking them for their contribution, can count as recognition. The worst-case scenario is if your writers are relying on a Google Alert of their name as the sole way of finding out that they’ve published something with you. This is pretty ghastly, though increasingly common, and should be considered a form of non-payment.

  • By engendering a sense of community: Very similar to the one above, but just that much more. Writing is a lonely, lonely business, and so any effort to make writers feel like they belong to something larger can often count as another form of compensation (or at least a nice adjunct to compensation). Some places are well-known for treating their writers like part of a broader family – The New Quarterly and Biblioasis being two outstanding examples. With all the tools of social media now at your disposal, building a community among writers from whom you’ve accepted work is easier than ever. But it doesn’t have to be even that complicated. I did a reading recently where the host invited us all out for a meal after the event, and it was a wonderful time to break bread together, talk shop and make some new friends. I didn’t get a formal ‘payment’ for that reading per se, but the sense of camaraderie during that meal afterwards was worth quite a bit to me anyway.

  • With cheese: Just kidding! Do not send me any cheese.

  • What do you think? Should cash still be king? Is a sense of recognition or community worth more to you? Is a hastily dispensed acceptance letter enough? Should writers just be grateful for any ink they get at all? Share your thoughts below.

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