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Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Writers and unpaid publication

This is such a thorny issue. Probably like most writers, I've been on both sides of the line.

My first published work was a regular pop music column in The Royston Crow, which I started at age about thirteen. It was no hardship - I'd always been a creative writer, and worked on Saturdays in my parents' electrical/record/pram/bike shop. Placed in sole charge of ordering, displaying and selling all the records, too - 45s, EPs and LPs. (Just post the 78rpm era.) Really thrilling at that age - the envy of my pop-mad fans. And I got hold of a press card so that I met Adam Faith, Cliff, Billy Fury and all the rest to interview for the paper. It enabled me to chat with Karl Denver while he changed after his act, so I got to see his underpants. *** Highlight *** And I was invited to accompany Shane Fenton and the Fentones to a restaurant - and they paid.

I'd asked for the column, and the editor said he couldn't pay me. (Even then.) But still, occasionally I would nip into the office, ask to see him, and beg a fee. The result was usually a fiver - my first earnings from writing.

For many years after that, everything published - mainly non-fiction - was for a suitable fee. After a lapse, I returned to writing, and was aghast at the minimal fees offered. £40 for a two-page article with photos, for example. Then, reader, I stooped. Having not made much effort with short stories since a couple in national magazines, I submitted one to a more local mag who accepted on a non-paid basis. Had a go at asking for a token fee, but told 'I love an optimist'!

The arguments against unpaid work are sound. Like internships, some publications know they can get hold of reasonable work without having to pay for it, and this encourages the work-for-nothing ethos. Then the paying markets for writers might start to shrink. Also, of course, it can devalue our work and make it seem unworthy.

However, on balance I wouldn't decry the idea. A writer starting out will benefit from something for the CV - no need to mention it's unpaid. Being published under whatever terms is a great boost to confidence, too. And it does mean that the publication is more likely to survive. Some new magazines say they can't pay initially, but will once they take off - although we'd need to monitor to see if they keep their word. Once a writer is established, there should be no need to work for nothing, which is great. But it's a long road and there are various pathways to writing glory. Bring on the glory!

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