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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.

From one perspective, that’s a good thing: hugely growing demand is met by hugely growing supply. Readers are kept happy. The thing that suffers is price. For writers to be paid at viable rates for what they do means that, while demand continued to grow, supply would have to dwindle. Fiction would still be available, but editors and publishers would have to pay more for it because it was relatively scarce.

But this is all at first glance.

The truth is much more interesting and opens the door to a different deal for writers.

Writers may be bombarded by submission requests with unrealistic expectations who expect tons of free work and want to make you wait before making a decision, but the truth is that this is all your doing based on an incorrect strategy—it is not because there are so many cheap options.

Here’s the thing: if you’re not being paid enough for what you write, you haven’t yet found your ideal readers.

To put that another way: your writing income is low because you haven’t yet found the market where supply is scarce.

General readers are not doing anything wrong; they are not malicious or bad. As a general group, though, they are not your ideal audience. If you find that you are constantly coming into contact with ‘general readers’ through general requests for submissions, and constantly being paid little or nothing, please understand that this is because you are (1) branded as a low-priced provider of ‘stories’, (2) not being seen by your ideal readers, or probably (3) both. Your frustration with the situation, with the lack of paid opportunities that are seemingly dragging you down and undercutting your value, is only causing you counter-productive stress.

What should you be doing?

Finding the market where what YOU produce is scarce enough to drive prices up.

By focusing on existing general submissions and the power you think that gives editors and publishers over your career, you are necessarily equating your career with theirs. If you want to be a respected author in your field, one that gets publishing contracts that pay premium prices for quality work, you need to recognise that you need to play a completely different game.

Think about it like this. Jack writes literary detective stories in New York. He submits to every detective anthology that appears. He keeps finding himself being compared by editors to other writers who do poor work and submit to the same anthologies, and is included with them, for no pay, in books which are not up to his standard of fiction. Jack’s best publication opportunity was with a small press which focused on literary detective fiction; they admired his work so much that they paid him for a whole series of stories, and later commissioned a novel from him. This dream publisher didn’t think to compare Jack with the many other writers submitting to general anthologies. They weren’t interested in them. They wanted exactly the kind of quality and relevance which Jack could provide.

These are the kind of opportunities Jack should build his writing career around, leaving behind the scramble of submitting to everything that moves. The ‘literary detective story with a New York flavour’ brand was something only Jack could write — it was scarce for its potential readership, so its value seemed higher, which meant more money for Jack.

If you deliver high-quality fiction in a particular niche, written with integrity, which deserves premium pricing, then forget about submitting for every anthology out there and stop wasting your energy and creative talents on them. Leave them for the many writers who need them; they are training grounds and serve their purpose well.

Keep your eyes on the prize with what you’re selling and to whom. If you are really focused on your work, you aren’t playing the same game as other writers: you’re playing your game, according to your rules — the game no one else can win except you, and your readers.


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