Would I Write for Free?

Once again, Damyanti has written a thought-provoking post about writers being asked to write for free. Hers was inspired by the even more thought-provoking “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” by Tim Kreider for the New York Times.

One of the things I most value about U.S. copyright law is its recognition of the fact that as the creator of a literary work (which, for legal purposes, includes the less than “literary” works out there), I have the exclusive right to reproduce it; to create derivative works based on it; to display or perform it; to give away, loan, rent, or sell copies or recordings of it in any medium. It is mine.

If you ask me to write something for you, for free – absent any contract that specifies a transfer of any of these rights – the work actually still belongs to me. 

Bloggers might want to think about that last sentence long and hard.

The short answer to Damyanti’s question is, “Yes.” After all, you wouldn’t be reading this if my answer were, “No.” But I agree with Tim Kreider, too:

This same figure reappears over the years, like the devil, in different guises — with shorter hair, a better suit — as the editor of a Web site or magazine, dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it’ll offer. “Artist Dies of Exposure” goes the rueful joke.

I hate the word “exposure.” It makes me think of writers in the park, naked under their overcoats, “exposing themselves” to anyone who can read.

Exposure is overrated. Eyeballs are overrated. Interested readers – that’s who I write for, and they’ll buy my books or hire me and pay me a fair wage, or they’ll find someone else who is willing to starve. As Kreider writes:

Not getting paid for things in your 20s is glumly expected, even sort of cool; not getting paid in your 40s, when your back is starting to hurt and you are still sleeping on a futon, considerably less so. Let’s call the first 20 years of my career a gift. Now I am 46, and would like a bed.

Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing.

I don’t always define value as money, personally. But I feel strongly that when we barter value for value, leaving cash out of the equation, we define for ourselves what is of value to us at the time, and what we’re willing to trade for it. I have a job; I’m not starving. I can afford to write as a hobby in addition to any professional writing I do. Today. Here and now. So here, now, on this blog, your comments and participation in the discussion are valuable to me. If I wrote only for myself, I wouldn’t have a blog.

And yet, comments here don’t automatically convey to anyone the right to copy my posts and publish them on their own blog or ezine, or to include them in an anthology of opinion articles they’re working on. And if someone asks me to write for free, I’ll consider it – but I’ll also consider what benefits they’re getting from it, and I’ll expect to share in those. Or I’ll likely decline the invitation.

Harlan Ellison says it so well:

A lot of people think Ellison is a jerk, but seriously – can you really fault him for this?

Another problem is writers, musicians, and artists who don’t value their own time and effort enough to think their creations are worth paying for. I’d urge you not to be one of them. It’s fine to be generous and give your work away for free, if you choose to do so. But don’t fall all over yourself with gratitude that someone was willing to take that gift and give you “free exposure” for it.


Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
Please share this post!

8 thoughts on “Would I Write for Free?”

  1. Wow… and this got no comments? Really?

    Here’s my take on it. Overall, I won’t write for nothing. Yes, I’ve contributed some guest posts to a few blogs of my friends who asked for one but I did it more for them than for myself because my own tests over the years have proven that even from a very popular blog where my post might get around 150 comments, rarely does anyone follow that to any of my blogs later on. So, what benefit was the publicity anyway?

    Harlan is right but he didn’t go far enough. It’s not just the freebies but those writers who produce schlock for consumers who wouldn’t know a good article if it smacked them in the face and charged a penny a word or less. You get that from foreign writers because for them that’s significant money, I suppose, but for us here it’s almost nothing. And I kick myself because when I started out in 2009 I hadn’t done the calculation for a few people when I took that rate and, once I did and realized the work I’d put into it I wanted to slap myself. I only did it for a month so I wouldn’t have slapped myself too hard. 🙂

    We really are a “free” culture, and I’m not overly different than some of those folks. Even having the money to buy more things I’ll check out the free stuff first. Thing is, there’s a lot of free that’s pretty good. But I’m trying to be better… I am!
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…Are You A Lazy Networker Or Marketer?My Profile

    1. Really. I think the Internet’s about commented out, some days.

      I don’t think that the foreign writers are the problem, and I don’t blame them for taking the jobs you and I wouldn’t take. The problem is people who get $100 worth of writing, web design, cover art, etc. for $5 from someone who doesn’t know what their skills are worth – someone who can undercut everyone on price at far more than that. It would be fine if they knew their own worth and were willing to do it that cheaply, but many people are allowing others to take unfair advantage of the fact that they don’t know.

      Then there are the people who are so desperate to see their words in print that they’ll fall all over themselves in gratitude to anyone who will charge them less than $5000 to give them “free exposure.” 😉 Many times, they’re NOT ready for prime time, and someone would do them a kindness to tell them so. Other times, they’re good – they just don’t know they’re good. See the previous paragraph.

