I think Kate Gace Walton's blog post at Work Stew, Should I Write for Free? is related for a couple of reasons:
- A lot of your traditional literary journals don't pay their contributors or pay only in copies. Some very highly regarded writers publish in these things. These are the journals whose stories are often contenders for awards. Having published with them helps get the attention of agents and book editors.The Internet has made possible a multitude of new on-line journals, many of which don't pay contributors. While many of them are new and newish and don't build reputations the way some of the older print journals do, they could serve as stepping stones to more publication in the future. Yet writing for them doesn't add to anyone's income.
- Walton says in her post that "The proliferation of people writing for free in recent decades (by self publishing fee-free content or contributing work to non-paying sites) has definitely made it harder for those who write for a living to get by." Does writing for free, she asks in a note to her essay, "degrade the market for professional writers?" She links to Tim Kreider's NYT's essay (which I hope he was paid for), Slaves of the Internet, Unite, in which he talks about being asked to work/write for nothing. He's not the first writer this has happened to.
But, at the same time, free work, as in publishing with established lit journals, has been a traditional way for writers to get exposure so that some day they might be able to get paid. Plus, the whole marketing issue throws a big curve into the question of whether or not writers should give their work away, because we're giving away enormous amounts of work for guest blog posts, interviews, essays, etc. when we have a new book coming. It's part of promoting that new work. We're advised to do so by book marketers. Marketing, whether it's free work or some other kind, is expected by publishers.
To be transparent here, about an hour ago I submitted a 700+ word guest post to a blog. I received payment for only one essay I've published*. I've generated a lot of free material for guest posts and blog interviews while promoting the eBook edition of Saving the Planet & Stuff. The benefit to me of the promotional work is obvious, but even the essays fill a hole in my publishing history. I also hope they will serve as stepping stones to getting future essays published in paying publications at some point.
Free work can help individual unpublished or underpublished writers develop a following. At least it can help give the publishing industry the sense that these writers are a presence of some kind. But while individuals are giving away work hoping for some benefit for themselves, is the earning power of writers as a group suffering?
*This blog post has been edited. The original line said I'd never received payment for any essay I've published. I was paid for my Horn Book essay. Yay Horn Book!