Sunday, 24 January 2016

It’s Not About the Price Tag…Or Is It? - Liz Kessler

If you are tuned into the world of the UK writing community, you’ll probably know there has been a lot of talk about money recently.

The thorny issue of authors being paid to do events at literary festivals was put firmly in the limelight by Philip Pullman when he resigned from the Oxford Literary Festival in protest against their policy of not paying authors.

There has also been talk amongst bloggers about whether they should be paid for the work they do to help promote books for authors and publishers.

I don’t want to get into the ins and outs of those arguments. There are many places where you can read about them, including fantastic blogs by Lucy Coats and Lucy Powrie amongst others. Do take a look.

The thing that has occupied my mind in all of this is the issue of the blurry lines between our passions and hobbies and our jobs and financial standing, and how, somewhere amongst all of this, we find the hooks on which we hang a lot of our sense of identity and status.

About fifteen years ago, I left a permanent job in order to free up enough time to commit myself to writing a novel. I spent the next couple of years working in a part-time capacity as a teacher and editorial advisor, whilst attending an MA in Creative Writing. During that time, I wrote a YA novel which would take fifteen years to get published, and the first book in a series which would go on to sell in more than twenty countries across the world. I wasn’t being paid to write. I was being paid to teach, and to work on people’s manuscripts. This meant that when I met someone new and they asked the question that we so often ask, ‘What do you do?’ I felt stuck. I wanted to say I was a writer, but that felt fraudulent. How could I say this was what I ‘was’ when no one was paying me to do it? So instead, I would describe myself in terms of the thing I did to pay my way, rather than the thing that fuelled my passion, filled my thoughts and occupied every life goal I had.

My home town is full of people who make their living in the tourist industry, managing bars, waiting on tables, cleaning holiday homes. Many of these people also paint beautiful pictures, create gorgeous jewellery, take stunning photographs. If you ask them, ‘What do you do?’ many will find it hard to answer, ‘I make necklaces,’ or ‘I paint sunsets’, instead falling back on, ‘Oh, I just work in a café.’

Beautiful St Ives, where many talented artists 'just work in a café' 

And I’m wondering if this is OK. If this is right. If this is how it should be. And I think the answers are no, no and no.

For some of us, we are lucky enough that our passion and our jobs overlap. I think that seeking this overlap is partly what is behind the recent campaigns in the book world. Authors are generally delighted to be asked to take part in festivals, and perhaps many of us see it as such a pleasure and an honour that it makes it easy for those running them to get away with not offering a fee. Book bloggers generally get into doing what they do because of their passion for reading – but does this mean that we should expect them to devote hours of their time to promoting people’s books without any financial acknowledgement of their work and their time?

I think there’s a tipping point. There is a moment when, ‘I do this because I love it, and will fit it into my life in any way I can’ becomes, ‘I do this because I love it, and I wonder if there’s some way of making money doing it, so I can afford to put even more time into it,’ which eventually merges into, ‘I do this because I love it, but it is taking up so much of my time, and people are now making demands of me, and it’s about time I was properly acknowledged and paid for my time.’

Of course we all need a roof over our head and bread on the table, but I believe that the aspiration to be paid for our time is also about a natural desire that we have for acknowledgement, for status, for a recognition of who we are, what we are doing, the difference we might be making in the world. Money is society’s way of saying, ‘You are appreciated for this.’

Earlier this week, I received a letter that filled my heart, from a girl who had just read my YA novel about a girl coming out. Read Me Like A Book was published last year, after a very long road to publication. I have always said that my biggest hope with this book would be that someone might read it who really needed it, and that it would help them to feel they weren’t alone in what they were going through. This letter was that person.

The lines that stopped me in my tracks and brought tears to my eyes were these: “I felt that I could relate to a lot of Ash’s experiences in the book and that’s really helped me to feel a lot more, for want of a much better word, normal and happier and more accepting of myself. Thank you, thank you, thank you again and again and again!”

This letter tells me that what I am doing has value. That I have a place in the world, that the thing I put my time and my passion into is worthwhile. This letter says, ‘You are appreciated for this.’ Putting aside the need to eat, have shelter, be warm – this letter, frankly, is why I am a writer.

And yes, the fact that writing books is my job does mean it’s easier for me to say ‘I’m a writer’. But my argument is that we should be able to say that regardless.

My other passion is photography. I spend almost as much time on this as writing – but I have never made any money from it. Even so, when people ask what I do, I often want to mention it. My Twitter profile, for example, now includes ‘Keen photographer,’ and it feels important to me that I do this – that we do this.

The kind of thing that gets me up and out of the house early in the mornings
Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that we should all be happy to know that we’re doing something creative and not try to get paid for it. Not at all. I am fully behind all attempts to receive financial reward for the things we put our time and efforts into – whatever they are and however we feel about them. What I am saying is that we, as a society, should rate people’s passions and dreams as highly as we rate their method of paying the bills.

So, try it. Next time someone asks ‘What do you do?’ try saying, ‘I review books,’ ‘I crochet mermaids,’ ‘I take disabled people horse riding,’ ‘I help save lives out at sea,’ ‘I write, take photographs and surf.’

