Scarlett Harris on the pros and cons of getting behind the paywall.


These days, publishing is an increasingly paywalled industry in which some of the biggest and best quality publications are pay for play. Writers who want to write for and get paid by them are in a quandary: how much of a writer’s pay should go back into their client’s pocket?

I personally currently subscribe to three publications, one of which I write for, two of which I hope to write for. It’s important to note that not all publications that have a subscriber option are created equal. Some are independent publishers that depend on the generosity of their readers to stay in business, so I don’t mind forking out the admittedly small sum for the pleasure of reading the words therein. However, others are large media conglomerates that could probably subsist on advertising revenue alone. And, while I’m happy to contribute some of my own funds to fuelling the work of great writers whose work resides on their pages, how reasonable is it for freelancers to help bankroll a company that’s going to then reimburse us, creating a vicious cycle where we can seldom get ahead?

Subscriptions have changed since I bought my first ones for Cosmo and Vogue ten years ago. Back then a printed copy would arrive in my mailbox—usually without the free-gift-with-purchase seen on supermarket shelves—and that would be the extent of my engagement with the brand. As many publications migrate online, however, subscriptions now often come with more than just the official periodical: special offers. Member’s events. Access to past editions.

Offering more perks for those who subscribe gives literary journals such as Kill Your Darlings (KYD) an edge over conglomerates. “Our subscription model has changed over the years as we've moved from print to digital,” KYD editor Alan Vaarwerk explains. “Memberships are more than a subscription, they also offer a heap of other perks such as discounts on Writers' Workshops and manuscript assessments, member-only giveaways and events, as well as the ability to pitch and submit writing.”

So to be published by KYD, they’ve updated updated their terms so that you have to be subscribed to them: there’s no two ways about it. “Our memberships start at $14.95 for a six-month student membership, topping out at $35 a year for individuals,” Vaarwerk tells me. It’s ridiculously cheap. And, by limiting pitches to writers who are already subscribed, it “mean[s] that [KYD can] increase our payments to contributors, and invest in the literary community that invests in us.”

It makes sense. In reading pitch guidelines, a constant is that writers need to be familiar with the publication they’re looking to work for. Vaarwerk and editor of Fairfax’s Daily Life Jenny Noyes both agree.

“I think if people are serious about writing for news organisations, they need to read them widely and be familiar with the tone and editorial priorities,” Noyes says. “I understand that freelancers will probably need to pitch to more publications than they can probably afford to have subscriptions to”—though Noyes makes sure to point out that subscriptions are a tax deductible business expense—“but if you have a relationship with a certain publication or wish to develop one, it's pretty essential that you actually read it.”

Daily Life, a standalone website until 2016, was incorporated as part of The Age/Sydney Morning Herald’s Lifestyle pages, which sit behind a paywall once a reader has accessed 30 articles in a month. Because the paywall is “fairly soft”, Noyes says, “it doesn't make much of an impact to how we operate.”

What affects Daily Life’s editorial practices more and, by extension, freelance writers, is the fact that everything they publish now needs to fit under the “Lifestyle” banner, whereas previously “we would commission on a broader variety of topics and we didn't need to consider that certain stories we might want to cover would belong to another section's territory,” Noyes says.

Again, this is something writers who regularly read—and, thus, subscribe to—Daily Life will know. “Unsurprisingly,” Vaarwerk agrees, “the best pitches… [come] from people who were already engaged with the magazine and its content—and more often than not that mean[s] KYD Members.”

As more print publications fold or increase their online content it’s likely that subscriptions and paywalls will be on the rise as well—which means as writers we will likely need to get smarter about our business practices. Maybe we can share subscriptions with each other, or take advantage of trial memberships. Come tax time, make sure to claim them back, as Noyes suggests, and be vocal about which publications are worth our time and money. Hopefully our investments in ourselves result in more money back in freelancers’ pockets.

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Header image: Sergio Sánchez, Flickr
Feature image: Sergio Sánchez, Flickr
Scarlett Harris's picture

Scarlett Harris

Scarlett Harris is a regional Victoria-based freelance writer, musing about femin- and other -isms.