For the Love

Rose Fox -- February 19th, 2014

Writers frequently warn one another against working for free, “for exposure”, or “for the love”. Writing is a business, and writers should get paid. To that end, SFWA recently announced an increase in their “pro rates” from 5¢/wd to 6¢/wd, hoping to encourage speculative fiction publishers and magazines to pay writers more.

However, many of those same publications–particularly online magazines that make fiction available to readers for free, and rely on donations to cover expenses–pay editors little to nothing. The staff of the well-regarded Strange Horizons are all volunteers. Other sites, such as ClarkesworldBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed, are more circumspect, but their Hugo nominations in the “Best Semiprozine” category are telling. According to the Hugo Awards site, “A lot of science fiction and fantasy magazines are run on a semi-professional basis: that is they pay a little, but generally not enough to make a living for anyone. The object of this category is to separate such things from fanzines, which are generally loss-making hobbyist pursuits.” What counts as professional? “A professional publication either (1) provided at least a quarter the income of any one person or, (2) was owned or published by any entity which provided at least a quarter the income of any of its staff and/or owner.” So these semiprozines are defined by not paying professional rates for editors, even as many of them pride themselves on paying pro rates (as defined by SFWA) for writers.

The editors of these sites are incredibly talented. They publish stories, poems, and illustrations that win awards and accolades. They provide an important service to the industry and to readers; short fiction is where some of the most interesting ideas in speculative fiction are developed, and many of our most outstanding authors primarily write short works. So why are there no SFWA pro rates for editors? When there’s outcry over the publishing industry’s reliance on unpaid interns, why doesn’t anyone talk about the speculative short fiction industry’s reliance on unpaid editorial staff? If writers or artists were asked to work for free to the tune of dozens of pieces over the course of a year, the practice would be derided as exploitative. But we exploit editors without a second thought.

Money isn’t thick on the ground for anyone in this industry, obviously. Calling 6¢/wd “pro” for writers might have made sense a few decades ago, but it’s absurd now. (By contrast, the Editorial Freelancers Association puts pro rates for fiction at 20–25¢/wd.) Nonetheless, I wish SFWA had put forward a 1¢/wd raise for editors as well as for authors. 1¢/wd isn’t much–those same EFA rates suggest more like 10¢/wd for substantive editing–but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

Would that mean that readers need to pony up more for fiction, either in subscription fees or in donations? Absolutely. But I don’t think the world will end if publications explicitly state that editors need to get paid for their work as much as writers do, and ask readers to support that philosophy with their dollars. Crowdfunded writing projects should include a budget line item for editing, not as a stretch goal but as an essential component. Patreon appeals for patronage should mention paying editors as well as paying writers. The speculative fiction community happily gives awards for editing: arguably four separate Hugos, if you count Best Semiprozine and Best Fanzine as well as Best Editor, Short Form and Best Editor, Long Form. We name our awards after editors and magazine publishers: the Hugo, the Campbell, the other Campbell. (There’s inexplicably no Merril Award or Carr Award for best anthology, but that’s a separate rant.) This is not a community that’s unaware of the value of editing, or unwilling to acknowledge the tremendous work that editors do. I think it would take very little nudging to encourage a cultural shift toward paying editors for their time and effort and knowledge.

The editors who help our wonderful short fiction scene thrive deserve their award nominations, no question. They also deserve financial compensation. If we don’t expect writers to work “for the love”, we shouldn’t expect it from editors either.

15 thoughts on “For the Love

  1. Ben Yalow

    You’re dividing things up into two categories, where the Hugos divide them into three.

    You call things either professional or hobbyist.

    The Hugo rules set up three categories:
    Professional: As you stated, somebody is making at least a quarter of their income.
    Fanzine: Nobody gets paid (and nobody pays to get it, unless they want to).
    Semi-prozine: Not enough money to count as professional, but somebody is getting paid something (usually the content providers). But it’s *explicitly* defined as a non-professional publication.

  2. JOHN T. SHEA

    Not the SFWA’s business really. The SFEA should deal with it. Oh wait, there’s no Science Fiction Editors of America? Not even in an alternative reality?

  3. Kitti

    American culture devalues creativity and always has; it goes against the Protestant Work Ethic. That “ethic” still exists at the foundation of our economy, our common psyche. For whatever reason, the Puritans decided that recreation lead to bad behaviour. Anything on that side of life just comprised a slippery slope.

    Even in 2014, in spite of the Hippie Counterculture, no matter the media revolution…we’re still of the opinion that creativity is sub-par. We denegrate almost all of our artists. We believe art doesn’t make a decent human, much less a decent living.

  4. Andrew Wheeler

    To put something more bluntly that Cecilia Tan has said more circumspectly: you’re mostly talking about the *owners* of those magazines.

    If there are editors working for third parties for free — and there’s some other owner of the magazine that’s making some money and not paying the editor — please name those. But I think you’ve just identified another case of small businesses that don’t make enough revenue to pay the owners. Those are very common across many, many sectors — in most cases, we don’t call those “small businesses” but “hobbies.”

