No Such Thing as “Never” or “Always”
In Part I of this series, we talked frankly about the very real, very widespread problem of certain publishers and clients expecting writers to write either for free or for rates so low they would offend my twelve year-old daughter. We heard the passionate and well-presented opinions of Porter Anderson, Chuck Wendig, and Harlan Ellison, and I got up on my ever-ready soap box to decry the bad behavior of the Powers That Be. But, because we live in the Real World, I also acknowledged that this isn’t a cut-and-dry issue. While I believe fiercely that quality writing has real value and that writers who provide such material should be well compensated for their work, I am also aware of the realities facing writers in today’s marketplace.
It’s hard for a new or struggling writer to turn down an opportunity – even an unpaid one – to get work published. After all, we write in order to be read. Our drive to get our words and stories out there is strong, akin to survival instinct. And, just to be clear, even established writers wrestle with this dilemma. I’ve talked to several talented, self-supporting writers who still have to think long and hard about certain unpaid/low-pay writing “jobs” that come across their desks.
The marketplace environment we writers must navigate is complex, mercurial, and full of potential pitfalls. While there are many brilliant and trustworthy sources of information and insight out there (the aforementioned Porter Anderson and his colleague Jane Friedman being two of my go-to reads), ultimately you have to make your own choices and find your own path. While it’s smart to stay informed and consider other people’s perspectives, you need to develop personal criteria for assessing “opportunities” in the context of your writer’s life
As we’ve talked about before, most of us have some hang-ups about money, and when you tangle that up with the self-doubt and other ailments that often accompany artistic pursuits you can wind up with a pretty volatile mess … not a good place from which to make sound decisions. I hope that the following observations, anecdotes, and rules of thumb – both my own and those generously shared by colleagues – will help you sort out your own thoughts and feelings about when and why you will consider writing for free. It’s important to have principles, but it’s even more important to know deep down that they are your principles and not just adopted opinions.
Picture This …
There are a variety of scenarios that force writers to weigh the pros and cons of writing for free vs. holding out based on principles. Though this list is by no means exhaustive and only touches lightly on each type of situation, you will get a sense of just how often you might have to ask yourself, “Am I willing to write this for free?”
One of the most common hurdles for new writers is getting experience and building up a portfolio of work. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg quandary. Whether you’re an essayist, a short-story writer, or a copywriter, it’s hard to land the better-paying gigs/more prestigious placements unless you can share work that demonstrates your ability. But, if no one will give you a shot on a well-paying assignment because you haven’t got relevant work to show, how are you supposed to build your portfolio?
When you’re starting out, there is nothing wrong with doing an internship or working for a lower rate that correlates to your level of experience. Everyone has to start somewhere, and sometimes an internship or mentor relationship can provide experience and networking benefits that far outweigh typical monetary compensation. If you find a good fit somewhere, go for it.
The trick in this case is knowing when enough is enough. At a certain point, you will evolve beyond the beginner stage and will have earned the right to higher rates. When this happens, you have to be willing to recognize the fact and then speak up about it. Most individuals, publishers, and companies will be happy to have you continue working for free or for peanuts unless you say something. Sometimes, you’ll have to leave that initial situation and move on to others where you can enter into the relationship at a different level. That’s okay, too. The writing life is about constant growth and change. Sometimes you’ll outgrow certain relationships.
One other caveat that’s directed more to the business and copywriting folks – please be very wary of content farms and many of the so-called freelance job sites. Though there are some that are reputable and fair, many of these organizations take advantage of new writers. The rates are terrible, the jobs are low quality, and the expectations on turn around times are completely unrealistic. In most cases, you’d be much better off hustling your network and local sources (think local business organizations like your chamber of commerce, etc.) for projects with small businesses and professionals.
“Exposure” Opportunities (Including Writing for The Huffington Post, et al)
This is probably one of the most prevalent no-pay/low-pay scenarios that writers encounter. From newbies to well-established professionals, we all field these inquiries on a fairly regular basis.
