Is Writing Fiction as a Career a Form of Slave Labour?


Are you frustrated with all the publication opportunities out there which, while they offer you a chance to have your work exposed to readers, also never pay you?

Many, many writers — perhaps the majority— are frustrated that in order to get their names out there it seems that they are forced to work on time-consuming submissions for free because so many other writers are willing to do so. The apparency is that the flooded marketplace waters down the value of fiction writing, creating a standard of pricing that is too low — i.e. no payment at all, mostly — to support a career.

When was the last time you got paid for a piece of your writing? And when you worked out how much that converted to in terms of hours spent working, what was the result?

Is writing fiction as a career a form of slave labour?

At first glance, it certainly appears so. Even best-selling authors — writers whose earnings from their books enable them to concentrate on writing as a career — have to have hundreds of thousands of readers, given that the unit price of a book is so low, relatively speaking. The general picture is that writers don't get paid much.

And we are looking at a saturated market, in which millions of wannabe writers flood the internet with self-published works or jam the inboxes of small presses with submissions which they are quite happy not to be paid for.

Why is this? And what is the way out of it?

Writing fiction as an industry is going through a phase which resembles that of the early Industrial Revolution. This was known as the ‘putting-out system’, or ‘workshop system’, and was a means of subcontracting work. In such a system, work is contracted by a central agent to subcontractors who complete the work in off-site facilities, usually in their own homes or sometimes in workshops with multiple craftsmen working together. It was used in the English and American textile industries, in shoemaking, and many other fields until the mid-19th century. It’s a system that was particularly suited to pre-urban times because workers did not have to travel between home and work — in those days, travel was limited due to the state of roads and footpaths. Even when a more industrialised operating system began, factory owners sometimes built dormitories to house workers in order to avoid transport issues. Putting-out workers could balance farm and household chores with the putting-out work, this being especially important in a society based on agriculture and the seasons.

It’s not quite the same in the field of writing fiction. One doesn’t imagine the need for writers to gather together in a central factory in order to get more work done (though it’s an interesting idea), and with the advent of the internet, the transfer of finished work from one place to another rather encourages this ‘putting out’ of work instead of helping it to evolve into something else. The writing of fiction in order to satisfy the growing market of readers with their voracious appetites for more and more stories seems inclined, therefore, to stay with this putting out model. And that seems to imply that prices will always be low at the writers’ end, given that, even though demand is always going to be high, there are always going to be more writers willing to fill it.