Dear Writers: For God’s Sake, Don’t Assume You’ll Get Paid
An interesting and frankly alarming thing in the comment thread of the last post. I noted in the last post that a major issue I saw with the proposed F&SF online writing workshop, which offers the chance that work in the workshop could get published in the magazine, is that there was no indication that those chosen stories would then be paid for. To which several people in the comment thread said something along the lines of “oh, well, that wasn’t a problem for me, because I just assumed there would be payment.”
Never assume as a writer that you’re going to get paid. Ever. There are too many people who assume writing shouldn’t have to be paid for — and too many writers willing to be paid little or nothing for their work — that your default assumption when there is no mention of payment for your work is that there will be none. Commensurately, your very first question when you see that there is no mention of payment for your work should be “What are you paying for the work?” If you’re worried that this being the first question out of your mouth will offend someone, then you’re not ready to be a working writer. If people who want your work are offended that this is your first question, they’re not serious about wanting your work.
To be clear, someone not mentioning payment right off does not mean the writer won’t get paid. In the case of F&SF and its workshop, I’m fairly certain the intention is to pay for those workshop stories. But in my case “fairly certain” is followed immediately by “so, you are paying for those stories, right?” Because, you know, I was fairly certain LeBron James was going to the NBA finals this year, too, and I was also fairly certain earlier in the year that right now I would be working on a project that fell through. “Fairly certain” by definition leaves room for a fair amount of uncertainty. A working writer learns to zero in on uncertainty, especially when it comes to him or her being paid. It never hurts to be absolutely certain you’re going to get paid, and to know how much. And when!
This is, incidentally, why this post by John Green arguing against advances is not a brilliant thing from the point of view of an author (a point which appears has already been mentioned to him by other authors, given the number of backpedaling updates he’s added). Green argues for higher royalties rather than higher advances, which is a fine idea if a) you have an independent source of income and/or b) are already raking in the bucks from your book sales and you have infinite faith that c) your publisher will always be there to send you royalties on a regular basis and/or d) won’t try to screw you on contractual details that allow them to hold on to your money for as long as humanly possible. As most authors don’t fulfill conditions a) or b) and should never assume c) or d), most authors are better off getting a large, upfront chunk of cash into their hands asap — that is, they should have an advance. Anything other is assuming you’re going to get paid, and fraught with danger.
So: Know that you’ll get paid. Know how much you’re getting paid. Know when you are going to get paid. Don’t assume any of it. Know. That is all.