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Is a copy of the publication suitable payment for your work?

This is the inside joke of creative writing programs in America. We know creative writing doesn’t make money, and yet we continue to graduate talented writers with no business acumen. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is fraudulent. –  Nick Ripatrazone in his essay in The Millions, Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing

The short answer: can you use that copy to pay the rent, buy a Happy Meal or a new toner cartridge for your printer? If not, why would any writer want to work for a copy of a magazine or anthology while the publishers make money off his/her work?

Another short answer: or, maybe you can legitimately view writing for payment in copies as similar to blogging which–unless you have a highly popular, monetized blog–isn’t paying the rent either. Blogging is part of an author’s platform. That’s how we justify doing it. In both cases, free blogging and unpaid publication in anthologies and little magazines sooner or later have to lead to a money making business or they are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing: improving your craft and moving you from a hobby writer to a professional writer.

The Longer Answer: When mainstream fiction magazines were more prevalent, writers were told that writing stories for “little magazines” and for non-paying anthologies for free was a necessary part of building up a list of writing credits. If BIG MAGAZINE ABC saw that you had been published in MEDIUM MAGAZINE YXZ, you supposedly had a better chance of acceptance. The practice still has value and, perhaps, may be even more important for those in publish or perish careers. This view has many ramifications to it depending on the kind of paid writing you ultimately want to do and how valuable those at the top of that ladder view publication in one place or another as a prudent step.

“What does it mean,” asks Ripatrazone, “that we, in the literary community, have accepted lack of monetary payment as commonplace?”

While I’m old school enough to impractically view college as a place heavy with liberal arts that teaches students how to think rather than providing then with a certificate that allows them to move right into a job like a technical school, I see the need that Ripatrazone sees when he says writing programs often do little or nothing to prepare graduates for the business side of their chosen profession. Likewise, many writers groups online and offline, though self-publishing has brought marketing and PR more heavily into the discussions and seminars.

As he puts it, the art of writing is sometimes taught as though it’s a spiritual process in which long-term practical, positive results are viewed as an unnecessary luxury. According to the disciples of this approach, finding yourself and telling your story are the important things even if nobody pays a dime to read what you write.

The odds of making that dime are long odds. That’s reality. But saying that dime doesn’t matter sounds like a lot of self-effacing denial to me. “Payment for little old me? Golly, writing the story is what counts.”

Maybe so if you plan to live with your parents into your 40s or find a spouse that makes enough money to support you while you find yourself or you win the lottery or you work at a day job and stay up all night writing.

Look at the Business Side in Addition to the Art of Writing

Ripatrazon’s essay includes a handy checklist of ideas for bringing students more into the mainstream of what their chosen profession is all about, from demystifying publishing to an introduction to freelance writing and how it works to what editors want and how they want to see it presented to them.

Writing nonfiction can become a viable means of supporting oneself while working on fiction after hours. Taking a look at such magazines as the Atlantic and the National Geographic is proof enough that nonfiction isn’t a secondary kind of writing. Becoming good at it, helps improve a writer’s art and craft while building a list of credits. Writing for low rates of payment at first and working up to higher rates of payments seems to me to be a much better route than writing for copies of publications.

That’s not a hard and fast rule, especially if you’re making money some other way to pay the rent. And who knows, getting accepted by a prestigious publication might help your career. It’s hard to say, because no matter how much all of us study the business side of writing fiction, making money from novels and short stories is always a gamble. The number of writers who live off fiction writing is a very small number.

When we write, we can’t be like our non-writer friends who go to a 9-5 job that pays them to work their craft in a cubicle or assembly line without having to worry exactly how customers are found and products are marketed. Even if we’re lucky enough to find helpful publishers’ editors, agents or even business managers, we’re still–as novelists–both the CEO of the whole process as well as the craftsman down in the shop.

We need two mindsets, one that sees the dollars and sense in practical terms and one that sees the beauty of a well-told tale coming together on the page. As Ripatrazone says, “I need my students to know that they will likely struggle every step of this way in this business. They must be shrewd and determined and aware. But when they close the door and go to their writing desk, they must be generous, sensitive, and open to the mystery of this art.”

Being too willing to write for copies may be a sign that we’re not really looking at the practical side of the profession. Or maybe for a while it’s an expediency.



  1. So true. Thanks for laying this out so clearly!

    August 21, 2014

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