The scene goes something like this – you get a call or an email from a cheerful editor or business owner who would love to offer you a great opportunity to get some exposure by writing an article/essay/website/brochure/whatever … for free. This person may or may not ply you with enthusiastic projections about how many readers the publication has or how much business you’re likely to get because you’ve written the FAQ page for some obscure website.
When you are faced with this kind of “opportunity,” the first question you need to ask yourself is this: What’s in it for me? Hint: the answer is rarely what the publisher/business owner is selling you. There are good write-for-exposure opportunities and bad write-for-exposure opportunities, and which category a request falls into depends entirely on the writer’s personal situation and goals.
Bad opportunities have no upside for you, the writer. There are hundreds of reasons why you should immediately disqualify a so-called writing opportunity:
- The publication has no real audience
- The quality of other work published there is low
- The business website gets almost no traffic
- Writing copy isn’t your thing anyway
- And so on …
On the flip side of the coin, here are some examples of write-for-exposure scenarios that serve the writer as much as the publisher/business:
Stephanie Hepburn (@stephepburn) writes about sustainability and ingenuity at The Good Blog. She repurposes those posts in a series on Huffington Post, for which she is not compensated. Hepburn explained her decision to write for HuffPost in an email interview,
“In the past decade, freelance journalists (and journalists generally) have seen a significant decrease in pay and opportunity. Writing for free just further undermines our value, so I avoided doing so until relatively recently. What changed my mind, at least for now, is that no publication has ever employed me to write an opinion piece. Opinion writing for publications is overwhelmingly male, specifically white men. This causes disparity not only in terms of opportunity for writers but also a lack of diversity in opinions that are available for readers. Meaning, readers predominantly only have access to opinion pieces written by white men, which fails to represent our population as a whole.”
Writing for free for HuffPost is a win for Hepburn because she is not spending time creating original content, the platform does enable her to reach a much wider audience than if she only published on her own blog (resulting in a social media boost that sometimes translates into incremental traffic to her website), and – perhaps most importantly for Hepburn – it gives her a chance to diversify the OpEd voice of a prominent online publisher.
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Susan Nye, fellow blogger here at Live to Write – Write to Live, does not write for HuffPost, but she would consider the opportunity if it arose, “I’m not paid for my twice weekly blog posts. So, if Huffington Post or another site with a huge audience asked to repost should I ask them to pay me for something I was already willing to post for free?” Nye and Hepburn both bring up an important point about providing free content to these non-paying outlets. In both Hepburn’s experience and Nye’s hypothetical situation, the work provided for free is existing work that is being republished. Though this is not the case in every situation, it’s an important distinction to make.
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Craig Tomashoff is an experienced journalist who has written and edited for broad range of well-known publications including People magazine, TV Guide, the Hollywood Reporter, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and Emmy Magazine. He has also worked as a television writer/producer on shows for Queen Latifah, Martin Short, and Craig Kilborn. Tomashoff also writes (for free) for HuffPost.
“With the Huffington Post I’m never working toward money,” Tomashoff explains. “It’s never gonna happen. Mostly, I just have something to say and I want someone to see it, or I want to show my ability to write.”
Tomashoff has been in the industry a while, so he’s got some valuable perspective on how things have changed in the writing marketplace. The Internet, he says, changed everything. Many people stopped reading newspapers and other print publications that employed journalists, and digital media brought about a glut of content that increased competition exponentially.
While Tomashoff would like it if experienced writers could be a bit choosier about the work they accept, the reality is that many of them can’t afford that luxury. He tells a story about taking a job mentoring the young blogging staff of an up-and-coming entertainment website. When the company told him the rate for the gig, he commented that it was less than what he’d usually accept for a week’s worth of work. They explained that the rate wasn’t per week, but for the whole gig. Tomashoff took the job anyway. “It’s a matter of preservation,” he says. “You never know when the next job will come, and – meanwhile – you can learn a skill that might apply to that next thing or uncover something else you want to to do.”
