It has become something of a regular feature: a mail in the in-box with a request for a free contribution for some kind of publication, presentation, talk or website. Usually I ignore them, except when I know the sender of the request well, and his or her idea truly appeals.
This time was different. The request came from Boekehuis, that cosy little book shop in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. The sender explained that the ten year anniversary of Boekehuis would be celebrated with the publication of a book about Johannesburg. ‘Readers, dreamers, gold diggers and Joburgers’, we were all invited to submit a story, poem, essay or whatever that captivates our passion for the city. A panel of ‘experts’ would then choose whose contribution would qualify for publication.
Now apart from the question if the world is waiting for yet another work on Johannesburg, there were some bits in this request that made me raise my eyebrows. There was, for example, no mention of who these ‘experts’ are. There was no mention of who would publish this work. And there was no mention of any remuneration.
Since Boekehuis is part and parcel of Naspers, one would assume that Naspers will supply/appoint the experts and publish the book through one of its imprints. So far so good. But if this is indeed the case, why is there no indication of any kind of the fee for those lucky enough to have been selected for the end product, which, one assumes, will not be given away for free. Or does this mean that there’ll be no payment whatsoever? That the chosen ones must go on their knees and whisper ‘we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy’ and count themselves truly lucky to have been selected by this elusive panel of experts and to be part of this Joburg book?
Naspers, as we all know, is not some struggling independent publisher, but a gigantic commercial enterprise that owns numerous newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, on-line companies and has huge international interests – in China, Brazil and Russia to name but a few. So if they will indeed publish this ‘Ten Years Boekehuis’ book, why on earth would they not pay the contributors a decent fee?
And this raises some other pertinent matters – because Naspers/Boekehuis aren’t the only chancers. Half the world seems to think that writers and journalists do their trade as a hobby, that they all fall for the idea that ‘it is good for your name’ to be seen in this or that publication. Immortality guaranteed. Or as the editor of an academic book that used one of my pieces replied, when I asked about payment: ‘No, but you’ll be invited for international conferences.’ Yeah, right. Still waiting.
The writer, it seems, is seen as a friendly, generous and/or vain person with a well-paid job, who is happy to spend a few hours racking his/her brains and then typing it out, simply to hold the hard copy that contains his effort as a trophy. Either that, or he’s seen as a struggling loser who is so satisfied with his ‘bohemian’ (read: poor) lifestyle that he doesn’t care about money. So naturally he must do things for free.
Truth is that it’s this kind of attitude that is busy knocking writing back to the old days when it was a gentlemanly profession, with only the rich having the wherewithal to do it full-time; or a pleasant past-time for talented housewives with well-to-do husbands. A self-fulfilling prophecy if we, writers, poets, essayists, journalists, don’t learn to say ‘NO’, or ‘YES, BUT…’