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How Should Writers Get Paid?

I recently read an article from Tim Harford’s blog, The Undercover Economist, with the intriguing title The secret to happiness after the robot takeover . The gist of this article is the question: in a future world where robots have taken your job, would you rather have a universal basic income, or a guaranteed basic job? I suspect that most creative people’s strong preference would be for a universal basic income, so that they could pursue creative projects without worrying about their bills.

A writer’s wallet

These days, thanks to self-publishing, blogging, etc, it’s never been easier to become a writer. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s never been harder to get paid for it. The Society of Authors publishes annual figures about its members’ average earnings and they frankly make depressing reading. Most ‘professional writers’ are barely earning minimum wage.

The problem is that it’s so easy to get stuff for free or nearly-free that many people are simply not prepared to pay much, if anything, for good writing. You can rail against piracy but that’s only part of the picture: there are all those blogs, free or heavily-discounted ebooks, fanfic… and there are many, many authors out there who would much rather write for free and have someone read their words, than not be read at all.

So, given that writers need food and the public needs intellectual nourishment, how should writers get paid? The traditional system of publishers’ advances and payments from magazines will doubtless remain part of this ecosystem, but it won’t cover everyone who wants to write. Universal basic income, if it happens, would definitely be a huge boon to all creators. For now, we see a new economy emerging: websites like Medium, Patreon, and Kickstarter, which connect writers directly with their readers. It feels, in a way, a bit like on-line busking: you broadcast your art to the world, and sometimes you get chucked some pocket change. Not, perhaps, a very glamorous way to look at it, but it seems to work pretty well for vloggers and podcasters. Many writers also take on related work such as editing and tutoring to help make ends meet.

My final answer to the question How Should Writers Get Paid? is, they definitely should, whether by publishers, punters, patrons, public grant, or some mixture of all these.