Skip to main content

On payment and doing things for free

My proper blog for the week, then, and it's about authors and getting paid for their time. At the moment, there is a pretty militant voice that states we should be paid for our time, that we should not attend panels and conventions or deliver workshops without recompense.

In principle, I think this is a good thing. Exposure does not feed my kids, or keep the roof over my head. We should be looking for sustainability within writing. If I deliver a course on writing - that should be paid. That takes my expertise and time and resources. 

But.... And here is where I don my flak jacket and realise the rest of this blog might not make me popular.... there is also a place for not seeking payment.

For me, this is on two counts. Firstly, I'm a genre writer. One of my communities is the science fiction and fantasy community, and their events happen outside the mainstream writing events. They are run on a shoestring - often at a loss. Their ticket prices tend to be low (£20-odd quid will get you into Titancon for the day, with Friday free. That's not for a panel or discussion, but the whole day. It's fantastic value - come along!) The bottom line is if the conventions had to pay the going rate for all writers and attendees, they would not happen. So, for me, not only do I not get paid to attend - I also have to pay my expenses to attend. Which is fine if it's in Belfast, but when the conventions are in England, or further afield, that's a lot of money to find. Yet still the writers appear, understanding this is the heartblood of the community (at Eastercon last year I barely got past the front door for an hour, meeting so many people I only knew previously online!) And the volunteers still turn up, and the committees still put unpaid hours into the event.

That, then, is the easy part of it. I want my community to keep the convention scene that is so integral to the genre and, if I want to be a part of that scene, I need to be realistic about the resources they have.

This week, though, I'm at three very different events for the same community. On Wednesday I turned up in Belfast, did a few readings all over the place, and then in the evening headed to Easons for an event I organised. That took a good bit of time - gathering the readers, chasing them up, copying biographies, confirming venues (not that I had much to do - Easons had everything set up for me). None of that time was paid, nor did I expect it to be.

On the other hand, tomorrow I'm heading to Dublin for a joint day with the Irish Writers Centre. There will be readings and panels and - holy heck, I'm getting paid to go along! There is funding for day through the Arts Council and the Big Lottery. It's like a relevlation!

But - here's the thing - I'd have gone without pay. So, why? Why would I sell my time so cheaply? Me, a businesswoman who believes my time should be paid, and my expertise?

Well, firstly, even in my business endeavours I accept some things will be goodwill. If an organisation and I have a good relationship and they need some advisory, I'm not going to charge them for that hour. I'll accept that I'll get repeat business from them and be happy to do so. I'm also a sucker for a good cause - and a believer that we should be supportive of others. That our businesses should deliver positive benefits beyond just feeding ourselves.

I feel that even more strongly with writing. In an ideal world, if I went into a school to give a talk, I'd get paid. But this is not an ideal world. This is a world of stretched budgets, of schools trying to deliver an education within a constrained resource model.  If the choice is me giving up an hour of my time, or kids never getting to meet authors and see a dream can be worth following, then that hour will be given everytime. Similarly, if to give women writers a voice (as Women Aloud, who I've been running the event for this week, aim to do) takes a little of my time - why not? I want that voice. In fact, good business practice dictates that without that voice, I'm in a poorer place as a writer.

I feel, sometimes, that the calls for paying writers have been so loud, it's almost shameful to admit that you haven't been paid for something you've ran. As if you've failed somehow - as if by doing something you feel is worthwhile, for free, has let the community down by embedding the belief writers don't need to be paid. And there is a danger of that.

But there is also a danger of losing touch with what matters to ourselves. Just as in the professional world some of us can decide to do things for free, or not, or volunteer, and there is room for all the models, so it should be in writing. And, sometimes, for me, pay isn't the most important thing. Sometimes giving my time for free feels right. And that's okay - just as authors only doing things that are paid is fine. There's room for both.