On the Recent Brouhaha
For those of you who don't read Whatever, you may have missed John Scalzi's recent post on the pay offered by Black Matrix Publishing, or his follow-up post that rounds up the responses of lots of pro writers and editors. Today, Scalzi points us to a very cranky response by MFA student and aspiring pro writer Jenn Brissett. The comment thread is wonderful. It's useful. It makes clear that Brissett doesn't get it.
So why do I care? Scalzi is not my friend, although I would love to hang out with him some time. I do know some professional sf writers and editors, though, and have been on the fringes of fandom for a long time. I don't see myself writing professionally, because I think I'm not really imaginative enough to write something that isn't jejeune and embarrassingly full of the Mary-Sue-ness that, even though it can sell (I'm looking at YOU, Stephinie Meyer), is not really very good. And if I wrote sf or fantasy, I would want it to be good, because I don't want the people I respect as writers to laugh at me. So yeah. Don't look for fiction by ADM anytime soon.
Right -- so this is why it concerns me at all. There are really a couple of reasons. The first is that, well, I have friends who write, and I want them to be writing for markets that pay relatively well. The second is that, well, I do write. I mean, I write really slowly, and I don't get paid in anything but CV credit, but in some ways I think that's relevant to the larger conversation. One of Brissett's arguments is that publishing with businesses like Black Matrix is still better than not publishing, because it can give a writer pro credits. The counter-argument is that some publishers are better than others; while the publishers who pay well tend to be the best-known and have the big pro reputations (hence good publication credits), many of the smaller and badly paying venues are also not places where the credit will count as much. This is not true for all of them, and I can imagine that, given the right publisher and editor, it might be advantageous for a newbie author to publish for free.
That seems pretty sensible to me, because the same is true for academic publishing. We rank our venues. A peer-reviewed publication is the bottom line, and from there there is a hierarchy of journals and publishers. Oxford UP or Cambridge UP will publish your book? Gold standard for many of us. Non-academic publisher or publisher with no guarantee of peer review? Not so much. There is an assumption of quality based on venue.
The second issue that strikes me about all this, though, is the one of payment. Academics don't expect to make tons of money from their books (although some do bring in some good royalties). To the best of my knowledge, most sf/f authors also do not make ginormous profits. Brissett argues that, by calling publishers like Black Matrix on their sweat-shop like wages, pro authors are acting as gatekeepers who don't want the newbies to get a fair shot. I call shenanigans on that. I may be a medievalist, but dammit, I teach the modern survey, too, and passed macroeconomics. I am familiar with Ricardo and his Iron Law of Wages. It's not about gatekeeping as much as it is looking around us and noting that, when we live in a society that undervalues labor, everybody's wages suck. This is true whether we look at people working at places like Walmart or in the kitchens of restaurants, or at humanities faculty. When people undersell themselves, they make it possible for employers to underpay them. Not only does it drag the wages of everyone else down, but it also encourages people to see what we do as having little worth. Unions can sometimes mitigate that, but honestly, they can't prevent state budget cuts and furloughs, which would not pass if people were properly infuriated and placed a high value on what we do.
Yeah -- that's getting a little close to blaming the victim, and I don't mean to do that. But this also connects back to our discussion of Bennett's History Matters, in terms of women and their occasionally willing participation in the perpetuation of the patriarchal equilibrium. Actually, it just connects back to feminism, plain and simple. If we aren't part of the solution, we are part of the problem -- and Brissett not only is part of the problem, but her arguments are so self-interested that she seems unable to see the same problem the rest of us do, i.e., that a poor wage structure, especially coupled with a venue that does not supply any particular cachet to its writers, is a sucker's game.
A final issue, which make it three for the promised two, is that ... WHAT? As I said above, I'm really sort of on the fringes of fandom. I don't drag myself to cons, even though I am starting to explore options there (Readercon, Sirens, and Wiscon are on my radar these days, although often they are not at convenient times for me to travel). But my overall impression, from being on those fringes for the past 30 or so years, is that the world of sf/f writing and editing is really not one of extraordinarily high, multi-bolted gates. There seem to be an awful lot of pros who got their start writing fanfic or editing fanzines. Smart people with something sensible to say seem to get put on con panels, and get worked into the system, although there does seem to be a flexible, but existing, frontier between the pros and the fans. But by and large, it seems to me to be a world where the talented can reinvent and establish themselves in ways that are not nearly as possible in many other professional areas.
You may wonder what all this is in service of. First, it's my blog and I had too much to say in a comment. Also? I've just successfully avoided marking essays for about 40 minutes! Guess it's time to get on that...