Sunday, December 20, 2020

On being asked to write for no payment (vs choosing to write for no payment)

 [Wrote this on Facebook a few days ago, thought I'd put it here as well]

A rant I wouldn't normally put here, but since I sometimes get writing offers from people whom I am connected with on social media, here goes: 
1) Preferably, don’t mail me asking me to write for free. But since I understand that that’s an unrealistic request, 
2) if you must do this, avoid prefacing the mail with effusive praise – “I love your work”, “I have read Jabberwock every week since I was eight months old”, “It will be an honour to have you write for us” etc etc. It rings false, to say the least.
To clarify, I have no delusions about my “standing” as a writer, and I know things change very quickly (the fact that the blog was widely read 15 years ago, or that a book was well-received and awarded 5 years ago, doesn’t make up for the fact that in the past few years I have had a low profile and haven’t been writing as regularly as I once did). But when someone goes out of their way to praise my work and commission a piece, and then makes it clear that they don’t expect me to leave the slightest smudge on their balance sheet, that is a very mixed message.
Of course, the fact that writers are under-paid – or expected to work pro-bono to a greater degree than most other professions – isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a surprise to anyone. I have written/ranted about various aspects of this before (including the experience of being on the other side of the fence, working for a publication, commissioning pieces from other writers…and hearing my boss say things like “But, but it’s just a book review. Why should we pay more than 4 a word? And anyway, they get a FREE BOOK!”)** 
The stories are endless, and each new experience feels subtly and demeaningly different even as it boils down to “You work, we don’t pay.” The reasons can range from “We are a small, independent publication, we can’t afford to pay at this stage” (this is a position I have basic sympathy for, even when I can’t make the commitment) to the latest one I received just a few days ago: “This is an old and incredibly prestigious journal, so I hope that will compensate.”
The practical aspect of not being paid for one’s time and effort apart, here’s something I have realised only in the past 3-4 years: these experiences have, over a period of time, seriously eroded my confidence and self-worth as a writer. They create a situation where I find it very hard to negotiate when discussing a new piece or column. More than once in the past few years, I have felt astonished at the confidence of independent-writer friends who blithely say that they ask for Rs 12 to 15 a word (or whatever) when approached for a piece. 
And now, inevitably, a caveat: what makes this whole thing complicated (and I’m sure many other writers will relate to this) is that every once in a while there is an offer for an unpaid/low-paid piece that genuinely turns out to be worth my while. It might be because of the “prestige” or “visibility” (though these factors are less important to me now than they were 10-15 years ago.) Or more likely, because it pushes me to do some writing I had been procrastinating on and probably wouldn't have had the motivation to begin otherwise... writing that can acquire a new life or become the seed for something more elaborate down the line. Or, well, because it is a relatively painless piece to write and helps me get something off the bucket list (e.g. being published in Sportstar, with my byline on the same contents page as Sachin Tendulkar’s).
As anyone who has spoken with me about my first book knows, I lost money on that one (even though it went on to be moderately successful by the low standards of non-celebrity-authored cinema books): the author's fee was such a joke that it didn't even cover the cost of traveling to Bombay a couple of times to interview the Jaane bhi do Yaaro crew. However, this wasn’t an issue for me at the time; I weighed the pros and cons and decided it was worth it. There was the adrenaline rush of working on a book on a subject that was challenging and stimulating and would give me a chance to do some long-form journalistic work in a field I wanted to stretch myself in. And since I had a couple of decent retainerships at the time, I barely thought about the money.
Such considerations change over time, but another, more recent example: the only substantial writing I did in the first half of this year – including the lockdown months – was a long essay commissioned for a book. No mention of payment was made at the time of commissioning, and I went with the assumption that there would be none. (Or that it would be a token amount which wouldn’t be remotely commensurate with the effort I intended to put in.) But I volunteered to do it, because 1) I wanted to be in this book, which was being edited by someone I respect, 2) I had a good feeling about this piece; I saw it as a pretext to get some personal writing done – involving my mother, and certain important events of the past – and to start looking through my 1990s diaries for material and to excavate memories. And it turned out that way: though I laboured over the essay for many weeks – lots of stops and starts and teeth-gnashing – the final thing was quite close to what I had intended to write, and that rarely happens. Right now it feels like seeing that essay in a well-produced book (whenever this happens) will be a large and pleasing cherry on what is an already-substantial cake.
Another, smaller essay I wrote a few months ago for another book was also un-paid for (the book being a “labour of love”, as if love and money are incompatible). But I did it because the topic is close to my heart, I had already begun some unstructured writing about it for myself, and I expect to spin it into something larger in the near future. 
Most writers will have similar stories about choosing, or agreeing to, such an assignment (with a few misgivings maybe) for one reason or another. But that’s a very different matter from a publication reaching out to a writer, gushing about their work, and then either specifying upfront that they can’t pay, or (and this happens infuriatingly often) sending mail after mail with details about the expected structure and content and deadline, but not even alluding to payment, as if it couldn’t possibly be a consideration – until the writer is forced to swallow his pride and gently touch on the subject. (Whereupon the hedging and excuse-making begins.)
(** I contributed related thoughts to the book Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Journalism back in 2013. Can share with anyone who’s interested.)


  1. This resonates, Jai, so much. What amazes me too are the number of very profitable publications (really popular magazines, for instance) who solicit articles and don't pay a penny.

    1. Yes. It is distressing and crazily hilarious at the same time.
      (And there is so much else I have left out of this rant. Not, for example, even getting into how unpleasantly difficult they make it for an independent writer to submit an invoice for even a tiny amount.)

  2. This sucks for you & other writers! HuffPo was notorious for doing this in the US, & rightly got called out for it - We had a similar 'revolt' against the practice of unpaid internships, especially in New York based publications & in film/ TV industry, though a lot of people defended it as a means of getting a foot in the door in a very competitive industry. Fortunately it led to tightening of the rules around the definition of internship by the US Dept of Labor.