All Work And No Pay

Writers are always selling somebody out.

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

“I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” — Joan Didion

The above quote by Joan Didion begs the question, of course, as to whether it’s true that writers are “always” selling somebody out. Apparently, that question lingered for Didion, too. “Always in the sense that somebody else’s view of you is never quite your own view of you. That’s what I meant. I didn’t mean that you’d go in with a hostile intent,” clarifies Didion, in her 1993 interview with British Vogue.

Though I must admit, I do agree that writers are always selling somebody out. But perhaps not in the sense that you’d expect.

Let me explain.

Like Didion, I am also physically small, temperamentally unobtrusive, and often neurotically inarticulate. At least I am in real life, outside of the comforts and confines of the internet. My presence doesn’t necessarily run counter to people’s best interests, well — not always. But my presence does set the stage for a certain set of expectations, expectations which often leave me feeling undermined and underestimated.

Yet Didion’s statement rings true for me in another significant sense: I believe writers are always selling somebody out — but I believe that “somebody” is ourselves.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about personal power, and the confidence it takes to step into my worth — as a human, as a woman, as a partner, and as a writer. For so many years I felt lucky to be here, lucky to have the ability to write, lucky for any offers thrown my way — even if they paid nothing, even if I worked much harder than I probably should’ve.

I think part of me felt so grateful because I didn’t believe I deserved the ability to get paid for my writing, never mind the ability to even call myself a writer. And so I welcomed any opportunity to write for someone else with great eagerness and zeal. I sought to convince myself that I deserved to step into that space, if only for a brief moment. This wasn’t an easy process.

In 2011, I earned an honors degree in social sciences, which initially taught me to write academically. But for the past four years, I’ve taught myself to write creatively and professionally. I’ve spent hours each week, almost every day if I’m being honest, writing and brainstorming my work. It takes a lot to harness an original, meaningful idea and sharpen it just so, for it to translate intangible emotions into an eloquent sequence of words. Writing is truly an art, unique in style and form to each individual writer. And it takes a hell of a lot of work.

It only just occurred to me that as of this year, I actually have the privilege of saying I no longer write for freeoutside of my personal blog. Through its various streams, my work in writing yields me financial compensation that’s personally significant. While there’s certainly a long way for me to go in terms of continuously improving and sharpening my skills, I’m pretty damn proud of getting myself this far.

I was listening to one of my favorite authors and podcast-hosts on an Instagram live stream the other day, and she talked about how an employee of a pretty famous woman canvassed her interest in producing an original piece for her newsletter. The author was understandably thrilled, but when she asked about compensation, she was told there would be none, as the newsletter “wasn’t for profit.” Not only did that imply her work wasn’t worthy of monetary compensation, but the newsletter did profit the company — albeit not through direct monetary gain. Newsletters, like blogs, grow someone’s reach, amass email sign-ups, increase visits to other pages and projects, enables income through advertising, and more. There's no reason this esteemed female figure couldn’t compensate her writers. It’s offensive to even suggest otherwise.

Shortly after I witnessed this issue being raised, I was contacted by two larger-scale media publications requesting to share my work. Both editors were women, and both worked for platforms that specialized in personal growth. When I asked what their compensation rates were, they both claimed they didn’t compensate when “republishing” a writer’s work.

Now I used to accept these requests when I was first starting out, taking all the publicity and promotion I could get, feeling privileged they even asked, and loving any attention my writing garnered. But today, offering my writing for free undermines the tangible income it would otherwise generate. And frankly, it largely undervalues my work. I am not nearly successful enough to be able to work for free.

Only one of the companies whom I spoke with recognized the fallacy in their policy and countered with an offer of monetary compensation. They alone will have the opportunity to share my work. The other company (with millions of fans — as they made a point of telling me) left me with the notion that I should feel lucky they even asked me. They reminded me of the “social shares” they offer as currency (instead of financial compensation) and boasted about the renowned writers whom they’ve published to date.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest they should be so lucky to share writers’ work without paying them, through which they amass viewership and advertisement funding. They’re benefiting directly from and at the expense of freelance writers, who are often underpaid and underemployed, while riding on the coattails of their labor.

It seems to me as though this would be the most brilliant and lucrative business model in the entire world — no work and all pay.

