Finding ways to fairly compensate writers is a real challenge for independent publishers. At PANK, one of our primary goals this year or whenever it becomes realistic, is to be able to pay the writers who contribute to both our print and online issues. Achieving the means to do this, however, remains difficult, particularly given that we can publish 300 or more writers in a given year across our two platforms.
There are three primary means of raising the money to pay writers that don’t make me uncomfortable–via advertising sales and subscriptions, via grant funding or donations, or by subsidizing expenses with your own money. As a print magazine, advertising sales (theoretically) and subscriptions account for a significant portion of the money we use to print each annual issue. It would not be sustainable for us to direct those funds toward paying writers who currently receive a copy of the issue in which their work appears as an honorarium. Grant funding, particularly for very small magazines, is very hard to get. We write grants and try our best but grant money is always soft money and as such it is also not a sustainable option. We have never received a donation but we do believe in fairy tales. Subsidizing the magazine with personal funds, which is what most independent publishers do, is as realistic as a given publisher can afford but if you are not independently wealthy, this option, lest I sound like a broken record, is not sustainable.
Some magazines charge reading fees to pay writers, most notably Narrative and while I won’t get into the ethics of that approach here, I will note that writers such as Robert Swartwood have taken up the issue quite eloquently. Other magazines hold contests for which they charge a fee and for the very big magazines these contests allow them to not only pay a handful of writers significant prizes, they can also cover operating costs for more than one issue. PANK held its first contest in 2009 and we were able to pay the full prizes. Additionally, each entrant receives a free copy of PANK 4. We didn’t make any money from the contest and we continue to discuss how we feel about the idea of the writing contest, a situation where many contribute to the benefit of a few.
As a writer I must confess I am always shocked when a literary magazine pays me for my writing. It makes me feel uncomfortable, so accustomed have I become to writing for free and sometimes not even for contributor copies. What does it say about the state of literary creation that compensation has become entirely foreign and as elusive as a mythical creature?
Some of the big literary magazines pay anywhere from $10-50/page to $1,000 per creative work but those magazines are few and far between. There is a tier of magazines who pay a token amount of $5 or $10, with the implication (and one I understand), that the gesture is more reflective of the thought that counts rather than appropriately compensating writers for their creative work. Sometimes, when I get a check in the mail for $5 I think, why bother but then I think hey, that’s a case of Diet Cherry Pepsi and I get happy. Time and again, I see great writers who allow their chapbooks to be published without receiving even a token honorarium or contributor copies and who don’t seem to have a problem with that.
As I think about compensating writers from the perspectives of both writer and editor, I have to ask. Is the simple act of being published enough compensation for the modern writer? At what point does not paying writers become exploitation? As writers, how do you feel about publications who offer micropayments and token honorariums? What is your writing worth?