Is it ever right or sensible to work for no pay?
In certain specific circumstances and if we properly understand the consequences, yes. But the consequences are unusual and far-reaching, affecting more than the individual. Authors (in this case) need to understand them, and so does anyone asking us to work for nothing or little. It’s a topic that comes up again and again amongst writers and other artists. (Amanda Craig recently wrote powerfully about this here and I absolutely agree.)
Deciding to work (in my case write or give a talk) without a fee may seem like a simple “Can I afford it?” question. No, and that question is entirely irrelevant. Would you say that a teacher whose partner earns enough to support both of them should therefore turn down a salary on the grounds that he/she can afford it? No. We don’t accept wages because we’ll starve without them – we accept wages because wages are what you get for working, in an economy that isn’t based on slavery.
Or it may seem like an “Are there other benefits than the fee?” question. “But think of the publicity”, people say when they ask you to work for nothing. OK, you eat the publicity and I’ll just be paid for working, thanks. Joking apart (actually, I wasn’t), yes, sometimes there are other possible benefits:
- The pleasure of helping a cause we believe in. Of course we do that sometimes. We are good human beings who understand about helping those in need, with voluntary work or charitable giving. But actually giving up one’s working time and donating pay is a huge ask. It is not the same as doing extra voluntary work or giving a sum of money. It’s hellishly expensive for us to donate working time and wages: most events and articles take many hours to prepare and deliver. Do it if you want to but know what it is you give. And be sure that the organiser of the event understands what is being asked.
- The chance of selling books at the event. Since we get a few pence per book sold, we’d have to sell a shedload to make that one work. If we supply the books ourselves, we will make more (max 50% of cover price, if we don’t provide a discount) but we have to provide transport and buy the books in the first place, storing them and not being able to return them even if they get damaged during the event. And we’d still have to sell a heck of a lot to make up for no fee.
- Publicity/promotion? How many events would we need to do before a piece of publicity would ensue that would lead to income? Don’t answer that, because I can’t. Note to organisers: when you say “it will be good publicity for you”, listen out for the echoing sound of hollow laughter.
- The chance that the event will lead to another event? What, a paid one? You mean, like a loss leader? OK, but let the author be the one to decide whether the cost of doing the event (because there are always costs, always, and often major ones) really stacks up in terms of “investment”.
- A genuinely prestigious gig, and/or one with huge feelgood factor. For example, a trip to Dubai for no fee (but expenses paid), might be worth it for the sake of the experience, meeting readers from another country and being able to put on your CV that you have done an international event. Or an amazingly prestigious festival in the UK – though the good ones do pay, (apart from ridiculous Hay, which pays in wine, which you have to lug home on the train. Or drink.) But be careful of mentally exaggerating the importance of a particular trip and saying yes to so many that you wreck your time for work that will earn your living.
- As a favour for a friend or acquaintance. Of course. But favours are tricky things with acquaintances (though less so with close friends). If I willingly did a favour for someone, and they kindly offered me something in return, such as a gift or a token of appreciation, I’d accept graciously, and I’d understand that this would make them feel better. It would be polite. Quid pro quo is a good model.
So, back to the original question. “Is it ever right or sensible to work for no pay?” Yes. I hope so, because I do it all the time. I’m doing it now: blogging. Or blogging for the Huffington Post, which my husband says I absolutely mustn’t do but which I do because I’m a sucker. [Edited to add: changed my policy on that. I now don’t!] Or for the Awfully Big Blog Adventure, which I absolutely must do because they are my friends and colleagues and it’s collaborative and fun. Or when I do all the many genuinely publicity-related things I have to do. When I have long email conversations with schools or festivals while we work out whether I can come and do a (paid) event and what I will talk about when I’m there. When I do my accounts and admin and invoices and work out strategy. When I do most of the things involved in being a writer. Including, very often, writing! (I have several unpublished novels, as most writers do, and the one I’m writing now has no guarantee of publication.)
And then there are the times I choose to do something for the various organisations I support. So, when Blackwells in Edinburgh do their Christmas Book Tree, I’ll be there, blogging, speaking, buying, tweeting, hustling. And when Larbert High School, the school where I’m Patron of Reading, ask for anything, I’ll jump, willingly, happily. Of course, we do things for charities. But other people are not asked to give up their wages for charities, so think very carefully whether there’s a way you can work for free which doesn’t undermine the whole principle of working people deserving a working fee.
But these situations must be of my choosing. No one should ask or expect me to work for nothing. But they so often do. Or they raise their eyebrows when they hear the fee, forgetting that this fee represents several days of work.
Why? Why are people like writers, musicians and artists expected to work for free? If you haven’t seen it, you have to listen to Harlan Ellison’s famous rant. My favourite lines are:
“Everyone else may be an ass-hole, but I’m not”
“Would you go to the doctor and ask him to take out your spleen for nothing?”
“The problem is there are so many goddamn writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid.”
There are a couple of moments when I become uncomfortable and it strays from what I think, but it goes to the nub of the problem: that too many of us don’t realise that we have value and that we are worth being paid, just like anyone doing a piece of work, and that too many people outside our business just don’t think about the fact that being unsalaried means not being paid unless we can persuade people to pay for what they ask us to do. It’s a brilliant, guttural cry from the heart.
Teachers and librarians, please don’t be cross with me. I know your budgets are tight. I know you have a duty and a right to get good value for your school. I absolutely appreciate and praise that. But please realise that what you pay us has to cover several days of work, and most of us are not earning anything or much else. I’m so grateful to all of you who understand that and who work so hard to find a fair fee for me.
I’m not greedy. I am not asking for enormous bonuses or huge fees. I don’t eat expensive food or stay in flash hotels when I’m on expenses. I just think that when someone wants me to work for them they should pay me. And, if they can’t, they shouldn’t ask me. I don’t go to a decorator and say, “Yes, sorry, I don’t have a budget for this but I thought you might do it for nothing because I’ll recommend you to all my friends.” I don’t decide I’m going to put on a concert, and pay the sound technicians, cleaners, door staff, marketing people, but not the pianist.
And if the pianist does it for nothing (leaving aside the situation of a genuine charity concert), then what? Someone organises a concert, invites a different pianist, pianist names a fee and the organiser says, “Oh, but XXX did it for nothing – I’ll look for someone who works for free.” Doing things for free, except in certain, thought-through circumstances, undermines the ability of other working people to be paid for what they do.
So, do it when it’s right, but understand when it isn’t.
[Edited to add: Just read this piece about Philip Hensher’s views on working for free. Exactly.]