Want to be a writer? Then be prepared for jerks continually trying to take advantage of you. After all, to these jerks what you do isn't real work. So why should you profit off your labor?
To illustrate this point, here's a wonderful email email exchange between author Steve Almond and literary agent/writer Mark Reiter titled "The Payoff Will Be in Good Karma." Basically, Mark wants Steve to contribute to a book he's editing with Richard Sandomir called The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything.
When Steve asks how much contributors would be paid, Mark says, "Alas, there’s no money in it for contributors." But not to worry, the writing will only take Steve "three hours tops" and will be fun to do. Mark adds, "Now, the good news. Assuming that you don't do anything with your contribution too far before our March '07 pub date, you have all the rights to the material. There’s no reason you can't sell your bracket to the appropriate publication as a kind of first serial."
When Steve persists, directly asking "who IS getting paid, if not the contributors," Mark replies that "Richard Sandomir and I are sharing an advance of $50,000. That’s $25,000 each." But he insists this advance doesn't mean they can pay contributors. "We can't pay some people and not others, but if we did offer payment--less than $500 would be pointless--to everyone, the math says we’d be in the red. Royalties in excess of the advance (should they materialize) go to Richard and me. That’s the economics of this project." Marks then implies this book is essentially a charity case because "I collaborate once or twice a year on books with celebrated people where my minimum fee is $250k, so devoting six months to this project for $16k pretax is costing me plenty. I just like the idea of the book."
The best quote: When Mark says "the payoff (for contributors) will be in good karma." That causes Steve to go off, ranting "If asking contributors to write for free then collecting 50K is good karma, what's bad karma, Mark?"
I almost couldn't believe this exchange was real, but it appears to be true. I mean, you have a $50,000 advance but can't pay contributors? That's simply wrong. Yes, there are times when exposure for a writer is worth taking a lesser pay check, but this is absolutely not one of those cases. If Mark felt so strongly that this was a book worth doing because it was "fun," then he should have put his advance toward paying contributors.
Anyway, if you want to be a writer read this exchange. And remember there's nothing wrong in demanding to know what a publisher or editor will pay for your work. If someone doesn't answer that most simple of questions--or hems and haws in their response--remember it isn't good karma for writers to be shafted while someone else lands a big payday.