Home » Non-US, Royalties » Philip Hensher stirs debate among authors after refusing to write for free

Philip Hensher stirs debate among authors after refusing to write for free

14 October 2013

From The Guardian:

An angry backlash has erupted among UK authors who are increasingly frustrated at being asked to provide their time for nothing, whether writing, reading at literary events or judging book prizes.

Frustration spilled out on Facebook after a University of Cambridge professor of modern German and comparative culture, Andrew Webber, branded the acclaimed literary novelist Philip Hensher “priggish and ungracious” for refusing to write an introduction to the academic’s forthcoming guide to Berlin literature for free.

Hensher said: “He’s written a [previous] book about writers in Berlin during the 20th century, but how does he think that today’s writers make a living? It shows a total lack of support for how writers can live. I’m not just saying it for my sake: we’re creating a world where we’re making it impossible for writers to make a living.”

Hensher, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008 for his novel The Northern Clemency, a portrait of Britain’s social landscape through the Thatcher era, wrote his first two novels while working a day job, but said: “I always had an eye to when I would make a living from it. If people who claim to respect literature – professors of literature at Cambridge University – expect it, then I see no future for young authors. Why would you start on a career if it’s not just impossible, but improper, to expect payment?”

. . . .

“It’s our duty as writers to place a value on our work, and not to allow it to be unreasonably eroded. There is increasingly a culture of consumers not paying for cultural products, whether it’s downloaded music or free newspapers. You can have writers who do it in their spare time, who have independent means, or have literature written by people in institutions, but it’s not going to lead to an improvement in literature.”Walters, whose books include Hunting Evil, an account of Nazi attempts to escape at the end of the second world war, added: “I absolutely refuse to do anything for free, no matter what it is. It basically supposes that authors live in a rarefied world in which they don’t need money. If you want culture to be enriched, you need to enrich authors.”He said that publishers’ advances had been reduced over the past decade, which added to the squeeze on authors’ income, making payment for one-off freelance jobs all the more important.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Diana for the tip.

Non-US, Royalties

33 Comments to “Philip Hensher stirs debate among authors after refusing to write for free”

  1. I get asked to write for free occasionally. But I’ve never been asked to write for free by the same person more than once.

  2. I see no reason why one should write (or speak) for free when the venue isn’t free for the audience. More power to Hensher, and shame on Webber.

  3. “Frustration spilled out on Facebook after a University of Cambridge professor of modern German and comparative culture, Andrew Webber, branded the acclaimed literary novelist Philip Hensher ”priggish and ungracious” for refusing to write an introduction to the academic’s forthcoming guide to Berlin literature for free.”

    ”priggish and ungracious”
    They simply can’t believe the gall of the man.
    A writer who thinks his words have any worth beyond enriching a publisher’s bottom line?
    What’s the world coming to?

  4. I used to write “for exposure” quite often. Now I’m far less inclined to do so. One can’t actually pay bills or eat exposure, and I found that the exposure received wasn’t really worth the effort committed.

    I’m unclear why no payment for the introduction was offered. Back when I first published my debut story collection (in 2007 and through Lulu), I approached a couple of different authors about possibly writing an intro; in both cases, I offered them industry-standard payments for their work.

  5. I have been a semi-pro photographer (foxhunting) and I can tell you this applies to event photography, too. Everyone wants free photos on the grounds “It will be good for your publicity”. Newspapers, blogs, personal websites, catalogues… the list goes on and on. And enough people comply that if you don’t, they just move along to the next one.

    At least with books, there’s no natural expiration date to the material.

    • Good grief, yes, don’t get me started on this… And not just event photography, too,

      • Yep. My husband used to have his own action sports photography biz. With his telephoto and years of experience, he could get great shots of kids playing, which all the parents wanted. At first, he would go to the games and upload the photos onto a site with watermarks and shopping carts. It cost money to have that service, but then parents wouldn’t buy anything, and the bolder ones even complained about how when they copied the pictures off the site, they were spoiled by the watermarks. They asked how to get rid of them. After that, my husband suggested a flat fee for taking the photos and giving the team the disc to do what they wanted with the pics. They grumbled about that too.

        Now he just freelances for someone else who does it, and gets paid an hourly amount from that person.

  6. I’ll leave this here. It’s highly relevant to the discussion. A word from Harlan Ellison:


  7. I gave something I wrote for free to a reader of my blog. But that’s because he wanted to put a quote of mine on the Iowa Holocaust Memorial.

