Sunday, 19 July 2015

Writing For Love or For Money by Chris Longmuir


The idea of making money from writing gets a mixed reception. Those who regard themselves as professional writers see no problem with this. In fact they expect to make money because of their professional status. Then there are the hobbyists who write solely for the love of creating something. They are quite happy to distribute their writing, whether that is poetry, stories or novels, for no payment. They get their reward from knowing their work has been read. But among the hobbyists are some writers who are developing their work and themselves into semi-professional status. These are the writers who are happy to charge for their writing in order to acquire a bit of extra income, although many of them do not make a profit.

In among these groupings there are some who believe that writers should not be paid for their work. They should supply everything free to their followers and readers. While this is a noble concept it is not a realistic one.


It is easy to say money is unimportant if you know where your next meal is coming from. It is not so easy to take this stance if you rely on food banks for your next meal. This implies that writers should only write if they can afford to, and that people who need the money they make from their writing to help keep them out of poverty, are not entitled to write. If money is unimportant to writers are they an elite group who look down on those who can’t afford to write for nothing? And should we all be starving in our respective garrets, otherwise known as the room where we write?

The idea of artists starving in garrets was a romantic notion that arose during the late eighteenth and ninteenth-centuries. This was a time when it was the fashion for artists and other creative people to go to Paris and live in a garrett. It was a rebellious age where young people rejected society and flouted the rules in order to follow their own path. They believed in art for art’s sake, and that they should suffer for it.


There were many people in the arts movement who followed this path. James Joyce and Vincent van Gogh, for example, both lived in poverty for their art. But they also relied on hand-outs, gifts and loans. In van Gogh’s case he spent the money his brother sent him on art supplies, preferring to starve for his art. Rilke the poet had a patron, and Marcel Proust had a private income. There is nothing to suggest that any of these men would have objected if they had been paid for their art.

There are many writers who spend thousands of pounds on their ‘hobby’, I know I certainly do. Are we not entitled to some reimbursement for our expenditure? If I decide to follow the high moral ground so I can feel superior, and give my writing away for no charge, I am in effect gifting my readers thousands of pounds, because that is what my writing costs me on an annual basis. I would love to do this because I value my readers, but I simply can’t afford to do so. And if I did do it I would simply be feeding my own vanity, which is not something I want to do.



In conclusion, it’s easy to take the high moral ground and say it is demeaning to accept money from writing. Not so easy when your finances are such that you cannot afford to do that.

Chris Longmuir


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13 comments:

Wendy Jones said...

You raise a valid point here Chris. I think the situation comes from the positive plethora of free books on Amazon. I am puzzled by the amount of authors who give books away for free. I think it devalues the craft of writing

JO said...

I think it's also very unfair to give work away when there are young writers who are struggling to make a career out of writing - they see writing as a profession, work insane hours to get the books finished, then get out into the mayhem of marketing.

Taken from a socialist perspective - though this is hardly radical - they are selling their labour (writing) in the market place. Those who give work away dismiss the value of both their own labour and that of other writers.

(Having said that, I write voluntarily for a local online newspaper - but we are all volunteers, and any money from adverts goes to local charities. That feels very different from giving books away on Amazon.)

Leela Soma said...

I suppose the Amazon giveaways are also a way of promoting new writers work but expecting work for free is endemic in the creative industries. Few have a clue how rampant it is. Some of my friends expect me to give my book free to them. They assume I must get free copies and that I earn a huge amount from royalties. A very good blog Chris to raise this point again.

Susan Price said...

Completely agree, Chris - but I don't know that expecting artists to give their work away for free is 'a noble idea.' I think it's ignoble.

Compare it to any other worker, who spends years learning a difficult craft - whether it be car mechanics, plumbing, joinery, dress-making. They may well enjoy the exercise of this craft - it is nevertheless, work.

They then offer their skill for hire. 'If you haven't the time or the knowledge to fix your own plumbing/car/make your own bespoke table, sew your own dress - I will do it for you, better than you could do it yourself, at a price which allows me a living.'

If all the customers in their area insist, 'No, we don't want to pay. We insist that you supply your skill for nothing. Your plumbing/dress-making or whatever will be purer if you do it for nothing - but mind, we want your very best work! We'll accept nothing less - but we won't pay. You should be charitable and give us all the benefit of your hard work for nothing - while we get on earning our own livings.'

Is that a noble idea? - I think it's a selfish, short-sighted, ignorant and stupid idea. If carried through, it will quickly result in the death of skilled trades.

