Should authors write without pay?

Should authors write without pay?

From anyone else, the advice might sound like right-headed rationality, itself.

But as the author Roxana Robinson (pictured) can tell you, when you're the president of the Authors Guild, nothing you say seems to fall on unbiased ears. 

This time, Robinson is talking about what authors may be doing to inadvertently diminish their own perceived marketplace value. And in our #FutureChat from The Bookseller's The FutureBook, we'd like to know what you think.

This article was written as the walkup to our 22nd May #FutureChat. Join us Fridays at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

Here is Robinson on the issue of authors writing for Web sites without pay. She's speaking with my Bookseller colleague Sarah Shaffi (pictured next), and Shaffi's write-up, Authors Guild warns authors over contributing online articles for free, is in the new issue of the magazine, on the stands in London today.


People write on Huffington Post, they write for Goodreads, they write for valuable sites owned by big tech companies that make a lot of money for those companies. Writers choose to write there for nothing and to provide content for nothing. That’s another issue, and that is something that writers are doing deliberately.

Now some 14 months into her tenure as the Authors Guild chief — she followed the endlessly polarising author Scott Turow in the position, you might remember — Robinson has had a quieter ride (than Turow) but not an entirely comfortable one. Last summer, she was getting the word out that the Guild had begun accepting self-publishing authors as members. But in the process, a blog post at the Guild's site neglected to link to the then-active independents' petition to Hachette c.e.o. Michael Pietsh on the Amazon-Hachette terms negotiations. 

What's more, Robinson and the Guild were perceived by many as Amazon-bashers at a time when the Kindle Unlimited programme had not yet tempered so many writers' feelings of good association with the Seattle-based retailer. 

In some of my coverage of the fray for Thought Catalog, Robinson told me:

There has been a tradition of a certain amount of resentment toward the Authors Guild by self-published authors, because in the past, we did not allow them to become members. But we have changed that. And that was one of the reasons we put up that post, just to say, "Times are changing, everything is different in the publishing world, and we want to embrace our position that we support professional writers."

Even with the self-publishing indie bestseller C.J. Lyons taking a seat on the Guild board, the independent sector was not to be placated

And here, just in time for another summer of something other than Guild-love, is Robinson, again going after Amazon's influence on "the writing life" that the Guild likes to say it protects. She tells Shaffi:

Amazon discounting book prices means that there is a movement toward devaluing books. And I think that has an impact on the way people look at writing. If Amazon keeps pricing ebooks at very, very low prices, people start feeling, "well, actually, writing isn’t a valuable product".

The question of whether low book prices have damaged the public's understanding of the author's work as valuable is one we'll likely live with for some time. As the latest report from the author Hugh Howey and "Data Guy" makes clear, you don't get far before publishers' renewed terms with Amazon and agency pricing are in your face. Basic lines of argument have not changed, although the rhetoric now has gone from a frenzied accusation fest to kind of exhausted yammer.

If you look back to October 2013,  you can find The Atlantic's fine Derek Thompson (pictured) in Writing for free, grappling with his own concept of the issue of authors writing "for the exposure."

So here is the rub. Unpaid writing is all over the place. But writing is also a job. And jobs should be paid. So is it immoral for a publication to ask for somebody to write for free?...I think writers should be paid. But the idea that free writing is an obvious and categorical blight against authors and readers everywhere is a cheap thought, no matter how much its author is compensated.

And Thompson's view is shared by many. Robinson's view — that virtually any instance of writing a free article is detrimental to the cause — is, sure, less nuanced, perhaps. But so is her role as president of the Guild. An advocacy organisation isn't in place to mince its policies' words, and many such outfits find over time that they can keep their membership marching in one direction only by taking an unbending position on things.

In turning the question over to our #FutureChat participants, I do want to point up a very interesting comparative point that Robinson makes. It's the kind of thing I have found her saying to me in interviews, too. I hope she'll forgive me for what is meant as a compliment: this sort of viewpoint makes me think that she's too subtle a thinker to ever be entirely at home in the Guild leadership.

This time from Shaffi:

Robinson said there was “definitely a difference between how authors and other people are viewed”, adding: “The idea that software writers be well compensated and that their work should be protected but book writers’ should not . . . that’s a real problem.” The Authors Guild seeks to “protect and support” all authors, Robinson said, including independently and traditionally published writers.

Say what you will about Robinson — whose Sparta has been shortlisted by the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award — that comparative line she has just drawn between how we see software developers' work and how we see fiction and nonfiction writers' work is good stuff. It goes to the digital era's obsession with being published, yes, that's true — amazingly (maybe providentially), there are more people who think they should be writing books than who think they should be writing software. But it also gets at the question of how the actual difficulty of genuinely strong writing is not appreciated in our technological age as much as the work of our tech "makers" is. No wonder we see strong personalities in publishing jumping ship to go learn to code. (See The FutureBook contributor Sara O'Connor in Why I'm leaving publishing for tech.)

And with that, over to you. Not a new debate, but perhaps all the more disturbing for its nagging resilience: Do authors and other writers have any business giving away their business?

This time we're not talking about the use of "giveaways" in order to gain traction in the marketplace of books. Instead, consider group-author blog sites that would shut down if their many writers suddenly required payment for their contributed posts.

And we're talking about the writers who are, still, banging away at their keyboards without payment in the belief that one more good free article might catch the eye of a paying editor — or may tempt a reader somewhere to "buy my book!" 

What say you? See you in #FutureChat.

Join us Fridays for #FutureChat on topics in digital publishing at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

Main image - Pixabay: FraukeFeind