During the festival a lot was said about getting your work out there, but at The Reality Check session, Justin Heazelwood, Eiley Ormsby and Zoe Dattner joined David Henley to chew through the truth of being a writer.
While it’s universally accepted as difficult, being a writer doesn’t mean you need to sign the poverty pact and spend eternity eating Heinz spaghetti. One of the most discussed topics during the panel was how to value your writing and make the transition from providing free content to getting paid.
Of course, you’re going to have to pay your dues before cashing cheques. Most writers already know this undeniable aspect of the industry, and the panel broached it when Henley raised the writer/plumber comparison.
Don’t know that one? Author and journalist Myke Bartlett was quoted in Overland as saying, ‘I’ve always been paid for my journalistic writings, with very few exceptions. I’m pretty fixed about that. You know, plumbers don’t go fixing bathrooms for free until they’ve built their reputation. If your work’s worth printing, it’s worth paying.’
‘It’s a ridiculous comparison,’ Heazelwood, better known as the Bedroom Philosopher, countered. ‘Maybe it’s a better compared to prostitution – sorry sex worker – because it’s something you can trade, but you should be comparing it to an athlete or a start up IT entrepreneur.’
Plugging away at a plumbing apprenticeship, you’re probably going to get paid because ‘there’s a union standard’ while with writing ‘your apprenticeship is unpaid’. Athletes, Heazelwood suggests, train and train, often without glory, until they make it. Writers are the same.
When asked if writing is a job, he proposes that it’s ‘between a hobby and a full time career’ and more like ‘self-employed work experience’. For five years Heazelwood wrote a regular column for Canberra streetpress BMA without seeing a cent.
‘I’d just come out of uni,’ he explained. ‘I was young and plucky and I didn’t expect to get paid at all. It made me write and it gave me a deadline.’
That’s not to say that five years of work doesn’t bear any fruit. The exposure of the column, presumably coupled with his music work, lead to a higher profile, which in turn landed Heazelwood paid gigs writing for Frankie and other magazines that he could use to leverage his position.
‘I went to my editor [at BMA] and said “Hey, I’m sick of being poor, I can’t do this column for free anymore” and he came up with $125 per column, so I negotiated that just by asking.’
That’s perhaps one of the most salient points of the panel. It’s that old adage, if you don’t ask the only answer will ever be no. ‘There’s often money floating about but if you don’t ask it certainly won’t be offered to you,’ he said.
Coincidentally, Heazelwood is writing a book on being an artist in Australia, for which he’s conducted interviews with other creatives. He took the time to share a quote he got from writer Clem Bastow about the topic.
‘I think every writer has to do some kind of unpaid apprenticeship with themselves until they get to a position where they think they can demand more, or something at all. I did a shit tonne of unpaid work for exposure until I got to the point that I could charge at all, then I did a shit tonne more of that work until I got to the point where I could negotiate a fee,’ she told him.
Dattner, co-founder of Sleepers Publishing, raised a very good point on the subject. ‘We’ve become readers of free content – all of us,’ she said. ‘Largely I think it’s good but what will happen is that things will become worth what people think it’s worth paying for and everyone has a different benchmark of what that is. I think Justin’s point that at some point you’ve got to have the gumption to say “Yes, I’m worth this and I’m going to charge that” is a really breakthrough moment.’
Ormsby contributed to the notion, while touching on Heazelwood’s comparison between sex work and writing. ‘We’re more like gigolos,’ she said. ‘There’s so many out there willing to give it away for free that very few can actually get paid for it.’
She’s lucky enough to be published regularly in The Age and has just scored a book deal based on her blog, so she comes from an area of thinking much like Bartlett’s – you get paid for your writing – but she does bring up an important part of the industry.
‘The Guardian coming in [to Australia] now is an example. A lot of their work is sourced form blogs and therefore [payment is] exposure, so you’ve got all these people who are writing and writing well for exposure and not the income, which makes it very difficult to make an income as a writer.’
As Heazelwood’s experience suggests, exposure can eventually translate to remuneration. While building a profile, budding writers can do what Ormsby does when her articles appear in The Age.
‘My blog backs up the articles I’m putting out, at the bottom will be a link to [her blog] allthingsvice.com, and people come and get some background material that I didn’t put into the article. That’s marketing, that’s brand building.’
When Henley asked isn’t that what young writers starting out are doing, Ormsby replied, ‘They should be.’
Heazelwood obviously built his brand while working for free. He believes that it’s okay to start out doing so because ‘the only way to get good at writing is to write an awful lot and frequently’, meaning ‘any opportunity that arises is a great thing’.
‘I have to believe in a world where you’ve proven yourself to be a good writer then you will be able to charge a decent amount of money for that,’ he said. ‘Not just “You’re a really good writer, but this other pretty good writer is happy to not be paid so we’re going with him”.’
Dattner presents an interesting take on the subject. As co-founder of Sleepers, she’s at the helm of a small publisher and entrenched in the broader publishing industry. She believes that the sector in general is united by an idea of scarcity and shortage.
‘We all joke that we get paid like shit and survive off festival canapés, we wear it like a badge of honour and it frustrates the hell out of me. I think, “Why are we doing that? Why aren’t we challenging our employers or the market place and everyone else to state generating enough money so we’re being paid properly for this?”’
Unfortunately, it’s not entirely up to the wider marketplace to recognise the worth of a writer’s output. While that would be amazing, the onus often falls on the writer to recognise that they’re actually an incredibly small business. Sensitive and insular, writers can be at risk of overlooking the business side of their practice, preferring to sharpen their prose.
‘We should feel like we can sell out stuff but what we ultimately want to do is tell our stories, we get good at that and we don’t develop much time to the selling part,’ Dattner continued.
So how do you develop those skills? Instead of spending money on a small business course, Heazelwood recommends that ‘you’ve got to educate yourself’. These skills are taught through a mixture of trial and error and experience, but Heazelwood highlighted the importance of other writers and shrugging off societal perceptions.
‘I’ve been doing this 10 years and I’m still making it up as I go along. Maybe underlying all this is the perpetual low self-esteem of artists in Australia, who are a bit ashamed to stand up and take themselves seriously. So you’re constantly ducking and weaving, keeping yourself down to earth and cool, it certainly boils down to that you’re the worst business man ever.’
The panel recommended that to learn more you can crowd-source opinions via social media, interact with the literary scene and simply engage people in a similar situation.
‘They should be doing lots of research and asking other writers what they’re getting paid even though we don’t like talking about money, which is kind of a social and cultural thing – if you’re getting a lot of money you don’t want to tell anyone because then they’ll think you’re good and give you shit,’ he said.
Dattner believes that ‘the part where you know what your worth is when you find value in other content’ and start paying for the free content we’re consuming.
‘It’s got to be a self-fulfilling thing. When you’re earning money you can pay to access stuff and we can all pay for things that we love,’ she said. ‘That’s how commerce works, but it’s a catch twenty-two, you need to earn money to make money.’
For writers, serving their apprenticeship and determining the value of their work might be a personal journey, but perhaps the more important consideration is how we convince consumers to value the product they consume so voraciously.
Until that mountainous issue is overcome, the best thing for writers to do is take their work seriously, realise they’re part of an industry, which like all others operates on money, engage with it and brush up on business skills between perfecting their prose.
‘Writing is a dream job for everyone, but gradually over time you understand how it’s just a dream and ultimately it becomes a job and you are a very small business in the market place of writing, trying to negotiate financial deals like a fawn in the black forest,’ Heazelwood said.