      I like free. And like I said, I like barter. But I get to decide what my effort and time are worth. I don’t “owe” anyone free writing.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…He Said, She SaidMy Profile

      1. The reason I mentioned foreign writers is that when I first started trying to write to make money I was finding most of my gigs on Warrior Forum and that’s where I encountered the foreign competition under-cutting Americans drastically. After a couple of contacts I decided to make myself stand out a bit by highlighting why I deserved to be paid more. I got a few gigs but nothing sustainable at that rate, which I didn’t think was overly high but for people looking for 10 to 20 articles at a clip I was kind of pricey. Those weren’t true writing gigs but it gave me some major league practice.

        I have seen some folks who have paid to have their articles seen and I actually had someone who wanted me to pay her to interview me; like that was going to happen! Sometimes I think there are some skewed processes that, because people get desperate, works against them. I guess that’s just how life is.
        Mitch Mitchell recently posted…Fighting Anger And DepressionMy Profile

      2. What’s skewed is this business of calling an ad an “article” or a “blog post.” Even so, really good ad copy (original, not cookie cutter, Mad Libs-style ad copy) doesn’t come cheap.

        You know, you’re right, though – people are just a little twisted in their thinking on a lot of things, Mitch. I even know an author who hired someone to ghost-write a fiction novel for her. She was a bit shocked to learn that parts of it were plagiarized…

        On the one hand, I could blame the unscrupulous folks who take advantages of writers and other novices. On the other, I can’t help but wonder why some people make it so depressingly easy to do so.
        HollyJahangiri recently posted…He Said, She SaidMy Profile

  2. I’m coming across this post at an odd time: when I’m having very little success selling my first novel.

    I thought long and hard about splitting it into two novels, and charging 4.99-5.99 (indie typical prices) for each part. It’s 167K words. Typical novels run about 50-80K, so most people wouldn’t blink too hard at those prices. They like 2.99 and 0.99 and free much better.

    And then they complain about the tsunami of cr*p that is being produced and sold.

    Now I tell you: I charge 8.99 for the ebook. Horrors! Even with a sample, and KU borrows, I’m getting little traction. However, when I compare my prices to the bestsellers of 2015 on Amazon, I find that I am exactly where I want to be, on the low side of what the bestselling ebooks put out by traditional publishers are selling for (they run 11.99, 14.99, 17.99 even).

    My conclusion is that I’m not reaching the right potential audience – THAT audience is willing to pay what things are worth when a lot of work goes into them; you just have to find them and persuade them to give you a chance.

    Kris Rusch and Dean Smith say the exact same thing: pricing is by value.

    It is just harder to stay the course when you’re a beginner.

    I remember Darcie Chan selling 600K copies of The Mill River Recluse at 0.99. It is incredibly hard to raise the price of something after it is selling well – people’s purses shut down. They feel they’re not getting a good deal.

    Value is all about perception. Which is why I may run some sales to get more eyeballs (been saving ‘eyeballs’), but it’s staying where it is until it gets the right marketing to pull reasonable payment in on a regular basis.

    But it’s been odd watching prices and expectations for the last four years – and deciding what I’m going to do.

    And anyone who wants to read it for free is welcome to ask for a Review Copy (I would appreciate a review, but no one is forced to actually deliver it – not possible).

    Me, I’m very sure it’s worth it.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt recently posted…Amazon PRIME plus a Kindle equals a free book a monthMy Profile

    1. The problem isn’t your pricing, it’s your marketing.

      I don’t think you’re asking an unreasonable amount at all, but you may want to run a sale (knock off 18% for a LIMITED TIME ONLY to give it some urgency) and stay the course, as you say. Perceived value matters, and I think writers who give their books away do make it much, much harder to raise the price later. Authors who price their books too high will end up giving them away, in the end, because people don’t like it when you think so much of yourself you’d price your book higher than [insert name of famous published author here].

      But I suspect the real problem most of us have is that we’re simply unknown. Our buyers have not heard of us. Period.

      I’m behind on reviews, but I’d be happy to take a look. I won’t promise anything – or anything quickly, for sure. But maybe I can help you come up with some ideas for marketing it more effectively. For one thing, you mentioned that your main character has a disability; have you approached others with that disability for reviews and word of mouth advertising, or placed ads in their more popular newsletters or sites? That might generate interest, because we ALL like to read about characters we can relate to – we like to put ourselves in their situation and live vicariously through them for a little while.

      Remember that, if you feel like targeting that demographic somehow feels exploitative. We like to read about people like us. It’s a pretty universal truth. And we can’t read if we’ve never heard of the book. That’s also a universal truth. Sometimes, “targeted marketing” is a GOOD thing, for everyone, if it’s something that’s going to TRULY be of benefit and isn’t just creating the perception of need or want.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Subscribe Today – for FREE!My Profile

Comments are closed.