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Should You Write For Free? It’s A Changing Market

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Some twenty years ago, I dabbled in freelance writing with some moderate success.  I submitted some non-fiction pieces to a women’s magazine in Dublin.  Before long I found myself published and it was the thrill of a lifetime.  Maybe I was just lucky.  Maybe I got complacent about it because out of my few submissions, most of them were accepted.  I even got asked to write a piece on how feminists dress by a national women’s magazine and got to interview activist Maxine Brady.  I had a full time secretarial job, but the thrill of writing and getting paid for it was a heady one.

Then I changed my life significantly.  I headed off to India to marry my longtime boyfriend and to turn our long distance relationship into a marriage.  I got busy adjusting to a new culture and to the challenge of bearing four children and bringing them up.  Writing could wait, I told myself.

When the youngest started school in 2007, I discovered blogging and a whole new world opened up.  I started writing regularly.  It wouldn’t be long now, I told myself.  When I’d recovered my confidence sufficiently to try submitting to print publications, I did the ‘write/right’ thing.  I joined an online  writing critique group.  I studied the art of short story writing.  Now I seemed to have found my voice as a fiction writer.  Well, I’d read somewhere that after the age of forty, you have stories to tell. I’d never felt like that earlier.  So I wrote and wrote and then I began to realise something – my work, albeit critiqued by professional writers in the group,  was not getting accepted.  Not for ages.  Nothing.  And the same went non-fiction pieces.  I could paper my walls with rejection slips.  I just couldn’t believe it.  This is not happening, I told myself.

I enlisted the aid of understanding friends living in Ireland and the United Kingdom, who downloaded my work, printed it and sent off to the targeted publications (for those who required print submisions not email submissions)  Heck, I’d thought that the era of internet would help me get published more, not less.

A few years down the road, it’s all clear now.  The truth is that the digital age has arrived.  And sad though it is, the print market is dying.  Well, if it’s not dying, it’s definitely on the decline.

The market for fiction in women’ magazine is dwindling.  Many magazines have ditched their fiction sections.  And for what fiction spots are left, the competition is fierce.

Writing short stories is a skill, no doubt – a very specialized one.  A short story is not a novel in miniature, it’s a snapshot.  A moment in time, a glimpse. One main character’s point of view, no more than four characters, none of  whose names should begin with the same letter as another  character’s name.  Even a mere phrase can bring about a Point of View (PoV) shift and render your story unsuitable.  At the same time it must be understood that some of the longer established writers appear to be holding their own.  Perhaps their names have brand value.  But even long established freelance writers are getting a little worried.

It has been reported that some of the women’ magazines have reduced the writers’ fees.  Once the acceptance started, it happened to me too.  About a year ago, I started getting some writing success, both in fiction and non-fiction, in a national magazine in India where I live.  It was gratifying.  The payment wasn’t much but it was the satisfaction that I craved for, finally coming my way.  Alas!  A year later, I can say that even that rather paltry amount I was earning has been substantially reduced.  I’m writing for pennies now.  My hard work is relegated to what Indians call a ‘timepass’.  Another short story was accepted by a digital anthology but as the royalties for the book were earmarked for charity, there was no payment involved either.

A storm  erupted on Facebook last year when a UK women’s publication ran a fiction writing competition and didn’t want to pay any prize money to the winner.  There were furious comments as writers let their feelings be known.  In the end, the magazine announced a two hundred pounds sterling prize.  Only then did the crowd disperse.

 The times they are a changing, as Bob Dylan said.  In this digital age, is there any hope for a writer to make a living, in an age where clicking the publish button on a blog makes you not only a writer but a publisher also?

Author Jenny Schwartz mentioned this in an interview on my book blog Maria’s Book Blog, recently.  A prolific writer of short fiction who was perturbed the find the short story market dwindling, she has found a publisher in Australia, Escape Publishing, which is publishing her pieces of short fiction as ‘novelettes’.  It is a fact that short fiction is coming into great demand in the digital era.  Lunchtime reads are popular.  Lots of people just don’t have the time to delve into long novels.  Well, not as much as they used to.  There is a market for short fiction today, but not in the print world.

I never thought that India would see the demise of the magazine.  People get together in groups here to buy a bunch of magazines between them here and share them around.  One copy of a magazine could have up to a dozen readers.  But when the magazine has a digital version easily accessed for free on the internet, who will pay for it now?  Certainly not the cost conscious , middle class Indian, probably the former mainstay of the magazine market.

I had an email lately from the Indian magazine which publishes me – yes, the one which recently cut my fee.  They informed that they are launching a digital version.  If my contributed pieces don’t make it into the print version, I was assured, it could certainly make it into the e version.  The drawback? No fee payable for contributions to the e magazine.  I am so confused right now.  What use is exposure without any fee?

If the e version of the magazine is successful, do the publishers have a plan to start paying something to the writers?  Surely they will earn something from the advertising,  I think I should continue to contribute to the magazine for the foreseeable future, hoping that maybe the contributors to the e magazine will be paid.  But for how long would it be feasible to wait?

Decisions, decisions!  It’s hard to know what to do for the best, living as we do in changing times.


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