What is the status of writers and artists in our society? Earlier this year, Sainsbury’s advertised for an artist to ‘voluntarily’ decorate part of one of their shops. The language of the advert made the place of the creative worker plain. The planned refurbishment was for the ‘comfort of our employees.’ The implication was almost an explication: artists are not employees, and, conveniently, therefore, they don’t need to be paid. The large company, rather than the small artist, is now in charge in Britain, the advert seemed to be saying, and the only useful purpose of any aesthetic production is to relax those involved in the far more serious business of selling things. As if this wasn’t a brutal enough message to any ‘ambitious artist’, as the advert is addressed to (not ambitious enough to have a proper job, of course, like running a supermarket), the closing lines of the advert dispel any lingering sense of autonomy that the artist might have left: ‘Your work will contribute to our success.’ And what a success you will be contributing to: in the latter half of 2015, the company made £308m.
The tension between art and money-making is a relatively recent problem. William Caxton was the first person to use a printing press in Britain, in the 15th century, and this began the exponential rise of writing and reading, previously niche activities, among non-scholars. The gargantuan presses of the industrial revolution helped to make the book a widespread commodity and turned the writer, in this new dawn, into a supplier with a demand to fill. However, people don’t only read new books, meaning that living writers have always had to prove their worth against writers of old. With the increase in literacy that was the result of mass education, the groups of people able to write and read grew.
Clearly, more readers is good for writers. But in the 20th century readers began to stop reading as much, as first television and then the internet became their entertainment media of choice. The internet exists primarily as text (although this may well change in the future) but not, predominantly, literary text, and where literature is published online it usually isn’t something the writer has been paid for, as it isn’t easily made profitable. A physical item like a book is easy to sell, but something as immaterial as a web page is not so easily exchanged. So the writer hoping to buy food and pay rent is generally confined to the physical item. This is the paradox of the internet: separate from traditional publishing, it offers total freedom of idea, but simultaneously fails to fit into the current model of making money through writing.
It often isn’t easy for writers to get paid for their writing in our society today, but writing itself is actually something which is incredibly in demand; all websites need writers, and people have access to more ways to read (phones, tablets, e-readers and the like) than in the past. Writers, then, must go on a kind of strike – by not working for free. Philip Pullman is an exemplar of this strategy: he refused to speak at this year’s Oxford literary festival, observing that ‘only the authors, the very reason anyone buys a ticket in the first place, are expected to do it for nothing.’ Well said. It’s a myth that there isn’t money in writing. The revenues of the big publishing companies are as expansive as ever, and literary events remain popular. The overall decline of profits in publishing is too often just an excuse for not paying writers, especially when other employees in the industry are paid well.
At the SWC, we choose to follow the Scottish Book Trust’s rate of payment in their Live Literature programme, which, since 2007, has been £150 per session. This is currently being raised to £175 per session, in recognition of the fact that writers are finding it increasingly hard to earn money. Paying people for their time and professional expertise shouldn’t be considered surprising, or abnormal, but it frequently is, and this level of payment is not common across the industry. If, as a small charity, we can do this, then, frankly, so can everyone- even those all-important supermarkets.
Words by Donald Marshall