Weekend Edition – Getting Paid to Write, Part 1 [NSFW]

Money for Words

Writing is work. People get paid for work. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Not so much.

Writers – people who do the work of writing – often encounter situations in which they are asked to work without monetary compensation. Instead of money, writers are often offered “exposure” – a mythical substance which supposedly leads to other work for which the writer will actually be paid in actual dollars. Other times, writers are asked to work “on spec,” which means that the writer will deliver work “for consideration” without any guarantee that the work will be accepted and paid for. And other times, people just assume that because writers love what they do, they should just do it for free, because – you know – it’s easy and fun for them and writing can’t possibly be their real job.

The funny thing is though, as this video from creative agency Zulu Alpha Kilo illustrates, most people would be appalled if someone asked them to work for free:

Even when writers do get paid, they too often settle for rates that wouldn’t support the average writer’s notebook habit, never mind keep a roof over anyone’s head. Read through the job postings for writers on any of a half dozen work sites and you’ll see what I mean. Maybe you’ve already been there. My condolences.

And these two issues – not getting paid at all and getting paid peanuts – are only the tip of the money-for-words iceberg. Deeper into the discussion you encounter more complex commercial, ethical, and even socio-economic quandaries. Has the Internet-spawned culture-of-free devalued creative work beyond the point of no return? Does the non-payment of writers exclude certain segments of the population while giving the advantage to more a more privileged group who can afford to write for nothing or for token fees? What is the moral obligation of for-profit entities to compensate creators (including writers) whose work generates revenue for the corporate organization?


Let’s Begin with a David and Goliath Story.

This post is partly inspired by the most recent incarnation of the HuffPo debate – a Real World example of that last question scenario. Over the past few years, The Huffington Post, a very successful and profitable online publisher, has been brought to task for not paying the 100,000 or so writers who create the blog content that drives the advertising machine that fills HuffPo’s coffers. While these writers provide their work voluntarily in exchange for exposure to HuffPo’s large online audience, there is still a question about whether or not it is ethical for the publisher to continue with its no-pay policy. After all, HuffPo is not some start-up that’s bootstrapping it. AOL paid $315 million to acquire HuffPo in 2011, and The New York Times reported only last year that recent valuations of the publishing/”news” giant clock in around $1 billion.  This is clearly a company that could afford to pay its writers if it wanted to.

But, they don’t.

Instead, they crow about how proud they are of their no-pay policy because they believe it ensures “authentic” writing. You can read a more detailed account of this gaffe in Porter Anderson’s piece at Writer Unboxed, Amazing Disgrace:  The ‘Pride’ of The Huffington Post. Anderson does an excellent job of  translating HuffPo’s stance on (not) paying writers into three statements that distill the company’s beliefs about what it means to pay writers. The parenthetical statements are Anderson’s wry commentary on these ridiculous beliefs:

“If you pay a writer and take advertising dollars, you are not publishing that writer in an “authentic way” (there goesThe New York Times, let alone the Post’s own paid editorial staffers);

If a writer gives his or her work to you free of charge, you can then know “they want to write it” (paying a writer gets you a mercenary);

Not paying writers is “something to be proud of” (let’s drive the car right on over the cliff).”

Are you mad yet?

Chuck Wendig is beyond mad. He’s frothing at the mouth. In his post, Scream It Until Their Ears Bleed: Pay the Fucking Writers, he lets loose as only he can do:

“Let us expose this hot nonsense for what it is: a lie meant to exploit writers and to puff up that old persistent myth about the value of exposure or the joy of the starving artist or the mounting power of unpaid citizen journalism.

The lie is this: writing is not work, it is not fundamental, it is a freedom in which you would partake anyway, and here some chucklefuck would say, haw haw haw, you blog at your blog and nobody pays you, you post updates on Twitter and nobody pays you, you speak words into the mighty air and you do it for free, free, free. And Huffington Post floats overhead in their bloated dirigible and they yell down at you, WE BROADCAST TO MILLIONS and DON’T YOU WANT TO REACH MILLIONS WITH YOUR MEAGER VOICE and THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU.

But it is an opportunity for them, not for you.”