“Spec” Work and the Client Who Won’t Pay
“Spec” work – work that you do “for consideration” without any guarantee that the work will be accepted and paid for – is something we touched on in Part I of this series. This scenario applies mostly to “marcom” (marketing and communications work like copywriting and content creation), but can sometimes also crop up in literary situations. While I don’t ever advise a writer to accept spec assignments (they usually turn out to be an exercise in spinning your wheels), there are some rare instances in which the effort is worthwhile.
When I worked in the world of advertising, we did spec pitches all the time. It was part of the cost of doing business. Whole teams – strategists, planners, writers, designers, developers, etc. – would pull all-nighters to whip up amazing work intended to wow the client into signing budgets worth tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars. In these cases, the effort was worth it because the potential payoff was big, and – in most cases – you didn’t pull out the big guns until you’d already run the gauntlet through the initial filtering rounds, so you knew you had a pretty good shot.
On a smaller scale, the risk is greater that you – the writer – will get the short end of the deal. I’ve heard plenty of sad tales of writers who did spec work, didn’t get hired, and then later found that the potential client had gone ahead and used their work anyway. So not cool. If you find yourself tempted to say yes to a spec assignment, consider asking for a “token” payment – a low fee that (make sure they understand this) is in no way representative of your actual rates, but which serves to demonstrate their genuine interest and a small modicum of respect for your time.
Sometimes, even when you land the paying gig, things go south because the client refuses to pay. I, along with all my freelancer friends, have our own war stories about clients who’ve tried to screw us over. In some cases, they’ve succeeded, and we’ve learned important lessons … the hard way. Whenever this topic comes up, I share this presentation Mike Monteiro gave to a group of creative professionals in San Francisco. I’ll start you at the good bit (the title page of his deck kind of says it all – fair warning, this clip contains profanity):
The contract issues that Monteiro goes on to discuss are a much larger topic that I care to cover in this particular post, but I do just want to point out that no matter what kind of writer you are, it’s important to button things up in terms of contracts and rights and all those other details.
“Pro Bono” Work
Pro bono work is another beast entirely. This is work that you willingly do for free because you want to. It’s volunteer work, basically. Many writers provide pro bono services to friends, local businesses they frequent, or non-profit organizations that they believe in. I actually enjoy doing pro bono work once in a while because it’s a great way to give back to people and causes I believe in. It makes me feel good about my ability to provide something of value that might make a real difference for someone. The caution here is to be clear and firm about boundaries. Happily, I haven’t had any terrible experiences, but many writers who volunteer their time for various organizations have found that it’s true what they say, “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.”
Nichole Bazemore is an accomplished writer and editor who has helped a variety of businesses and publishers up their content game. Bazemore occasionally does pro bono work for organizations she believes in, though she makes commitments carefully. Even so, she has her own battle scars. After doing a variety of pro bono writing (including blog posts, press releases, and a feature story) for a cause she believes in deeply, she was approached by one of the organization’s leaders about writing a book. When Bazemore provided a price, the would-be “author” became offended and walked away. Unfazed, Bazemore moved on. As she put it, “I’ll donate a few thousand dollars’ worth of work to an organization I believe in, but when you ask me to write a book without compensation, you can go kick rocks. That’s just exploitation.” Well said, Bazemore, well said.
Unpaid/Fee-based Submissions (e.g., to Literary Magazines)
Another area that sometimes gets caught up in discussions of no-pay/low-pay writing is the realm of literary magazines and other fiction publishers who not only don’t pay for submissions, but sometimes charge a submission fee. This can seem unfair (I have to pay money to have my work rejected?), but it’s indicative of the financial challenges editors and publishers face to keep their magazines alive.
YiShun Lai is an author (her debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, is available for pre-order now), writing coach, and copywriter. She is also the nonfiction editor for The Tahoma Literary Review (TLR). While she acknowledges that the literary market is tough and not a “cash cow,” she believes that writers who submit and are accepted deserve to be paid in cold hard cash, a policy that TLR supports.
