Philip Hensher has a point:

Frustration spilled out on Facebook after a University of Cambridge professor of modern German and comparative culture, Andrew Webber, branded the acclaimed literary novelist Philip Hensher priggish and ungracious when the author refused to write an introduction to the academic’s forthcoming guide to Berlin literature for free.

Hensher said: “He’s written a [previous] book about writers in Berlin during the 20th century, but how does he think that today’s writers make a living? It shows a total lack of support for how writers can live. I’m not just saying it for my sake: we’re creating a world where we’re making it impossible for writers to make a living.”

Hensher, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008 for his novel The Northern Clemency, a portrait of Britain’s social landscape through the Thatcher era, wrote his first two novels while working a day job, but said: “I always had an eye to when I would make a living from it.”

“If people who claim to respect literature – professors of literature at Cambridge University – expect it, then I see no future for young authors. Why would you start on a career of it’s not just impossible, but improper, to expect payment?”

What Andrew Webber seems to be forgetting is that he has a day job, and for those of us in that situation the rules may be different — in fact, surely the rules are different, but I’m just not sure precisely how.

Almost everyone understands that when you write a book (whether academic or popular) you’ll be paid royalties as a percentage of sales; almost everyone understands that when you write an academic article you won’t be paid at all except insofar as publication itself is a kind of currency that you may be able to exchange for tenure or promotion or a more attractive position elsewhere. And in any case doing such writing is part of the academic job description. This kind of publication rarely has certain and measurable value; but as a general proposition its value is clear — for academics. However, it’s completely unfair and unreasonable to expect non-academics to write for no money when they’re not getting anything else for it either: every professional writer should join in the Harlan Ellison Chorus: PAY THE WRITER.

That said, there are a great many fuzzy areas here, especially in relation to online writing, because every major outlet is constantly starved for new content — more content than almost any outlet can reasonably be expected to pay, or pay more than a pittance, for. Thus Slate’s Future Tense blog asked to re-post a post I wrote here — but of course did not offer to pay for it. I said yes, but should I have?

I didn’t really expect to get anything out of it — I suppose a couple of people clicked over to this blog, but I think few common convictions are less supported by evidence than the one that says you get “publicity value” by “getting your name out there.” (No direct route from there to cash on the barrelhead.) But it didn’t seem as though it would be hurting anyone, so why not?

Well, one might argue that I can support the Ellison Principle (PAY THE WRITER) by insisting on being paid for everything I write, online and offline: if writers were to form more of a common front on this matter, then we could alter the expectations and get online outlets to see paying for writing as the norm.

But magazines and websites have limited resources, so if every writer insisted on getting paid then there’d be far less new content for them to post and publish — and few of us would be happy with that. And in any case, writers would never be able to achieve a uniform common front: there will always be people, especially younger, less established writers, who believe in the “get your name out there” argument and will act accordingly.

And here’s another complication: since I do have a day job and am not trying to make a living by my writing, maybe if I don’t ask for financial compensation I can liberate money for people who really need it. Or would I just be tempting editors to publish less stuff by full-time writers because they can get free content from me?

I CAN’T FIGURE THIS OUT. Help me, people.


  1. Seems right and reasonable to me (and I've been making a full-time living as a freelance writer and editor since late 2006, so I have a stake in this). I think this stuff needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis, like pretty much every decision with a moral component one feels strongly about. Does the publication pay writers for a good chunk of its content? (Or does it pay no one at all, but is simply what appears to be a labor of love?) Does it seem interested in airing thoughtful perspectives, or is it just looking for linkbait and pageviews? If it feels okay, I think you're correct that such repostings help a publication fuIfill its mission without breaking its budget. I'm not sure even Harlan would argue with giving the occasional post away thusly. (Well, okay, he might — but "Would Harlan Ellison argue with it?" is not really a workable standard for determining whether to do something.)

    One situation that would make me uncomfortable would be someone in a position like yours or an established full-time writer offering to contribute regular posts or columns for free. That seems like it would lower the bar and set a bad precedent for other writers hoping to land established gigs. In such cases, if the writer felt truly opposed to accepting payment, for some reason (I cannot think what), he or she could always donate it to a worthy charitable cause.

  2. The fact that you can't eat "exposure" or "getting your name out there" really has to be drilled into the heads of young writers. I've always been explicitly anti-professional as a writer: I have no desire to be a professional writer, and deeply enjoy the independence and lack of complication that brings. But I know so many young people who want to be professional writers and who learn the hard way how cheap a currency exposure really is. There's this sad progression where they get their name out there and expect to start getting paid and find that they're just playing out the string, sometimes for years. I think the reason it turned into such a big fight when the Atlantic asked that guy to rework and publish his content for no money is because, when people look ahead to being paid, they think it's gonna be places like the Atlantic that can pay and pay well. It really crumbles a lot of expectations when people realize how little even the biggest places pay.

    Incidentally, I wrote a thing about all this. For free!

  3. jw: I'm thinking about telling editors "I'll write this piece for you for free IF you take the money you'd have paid me and pay it to someone just getting started."

    Freddie, somehow I missed your post on Medium or I would have linked to it. I couldn't agree more with your views on this. I have told people who buy the "exposure" line, "Sure, you're getting your name out there — as someone who will write for nothing."

  4. Yeah, I was horrified to see that Atlantic situation go down; I had certainly assumed that if I ever pitched them successfully, I'd at least get enough for a nice meal out. Gawker Media, too — I've freelanced for them in the past, and despite the conventional wisdom that Nick Denton charges a pretty penny for ad space, they don't pay much. (I don't want to sound too whiny. They do pay, and I like their people, and the engagement with commenters there is generally quite satisfying. But it's just not at all analogous to the rate you'd have gotten writing for a magazine of comparable stature thirty years ago.)

    Alan, I like your idea. But how would you enforce it?

  5. It's a baffling landscape to navigate but in the case of Henscher, it's fairly straightforward. The publisher should treat it as part of marketing – and pay the novelist's honorar. Academic books rarely offer much of an advance, so it would be odd for it to come out of the author's pocket. But it's the author's job to sell the intro idea to the publisher, and get them to pony up.

  6. As a young writer who has struggled to get paying jobs, I think that paying the writer is very important. Not only is there's no reason not to, but if this continues to its logical conclusion and the price of writing goes to zero across the board, then it will become to province of the elite even more than it already is. The quality of newspapers has suffered greatly over the years as more and more hires are Ivy League-educated. Of course, they know nothing about how people not born with silver spoons in their mouths live and work — but that's the audience for most newspapers.

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