Wendig and Anderson both decided to walk the walk by boycotting HuffPo. They chose not to consume, click, or share HuffPo content. This isn’t a decision they made lightly since, as Anderson points out in his Amazing Disgrace post, it means not supporting other writers:

“More frequently, however, that decision has been challenged by my wish that I could in good conscience tweet and otherwise support the writings there of blogging colleagues whom I respect and like. There’s a fine marketing specialist, for example, who works hard on her or his column there, for which she is unpaid and for which I feel that I cannot indulge him or her the support of my social media work, not in good faith. And that makes me feel bad at times.”

 

Why Does Any of This Matter to You?

Even if you are not yet a working writer, even if you don’t plan to earn your entire living with words, the trickle-down effects of policies like HuffPo’s are dangerous and far-reaching. As Anderson adds to help explain why he feels so strongly about boycotting HuffPo:

“But if you write without pay for The Huffington Post, you have willingly deprived not only yourself of the payment you should have, but you have also helped to deprive others: You have perpetuated this cult-of-free-work among writers and, worse, among the employers and consumers of writers’ labor.”

When I reached out to some of my writer friends on this topic, writer and editor YiShun Lai pointed me to this rant from speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison:

Granted, Ellison takes his indignation to the extreme, but his point is the same as Anderson’s – one writer agreeing to work for nothing affects the earning potential of all other writers. Read through the comments on Wendig’s post and you’ll hear from people who have experienced first hand how the effects of the no-pay mentality seep down from the corporate giants to the smaller players like local newspaper publishers who pay writers either nothing or a pittance. In the past week alone, I’ve had two people ask me why I don’t get into journalism. Without even having to think about it, I answered, “It doesn’t pay.” And the marketplace acceptance of no-pay/low-pay policies is why it doesn’t pay.

Writers Are Paying a Bigger Price Than We Realize.

Even more dangerous than the financial exploitation that makes this trend such a travesty is the intellectual and emotional devaluation of the writing craft specifically and the creative arts in general. The growing prevalence of situations in which gatekeepers exercise their option to coerce writers into working for free has a cumulative effect on how writers, readers, and publishers perceive the value of writing and the “right” of writers to expect monetary compensation for their work.

Most people already drag around some kind of emotional baggage about money. We might suffer from the general belief that money is the root of all evil, or we might be susceptible to the more writer-specific fear that our creative work is an unforgivable indulgence. Whatever the case, writers are unfortunately already more vulnerable than most to self-doubt when it comes to what we “deserve” to be paid. Like a victim of abuse, we’ve come to believe that we deserve what we get.

We need to change that. We need to step back so we can get a true and complete sense of the bigger ecosystem in which our writing exists. We need to teach ourselves to see and believe in the value of the role our words play in individual lives, our culture, and the business world.

Tackling the easy part first, if your writing is putting money in someone else’s pocket, you need to be able to define and articulate that value and have the courage to ask for your share of the pie. Whether you are a freelance journalist earning a publisher advertising revenue or a copywriter whose words sell product, the writing you do has tangible value and you deserve to be fairly (sometimes handsomely) paid for that work.

Venturing into trickier territory, we need to slough off the “starving artist” stereotype. We need to stand up and defend the undeniable but often dismissed value of creative works – works that are intrinsically valuable on their own merit and not because they drive eyeballs or dollars into some other commerce beast. We need to stop perpetuating the myth that Real Artists must suffer for their art. We need to stop listening to the voices who tell us that art is superfluous, frivolous, a luxury, not worthy of financial support.

Art, in all its forms, enriches our lives. It teaches and enlightens, inspires and entertains. It’s the Good Stuff – the stuff that makes life worth living. Stories are the foundation of our human experience. Everything around you – books, magazines, television shows, movies, the news, theatre, music, social media, advertising, the conversations we have with each other – it’s all stories. And the stories that matter most to us – the stories that open our eyes, change our lives, and make us who we are – are the stories that  fall into the “creative” or “art” categories. We need, as a culture, to acknowledge, appreciate, and support the very real value these stories give us.

Ultimately, It’s Not Just Writers Who Suffer.

The devaluation of writing threatens more than writers’ bank accounts. It lowers the overall quality of the writing that’s out there and potentially deprives us entirely of certain journalistic and creative voices. Many talented and hard-working writers spend countless unpaid and “hardly paid” hours writing non-fiction and fiction for their own blogs, self-published works, literary magazines, and non-profits; but at the end of the day, there is only so much time most writers can spend without jeopardizing their ability to provide basic food and shelter for themselves and their families. As Wil Wheaton puts it, you can’t pay your rent with exposure.

