- Would you enter a competition where the entry rules required you to product a work of art using considerable skill to meet a detailed specification where the prize was to see stonemasons carve your words in stone, something they would be paid for but you would not be?
- Would you undertake a three hour journey to give a half hour reading and hang around for a question and answer session for the privilege of appearing at the event (and no expenses)?
- Would you allow a publisher to have an original, unpublished piece of work for exposure (i.e. no pay)?
- Would you be prepared to read at a festival which attracts generous sponsorship, where the organisers, marketing staff and people serving coffee are on a salary but you are expected to receive nothing?
- Would you agree to be a poet in residence where you had to produce a predetermined number of poems and your pay would be free entry to the place you were doing the residency which has an entrance fee?
- Would you agree to take part in a cultural event to raise awareness and funds for a charity, not one you normally support, when the organiser assumes you would want to donate your fee to the charity, i.e. this donation is their decision, not yours?
How many questions did you answer “yes”? How many did you answer “It depends…”?
Few poets earn money directly from writing and publishing poems. Most earn money through commissions, tutoring, lectures, giving readings and performances or through a secondary job. Therefore reducing the opportunity to earn money through commissions, workshops and performances affects poets. More time spent doing secondary activities means less time available to actually write poems, this impoverishes us all.
- It might feel good to see your work permanently on display somewhere, particularly if the place is local or has special meaning to you, but your poem is your work. You may generate some local publicity on the back of your poem appearing, but you should also be paid. Without your poem, the stonemasons wouldn’t have work and it’s highly unlikely they’re working for free.
- If you are reading as part of a book launch or doing a book signing, you won’t get paid because the purpose is to sell books. If you have been asked to appear at an event run by unpaid volunteers and no one is being paid, then you have to consider whether the benefits of appearing outweigh the costs – if a local event where your travel expenses are minimal and it offers an opportunity to network with other poets or publishers and sell your book it may be worthwhile doing. If you have to incur travel expenses, prepare a reading and for a session afterwards it’s not unreasonable to ask for payment.
- Never fall into the trap of thinking exposure for your poem is worth donating an original, unpublished poem to a magazine/fanzine/anthology without payment, especially if the editor has a salary. If the magazine is being run on a shoestring with an unpaid editor, then a complimentary copy or a token payment will be all you can expect. But steer clear of publications which expect poets to work for free or expect poets to buy copies of publications their work appears in without payment for their published poem: your own reputation may be harmed by association.
- Similarly don’t bother doing a reading where everyone involved is getting paid except you. It might feel good being able to say that you read at this festival, but feeling good and getting a bit of local publicity won’t pay any bills.
- Always check the terms of any commission before undertaking to do it. In principle if you produce a poem or poems, you should be paid. A waiver of the admission fee isn’t payment, especially if all it’s doing is allowing you access to the place you need to visit to inspire the commissioned poems. You may be willing to accept a lower fee if the residency is in a place that has a special meaning for you or is connected to a charity or voluntary organisation, but take care not to devalue your work by becoming an unpaid intern.
- If you are approached to work for a charity, be wary of those who assume you don’t want a fee. If it’s a charity you do support and are happy to work for without a fee, still produce an invoice but mark it ‘donated to charity’ or ‘waived in favour of the charity’. Whether you donate your poet’s fee or not is your decision, not theirs. Remember a not for profit or no profit organisation is not necessarily a charity, just an organisation that reinvests any profit back into the organisation’s work. This does not exclude them from paying for poems or readings. Again, reinvestment of your fee is your decision, the organisation should not assume you are willing to work for free.
- Two more crucial factors in whether you accept a commission or agree to do a reading are a) copyright and b) publicity.
Does the copyright of any commissioned work remain with the poet or is it bought by the commissioner? Ideally you would retain copyright (or copyright would transfer back to the poet after a set time) so that you can use the commissioned poem(s) elsewhere e.g. in a collection or recording of a performance. If you do not retain copyright, the commissioner should pay you for buying those rights.
If you are expected to be available for interviews or for publicity events connected with the commission, beyond a mention in your newsletter or on social media, this should be taken into consideration.
All writers should be expected to get involved in publicity and help promote their own books and any events they are involved with, however, poets also have be on their guard against not being paid.