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Fred de Vries

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Payment, Now!

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…’


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Byron Loker</a>
    Byron Loker
    May 17th, 2010 @10:01 #

    Fred, I couldn't agree more. This seems to be a worrying trend. Witness the recent short story anthologies with author royalties given to charities. Not to be mean-spirited, but if publishers are using this as a selling point, let them rather give away a percentage of profits, not oblige writers out of royalties.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    May 17th, 2010 @11:01 #

    What irritates me mainly is that no one is upfront about the economic transaction - whether there is a fee involved or not, make it clear at the opening of negotiations, so that a writer has all the information available at the start.

    Byron, with the one short story anthology with which I am familiar, the editor I think would have used the charitable donation as a selling point to the publisher. So, freelance editor -> idea for anthology -> how to sell anthology to publisher. The charitable donations from author's royalties also apply to an initial print run; if more copies are printed, agreements are re-negotiable.

    But overall, I'm with you and Fred. I'm also tired when friends, acquaintances and the world encourage one to write for free in any case, as this is how you 'get your name out there.'

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    May 17th, 2010 @11:25 #

    Mostly, I'm with you, Fred. Although as someone who is about to ask a whole bunch of folk to contribute to another charity anthology, I can confirm that this is indeed the only way to sell a short story collection to a commercial publisher: without the charity angle (which means that the publisher has a better chance than usual of covering costs, as there's an extra marketing angle, as well as greatly reduced admin), the response would be a horse laugh. In the super-unlikely event of such a collection actually selling out and going into a second print-run, then authors do indeed start getting a look-in. The other aspect of this is that if contributing authors WERE paid for either of the two charity anthologies I know of, their share would be in the region of R400.

    For me, the real bugbears are being asked not so much to write for free, as being asked to "just look at" or assess someone's manuscript for free; to lecture and/or teach for free; to supply work I've already written and published for free. There's an extent to which marketing is handy, but there comes a point where the "free marketing" or the "platform" becomes a hand in one's own personal till. A well-known Jhb poet refused to work for free, for an equally well-known magazine, which wanted two days of her time. But it's free publicity, they kept saying. But I have all the publicity I need, and my time is valuable, she kept replying.

    And yes, Rustum, if I receive ANY offer, I want to see up-front "This will be your fee" or "Send us a quote/what are your rates". Academics (with notable exceptions -- a round of applause for Chris Thurman, who went fundraising so he could pay writers who contributed to Sport v. Art) are particularly bad about assuming that all full-time writers have wealthy aged aunts handing out a stipend.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fred</a>
    May 23rd, 2010 @16:26 #

    Thanks. I agree with both of you. It's not just a matter of publishers asking you for a free (or charity) contribution, but the fact that everyone seems to take for granted that a writer does lots of things for free, because it's 'good for publicity'. It always strikes me that the rest of the people in the chain (academics, printers, distributors, organisers, shop assistants, you name it) all get a salary, leaving the writer as the modern slave, giving his/her labour without any remuneration.
    I also agree with Rustum that all these offers and requests for submissions should make it very clear that there is no payment. And I must say, sometimes even a symbolic payment (yes, that's the R400) can be satisfying. At least it buys you two books or two dinners or a couple of weeks petrol...


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