There are no simple, black-and-white answers to this issue. There are exceptions, extenuating circumstances, and philosophical differences of opinion that can be debated nine ways to Sunday. The underwater hulk of the money-for-words iceberg is not only vast, it’s also dense, complex, and riddled with undetonated land mines. But this complexity and explosive potential should not scare us away from taking time to figure out where we stand on these issues. After all, it’s not just about us as individuals or even us as writers. How we defend and define the value of words and stories impacts the entire human experience, and – by extension – the very Earth we live on.

 ··• )o( •··

Next week, in Part 2 of this series, I’ll be talking about when and why writers can/should write for free as well as some of the factors that go into determining the perceived value of your writing and how to get paid fairly for it. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic and any personal experiences you’d like to share about getting paid (or not getting paid) for your writing. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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40 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – Getting Paid to Write, Part 1 [NSFW]

  1. Jamie, this is so timely and such a great piece. As a new blogger/writer there is that question always:is it good to publish for free for the exposure or only submit to paid jobs? Part of the issue is actually knowing how to ask for payment or what the payment should be. I’m looking forward to part 2! Years ago I was an aspiring actress and the same issues came up as you mentioned in your article. Thank you for bringing this subject to the forefront!

    • Hi, Tina. 🙂
      I’m glad you liked the piece, even though it left you with some questions. Hopefully, Part 2 will help start sorting those questions out.
      Interesting that you experienced similar situations as an actress. I’ve heard from other theatre performers as well as musicians that these kinds of expectations run across all artistic mediums, not just writing. It is, I think, a cultural issue.

      Thanks for being here. I hope Part 2 helps give you some ideas of how to approach your own work.

  2. You can’t pay your rent with exposure. True, true – unless it gets you an advertising contract. But for that, it’s better to be a reality TV star, right? And perhaps slightly easier than writing.

    • Ha! Yes. Great observation. (Though I can’t think of many fates worse than being a reality TV star!) 😉

      There are, in fact, many instances in which “exposure” can lead to good things. We’ll talk about that next week. Though this post paints a bleak picture, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the marketplace environment. Informed is armed, right?

      Thanks, as always, for being here!

  3. Jamie, thank you so much for sharing. The depth of this issue is far greater than I had understood. Exposure won’t buy a loaf or bread. And come right down to it…it’s not even exposure…it’s exploitation.

    • Yeah. Funny how so many Big Publishers, like HuffPo, confuse those two words.

      It is depressing to consider the depth of this problem for too long, but being aware will help you in the long run. Next week, we’ll talk in more detail about where each of us fits within the larger “writing world ecosystem.” There are many ways to survive and thrive here. 😉

      Thanks for coming by!

  4. Spot on. And I agree with Ellison. I have been writing professionally for decades and the trend of late is disturbing. I decline all offers of ‘free exposure’ in return for publication. If I want to publish for free, I’ll do it on my blog.

    • In most instances, I agree with you, Matthew. Keeping your writing on your own “real estate,” such as a blog, is often the smartest, long-term choice. At the least, if you do publish on someone else’s real estate, you need to be careful about rights and usage. We’ll get into a bit more of that next week.

      Thanks for coming by. Hope you enjoyed Ellison’s rant. The man’s got passion!

  5. Thank you for writing this piece! I’m a beginning freelance writer and so far the journey has been intense and eye-opening. Thinking you can write and then turning around and trying to navigate the world of online writing without a compass, makes for a potential disaster. Currently, I write small articles for Textbroker and Zerys, both of which pay on the lower end, but considering my limited experience I figured that is par for the course. I’m also active on Freelancer.com, UpWork, and Clear Voice. Until a few years ago, terms like; SEO and Content writing were not in my vocabulary. Nevermind trying to be active on social media and having to embed links, I’m having to teach myself how to write all over again for the digital market. I receive weekly emails from site’s like Freedom With Writing, All Indie Writers, and Writer’s Access. My hope is that their suggestions are legitimate. More often than not my head is left spinning in regards to the questions of, “Where to begin”, “How can I build exposure”, and “What training is the most valuable”? WordPress has been an excellent platform to play around with different subjects and styles, it has also been a valuable tool in gaining valuable insight from other writers. Looking forward to Part 2!

