Aspiring Writer Stockholm Syndrome
One of the things I’m finding interesting — and by interesting, I mean appalling — about my recent thumping upon Black Matrix Publishing for paying an insultingly low fifth a cent a word for its stories is that there’s a category of aspiring writer who appears genuinely offended that I would call out this company for paying its authors so very poorly. The complaint goes a bit like this, and you’ll understand that I’m excerpting from various sources:
It’s not really fair that Scalzi is singling out Black Matrix Publishing when so many others are doing the same thing. Doesn’t he remember what it was like to be a new writer? We can’t all make what the pros make. A market like this gives me hope. It’s not Scalzi’s business anyway.
Allow me to address each of these in turn.
“It’s not fair Scalzi is singling out Black Matrix Publishing” — This is an “if lots of people are cheapskates, you shouldn’t call out just one of the cheapskates” argument, which as you may expect is not an argument I have much time for. Sure, lots of other publishers might have business plans predicated on screwing the writer, but this is the one I was looking at that particular day, and its payment scale richly deserved comment and derision. Is this fair? Of course it is: Calling out ridiculously poor payment rates is always fair. One is not required to make a list of all known poorly-paying publishers in order to justly and fairly criticize one of them. If and when I call out another publisher for equally ridiculous payment levels, that’ll be fair too.
I do notice Black Matrix Publishing is currently wrapping itself in the “we’re just simple fans doing a hobby, here, we never intended to be a pro market” justification for paying writers badly. Really? Planning to publish four magazines and two separate book lines is a hobby? Does one generally create an LLC for one’s hobby? Call me skeptical. This is a business.
“Doesn’t he remember what it was like to be a new writer?” — Sure I do. And when I made my first science fiction sale, it was to Strange Horizons, because it was a market which made a point of paying what’s regarded as a pro rate in science fiction (and still does). Because even as a new writer, I felt very strongly that I deserved fair payment for my work, and, separately but equally importantly, I placed value on my work. Even as a newbie writer, I wouldn’t have sent a damn thing to a publisher like Black Matrix, because I assume my work deserves better than a market that values it that poorly.
Mind you, this isn’t limited to fiction, either — when I was starting out as freelance writer back in college and then again after I left AOL, I also didn’t write for markets which didn’t value my work; I wrote for the ones that paid me what I felt should be paid. It’s worked pretty well for me, and trust me, I am not so very special as a writer that this is not replicable for others.
“We can’t all make what the pros make” — Why not? All it takes is the decision not to take less than that for your work, and patience until you get to that point. This is why I advise writers to keep their day jobs. If you can’t or won’t wait, pick a lower amount you’re happy with, below which you do not go. Allow me to suggest that amount be a positive integer when it comes to pennies per word.
“A market like this gives me hope” — A market that thinks so little of you that it takes five words to get to a penny gives you hope? You need better hope standards, my friends.
Look, this is pretty simple: Black Matrix Publishing pays crap rates because it can. The people running it appear to be running it on a shoe string, if the proprietor’s lament about paying a few thousand dollars to date into it is correct, and they’re likely well aware that none of the other vendors providing elements for their little operation are so fungible in their costs as writers. The people who print their magazines will not be pleased to make 4% of their generally accepted “pro rates” for their printing services; the Staples down the street is not going to give them a 96% discount on pens and printer cartridges. The only group of people so willing to offer such a steep discount on services rendered are writers. Why? “Because at least they pay something.” “Because I’m working my way up.” “Because no one writes this stuff to make money.” “Because it gives me hope.”
Bullshit. Someone intending to make a profit off your words offering you a fifth of a penny per word isn’t giving you hope, he’s giving you the shaft — and he’s banking on your psychological need for approval and recognition in a field you want to be a part of to make you grab your ankles and sings his praises while he reams you. This isn’t hope, it’s Aspiring Writer Stockholm Syndrome. Snap out of it.
“It’s not Scalzi’s business anyway” — Sure it is. I’m a writer. It’s in my interest to call out markets that in my opinion are taking advantage of writers, because I prefer a marketplace filled with markets that value the work I provide, not filled with markets that take as read that writers will be pathetically grateful just to be published not matter how badly you pay them. How would I feel if Black Matrix Publishing folded its tent? Delighted. Good riddance to publishers who value writers so poorly. But what would make me even more delighted is if the proprietors stopped saying they were committed to writers and actually showed some commitment by paying something more than a fraction of a cent per word. I think it’s not too much to ask. I also think it’s my business to say so.