I still have the email, so I can give you the direct quote:
“As a writer, I did my work, and I anticipate being paid.”
I try to be very transparent about what we do here, so this conversation usually doesn’t get that far. But it happens. These conversations haunt me because I know. I get it.
The other one that hurts is when I see writers in forums talking about how excited they are for an upcoming publication even though it doesn’t “count” because they didn’t get paid for it.
I’ve talked about this before, and I don’t want to spend a ton of time here rehashing what I’d like to do if I had the ability to do it. Jim Szabo of Secondhand Stories and I chatted about it back on Special Episode 14, have a listen there if you are curious. But here it is in a nutshell: if I made money doing this, I would pass that on to the contributors. And if I expected to make money doing it I would not have started it in the first place.
My message to writers is simple: if you expect to be paid, expect fewer options to submit to. Ninety-two percent of literary markets don’t pay their writers, not because we don’t want to but because we can’t afford it.
Now, don’t get me wrong: there are terrible people out there. There are for sure big websites that are making plenty of money and not paying their writers enough or anything. There’s plenty of that going around and it is not pretty. But that’s not the real world of short story publication.
Which is why I’m going to tell you my actual story, with numbers. I really hate the business side of all of this and I’m one that usually likes to focus on craft. But to run the numbers is the only way to explain why I expect you to work for free. Which I don’t. But I’m grateful that you do.
Producing No Extra Words costs me about $30 a month. The reason it is that cheap is because I put a lot of time into it. I don’t have the financial ability to outsource anything, so it’s $30 a month plus hours and hours of time. I do not expect compensation for my time.
For the first 2 years of existence, I covered 100% of the costs myself. In June I launched our first ever fundraising campaign. We now receive $8 per month in donations, which I am extraordinarily grateful for. It helps offset those costs, but it doesn’t cover them, nor does it reimburse me for 2 years of costs.
And that’s okay. I didn’t start this as a moneymaking endeavor. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for everyone who has submitted work and everyone who has pressed play. You all mean more to me than you can imagine. I’m telling you this not to complain, but to explain. To explain that if I have to pay you out of the -$22 a month I make doing this, I will quickly go under.
We work with around 6 contributors per month, sometimes more. If I gave them each $20, my costs would go from $30 per month to $150 per month and we would close down. I can’t sustain that. And that doesn’t even begin to address the problem of wanting to compensate the 194 writers who have shared pieces with us to date, many of them several pieces, for no compensation. Also, $20 per story would be an average of less than 3 cents a word for most people, hardly a living wage for writers.
I’m certainly not the first person to point this out, and writers often point out, well, that’s the cost of doing business. You wouldn’t say to your hairdresser or web hosting service or auto detailer that you don’t have the money to pay them, would you?
Well, no, but if I couldn’t afford to pay them I would stop having them do work for me. If I can’t afford to keep No Extra Words running, it goes away, it’s as simple as that. Numbers don’t lie.
Having explained the output side, let’s talk input for a minute, because your next question might be how can I increase revenue to cover this cost? The answer is, it’s rough. I can’t charge listeners. Even if I could get consumers to pay me in a world where most web content is free, iTunes and the other apps that distribute this content don’t allow me to charge for it, so I’d have to completely change how we distribute, likely losing me more than I’d make. Not to mention losing an existing audience that I care deeply about. Or I could charge writers a submission fee, but I choose not to do that. I feel that the you don’t pay me I don’t pay you arrangement is more fair than the you pay me maybe I’ll pay you if you’re good enough one. Maybe it’s not, but that’s a choice. So we either exist as a non-paying market or we cease to exist, simple as that. And I like existing.
Most markets that do pay are able to because they make money on advertising. This is why literary markets struggle so much. It’s a small audience that consumes short fiction, and they are far from lucrative to advertisers.
So there you have it. The making of a non-paying market. All I can pay you in is exposure, promotion, experience, and previous credentials. For which non-paying markets regularly get made fun of in social media. Yes, I understand that that isn’t pay. Although I think your work is valuable, the market does not.
Before I close, I want to very quickly address the other accusation that is often levied at non-paying markets: that we are fine doing what we do as long as we make it very clear that we feature the work of amateur writers, not professionals. To that, I will simply say this: you are not the gatekeeper. I showcase good work here, and I don’t care if it’s the first story by that writer or the 1000th. One of the reasons I started this endeavor was that I found more literary markets than I care to mention to be snobby, elitist, and unappreciative of work that didn’t meet a certain self-imposed “literary” standard. Everyone who contributes here is a writer, and I value all their voices.
If you’re a past contributor of mine you’d better believe that I’m going to promote your book on my Twitter feed or be there for you on launch day. I’m thrilled to be included in your resume. I want you to outgrow us, to build beyond us, to get to the point where people pay you and pay you well for your work. You are worth that, even if I can’t give it to you. And maybe when you have reached that point you’ll occasionally get in touch with a piece of writing that was well-received elsewhere and you think might suit our show. Or maybe you won’t. There’s no expectation.
So to the 194 people who have to date agreed to share their work, and the more that will in the future, thank you. I can’t give you a check, but you have to know that without you I am nothing at all. And together…together we are something. Together we are art. We are priceless.