    • Hello, Kris. Welcome.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts as a new freelance writer. All the questions you ask are excellent ones, and they are so helpful to me as I work on next week’s post. I agree that one of the biggest challenges when starting out in this business is to know which resources are legitimate. I dont’ have a definitive list, but I’ll see what I can do to start pulling together some good site links and books … maybe not for next week’s post, but for a future post.

      Thanks again & “see” you next Saturday!

  6. This is illuminating! I was buying into the theory that getting exposure was good! If I was a plumber, a lawyer, accountant, doctor or teacher, would I need FREE exposure to make me a professional. Education is what makes me a professional in those fields. It takes education, even if it is learning how to write by trial and error, it is still education! Thanks for this blog. I read all of yours!

    • There are some instances when free exposure can be good, but which instances are the right ones to choose is the tricky part. We’ll discuss more about that this Saturday in Part 2. It is important though, as you point out, to keep your perspective and not fall into the trap of believing that you have to accept free exposure as part of what makes you a professional.

      Thanks for coming by & so nice to hear how much you enjoy the blog. 🙂

    • Thank you. I’m glad to hear you found it enlightening. Hope you can join us next week for Part 2!

  7. Same applies for musicians: Performing “for exposure” to get future gigs…. I refuse doing so. There is the golden rules among musicians about the three Ps, Prestige, Pleasure, Payment. At least two of them have to be granted or we won’t play.

      • Yes, exactly, “prestige” has to be absolutely real and absolutely important and it doesn’t go without either pleasure or payment. But most of the time, if their is prestige their is also payment (and hopefully pleasure).

    • I’ve heard about those “three Ps.” Our own Julie H talked with me about that in relation to her theatre experience. We’ll definitely dive into more about that in Part 2.

      Thanks for coming by and chiming in!

  8. After reading this, I’m not clicking on Huffington Post any more. I often get “Could you translate something simple for me – just one or two pages?” where the speaker takes for granted it’s such a breeze for me – it’s “just” writing after all. I used to say yes, thinking paid work would follow, but it never did after this type of overture. So I learned to even charge friends for a “favour” … though never really what it costs me in terms of time 🙂

    • I hear you. It’s so frustrating when someone asks you to write something and says something like, “Could you just XYZ? It’ll only take you a few minutes.” It always amazes me when someone else presumes to tell me how long any writing task will take, particularly when they have no idea what’s really involved.

      *sigh*

      Thanks, as always, for being here. 🙂

  9. Before accidentally becoming a blogger, I worked as a musician. Lol. Know the old saying? “Exposure is SOMETHING PEOPLE DIE OF.”

    Sick sick sick of being expected to generate high quality work for no reward only the vague promise that I will be “exposed.”

    • Exactly. Funny, but sadly true.
      The trouble is that, especially when you’re starting out, those “opportunities” are so tempting. Also, there really are no black and white rules about when it’s smart to say “yes” vs. when you should adamantly say “no.” That’s something I’ll be talking about more in Part 2 – the gap between The Way We Wish It Was and The Way It Really Is … and how to navigate the reality successfully.

      Thanks for coming by!

    • Hi, Nancy.
      I know – isn’t that video funny. It’s a very clever way to make an important point.
      And thank you for your compliments on the post. This one was a tough beast to tackle, and I had more than a few false starts. Anything that has to do with money gets so fraught so quickly.

      Thanks again & I’ll “see” you Saturday!

  10. Thanks for the post. I’d always wondered about the $5.00 gigs. Isn’t everyone’s time for valuable than $5.00? I used to be in graphic design and we wouldn’t even consider designing a business card for $5.00, let alone an entire article. Thanks for the encouragement as usual. Looking forward to Part 2 🙂

    • I know what you mean. The market takes advantage of the inexperienced. There’s a place for low-pay/no-pay gigs, but it’s pretty specific and shouldn’t be a major part of anyone’s business model.

      Thanks for sharing & I look forward to “seeing” you at Part 2!

    • Glad you liked it, Michele. And, thanks for bringing up the very real reality of student debt. That’s a whole other topic, but definitely a related one. Good point!

  11. Pingback: Saturday Edition – Writer, Paused. | Live to Write – Write to Live

  12. Pingback: Saturday Edition – Getting Paid to Write, Part II: When and Why to Write for Free | Live to Write – Write to Live

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