    Yeah, you can have that for nothing, because you can’t put a price on an honor like that.

    An intro to a book? Pay me.

  8. I note Professor Webber has commented that the situation has been totally misrepresented, and he will shortly provide the Guardian with a letter which will clear the whole mess up. I await it with bated breath.

  9. If you don’t put a value on your work, no one else will.

  10. How sad is this? I was at a family gathering over the weekend, and my aunt, who lives across the country, was there and asking me about my books. She has read two of them so far and she asked how they were doing. I mentioned that I’d had one perma-free over the summer, and she was like, “Oh! And I missed it!”

    She is not poor by any stretch of the imagination and my book is all of $2.99. To be fair, she did then laugh and say something like that’s okay, she’d buy it.

    Meanwhile, my brother was standing there, and he looked guilty and said in a defensive tone, “I bought your first book.” He’s not poor either. He has bought houses sight unseen so he can flip them.

    • Only one of my relatives so far has ordered my books – my mum’s told so many people. I guess they’re just not interested. I don’t want pity sales, but I get that it hurts a little, especially if they could easily spare the money.

      • Only one of my relatives has bought my book, just like most of them aren’t really interested in listening to me sing or getting albums. Heck, most of them didn’t even listen to the Christmas-carol gift-recordings I sent them for Christmas for a few years, and I’m a good singer who chooses good songs.

        Whatcha gonna do? Obviously they’ve decided they’re not the target audience, and there’s no more to be said.

        • I hear this. My brother asked for my first print version for free. Fortunately I was just out of stock at the time, so I directed him to the site. As far as I know, he never purchased it.

  11. I am waiting for the follow up article “The Tactical Snub: a marketing ploy. Make enemies in public to see your name in lights”

  12. Good for Philip Hensher. If he’s going to put in the time and effort to come up with something, why shouldn’t he get paid?

  13. Is Webber’s book free?
    Or, does he expect to make money off it?
    He should have asked upfront what his rate is for an intro. He then could’ve nodded and quietly moved on if he was hoping for free.
    No drama that way.

  14. Everyone knows a true aaaaartiste works for free, darling! You commercial peasants just don’t understand!

    • Yeah, that’s why they invented “the starving artist” to indicate you do it for the love of it, and not like those bourgeois who wants to be paid. He, he, he

  15. An illustrator here in Ireland made a pretty similar point on his blog a while back. It always boils down to people who should know better not considering that no one can eat publicity. The blog was here: http://www.oisinmcgann.com/blog/?p=3415

  16. Bravo, Heffner! Way to represent!

  17. This just in: Science blogger who refused to write for free responds to editor who called her an “urban whore” for asking about compensation. http://bit.ly/170gUoY

  18. In academia, intros are often free, or traded off for other academic favors (like writing an intro on the last book of the other guy).

    Of course, introductions can go on an academic’s CV as publications, so they are worth money/tenure in that way.

  19. I’m glad more writers are pushing back. I first saw this with Nate Thayer with the Atlantic, where some silly editor at the Atlantic thought an established foreign correspondent (Thayer) should repackage his work for free, for “exposure.” As if. The Atlantic was supposed to be a goal you work toward; now that they want you to work for free I class them with the other podunk papers writers start at on their way to bigger and better.

  20. It seems to be a prevalent thing in the Arts in general. Nobody would think of asking a lawyer to do something for free unless he/she volunteered, or an accountant, police don’t work for free, certainly not politicians – well. you’re paying them simply to be as it is….

    But if you are an artist, a writer, composer (they won’t mind, it’s good publicity) … a big chunk of the world also thinks they can rip you off by free downloads or photocopying whole works, as of right.

    Go Hensher — and I say that as part of a publishing company.

    • Trixie – I disagree. Solicitors do a lot of work for free. Accountants also. I have personal experience of both and family members in both trades.

  21. Contrary to some views expressed here – I see absolutely no reason on this earth why a writer, or anyone for that matter, should not be asked to work for free. Anyone is free to ask and anyone is free to say no.

    Andrew Webber however, just makes an ass of himself by responding so offensively.

    However, When Hensher says “It’s our duty as writers to place a value on our work,” he is not just wrong but transparently elitist. Value comes from the purchaser. If a writer cannot find people to pay for their work, then their work is without value. End of.

    Writers, like anyone else offering their service, need to understand that no one owes them a living or a payment. If they want your work, they will pay. If they won’t pay then that is the value they place on your work and you need to go elsewhere or into another trade.

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