By Madonna Dries Christensen
Joe polished the stained glass window he’d created and installed, then stood back to admire it. “Stunning,” Jane said. “What do I owe you?”
“Oh, there’s no charge,” Joe said, carefully packing his tools. “I love making stained glass. I never ask for payment.”
Obviously this scenario is fiction, but substitute a writer for Joe and it’s believable. Like stained glass artists, writers use professional tools. They love their job. They polish their writing until it shines. They take pride in a job well-done. Then, all too often, they give away their product to a nonpaying publication.
To be or not to be—paid—that is the question faced by writers. They fall into three groups on the issue. For the first group, those making a living with freelance writing, there is no question; they must work for paying markets.
The second group, serious writers, too, do not depend on writing for their livelihood, yet many of them will not submit to pays-in-copies markets. They say, “Publishers seem to think writers are simply interested in seeing their byline, that money isn’t important. But there’s a principle involved. Name another field where people are expected to work for no pay.”
Group three is comprised of those for whom writing is a hobby, and they are generally nonchalant about monetary matters. Payment is nice, but they’re satisfied with a few copies of a magazine to give family members.
One can spin an argument either way, for the writers or for the publishers. It’s true that most small publishers are on tight budgets and can pay only in copies. On the flip side, they would not have a publication without free material. But writers have expenses, too, so even a few pennies per word is appreciated.
Small Press Publishers
Small press publishers struggle with the payment issue. Quite likely they are not getting rich off free material, and I believe most of them would like to be in a position to pay writers. Some are writers themselves and know the situation from both sides, so they make an effort to pay at least a small amount. Harvey Stanbrough, former publisher of The Roswell Literary Review, says he created the publication because, as a frustrated writer, he feels writers should be monetarily compensated. Ned Burke, former publisher of Writer’s Guidelines & News, and of Yesterday’s Magazette (for 25 years), says, “For a small press, with virtually no capital, twenty-five years is a long time. Subscriptions do not cover costs. I’ve had to dig into my own pocket.”
Felix Fellhauer, publisher of The Funny Paper, says, “The Funny Paper has given a number of new authors, poets and humorists their first paycheck. You may not become rich from these small markets, but if you can make your overhead with a steady flow of modest checks, you’ll be better able to concentrate on the big project (novel, screenplay).”
Jeanette Baldridge, former publisher of Out Of The Cradle, started out paying, then had to give it up (and, eventually, the magazine). Baldridge says, “When Sandy [Sandra K. Dennis] and I started Out Of The Cradle, we wanted to pay every contributor, no matter how small the amount. We wanted hard-working writers to feel their work has value. Paying contributors, however, almost equals printing costs, and the magazine price barely covers printing costs.” Baldridge says the average lifetime of a small journal is two years, unless it’s affiliated with a university.
Thema, a fiction and poetry journal, receives financial support from the Louisiana State Arts Council, but Editor Virginia Howard says Thema paid contributors even before aid came along. “When Thema was conceived, we debated about paying in copies or in money. We agreed that authors should receive at least one free copy of the journal, but it was my strong feeling we should also pay authors. To me, paying, even a token amount, shows a certain respect for the author’s work; it validates writing as a serious craft. So we paid from the start.”
What about an editor who seems to think writers owe her? Donna Taylor Burgess, editor of The Blue Lady (pays copies), said in the May, 1997 issue of Scavenger’s Newsletter (pays money), “Writers need not come across as if they are doing editors a favor by submitting. I feel editors are the ones doing the favors by providing markets for those who very likely would not be published otherwise.”
Harvey Stanbrough took issue with Ms. Burgess by putting her statement to a test in The Roswell Literary Review. He wrote: “Would writers exist if there were no editors? Definitely. Writers write because they are driven to write; publication is a dream that remains, at all times, secondary to the irresistible urge to put pen to paper. Now for the other half of the test: Would editors exist if there were no writers? YEAH, RIGHT. Any questions, Ms. Burgess?”
Yes, many writers would probably write if there were no editors and no publications looking for material. But most writers do want to publish, so the two hands, the writer’s and the editor’s, must feed each other. Stanbrough concluded his argument by saying that mutual back scratching is necessary. “Editors and writers must treat each other with the respect each deserves. For either one to do any less is not acceptable and will be rewarded by the other (deservedly) with the coldest imaginable shoulder.”
Get Paid to Write
Peter Blocksom, at one time Senior Editor of Writer’s Digest, advised, “Don’t give anything away. If your writing has value to someone, they should pay for it.”
Troxey Kemper, editor of Tucumcari Literary Review (pays copies), disagrees with Blocksom, saying, “Writers should submit and publish whenever and wherever they can.” Kemper’s advice has merit, especially for novice writers.
- Nonpaying markets are a beginning, stepping stones to establishing a track record. If you are trying to sell a book, you can list these publications in a cover letter, showing editors that you have publishing experience.
- Writing for hometown publications that pay little or nothing establishes your name in the writing community and may lead to paying assignments.
- Each time you submit you hone writing skills, learn to write effective cover letters and query letters. You gain insight on the ins and outs of publishing. You learn to follow guidelines and how to work with editors.
- People are reading your work. They may recognize your name when it appears in one journal after another. Again, your name is becoming known in the writing field. Be sure you understand the terms of publication. Some publishers, although they pay only copies, make unfair demands on writers, such as wanting unpublished work, and all-rights.
Troxey Kemper says: “The only time editors should ask/demand unpublished nonsimultaneous work is when they pay enough to deserve it.”
That’s important advice. Avoid giving all-rights to nonpaying markets. In fact, unless you receive an offer made in Heaven, it’s not a good idea to sell all-rights to anyone. It’s your work and you should control it. Someone once suggested that the term “sell” is inaccurate, that what writers actually do is “rent” their work for one-time use.
Finding the right publication for your work can take as much time and skill as writing the piece. If you find several possible markets, with different payment rates, there’s no harm in starting with the highest and working your way down to the lower pay scale.
It’s always a good idea to read any periodical, large or small, before submitting. A paying market does not guarantee high quality, nor does one that pays-in-copies mean it’s not worth consideration. Many nonpaying publications are nicely produced, with a respectable national circulation and editors who are happy to work with new writers as well as established writers. Buy a copy, or beg, borrow or steal one. Many publications now have websites where you can get an idea of what they publish. If you aren’t online, use the library’s computer, or ask a friend to look up the website.
In Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, a dozen or more pays-in-copies publications report having published work by Ken Kesey, Rita Dove, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Rick Bass, Henry Taylor, Gordon Lish, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, Frederick Barthleme, Susan Fromberg Shaeffer, Louise Erdrich,
Galway Kinnell, Fred Chappell, Carol Shields, and Robert Olen Butler. How’d you like to see your story and biographical data sandwiched between a couple of those names? Having your work appear in small literary journals or anthologies can be rewarding, even if no money exchanged hands.
Madonna Dries Christensen’s work has appeared in publications that pay money and/or copies. Early in her career a memoir magazine paid her with three jars of honey from its Country Store (about $10 worth). She doesn’t like honey but her family enjoyed it.