Applied to writing, it will mean that only a small circle of those who don't need to earn a living will write - we'll be back to the days when literature was exclusively about a tiny circle of priviledged people.
'The labourer is worthy of his hire.' Or even her hire.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Excellent post, Chris. Like Leela, I don't think the Amazon freebies are much of a problem, because they are really 'loss leaders' and it's only worth giving a book away if you have others to sell - many US writers, for example, do free promotions of the first book in a series and that makes good business sense - you're aiming to hook people in. And I'm sure we all do a bit of voluntary work, which is fine where nobody else is being paid. But it's amazing how often - for example - large media corporations where everyone is being paid, many of them handsomely, will try to tell you that there is 'no money in the budget to pay the writer - but think of the promotion you'll get.' It never works like that. And it's odd how they never say that to the electricians or the plumbers. 'Think of the exposure you'll get for all that free work you've done.' I need the money I earn from my writing - I need it to live, pay household bills, buy food. And I don't have a rich patron! (Sometimes I rather wish I did - any Russian Oligarchs out there, do feel free to contact me.) So I write for love and publish for money. I think the sooner we all get more businesslike about the whole thing the better. This is in my mind at the moment, because I'm trying to get payment for an event I did in April, and blood and stones would be easier.

Andrew Crofts said...

What a large can of worms this blog opens up, Chris. I actually don't think it is anything new - Mark Twain advised young would-be authors, "Write without pay until somebody offers pay", over a century ago.

What has got worse is the problem of "discoverability" because of the sheer volume of writing being done. Since word-of-mouth has always been,and probably always will be, the most effective marketing tool in the business, there is a temptation to give books to people who might tell other people about them, in the hope of later being able to charge money. Publishers have also been able to exploit this dream by paying small or no advances on the promise that you might have a best seller on your hands once it is published.In most cases, inevitably, that doesn't happen, which is why the average writer's salary is considerably less than the minimum wage.

As someone who has always had to rely on writing as his sole source of income, I do appreciate that sometimes you need to get the ball rolling with some voluntary work - writing for this blog being one example.

Every so often, of course, someone like E.L.James comes along and demonstrates just how well the word-of-mouth system works, and so we all keep on putting our work out there in the hope of winning the publishing lottery.

Chris Longmuir said...

Thanks for your comments everyone, and you have a valid point, Andrew, that we all do have projects we do not charge for, like this blog. But even turning professional does not rule out the time we give for nothing. In my professional career, not my writing one, I was prone to work 50 and 60 hour weeks, but of course, professional staff were unable to claim overtime, so the local authority benefited by approximately 20 hours free labour every week. However, I think we, as professional writers, have to resist the expectation that all our writing should be free, and not made to fell guilty if it isn't.

Lydia Bennet said...

Thought-provoking and timely post Chris! We are entitled to be paid for our work, and also to give it away to some extent. I see nothing ignoble in writing or painting and being paid for the work, our talent and time - I'm sure Van Gogh would have liked to sell paintings, however he did remain true to his art by not compromising - he was painting in a new and revolutionary style and so many with money weren't interested in buying, yet look at the prices now! I don't have any problem with other writers being paid or writing mainly to get paid, but there is a huge problem in all the creative 'industries' that people expect to get music and ebooks free or nearly.

Lydia Bennet said...
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Reb MacRath said...

Well-reasoned and beautifully written post, Chris. A long while back, while researching a book (never written) I studied the subject of artistic patronage in depth. My romantic thoughts about poverty soon began to disappear as I learned more of past writers and their wealthy patrons: Virgil and Horace and Ovid had had the connections and seductive skills to finance the long time they needed to write...Samuel Johnson may have railed against patrons but he was supported in the composition of his dictionary...Kazantzakis was lucky enough to have a rich woman support him in long years it took to write his modern sequel to the Odyssey. Academics scrounge for grants, as Romans in threadbare togas once scrounged for support. And on. For trad-pubbing writers, agents are something like patrons. But for those of us in EbookLandia, the public is the patron. And giving books away for free is a little like returning a patron's checks uncashed. No thanks.

Dennis Hamley said...

Chris, for fourteen years I too gave a local authority 20 hours a week because of their no overtime policy. And when freelance, the jobs I did for local authorities were always the slowest to be paid for. And, even when I sent them the documentation, they couldn't seem to accept that because I was over 65 I didn't pay National Insurance any more. But things for the writer get worse. In the 90s, when I was knee deep in contracts and invitations to schools, talks and workshops I was earning what, if I wasn't featherbedded by a occupational pension, I and my family could just about have lived on. Now, we are all victims of the present corporate war against the primary producer - supermarkets and publishers determined to drive the source of their businesses into the ground. The mad logic of the market. Yes, I, like the rest of us, have a craft and a talent which not too many in the world possess. I believe I should be paid for it but have to accept that most of the time I won't be. Is that letting the side down?

Debbie Bennett said...

Interesting post. This month - for the first time ever - I made the first book in my series permafree. Downloads trickled in. I did an advert and downloads shot up. BUT I am now *selling* way more than I was before - including the book that is free (don't quite get that, but I assume there are people who buy from amazon.com who still have to pay for some reason).

So at the moment, FREE is earning me more money than not-free was. I always said I never wanted to give stuff away and I won't leave it free forever, but it's working for me right now.

Susan Price said...

But there's a difference between a writer giving something away temporarily, as a calculared 'loss-leader' and their being expected to give all their work away, all the time.