Money for nothing and your CanLit for free

I recently fielded a request from Canadian Literature, where I had published (unpaid) a poem a few years ago. They have developed a fine archive featuring poetry they’ve published, together with virtual interviews and biographies. The laudable aim of this enterprise is to make good quality contemporary writing available to Canadian students so they can take inspiration from published works in order to learn to write poetry themselves.

The journal makes its archive available for free, which is lovely for the schools and students who will benefit. But one of the reasons it’s available for free is they’re not paying the writers for what amounts for unlimited use of their creative works, as well as the thought and effort involved in answering questions about their life and process.

There are a hundred tired comparisons I could make: does a teacher or editor or librarian who develops such a database do so without accepting a salary? I doubt it. Should a carpenter be asked to build a house for free because it’s beautiful to look at and inspiring to student builders? Unlikely.

There is, unfortunately, no end to the things writers are asked to do for free, and unfortunately for those who ask, such requests have to go to the bottom of a freelancer’s or wage earner’s task list. Maybe it’s worth it to tenured academics with publication requirements or budding writers with day jobs who are hungry for publicity. But it seems to me that a lot of worthwhile and well-intentioned projects that aim to make information or creative work freely available to a wider public overlook the fact that the people who create those works have a right to expect to make a living from their writing.

And in my experience, the people who initiate these projects seldom make the effort to raise funding to pay those creators, particularly if the projects are from academic or educational institutions. Worse are the folk – like Google for example – who do so with aims of generating revenues of their own, on the backs of creators.

While educational institutions may not be awash with cash themselves, they are no less able than more exemplary folk – some valiant and unpaid editors of magazines and reading series – who fall over backwards to pay the people whose writing they publish and promote. And they are no less able to tell the people they’re asking just why there’s no money to pay them, if they have tried.

After a little prodding, Canadian Literature told me they did try their hardest to get funding for the project, but failed, and decided to proceed anyway, in the interests of having something worthwhile to offer to students, particularly those in remote locations. On the strength of the enthusiasm of the archive’s creators, I will likely participate in this project despite my misgivings, but I can’t help feeling caught in some kind of freebie vortex that sucks me and my ability to earn a living ever downwards. Money may not be why poets write poems, but it’s certainly a consideration in making them public.

And I wonder how keen those students will be to take up poetry if they’re made aware that a good annual income from writing for successful Canadian poets (aside from the blessings of PLR and Access Copyright cheques) seldom exceeds three digits.

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