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      I agree that if a single-owner business isn’t profitable and there’s no serious plan to make it profitable, it’s a hobby. But since “semiprozine” is defined explicitly as “not a hobby”, and since these magazines do have editors, art directors, etc. listed as “staff”, I think staff members of semiprozines should get paid.

      1. Andrew Wheeler

        Yes, yes, but paid *by whom*?

        Let’s take Clarkesworld for example — it’s owned by Neil Clarke, the Editor-in-Chief. So he should pay himself and the rest of his staff, as you say — but out of what money? Should he pay his writers less so that he can get more?

        You do mention in your original post that these outlets could charge more to build in payments for editors, which is plausible in some cases. But many of these outlets — Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, etc. — are free, so any price increase would be a major shift in business model.

        Honestly, I think “semiprozine” is more aspiration than reality most of the time: most of these operations don’t make money over the long term, and never will. They’re fannish activity: vital, important, wonderful, and absolutely necessary for the health of the field. We call them semiprozines because the people who run them do so in a professional manner, and we pretend that they’re businesses. But, really, they are hobbies.

        (I see I’m agreeing with some of your comments further down the string, here!)

        1. Neil Clarke

          Since I’m being used as an example:

          So he should pay himself and the rest of his staff, as you say — but out of what money?
          Online magazines can have business models and revenue streams. We’re selling subscriptions, taking donations, publishing anthologies, using affiliate programs, selling ad space, and have a Patreon page. As our total revenue grows, I can pay staff more and even add content. Our goal is to make it a career. It’s getting closer every year.

          Should he pay his writers less so that he can get more?
          No, in our case, I think it’s requires more time on marketing and other income-generating opportunities.

  5. Mike Allen

    Just echoing Cecilia here: I applaud this sentiment generally, but … since we’re talking about the online sf short story markets … this post seems to miss the point that many times with these markets, the editor who needs to be paid and the publisher who would do the paying are the same person, and they’re probably operating at some sort of affordable (maybe!) loss to keep their market going, because they love what they do. The only way to reasonably bring in more pay is for more money to come in from outside sources, like subscriptions. And that’s hard for one person to make happen.

      1. Cecilia Tan

        If the IRS calls them businesses and not hobbies, we should call them businesses and not hobbies, too. Also, just because a business doesn’t turn a profit doesn’t make it not a business. (How many quarters in a row did Amazon operate at a loss? And if Jeff Bezos suddenly decided not to take a salary we wouldn’t call Amazon his hobby.)

        Worth noting: going through my Rolodex I’d say that the list of science fiction small presses, both of books and magazines, whose owners/editors pay themselves a living wage has to be pretty small: in the single digits at most. Whereas the list of presses where the owner/editor makes little and/or has gone through periods of having to fund the business our of pocket? Is pretty much nearly all of them. Nearly all. I don’t think that’s because we “lack the cultural will” to pay for creative work? Though if it is, I’m eager to see if this discussion helps change things. Truly. If it’s not, though, I’d basically say it would be discouraging to the growth of the field (if not downright insulting) if we decided to slap the “hobby” rather than “professional” label on people like… Jacob Weisman, or Mark Ziesing, or Lee Martindale, or Ian Randal Strock, or Michael Walsh… (Disclaimer: I don’t know the financial status of any of these small presses right now but they’re all people who have been in the small press trenches for quite some time.)

      2. Mike Allen

        It doesn’t really matter to me what they’re called. (I make no bones about being anything other than a hobby publisher myself, though I’m one with a really good track record.)

        When it comes to sf short fiction, hobby publishers now fill the gap vacated by the collapse of the pulps, and print periodicals in general, which SFWA acknowledges by setting standards for what counts as a “professional publication” that happen to be in the reach of some hobbyists, and the Hugo Awards acknowledge with the “semi-pro” category. In a lot of cases there simply isn’t enough money coming in, and will never be enough money coming in, to cover anything past the cost of acquiring and publishing work .

        I’m pretty sure the only comparable phenomenon can be found in lit mags, which have more and more been going down the pay-in-copy/pay-to-play-at-all route.

        All of which is actually beside the point of whether or not an editor should be paid, when possible, via Kickstarter line item or otherwise. I certainly support that notion.

          1. Mike Allen

            Long after the fact clarification: my scare quotes refer to the notion that “sale to SFWA qualifying market” = “professional publication.” How much truth there is to this perception is certainly subject to debate.

  6. Cecilia Tan

    Admirable, and a great call to action. Editing *should* be a line item in the crowdfunding budgets, etc. But where it gets squidgy is this. How many of those publications are funded by the “editor” themselves? When the way a magazine or a publishing house gets started is because the editor founds it, does it make sense to tell that editor they can’t consider themselves a pro market anymore because they have failed to raise the money to pay themselves enough to qualify? (Full disclosure: I say this as someone who paid my authors out of my own pocket while racking up high five-figure debt to keep my publishing house going in the lean times of 2000-2008.) I’m not about to tell Bart Lieb or Neil Clarke or Vera Nazarian that they aren’t “professional” operations unless they can put more money into their own pockets. So I’m just cautioning us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, basically…

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