Even when writers do submit to non-paying markets, however, there are non-financial benefits that can be worth the effort. Lai explains that the more a writer publishes in literary magazines, the more publishing credits that writer can include when they query other publications. Quality publishing credits increase your credibility with editors and also, should you eventually pitch a book idea, agents. “Agents know it’s hard work to get published,” Lai says, “They appreciate the effort.”
The submission process is sometimes complicated by other factors. Beyond submission fees, some literary magazines solicit big-name writers to contribute. In these cases, Lai explains, the editor is obligated to publish the solicited work, which in turn reduces the number of spots available for as-yet-undiscovered writers who are waiting patiently in the slush pile.
It can be a disheartening battle, but it can lead to Good Things. Take, for instance, the on-going story of a small, independent digital literary magazine called Full Grown People (The Other Awkward Age). Founded and edited by Jennifer Niesslein, this gem of a site publishes excellent personal essays on a wide variety of topics. The digital magazine recently placed well in a respected ranking of literary nonfiction markets, and a Full Grown People piece by Kate Haas was mentioned in a What We’re Reading post on The New York Times website alongside pieces from The New Yorker and The Atlantic. These may seem like small victories, but they are possible stepping stones for both the publisher and the writer in their larger, longer journeys. Though I haven’t spoken to Niesslein or Haas, I’m willing to bet they would both say their efforts were worth it.
For novelists and nonfiction authors, “free writing” invariably leads to discussions about the pros and cons of giving away books. While this post cannot hope to cover the deep and broad topic of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing or all the nuanced variations on that theme and the pricing/selling conundrums that ensue, I would like to just touch for a moment on the sometimes-beneficial tactic of giving away your books.
This idea is explored in a post called Why give away your work for free? A collaboration between the publisher Medium, Litographs (purveyor of literary-themed products), and science fiction author Cory Doctorow, the post curates quotes from a number of authors who have benefitted greatly from the act of giving their books away.
Doctorow sums it up nicely, “My problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity, and free ebooks generate more sales than they displace.” Many other authors agree with him, including Neil Gaiman, Paolo Coelho, and Matt Mullenwig. The idea is that, in today’s over-crowded market, your best bet at success is not necessarily as much about making sure everyone pays for your work as it is about making sure as many people as possible are exposed to your work. The theory goes that if you can get massive distribution – even free distribution – and turn readers into fans, you will have built a strong and profitable platform from which to launch future (paid) works.
It’s a lot to think about …
Clearly, there are many different situations in which writers have to give careful consideration to whether or not they are willing to write either for free or for a minimal fee. The scenarios are many, the nuances are subtle, and the context can change dramatically depending on each writer’s personal situation and journey. As Tomashoff said in our interview, “This isn’t something you can approach with an absolute mentality. It’s always on a case-by-case basis.”
It’s important to remember that there are not as many “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” as we might think. Mostly, there are writers looking for a break and opportunistic publishers looking for an edge in a very competitive market. Sure, sometimes there are players with unethical practices, but other times “unfair practices” turn out to be justifiable (as in the case of many, struggling literary magazines).
While I am sticking to my guns about joining Porter Anderson in his boycott of Huffington Post, I have found some middle ground that allows me to still support the writers who publish there. Since many of those writers are repurposing pieces they’ve already published elsewhere, usually on their own site, if a HuffPost link crosses my radar, I seek out the original and share that instead.
I also support writers and publications I admire in other small ways – “tokens,” perhaps, but worthwhile nonetheless. For instance, I donate $3/month to the brainpickings, a site that I read on a regular basis and which features high-quality writing on topics that inspire and educate me. I purchased the paperback anthology of essays published by Full Grown People. I have also taken advantage of “micro payment” options on sites like Writer Unboxed, which use an app called tinyCoffee and PayPal to enable readers to “buy the author a cup of coffee.” Nice.
We may each be on our own writing journey and bear the responsibility of making our own choices about when and why we write for free, but we can still support each other and the broader community in small ways. After all, we are all in this together.
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 Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.