Free for All


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?

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8 thoughts on “Free for All

  1. I thought that link was fascinating, which is why I shared it (and now, will be sharing YOUR post.) I contributed to an anthology, Sleep is for the Weak. I was paid a nominal amount and did have an interest in any potential earnings.

    I do think writing has become devalued by the proliferation of writers willing to write for free or nearly so (which you have written about before!) Sadly so. Folks seem to expect to read for free and I do think the online outlets and blogs have contributed to that. I used to buy Laurie Notaro’s hilarious memoirs, but then got into blogging and found that I lost my taste for Notaro. Her memoirs were too much like blogs and well, I was already reading those for free. I subscribe to very few magazines and I read my news for free.

    I do still read fiction and I do still buy books, so not all hope is lost??

  2. Hmmm… I’m going to ask my friend Dawn Friedman to read your post if she has time and then pitch in. She mostly writes for pay (outside of her own blog), not always “for pleasure,” (though — she’s written for all kinds of things and purposes for hire as a freelance writer).

    The same thing is happening in higher education, my friend. It has been happening for decades now. Who does most of the teaching in universities around the country? Poorly paid graduate students (who don’t even have the chance to unionize and fight for their rights in schools such as UPenn, Columbia, etc — the fact we had an union was what allowed me to give birth to two boys). Then, when those students finish their phds, there aren’t jobs for them so universities do what? Hire them as even more poorly paid adjuncts (’cause some grad students have benefits via union, adjuncts don’t). And so the trend continues. Just like the writing — “bigger writers” writing for free and people with phds and postdocs at times teaching almost “for free” when university administrators are making hundreds and hundreds of thousands if not millions and the cost of tuition is rising. It’s an unfair world out there.

    Anyway, let me email Dawn, she would have an interesting take on this conversation.

  3. Lilian,

    I had started a whole part of this post about higher education, and how the same thing is going on. But I don’t have the first hand experience with it (though someone very close to me is an adjunct at a college), so I thought I’d leave that side to you and all the other experts.

    But yes, I agree completely. The same thing is going on there…

  4. I’m Lillian’s friend and I think the times they are a’changing. Writing for free can make sense if it’s something you want to do or if the other pay-offs are worth it (like more exposure, more traffic, getting some different clips under your belt) but if the editors are getting paid then the writers should get paid even if it’s just in copies (like for a book or lit mag or whatever). I do sometimes write for free if it’s something I feel passionate about it or I see the venue as being exciting for other reasons and if I think the people behind the venue are sincere in their efforts towards the greater good but absolutely I have to balance that with my need to get paid so I can help pay our mortgage.

    Times are tough right now. Competition is fierce. Journalists far more experienced than I am have gotten laid off and are now going after the same smaller markets that I am, which is to say I’ve had to expand what I’m willing to do to make money AND I’ve had to take less pay (sometimes) to get to write the stuff I WANT to write.

    I guess I’m saying that you have to take it on a case by case basis and be flexible. Publishing is changing quickly and no one knows where it’s going but one thing is for certain — it’s not going to look like it did even five years ago. So go where your heart leads but aim HIGHER than you might feel comfortable. If you’ve got a story to pitch, pitch it to the top where the big exposure and big bucks are and then move down the ladder. At least then if you “settle”, it will be because you know that’s the right decision for that particular project, you know?

  5. I found your blog post through She Writes, and I think the fact that you wrote it and shared it answers your own question.

    Writing for free *may* pay off in some way to some people, but someone once told me something that is undeniably true: Overexposure will kill us without food and shelter.

    I agree with @cagey. Writers devalue themselves by writing for free. When we do that, we tell people that our profession isn’t worth anything. That we aren’t worth anything. And that’s just not true.

    If we truly believe our words have value, we have to stand behind what we believe and not let them be used for free. That said, I do occasionally guest blog for a friend, and there is one small local newspaper I occasionally write for for free, but it’s the very first publication that took a chance on me several years ago and it still runs on a shoestring budget.

    As writers, we have to learn to say no. When we agree to write for free, it makes it even more difficult for anyone to make any money from it.

  6. Thanks so much for stopping by, Dawn. You’ve got some great advice.

    I think the problem for me is, that oftentimes the paying jobs aren’t materializing. So I’m deciding between an unpaid publication, or not publishing it at all. In those cases, do I just keep my writing to myself? Or do I go ahead and give it up for free, even if publishing it without payment might not lead me anywhere?

  7. Hi JoAnna! Thanks for stopping by.

    I used to think, at the beginning, that ANY exposure was good exposure. Now I’m starting to realize that there can be too much of a good thing.

    I think I’m going to sit on several pieces that I have ready to go, until I find a paying market for them. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

  8. Thanks for inviting me into this conversation, Anjali.

    Yes, writing is becoming devalued, and fast, largely due to the Internet. As Cagey said, when you can find so much good stuff out there free, you lose the motivation to pay for it. When you give away the milk, nobody’s going to buy your cow.

    I had a fascinating experience with this last fall. I’d been blogging for about eight months on the craft of fiction, putting in-depth, professional advice out there free for anyone who wanted it. I was starting my business as a freelance editor focused on fiction, and I needed people to know that I’m a professional, not just a peer critiquer who would like to get paid.

    I knew about blog plagiarism. My husband and I have been involved with the Internet since the 1980s, when only computer geeks were out there. Now he’s an online community leader in the fastest-growing computer field in Silicon Valley and hangs out with experts in online copyright law. I knew that, if you blog valuable stuff, eventually someone will try to lift it for their own site.

    And eventually someone did.

    The thing is I don’t want to be plagiarized. Some years ago my husband was notified by a fan that an award-winning story of his had been stolen by a university student and published as their own. Being plagiarized sucks.

    So I took my fiction-writing advice private. I set up a parallel blog, a magazine, and charged a small subscription for six months.

    I got a lot of feedback from readers while I was deciding whether or not to do this, both for and against. And you know what I discovered? The loudest voices against it came from people who simply felt entitled to free stuff. They didn’t necessarily value what I was giving them. They certainly weren’t potential editing clients.

    My clients and those others who most valued what I was doing and the service I was offering universally signed up without blinking an eye, and they recently re-subscribed for another six months. I was honestly planning to cut way back on the magazine when the first six months were up. But too many people stuck with me!

    In fact, I got so much positive feedback once my magazine was launched that I just finished organizing and editing my original eight months’ worth of blog posts into a book, which my husband and I are independently publishing. (We’re expecting the proof to arrive today!) Again, I’ve gotten a lot of really amazing positive feedback on the book, even though it’s not even available in print yet. People love this stuff. And they value it.

    The question of payment for good writing is certainly evolving rapidly right now. And one of the most helpful comments I got during the shift from freebie blog to a paid magazine came from a client and loyal commenter who said, “I’m glad you’re doing this. I’ve thought for a long time that the Wild West climate of the Internet can’t last.”

    The vast majority of people who blog are not professional writers, they’re highly-literate folks who have found a way to bond through the Internet. And that’s great.

    But I do think we’re going to see more blogs by professional writers going private for small subscription fees, promoted by fans who recommend them by word-of-mouth across the web.

    And that’s going to open a new avenue for professionals, which right now is sorely lacking.

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