No rest (and bucks) for the storytellers
When the world packed up its suitcase and went on a year-long hiatus to an Apocalypse Now world, art prevailed. All the Zuckerbergs of the world tucked themselves in, dusted off old books, turned on Netflix, plugged in their earbuds, and frolicked in the artistic oeuvre of storytellers.
But, no matter how much stories are celebrated and found refuge in, the faces behind those words wobble through life with meager pay instead of the fat bill rolls that they rightfully deserve. It’s ironic how media and publishing conglomerates who literally sell stories give their lego pieces, the writers a hard time cashing in on how they bead words together like pearls on a necklace. Ria Chopra who’s worked with The Quint, Buzzfeed India, Vice India, and more said, “I have worked for free many times, being paid only in ‘experience’ and ‘exposure’, which is something that many young writers have to do to get credit.” She further also stated, “My privilege has allowed me to simply take a step back, decline future assignments for a while, and take a break - something that a reporter or a writer by profession could probably not do as easily as I could because they are dependent financially on their writing for their livelihood. ”
Building on the turmoils of burdening writing with total financial sustenance is Shubhanjana Das, now a freelancer who’s worked with Elle India, Bodice, Runway Square, and more. Her tug-of-war with fashion journalism was entangled with financial insecurity where she had to support her family and herself on the “peanuts” she was paid. She further added, “I was also doing two freelance jobs because with the money that I was earning from my full-time job, I couldn't manage my rent.”
“Convincing my parents of the field I wanted to get into was my biggest task since they knew how underpaid it is,” says Sanjana Chawla who has words published in Femina, So Delhi, GoodTimes. The journalism graduate from Lady Shri Ram College exclaimed, “Even after the required skillset and know-how, many companies offered as low as INR 10,000 and that did feel humiliating.”
Addressing the elephant in the room: Interns
Exhibit A: the overworked, underpaid Andy Sachs from The Devil Wears Prada who is probably also exhausted from being overused as an example to paint a fair portrait of the publication hellscape. That pretty much sums up the collective exploited consciousness of all interns who bend it better than Beckham to gain experience while also not losing out on the monetary compensation. Firstly, interns have to spin on the vicious cycle of needing internships to gain experience and not getting any in the first place due to lack of experience. And if by the off chance the publication gods were kind enough on interns and they do get it, they “are severely underpaid and undermined,” as put by Sanjana.
While learning from experts who’ve chewed on and digested parts of the industry is an honor but even being lowest in the food chain, what interns do is still work without which the organizations may as well be handicapped. “The fact that you are remunerating them is a basic token of saying that, you know, this is work- it's not just any sort of favor. It’s the opposite of favor, it is an exploitation of the highest degree.” Ruman Baig, a fashion journalist currently working at Elle India, further added, "I think everyone started underpaid, I thought that was the norm.”
How much are words worth vis-a-vis other industries?
While writers have to surf through patronizing statements like “Anybody can write,” their professional lives are also plagued with self-doubt as MNCs pay more to their ‘professionals’ than they do to their writers. Ruman Baig commenting on the issue said, “Writers are very very underpaid because everyone thinks they can do it. This salary disparity is certainly not right, I mean especially as writers.” Expanding on the same is Ria Chopra, who said, “I’ve had to watch my friends pursuing commerce and science courses dismiss internships paying less than many thousands a month as worthless, while I have applied for and chased work that pays nothing, simply because writing is seen as less ’specialized’ or professional than other kinds of work.”
This brings to light how undervalued creativity is and screams hoarse of the privilege and entitlement that the industry is filled up to the brim with. As writers are blatantly paid lesser, what’s disregarded is the social ladder and how this underpaying norm especially in the creative sphere constantly others and corners marginalized groups. “As someone who has worked in corporate jobs as well as media/writing, I have seen how both kinds of sectors have less representation from marginalized groups, due to societal hurdles and inequality,” exclaimed Ria.
These statements directly unshroud the inclusive garb of the publishing industry, exposing the bare elitism that runs rampant through it.
While it doesn't charge a lot to join the writer's club, staying in it sure as heck bites the pocket. While the publishing industry needs to grow out of the respect deficit it harbors for writers, it also needs to allocate better budgets for the people that fill up their empty pages. Lastly, leaving with what Shubhanjana said, "Take out the words from your glossy magazines and show me what you have left."