Week #31: Would I write for free?
A week ago, Gargi asked this question in her blog post that got me thinking: Would I write for free?
Short answer: No.
Slightly longer answer: Since I make part of my income as a professional writer, it would be extremely foolhardy to stop taking money for it or go around offering my services for free.
While commenting on Gargi’s blog, I vented thus:
If you’re an independent/freelance agent, valuing your own work will (eventually) result in clients valuing it too. Basically, if you sell yourself short, you will be taken advantage of…. The trouble with writing and related fields (such as editing) is that they are considered things anyone can do, so people shamelessly ask you to write for free because, heck, how difficult can it be pounding one key after another?
I stopped doing academic editing for a pittance for publishers (big ones like Sage, OUP and Penguin) a few years back because I felt that with 16 years of experience, I certainly deserved more than the peanuts they were paying. The transition was tough. There was a long period of little to no work, but then I started getting clients who realized that the quality of work they were getting from those who charged 25 bucks a page was very different from [what] I was giving them.
It’s a similar thing with writing. There are so many blogs who ask you to sign up and “write for us”, but they don’t make any mention of paying you. Some part of me is tempted, thinking it’s good visibility. But then, as a professional writer, how could I possibly write for free in one place and then demand good money from others? Like you said, where does the giving away stop? Also, at what cost to yourself? That line between giving something away willingly and being exploited can be tricky.
Thanks to the WWW, this is supposed to be the era of free content, which makes it okay for blogs and other websites to shamelessly expect you to write for free. (By the way, I must make this clear: for an amateur or a hobbyist writer, there is harm or shame in this. It’s fun and involves no bloodshed, so go for it. I am quite open to do doing some web development for free, for instance, as it’s just a hobby.) However, if you depend on writing to make money, or want to depend on writing to make money, here’s my (unsolicited) advice, backed with over a decade and a half of learning it the hard way: Do not write for free; do not write for peanuts. If you don’t respect your work, your clients won’t either.
The only time I can’t expect to be paid for writing is when it’s self-promotional. For instance, if I’m writing a guest post for my publisher’s site to promote my book, I can hardly expect them to pay me for it (I will make money, however, when my books sell). Being invited to write for a blog that will promote my work also falls into this category. But it is important to draw a clear line: being invited to write book reviews from my “expert” position as a children’s author is what I would term as unfair and turn down.
I have heard the argument for writing for free in a strategic manner to gain visibility as a writer. Such as, being a guest contributor to blogs of one’s interest. Many writers of fiction use this method to get their stories out there, read and reviewed. It is a good strategy, but can get slightly tricky because sometimes it can get hard to know at what point the giving away should stop.
Consider this: would you walk into a shop, point at something and say, “That’s lovely, I’d really like it, but, unfortunately, I can’t pay. Will you let me have it, please? I’ll put it up on my front door, so passers-by can see it and admire it, and everyone will know what lovely things you sell”? That is what people who are asking me to write (or edit) for free are doing. Still, there will be times when I’ll even agree to it for whatever complicated circumstances there might be at play; or I’ll agree to do it for a pittance as a favour to a friend.
But, as a general rule, in all my years as an independent writer and editor, I have always insisted upon payment and have been firm about what I expect to be paid (fiction is an exception; even though I don’t write fiction for free, there isn’t usually much scope for negotiating payments). I’ve politely turned away friends and relatives who have expected me to read their manuscripts or edit their stories. I’ve firmly said no to people who have waxed on about how wonderful it will be for my career to see my name on their magazine/website/whatever.
There have been some nervous moments, but on the whole, it’s worked and continues to work.