I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but have been afraid it would get me into some kind of trouble. Or, that it would make me sound like some ungrateful turd who feels entitled and high on herself.
But I read something recently that has prompted me to say what I want to say. Cagey shared a blog post with me about a successful writer who is asked to write for an anthology (where the editors received a $50,000 advance) for free. No payment whatsoever for his contribution. If you have the time, you should read the entire email exchange between the writer and the editor. It’s pretty unbelievable.
This individual circumstance is not really applicable to my own life — I’m not a “working writer” in the sense that I can’t get into most paid literary/creative nonfiction markets — and certainly could never make a living doing so. But it did get me thinking about the value of unpaid writing.
By writing for free, writers get not only experience (particularly if your work is carefully reviewed and edited) but also exposure. Free work helps to build a writer’s resume (particularly at the beginning, when one is trying to break in). It also can lead to more (hopefully paid) work.
Unpaid writing also builds a platform, which is crucial in nonfiction publishing. Readers who like what they read in print or online magazines, may also be the readers who, down the line, purchase your book.
I’m happy to do grunt work, and I understand it takes a long time to build one’s brand. And I realize that unpaid writing can have other big payoffs. For example, my unpaid essay in Call Me Okaasan has paid me back in gold. My essay was quoted in The Japan Times, which also named the book one of the ten best of the year. Also, Suzanne Kamata, the editor, has been instrumental in helping me with my anthology, and is even one of our contributors.
The problem is, is that other unpaid writing jobs, are really leading to more unpaid writing jobs and not much else. They are not leading to more traffic on my blog. They are not leading to other paying job opportunities. My writing resume is loaded with writing that doesn’t pay me, which I think, unfortunately, announces to the world that I don’t need to get paid for my writing.
And over the years I’ve noticed another frustrating trend. More and more of the publications that I read regularly, that also don’t pay writers, are getting bigger and bigger writers to write for them. In other words, authors who have actually published and sold books, books that have sold well or are selling well, are now sharing their work on websites for free. Websites that once used to house little writers like me, are featuring well-published authors.
I realize that even well-published authors need to build on their platform. And yet, I can’t help but wonder (humor me while I have a Sarah Jessica Parker moment), whether writing is getting more and more devalued, as well known writers who have established platforms begin offering their stuff for free. And I wonder too, if even us “little guys” are contributing to the problem by continually hoping that, some day in the far off future, our free stuff will pay off in platform, or connections, or both.
To make a long story short (and perhaps more morbid), I’m wondering whether I’m going to spend my life writing for free, in an attempt to establish a platform and network with others in the business, only to die having never published a book.
While I am honored to write for the publications I do, a part of me is having trouble reconciling this dilemma. Because if I take all of the published words I have written for free, I’d have enough for a book. I could take all the time and energy I spend writing for free for others, to self-publish and sell my own book.
What do you all think? Do you all write for free? I don’t mean blogging, which I do because I truly enjoy it. I’m referring to writing for websites/journals/magazines that don’t pay. Does unpaid writing really pay off in the end?