Perhaps if we all do it, then as a society we might one day come to value the contribution that people make to their communities and to the lives of those around them as much as we value the hunk of metal they drive to their day job and the size of the building they live in.

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Sue Purkiss said...

I love this post. Thank you, Liz! I'll have to read it again to check I've got it right - but I think what you're saying is that people should not be valued just in terms of the job that they do. I absolutely think that. You should never just look at a dustman and think of him/her only in terms of the job that he does... when you get behind the job, to the person, people can turn out to be utterly amazing.

Liz Kessler said...

Thanks Sue. Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. We have such a habit, as a society, of our first words when we meet someone being, 'What do you do?' meaning, 'What is your job?' as if how we earn money is the only thing that defines us. And I think we are much more than just the thing we do to pay our bills.

Eve Ainsworth said...

Lovely post Liz and so true.
My Dad had many jobs, before becoming too ill to work. But his one passion was wood craving, which he was truly talented at. In life he used to play it down and say "I'll never make anything from that..."
I find it sad that now he's no longer with us, his carvings are enjoyed by so many and he will never realise how much he was recognised for that talent.

Sue Bursztynski said...

If you write, you're a writer. Period. But when people ask you, "What do you do?" they mean for a living. And most of us, as you know, can't make a living out of writing, alas! So I guess it's up to the individual.

I can't see why speakers at festivals shouldn't be paid. The festival organisers are paid, though there are volunteers as well. But you're doing a job. Actors who appear at science fiction conventions are paid, very generously, and so they should be. It's work. Chances are that if you're at a convention - or speaking at a festival - you can't do another paying gig.

I haven't heard of bloggers who ask for payment. It won't happen, ever, on my book blog, The Great Raven. The deal is, your publisher gives me a book and I give the author promotion through a review, a guest post or an interview. Sometimes, if I'm flat out with reading, I don't even ask for the book. But I can kind of see why some bloggers might want paying. We get many, many inquiries from companies of the kind who advertise blog tours for their self published clients - "we will arrange you fifty blog appearances for a mere $250.00!" It can't cost much to send a couple of hundred emails with the cover blurb and the author's bio. Only if someone replies do they have to make arrangements and even then they would have standard procedures. For that, they charge the clients and expect the bloggers to offer a free service. I generally delete these emails, myself.

Of course, there are some paid bloggers, but they generally work for web sites, eg Booktopia.

Liz Kessler said...

Thanks Eve xxx

Sue - really interesting points. I wasn't really keen to get into all those discussions, as I said in the post. This particular post is more concerned with the ideas of valuing ourselves (and others) for the stuff that we do, *regardless* of whether or not we're being paid. But do check out the two blogs I linked to if you wanted to get more into that discussion. All the best, Liz x

Penny Dolan said...

Lovely post. Liz, and wonderful photograph.

I wonder if sometime the intensity & complexity of what one feels inside when saying "I'm a writer" (or carver or painter or photographer)seems too much to bring out in smaller conversations, especially with writing when there's often "nothing to see".

(An aside, but re blog payments. Nobody pays any of the Awfully Big Blog Adventure bloggers, NOR the Awfully Big Blog Reviewers who choose the books they've reviewed themselves.)

Katherine Roberts said...

I usually say "I'm self-employed" and find people rarely ask what I actually employ myself to do. I'm embarrassed to call myself an author these days since the most money I've earned recently has been as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow (thank goodness for the RLF!), and yet I would never call myself a teacher or tutor because I still think creating things is what I was put on this earth to do, whether that's writing fiction, or painting the pictures for my ebook covers, or some other kind of creativity linked to being an author today.

Sometimes I do feel worthless when what I create seems unwanted, but I think I get what you're saying Liz... if people were appreciated for their actual art rather than the money they (or more likely others) can make from it, the world would be a better place?

whispering words said...

Very well said - great post. I think we should be defined by more than just our jobs, but our passions and interests as well. For instance my step-dad is a postman, but he also is a property developer. However when he goes into an estate agents, looking at an above average priced house, he tells people he is a postman and they give him this skeptical look and try to show him cheaper properties. I think society can have a very warped view of the world and its people, trying to fit everyone into a mould.

In regards to being paid for our hobbies, I'm not sure I agree with that. I blog because I enjoy it, and consider the books and advanced copies I receive as more than payment enough. If its not really something your passionate enough to continue without being paid, I don't think you can really call it a passion.

And by the way, your photos are beautiful.

Gill Edwards said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gill Edwards said...

(I removed previous comment as it had errors)

Funnily enough I wrote a post on my blog the other day about why i think Bloggers should not get paid. Link here if you wanted a read:

I agree with your post mostly. My strength lies in research especially genealogical and i would love to call myself a researcher but its almost impossible to get a foot in the door. I also love photography and your photos are amazing. What a wonderful place to live too, I had part of my honeymoon in St. Ives.

Gill @book_magpie

Carolyn said...

Being self employed can be taxing at the best of times, without people judging you. One problem I find is making time for my partner as my day never seems to end, ever. I bought my other half a book for christmas to see if we could get the spark back in our relationship. So far, so good. You can find it here