Saturday, 18 June 2011

Open House Day 19 - Jay Eales

Giving It All Away – Is it worth it, working for free?

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you probably know me from the British Fantasy Society or the Terror Scribes. I’ve co-edited Prism (but who in the BFS hasn’t over the years? If you haven’t, ask to see the list. They may say there’s no list, but trust me, there’s a list. And you’re on it.) I’m currently the Graphic Novels Reviews Editor for the BFS Journal. And in recent years at FantasyCon, whenever there’s a panel on comics, (usually at some ungodly hour like 9.30am), I seem to be on it.

As a small press publisher myself, I’ve been involved in a few projects over the years, editing Doctor Who books for charitable causes, journalism, comics and a small handful of short stories. At time of writing, if you Google my name, there are only three links on the first six pages that aren’t about me, and yet I still feel as though I’m just starting out on this writing adventure. Certainly paying opportunities have been few and far between. I’ve always been something of a flittermouse, jumping from one medium to another, from comics to journalism to illustration, from design to prose. In one way, it means that hopefully I have a few different strings to my bow, and can turn my hand to lots of things. But on the other, by not concentrating on a single form, I’ve not managed to make the big breakthrough that some of my one-string peers have done. No disrespect meant there. By one-string I don’t mean one-note. I do sometimes idly wonder if I should narrow my focus more. Or maybe I take too much pleasure in fighting for greater respect for the comics medium, a ghetto within the bigger ghetto of genre fiction… Remember that old comedy sketch about class from the Frost Report? I see John Cleese as Literary Fiction, Ronnie Barker as Genre Fiction and Ronnie Corbett as Comics. “I know my place”, indeed.

On the subject of respect, Harlan Ellison lays the blame for the way that writers are given little respect at the door of ‘amateur’ writers who do stuff for free. There’s a clip on YouTube taken from the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, where he recounts his experiences with Warner Brothers, who interviewed him for a Babylon 5 DVD extra, and were surprised that he wanted to be paid for his time. On one hand, he’s totally right, if a little polarised in his opinion. But then, what else would you expect from Ellison?

But the way I see it, working on spec is a part and parcel of the writer’s life. It’s a lucky writer indeed who never has to work up a pitch, never has to write a detailed outline for a book that never ends up going anywhere, or never put a stroke of effort into a project that just didn’t pan out, for one reason or another. Giving away some of your work is just one of the building bricks towards getting that sustainable career, surely?

In the small press trenches, it’s common enough to write for little or no fee, and to get something like a contributor copy on publication. The aim of the game is getting your name out there, learning your craft and rubbing shoulders with like-minded individuals who are on the same path. Certainly in the early days, it’s more important to be read than to be paid. And we are lucky to have a thriving independent/ small press scene to play in, enjoying the support of more established writers and editors, who’ve either been in the same position or just like to have new things to read, or the opportunity to work on personal projects that they can’t find another home for. Without this support network, I hate to imagine the state of fiction, where no writer would write without a fee. Sometimes a project that started out as a throwaway bit of fun turns out to be the most profitable of all. If I had to pay every creator even a token sum per page, on top of production costs, I could never have afforded to start a project
such as Violent! Does that mean I’m contributing to the degradation of the creator’s worth? Or is it just realism, given the size and shape of the medium? If we were making money hand over fist, of course I’d be paying the creators. But by the same token, if there was money being made, they’d never let me get away with not paying them!

It never ceases to amaze me the generosity of professional writers and artists to do favours for friends and passing acquaintances by doing what is basically their day job, for free. I’ve come to rely upon it during my time publishing comics through Factor Fiction. While I’d love to be able to pay contributors, we’ve never made any profit after paying for printing and table costs at conventions. But contributors have always known that going in, and we’ve always operated a policy of letting copyright remain with the creators, so if there is ever an opportunity to reuse the work elsewhere, they are free to do so, with our blessing. And if our comics help to raise the profile of the creator to help them get that paying gig, well, we’re happy to have done our part. We’ve made so many great friends through our comics. And it’s led to a number of opportunities that we’d otherwise never have had, and ironically, these other opportunities have been more lucrative than the comics ever were! I’ve chaired panels on comics for Leicester Libraries, run workshops, Selina has spoken to students on crime in comics as part of their degree course. Both of us have been invited to be part of the judging panel for The Eagles Initiative, a new spin-off from the famous British comic awards, focusing on discovering new talent.

On the minus side, all this editing and plate-spinning takes time away from our own writing, so we’ve scaled back on all things editorial to focus more on that side of things. We joined a local writing group – The Speculators, and have been flexing our prose muscles for all they’re worth. The Speculators were able to get funding to produce a newspaper containing stories by the members. Gave that away too, as part of the goody bag at Alt Fiction last year. And you can still get hold of an electronic edition here: See, there I go, giving stuff away again. I can sense Harlan’s disapproval from here.

We’ve started the process of stepping back from things, such as Caption – our plan was ‘five years and out’, but a number of factors led us to hang around like a bad smell for another year on the committee, the result being that Austerity Caption will be taking place at the East Oxford Community Centre on August 6th/7th [more info here:] and then we’ll see if we can escape the siren song at last… It’s a tricky business, though. When you’re used to saying yes to everything, learning to say no takes effort.

It’s all very well me bemoaning that I haven’t worked for 2000AD yet, or sold a novel, but if I haven’t so much as submitted a Future Shock in years, and haven’t actually written that novel, whose fault is that?

I’ve been published in the BFS Award winning Murky Depths, and my story Spare Parts was long-listed for the BSFA Award for Best Short Story of 2010. You can buy that issue of Murky Depths here: [], but you’ll have to search for issue #12. One of our Factor Fiction titles, The Girly Comic was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award for Best Comic/Graphic Novel in 2009 and again in 2010. So far, it’s been a case of always the bridesmaid, but despite the disappointment, it really is nice to be nominated. No, really!

My latest published work: Mightier than the Sword is part of the Obverse Books anthology The Romance of Faction Paradox. You can buy it here: I have a comic strip upcoming in Murky Depths as soon as we’ve yoked an appropriate pencil-monkey to the task, and I have a few irons in the fire, one of which I hope will stitch together the two halves of our creative communities. But too early to do more than tease you on that, at this stage.

Jay Eales is one of those bad-to-the-bone Public Sector workers you read about in the papers. You know, the ones who are stealing money from the Tay Payer to fund a luxury retirement. This apparently explains why he does so much writing for free.

He is the editor of Violent! and publisher of The Girly Comic for Factor Fiction. [] He edited and published several Doctor Who anthologies for charity, designed the Obverse Press logo and the cover for The Obverse Book of Ghosts. His comics have appeared all over, from Image Comics to Constable & Robinson’s Mammoth Book of Best New Manga. He was News Features Editor for the award-winning Borderline magazine. He organises Britain’s longest running comic convention, Caption and sometimes gets paid, but hasn’t yet managed to make a habit of it.

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