Would you pay to read this? I wouldn't. I'm a professional writer, and if somebody told me there was an interesting blog on this website, all about writers not getting paid, I might click on a link to read it. But if they told me I'd have to pay, I'd remind them that the internet is stuffed with articles about writing, available for free. I should know, I wrote many of them myself. As anyone who's on Twitter will soon discover, writers spend most of their time writing advice for other writers, and if any of it was effective, there wouldn't be so much of it. Meanwhile, with so many writers eager to share their work with you for nothing, why should you pay to read my opinion about whether you should pay to read my opinion?
And if I was the Huffington Post I wouldn't pay me to write this, either. Even if I were Martin Amis, Tina Fey or Noam Chomsky. Well, maybe Chomsky, but if we made an exception just for him he probably wouldn't do it on principle if nobody else was getting paid. Good old Chomsky. But there are plenty of writers who will gladly write for free, and nobody who ran a magazine ever went broke by not paying writers. So, why pay anybody unless you have to?
Of course, there's the question of quality. If a writer is prepared to work without getting paid, how good can they be? If a plumber offers to work for free, that could be a bad sign. But writing isn't like other professions. A struggling writer is a romantic figure; a struggling brain surgeon, less so. While it's inspiring to hear about a writer whose eventual bestseller was initially rejected by over a hundred publishers, you're probably looking for a brain surgeon to whom success came early in their chosen field of fixing people's brains without killing them.
How can we evaluate what a writer is worth? Qualifications don't seem to mean much when it comes to writing. A degree in Creative Writing is just a document, and the only document that means anything to a writer is the one they're working on right now. And who pays attention to qualifications anyway? I was once at a party thrown by a con artist who was later jailed for defrauding heiresses. His house was festooned with qualifications and awards. A glass cabinet in the hallway contained a pair of crossed fencing sabres with an elaborate medal below them. Close inspection revealed it to be the guarantee from an Italian washing machine.
What about informal apprenticeships? I've worked as a Welder's Mate and the only qualification I needed was an ability to do what I was told, and make tea. The position of Writer's Mate could become an equally honourable one. Of course, duties of this type are sometimes performed by researchers, although the Web is putting many of them out of work. Here's what research means now:
Research = Google.
Intensive research = Lunch with someone who knows what they're talking about.
Exclusive access in-depth research = Paying for the lunch.
But ask the average writer if they want an assistant, and they'd probably say no. By the way, try not to call them an average writer to their face. But an assistant? To do what? Help them write? Unlikely, except for 'writers' like Robert Ludlum, whose work is created by an industrial process that continues even after their death, by which it is frequently improved.
The truth is that the only way to learn how to write is by writing, and even then there's no guarantee of success, no matter how much of it you do. That's partly because there's a big question about what constitutes success. What makes a plumber successful is the same as what makes them a good plumber: they fix what's gone wrong and it stays fixed even after you've paid them. It's not a matter of taste. But what makes a good writer or a successful writer? Some people love Nabakov, others prefer Dan Brown. All you can do is read, and see what you like.
And that's why there will always be so many writers who are eager to write for free if other writers refuse to. All that these eager writers want is a chance to be read. They just want a break. "Try me, and see if you like me." And if the only way they can get you to try them is by writing for free, that's what they'll do.
So, are writers being exploited by publications that don't pay them? I'm writing these words on an Apple laptop. Chinese employees in the vast Foxconn factories that make parts for Apple products are paid a pittance for working inhumanly long hours in terrible conditions with no rights. Or they were; Apple claims to have addressed these issues, although a young woman called Li Rongying just became the latest in a long line of employees to die by throwing herself from a Foxconn building, in North China's Shnaxi province. If I'm going to worry about a connection between exploitation and my work as a writer, I think I'll know where to start.
Meanwhile, I have the freedom to write what I want, including criticisms of corporations whose products I like, or governments whose policies I don't like, and you have the freedom to read them, if you want. If someone wants to pay me for writing this stuff, that would be great, but right now there are better things to go on strike about.
Follow Paul Bassett Davies on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thewritertype