Unpopular opinion: writing is a skill.
It takes time and effort to develop, and involves a lot more than knowing where to place a comma and never ending a sentence with a preposition. Writers, of both fiction and non-fiction, work hard at what they do. Hours, days, weeks, and years are spent honing their skills and perfecting their work. And yet, not only are writers taken for granted, they are also ridiculously underpaid, if paid at all.
On the surface, the issue seems fairly simplistic. If someone is providing a service, they deserve adequate compensation, commensurate with the time and effort that they put into it, for that service. So, why are writers the exception to this rule?
First, it’s important to note that we live in a highly capitalist world. Money breeds money, and if you feel like you don’t have to pay for a service, why would you? Writing, unfortunately, also deals with the widespread cultural assumption that authors can survive on their ‘passion’, and their desire to put their work out there, without taking into account the practical aspects of surviving- like paying rent. The old tale of the starving artist, romantic though it may be, is still merely that – an old tale. An awkward and uncomfortable tale that absolutely no one has any wish to actually live through.
The problem of over-demanding and underpaying takes many forms. Freelancers and writers often receive emails, phone calls and ‘requests’ to write a vast number of words on inane topics within a ridiculously short time because the underlying assumption is always that they must be grateful for any scrap for work that comes their way, even if utterly unpaid. It’s their ‘passion’ after all. Why in the world would they want money?
Shouldn’t they be happy just to get work and have the chance to write? Authors will be invited to talks, conferences, schools, and almost any other forum, pushed by repeated assurances that ever though they cannot be paid, it will be a prime opportunity for them to ‘promote their work’. Lalita Iyer, the author of The Boy Who Swallowed a Nail and Other Stories, summarized this well in a Facebook post-“I am not dying to come and tell stories to your children/judge their essays/stories or their elocution. It is work. It needs to be paid for. And selling my books is not my job anyway, so stop dangling that as a carrot.”
This angle of promotion is, apparently, meant to qualify as a sufficient incentive for an author to undertake travelling, accommodation, and living expenses for obscure out-of-town events that need someone to fill their roster and lend a slightly high-brow air to the entire procedure. Writers are also frequently called up, out of blue, and asked to provide “quotable quotes” on issues they may be unfamiliar with or books they’ve never read. Often, they are not even provided with the grace of context, and their inevitably general quotation ends up hashed and paraphrased by a journalist who is vaguely disappointed by the so-called writer’s inability to pull a beautiful turn-of-phrase out of thin air at a second’s notice.
The constant dismissing of full-time writers further exacerbates the under-appreciation of female writers. Work-from-home writers, in particular, are often assumed to be unable to get a ‘real job’, and their so-called ‘hobby’ is rarely met with serious financial remuneration. “If you work from home, the perception is that your work is simply a hobby or an indulgence. My close friends and sometimes extended family think my writing is just a way to while away time. Friends call me up to go shopping in the middle of the day and the matriarch of the household sometimes asks me why I can’t get myself a job,” says Sudha Menon, as she discusses the sexism she faces in the writing industry with SheThePeople.
The business of taking advantage of a writer’s skill is a deeply inbuilt and brutal one. Writing jobs can be as abysmally underpaid as 150 INR for a week of work, and writers clamouring to be treated with basic respect are often laughed out of jobs. Female writers, in particular, face a great deal of discrimination when it comes to their work. In her interview with SheThePeople, author Kiran Manral sized up the problem effectively, “women’s writing is often dismissed as domestic and therefore not considered ‘worthy’ of the broader canvas that literary prizes wish to impose”.
So, perhaps, at the end of the day, what it comes down to is basic respect. You cannot demand a service and simultaneously disrespect the person that provides it. Writers have not spent years acquiring skills, sharpening their pens, and fighting the odds to be successful, only to be used and discarded whenever convenient. As more and more writers grow disillusioned and disgruntled, fewer companies are going to find easy and cheap content creators to do their work for nothing. Maybe it is simplistic, at the end of the day. Pay your writers. And pay them well.
*Bound pays its writers an honorarium for every piece of work submitted.