I don’t have a book published, I don’t have a podcast, and so perhaps I shouldn’t feel so entitled. But I do have a mortgage and bills to pay. And as it currently stands, I’m working three jobs plus freelancing on the side, so I definitely don’t have time to work for free. Especially if the entity for which I’d be “working” would be benefiting — at my own expense, no less.

And I’d also be remiss if I didn’t question whether this issue would be so prevalent in another industry altogether, particularly one in which most members identified as men (seeing as women make up the majority of both freelancers and writers). Now I can’t speak for other writers, regardless of gender, and whether they get approached with the same set of expectations as I do, but I can’t imagine a man might receive that same metaphoric pat on the head with the implication that he should feel lucky to be here. That he should just take what’s being offered to him. That he should feel grateful he was even asked.

Make no mistake, I’m not blaming men. I’m saying that if they were ever subjected to such an undermining approach, no one would be surprised if they hit reply and drafted up a figurative middle finger.

We’d say, yes that makes total sense — they should get paid for their work. They’ve earned it.

According to the 2015 survey by the Writer’s Union of Canada, female writers represent the majority of the writing industry yet only earn about 55 percent of what male writers do. (The comparable US survey hasn’t been updated since 2005, but it revealed a pay gap over 40 percent for writers who are independent contractors.) The report also reveals that although writers in general fuel a near 2 billion dollar industry, over 80% earn writing income that falls below the poverty line. It’s unsurprising that nearly half of writers must supplement their income with other work, as they’re actually making 27% less income from writing in 2015 than they were in 1998.

The gender pay gap within the writing industry, however, is highly significant when compared with the larger landscape of North American society.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2018 Canadian women aged 25–54 earned 13.3% less than their male counterparts ($0.87 for every dollar) — which is a slight improvement from 1998, when it was 18.8% less. In terms of the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, in 2018 women earned 85% of what men earned, which is roughly 15% less than their male counterparts. For context, the US pay gap has made large strides since 1980 (where women earned 64% of what men did), but it’s remained relatively stable for the past 15 years.

European women make on average 15% less than their male counterparts, despite the fact that women are more likely to have higher levels of education. And according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (2018), the average global gender pay gap hovers around 68% (which means women make on average 32% less than men), which they estimate could take over 200 years to resolve.

So why do women make so much less income as writers than in other vocations? Reasons for this disparity range from suggesting that women are more prone to second-guessing themselves when applying for work, to there being a gender bias across the entire writing industry. In fact, Novelist Catherine Nichols conducted her own experiment where she sent out her manuscript under her own name, as well as under a male pen name “George”. “George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times,” reported Nichols. “He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.”

Now, what if we replaced writing with another skill altogether? Would it be fair to have someone design your website and not offer them compensation? Would it make sense to hire an electrician and promise them a solid Facebook review in exchange for their time and work? If I write a blog post about how well my basement was dry-walled, does that mean I don’t have to pay the drywaller who did it?

Of course not. That’s exploiting people’s time, effort, skills, and talent.

So why is it that writers, particularly female writers, have to fight so hard to have their work taken seriously — especially when the gatekeeper is, in fact, another woman? Why should we feel satisfied with social shares, or enamored by name-drops and follower counts? Why do people with such large-scale platforms preaching positivity and personal growth still choose not to empower those whose work they directly benefit from? Why do they expect me not only to settle for no compensation, but also to be grateful for the opportunity?

Why should we even have to ask what the compensation rate is — why can’t we simply expect to earn money for our work? How is that even remotely too much to ask?

It’s not. But it sheds light on how much work we have left to do.

All writers, irrespective of gender, deserve to be compensated. Writers who are women deserve pay equity. And yet as long as these offers of “social media exposure as payment” keep rolling in, I’m left under the impression that they continue to be effective. Writers are still accepting less, still striving to be taken seriously, still fighting for a chance to be here.

Like Joan Didion, I may be physically small, temperamentally unobtrusive, and often neurotically inarticulate. My presence may or may not run counter to people’s best interests — the jury’s still out on that one.

But if writers are always selling somebody out, that somebody will no longer be me.

I’m basically a house cat with a penchant for introspection | IG: @shannonleighwrites

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