Monday, November 17, 2014

How Do We Feel About Writers Writing For Free? Is There Something To Be Gained For The Individual, Maybe Not So Much The Group?

Last weekend, The Toronto Star carried an article called Can You Afford to be a Writer? The situation it describes for writers in Canada is similar to what you'll find here in the states.  "... most writers are not likely to break $10,000 a year from their writing." Articles like this should be part of the reading for any writing program. Maybe they are.

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.
I can recall hearing something similar years ago about writers making appearances in schools. If some writers do a lot of free work, it undermines the earning ability of the writers who need an income stream from schoolwork . Because, as the Toronto Star article pointed out, they probably aren't making enough from their writing to support themselves.

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!


Alysa Stewart said...

I don't know if I know whether or not writing for free hurts the writer's market. But I do know this: writing is an art. (That's not debated.) And if you can't make art for free, why bother?

I mean, I blog. If I was just starting out and felt like I *had* to blog for money or else I would be hurting other writers and my future self, but then I couldn't find anybody to pay, or I couldn't be bothered to find anybody because I just wanted to create for the creation's sake and share it freely . . . well. I just couldn't do it.

So, I don't know. But I'm going to go with "do what you think is right." Whether that's working for free or charging for your art.

Anonymous said...

Writers, like anybody else, should be paid fairly for their work. The problem is that there has not been a mechanism by which writers can be paid for smaller pieces of work.

Moozvine ( is a platform that aims to address that. With Moozvine, a writer uploads a piece of work (anything: an essay, short story, or even a full novel) and specifies how much they want to be paid for that work: its release threshold. The public can read samples of the work and can pledge money. If the money pledged exceeds the release threshold, the work is released under a creative commons licence. Anyone can then freely read, download and share that work and the author can grow an audience. As their audience grows, they can ask more for subsequent work.

Yes, free writing is damaging writers' income levels. But the answer is not the old pay-per-copy model that is fundamentally incompatible with the internet. The answer is Moozvine's pay-to-release model.

tanita✿davis said...

I agree with Alysa... I blog. I review tons of books, for the help and convenience of parents and librarians, and no one pays me.

I also edit (and write) the quarterly newsletter for our church. For free. Most things related to church you can kind of say are a A mitzvah?

...but I cannot imagine saying yes to writing an essay or a review for a publication other than my own blog(s) for free. It's not to say that I'm not asked - I am, and just about weekly, there's some new scheme from this place who wants me to write for them and get more readers for my blog, yadda yadda. I wasn't even into Jacket Flap for the reason that I couldn't see what my content in aggregate was doing for them - and I didn't want them to benefit from me without me getting something, to say it bluntly. I mean, if you write for a small journal, you know you get paid in copies sometimes, and that's generally clear up front, but my favorite word in these scenarios, otherwise, is "No."

Gail Gauthier said...

It's difficult for me to see how maintaining our own blogs is an issue. I can't believe that anyone is reading my blog instead of New Yorker type publications, thus cutting into their circulation and undermining their ability to pay writers.

The gray area is going to be the money-making publications, on-line and not, where writers publish hoping for exposure that will lead to the next big thing, a thing that will generate income. And it probably works for some people.

What is different recently, I think, is that now I'm hearing about stories like Tanita's, in which publications actually approach published writers, whose work is how they support themselves, and ask them to write for free.

Writers are not the only people who deal with this kind of thing, by the way. How often do academics get paid for the writing they are expected to do? And I've known of consultants in a couple of very nonwriting fields who would give breaks on work with a new client, hoping to get a foot in the door for bigger jobs with them in the future.