$hould you write for free?

“Self-respect is a matter of recognizing that anything worth having has a price.” – Joan Didion

Some of us are half-serious when we joke about loving our work so much that wed “do it for free” if we had to. Yet its all too easy to cheat ourselves if we dont respect our own talent and effort.

That said, putting a dollar value on freelance work is tougher than ever these days.

In my workshops, for instance, I often coach new writers whove been encouraged to provide material for free (or for ridiculously low rates) with the promise that gratis assignments will help build portfolios. This logic usually works because the freelance cycle is vicious: It is harder to get your stuff published if you haven’t been published before, or if you can’t boast a few impressive credits. Scores of editors will take full advantage of this fact — especially if their budgets are shrinking and their publications are struggling.

As nearly every professional writer will tell you, we’re all working three times as hard for half the money we earned when we started out in this crazy business years ago. The Internet that made it possible for everyone and his brother to get published is largely responsible for cutting or completely eliminating our paychecks. (Note: On this post, I’m not talking about posting entries on your own blog, or self-publishing. I am talking about writing for other publishers who don’t pay you for your work.)

Of course, there are times when writing for peanuts might be worth your effort. Perhaps you’d like to support a non-profit organization with a cause that speaks directly to your heart. Or maybe you want to help a friend launch a new magazine that offers literary prestige — and paying assignments in the future. Or maybe you’re writing a review in exchange for tickets to a concert or a play.

Would you ask an architect to design a dream house and seal the drawings for free?  Would you ask your dental hygienist to clean your teeth without charging you? Would you ask a plumber to repair your broken toilet as a favor?”

But here’s the deal: If you keep giving your work away, it will become much harder for you — and your colleagues — to get paid for good writing later on. In this business, word gets around in more ways than one. If an editor knows you’ve been writing or blogging without pay for other publications, what would motivate her to reward you with anything but “exposure”?

If youre just getting started in a writing career, it’s true that providing free content hones your skills and gives you a chance to learn how the publishing business works. And the “exposure” to a readership — which is the carrot most editors will dangle when they can’t pay you  — is a bonus if the publication is reputable. But no matter how exciting it is to snag a byline or recognition, you must reach a point where you value your experience and charge an appropriate fee for it.

Always remember: If a print or online publication sells advertising and/or subscriptions, it is earning money from the content provided by writers and photographers. Your work supports those publishers.

Think about it this way … Would you ask an architect to design a dream house and seal the drawings for free?  Would you ask your dental hygienist to clean your teeth without charging you? Would you ask a plumber to repair your broken toilet as a favor?

If you dont value your own time, talent, or expertise, who will? The difference between a professional and a hard-working volunteer, after all, is just a paycheck. Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, nobody can take advantage of you without your permission. Whatever the work at hand, if you want to be treated like a professional, act like one. Expect to be paid what your work is worth. — Cindy La Ferle

UPDATE: This post prompted many insightful comments from freelancers in a variety of creative fields. Read their opinions by clicking on the “Comments” link a few lines below.

18 thoughts on “$hould you write for free?

  1. Excellent. Well-said, Cindy. I don’t mind donating an essay every now and again at my discretion, but I think it is truly unfair to expect writers to work for free. Would one go to an art fair and expect to snag a painting or a piece of custom-created jewelry for free? There is a worth to our words, and a lot of time and thought goes into what we do. Thanks for being brave enough to bring this topic out in the open.

  2. Great argument for valuing our skill and talent by expecting professional rates. My dilemma at present seems to be: editors with strict budgets who (say they) can’t pay more than 50 or 75 dollars per article or essay. I guess I’ve always thought: if they tell me they can’t pay more than I believe ’em. Maybe there’s wiggle room after all and I’m a terrible negotiator? I don’t have the answer. It does seem as though there is more money in corporate writing. Anyway…guess we all have to keep writing and keep casting a wider net when it comes to paying opportunities.

    • Thanks, Pam … and you raised some good, interesting questions about budgets. I think some editors do have wiggle room, or more money than they let on. I have to add that $50 or $75 for a feature or essay isn’t much money, but at least it’s something.

