Business monkey

I’m in the process of building up a freelance writing business, the aim of which is to have clients pay me for my words and images. This is not a hobby, it will be my livelihood. I have not embarked upon it with a sense of entitlement; I am a good and professional writer with a wealth of experience. I deliver what my clients need, and in return I expect to be paid and treated fairly.

If you’re not a writer, have no desire to be a writer, and have no interest in how the publishing industry works then you can stop reading now and move on (have you read my piece about how the zinnias aren’t the first flowers to bloom in space?).

If you’re still here then I can tell you that I have just turned down paid work for a national magazine that I would love to work for, because they expected me to sign an unfair contract. You may have seen media coverage over the last six months or so that describes how author/ writer earnings are falling, how the divide between the top earners and everyone else is increasing, and how the majority of writers now can’t make a living.

More recently, The Society of Authors and several international organizations representing authors and writers have challenged publishers to offer fairer contracts. You can read the International Authors’ Forum’s (IAF) 10 principles for fair contracts. You can read more about the campaign as a whole – it’s called C.R.E.A.T.O.R.

I am not here to whine, or to name and shame. This isn’t a ‘woe is me’ complaint about how hard it is to be a freelance writer. I’m sure there are plenty of writers out there who would sign these unfair contracts – either because they feel they don’t have a choice, or because they do not understand the implications – and the point of this blog post is to encourage you not to be one of them.

If you are a writer or a photographer, or a creative of any description, then then things you create are your assets. It’s important that you don’t sign them away without a thought. Your ongoing rights to your work can bring you income in the future, possibly even provide you with a sort of pension when you retire.

If you sign over your copyright and moral rights to a publisher, then you no longer own your work. You have given up the right to have your name associated with it; you would no longer have the right to photocopy it for your family and friends, or to use it on your own website or create an ebook, or anything. You wouldn’t be able to bequeath the rights to anyone on your death – not your family and not a charity (J M Barrie willed the rights to Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital, from which it has benefited greatly).

Conversely, the publisher would now have the right to do whatever they wanted with your work. They could publish it without your name on it, in a way that you wouldn’t be happy with. They could turn it into a top grossing feature film without paying you an extra penny. More likely, they could turn it into ebooks and calendars and web content that earns them far more than they paid you for it. They could sell it on to anyone else, again for more than they paid you for it.

Let me assure you that no one who is represented by an agent would be signing their copyright away so easily. The National Union of Journalists suggests that the fee for buying out all rights should be at least four times the normal fee for the work.

Yes, the industry is changing. There are problems with unpaid internships (which is not limited to the arts) and the fact that they disadvantage people who are already at a disadvantage and can’t work for free. Funding for the arts (which supported people such as David Bowie and Alan Rickman from working class backgrounds to international stardom) is being cut.

If we allow this degradation to continue then the only writing on offer to readers will be corporate-sponsored advertorials, or the voices of people who have ‘made it’ and can afford to write for free to get their opinions across, or words from hard-working people who choose to write as a hobby, or who volunteer their talents to support a cause they believe in.

There’s nothing wrong in any of those things – but we will lose the voices of all the people who can’t work for free, the people who simply write the things that entertain, enlighten and challenge us. In the words of Idris Elba, talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t.

We need to work together to level the playing field and ensure that talent and hard work are rewarded. Writers and creators everywhere need to educate themselves about copyright (which varies a little from country to country) and moral rights, and fair remuneration for their work.

Sign up for Public Lending Rights (PLR), which compensates authors for books which are lent in libraries, and ALCS, which pays them for re-use of their work and photocopying and things like that – that is money to which you are entitled, which you have earned.

Join an organisation that represents authors/ writers/ or creators of your ilk. There are plenty – the Society of Authors and the NUJ are just two UK organisations. I belong to the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW); there’s also one for garden writers – the Garden Media Guild (GMG). All of these organisations are working to protect the interests of their members, and can offer advice on contracts where necessary, for those of us who aren’t represented by agents.

Stand strong. If an organization wants to pay bargain basement prices or to exploit you rather than you work, then do us all a favour and move on. Words have power, words matter, words can change the world. Don’t sell us all short.