As an editor, I’m well aware few new authors have much money to spare. For that matter, neither do most authors with several published books. The media cover the millionaire successes, not the millions of good writers whose royalty statements rarely run to four figures.

Publishing books has always been something of a gamble. Most books not only do not make money for their authors; they leave their publishers anxious to see the breakeven point. That’s true even for the big names in the business. Even a great success with Book A is no guarantee future books by that author or of a similar kind will do well. The exceptions make the news precisely because they are rare.

Like it or not, economics rule our lives in this business as in others. Publishers started to cut back on their in-house editorial staff decades ago. Freelance editors’ rates based on making a living wage collide with the “we’ve budgeted for 20 hours–just do your best” established back in the 1990s, leaving an editor with the choice between doing less than the book needs and doing it right at apprentice rates.

The dilemma in dealing with an individual author can be even worse. Most of the manuscripts I see are from first-time authors, some of them with real talent and compelling stories to tell. But what they have now is an early draft that clearly needs more work than a publisher will be willing to pay for, which 99% of the time means automatic rejection. On the other hand, editing to the point where a publisher would seriously consider it would cost more than the author is likely to earn under normal circumstances.

What I normally do is ask for the manuscript, read it carefully, and offer some basic developmental suggestions at no charge, along with a quotation for either guiding the rewrite or copyediting the result. Even when a book really excites me, I simply can’t afford to work for free but I am willing to do one project a year at the special “starving author” rate, on the explicit understanding that there is no deadline so I can fit it around the other work that will keep the roof over my head. Otherwise, I must insist on a living wage.

Perhaps this is why I and others like me get so indignant when we’re offered (as if it were a wonderful opportunity) a chance to work hard gratis, for the “exposure” or for a share of the putative future royalties. There seem to be a great many people, including some very well-heeled corporate types, who think writers, editors, illustrators and other creative people should be flattered to be asked and too ethereal to need food and shelter.

Yes, I do know there are some who simply crave any kind of exposure, and others will blog free for the likes of the Huffington Post as an audience-building exercise. They obviously have some source of income most of us don’t. There are many times in a freelancer’s life when a well-paid day-job or spouse would come in very handy. Lacking those things, we need to live by our labours and cannot be expected to donate our work or think kindly of those who expect us to.

By the way, in four decades I have never encountered an individual author of any talent who didn’t just assume I would need to be paid.