      However, when I started out in the late 1980s, most editors would apologize if they offered anything below $100 for a 500-word feature or essay. $50 is not much money to offer anyone who spends several hours on a project, especially if they have experience. If you talk with other freelancers, you’ll often find that pay rates are NOT always set in stone. I’ve been upset, in the past, to learn that other writers have been paid twice what I was paid for the same work. Needless to add, when that happened, I stopped writing for the publication. Why work for someone who undervalues you, or thinks you have “sucker” stamped on your forehead? 😉

  3. Oh, you nailed it, Cindy. One of my favorite things about writing is also what makes it possible for others to believe that it is easily given away: a collection of written words is a mysterious, wonderful phoenix that rises, seemingly from nothing. It’s the epitome of “creative” because it requires no tangible tools or inventory. But what it DOES require is talent, skill, perseverance…and TIME! Most would be surprised at how difficult and time-consuming writing is. It may be possible for anyone to create one great essay or article, but to create wonderful, thought-provoking work day after day after day? That’s what separates the professionals from the bloggers, in my opinion. It saddens me that freelancers are paid LESS now than when they started out years ago. Thanks for sharing your insight, Cindy. We’re all on the same page.

  4. I encountered the same types of problems when I was working as a wedding photographer. I was good at it and it was WORK, but many people balked at paying a fair rate for my skill, experience, and creativity.

    It’s funny what people will choose to skimp on when it’s their wedding day, versus the things they just can’t live without such as the limo or the mega-sized wedding cake.

    A good photographer can work magic in a tough venue under all kinds of circumstances something your Aunt Agnes and Uncle Roy can’t likely duplicate with their little point and shoot camera from Walmart. Everyone is not a wedding photographer!

    Sorry for the above rant, Cindy and please delete if it’s too off topic. I haven’t been asked to write for free yet although I did say no to a position that would have paid a fraction of the value for all of the social media content the company was hoping to see on a monthly basis.

    I might have considered it if it had room to develop into more, but after a lot of company research and conversation, I politely declined the offer.

    • Elizabeth — this is not “off topic” at all. Thanks for your comment. In fact, I am glad you chimed in with the view from another creative business — photography. I believe the topic of “what to charge for my work” applies to all freelancers. And I so agree that photographers can “work magic” in a tough venue, as you put it. My son is getting married this fall, and we are not skimping on the photographer or videographer!

  5. Love your writing and thoughts on this Cindy…I am in the ‘don’t write for free’ camp (unless of course it is something dear to your heart and you WANT to do it). I don’t quite understand why so many of people in the arts are asked that they discount or giveaway their creative endeavors – I, like you, don’t think nurses, teachers, or any other profession would like someone to ask them if they could cut their salary, or give a deal on a weeks work. I just don’t understand why something that is created from pure talent should ever be for free. Even in our improv troupe, we are always asked for deals…I personally like the old adage, ‘you get what you pay for.’ And to anyone that says they will give you better assignments, don’t believe them, to them you will always be of a lower standard because you gave your work away. The higher paying jobs will go to those who value their work. Band together all artists, and know your talent and worth:)

    • Karen, thanks for all of your good thoughts here. And you hit on something else: People really DO place a lower value on services that were obtained without payment. When you give something away, it immediately lowers your worth on many levels.

      Remember that old saying, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”

  6. A serious publication will pay a serious writer. A byline will not pay the phone bill, a free subscription will not pay the rent. Do NOT write for free if the publication, on or off line, has advertising.

    As a content provider, you must market youself in a well-rounded professional way. Do book signings, speak at events, network, etc. to brand yourself. Then demand a fair price for your content services.

  7. Great column, Cindy. It has to be a cause very very dear to my heart to write gratis. Another category is groups asking you to speak to them for free. In return they offer “exposure” and the chance to sell books. Malarkey!

    • Debra, good point about speaking for free and selling books. It’s a pain in the butt to haul a box of books (along with other materials) to these events, only to sell one or two books — or no books at all. Which happens to most authors I know (Mitch Albom being the exception).

  8. The majority of writers who commented are journalists. It is and always has been a different world for poets
    and fiction writers. Poets never get paid by the literary journals they are published in, because the magazines are show-string operations (except for Poetry magazine, which received the largest bequest ever for a lit mag from some very wealthy woman. And they pay.) mostly as labors of love. The editors don’t get paid, the interns don’t get paid, the printers don’t get paid, nobody gets paid. But if you love to write poetry, this is the norm. It is next to impossible to get a first volume of poetry published by a traditional
    New York publisher. You have to enter “competitions” and pay for the opportunity. Usually at least one and often even the second volume of poems will be pubbed as a result of winning a competition.

    Poetry doesn’t pay and poets have day jobs, mostly as teachers. Same can be said for short story writers. There was a time in this country when you could make a decent living writing short stories. But those
    magazines are long gone and so is that opportunity. Again, traditional publishers rarely publish a first book of stories. Those also go the
    competition route or are pubbed in little mags with free copies as payment. Two exceptions The Atlantic and The New Yorker. They pay.With the advent of eBooks, it is almost impossible to get a first novel published, and receive an advance on sales (likely the only money you will receive) if you are not a genre writer working in the
    current hot market. (vampire novels and erotica sell really well).

    So while I agree with you about journalism, features, short works of creative non-fiction, the fiction world is so different. I have written for free and I have been paid in copies. I have written for
    cash and I have written for love. I have self-published, indie e-published, and been published by an e-publisher. All of that eventually pays, but there are no advances in eWorld. lol. And I blog for free because it is my way of giving back to the young unpublished writers who like me didn’t know how the publishing
    game was played and had very little sense of how a novel was
    constructed. So the blog is a labor of love. Also along the way it has become a platform from which I can talk about & promote my other published work.

    • Good thoughts, all, Cindy Harrison!

      I believe that blogging for yourself — on your own site — is different, because you are doing it for yourself; another publisher isn’t earning money from your content. And you do have the potential to sell your books on your own website/blog. You can earn ad revenue if you choose to sell ads on your site, for instance. It’s also a great way to keep your resume out there. On my blog, I get a little money from my Google ads and I do sell books through my Amazon link. But I agree that blogging is (mostly) a labor of love.

  9. As a business guy, I’m always interested in how a business model works. As a writer who is paid not so much for writing a column, I’m interested in how to change the model if it isn’t working very well. I’m sure it’s a vast simplification, but the internet/epublishing revolution including newspapers, has left writers in a very difficult place regarding compensation. While the revolution has led to a wild democratization for writers, it’s also flooded the market. The owners of websites, publishing houses, newspaper realized this and took advantage of it because flooded markets mean lower prices. Good old supply and demand is not a friend when there is an oversupply of writers who will work for free.

    I’m stating the obvious, so what to do? I don’t have a good answer, because the number of folks willing to write for free or for very low pay, isn’t going away. The interesting point is that the owners of publishing “portals” can’t exist without the “talent,” which is the writers.

    I’m fairly sure the only way to counter this situation is to own the portal. This is happening already in a big time way with self-publishing, our own websites, etc. etc. The big challenge is that artists/writers also have to be business people and marketeers.

    For those of us who don’t have the time, experience or disposition to do this, we will continue to be in tough spot. I am waiting for the Craig’s List of publishing to develop, which is probably already happening,or so I hope!

  10. Great blog! I couldn’t agree more. Beginning writers who want to donate their time and efforts should focus on non-profits. I have one work in trade client, but I receive a fair value for my services through working out in his gym. The bottom line is that if you don’t value your services, no one else will.

  11. I’ve turned down a many “opportunities” to “write for exposure”, and it never ceases to surprise when the source of the offer acts offended because I’ve declined to write for nothing (or next to it). Having my own blog was a way to build my own platform and look for real opportunities in a different genre after my work writing mostly business features for local print markets dried up. Every job I’ve gotten with a decent paying client in the past few years has come because of my blog, so I view that writing as an investment in my own writing career (as well as a way to earn a few pennins from the occasional ad or Amazon affiliate sale).

    I do seem to be seeing more push back from writers on this topic lately, which is encouraging. As you so rightly point out, the more writers that give away their work, the more difficult it will be for the rest of us to recieve fair compensation for our work.

    Here’s what I’ve said for years (and I’m talking about long before I started writing online): It’s my work, I deserve to be paid for it, I’m not writing for nothing while some publisher gets rich, and it’s not my job to make it more difficult for others to get paid for their work by undercutting them by writing for free.

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