I saw a couple of posts on this subject on the World in the Satin Bag, and the subject of whether writers should give away their work for free is a perennial debate. So in case anyone cares, here are my two cents’ on the subject.
I was a working writer for 9 years. By “working writer” I mean that is how I earned my living, full-time. I never once gave away my work without getting paid a fair wage. I wrote nonfiction, and I was usually paid by the job. I actually set an hourly wage for myself that I felt was fair and reasonable for the quality of work I produced. When I got a new contract, I divided the total amount by my hourly rate, and that is how long I spent on the job. Just like a plumber or an electrician, I made sure that I was getting paid what I was worth for each hour I worked.
When a writer gives away his work or accepts a very low payment, that writer is essentially saying, “This is how little I value my own time and skills. My work is worth less than the work of the guy flipping my hamburger at McDonald’s.” Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the writer to value his own work. Publishers will always, always try to get away with paying as little as possible. It is up to writers and aspiring writers to stand up for themselves and to not accept substandard pay.
Anyone who wants to be a professional, working writer would never just give their work away. Even if they never sold a thing, they believe their work — and the time they spent on it — has a tangible value, and they act accordingly. You do not break into the business by giving away free writing — that’s a myth perpetrated by publishers who don’t want to pay up. You do what other writers do: Work hard, hone your craft, get good and then find an agent who is willing to sell your stuff for a reasonable sum of money.
Somewhere along the line, someone is attempting to make money off your writing. If they do, then the writer deserves a fair share of that. If the publisher is selling the work in a book or magazine, the writer deserves a cut. If the publisher is using the work to attract visitors to a website or blog, where they hope to sell a good or service, then the writer should receive payment. What if a big-name company approached you and said, “Write all our advertising copy. We can’t afford to pay you but you’ll get great exposure.” What would you say? Most people would say, “No way. I need to get paid.” It’s no different when a magazine or publisher or website says the same thing. And if they can’t afford to pay, then maybe they can’t afford to be in business.
After all, if you went to your day job tomorrow and your boss said, “We can’t afford to pay you any more, but we still expect you to come in for 8 hours a day and give us quality work,” what would you do? Most people wouldn’t agree to work for nothing. So why is it somehow different for writers?
If you really want to work for free, in order to develop your writing skills or get exposure, there are plenty of legitimate avenues to do so. Join a workshop or a writers’ group, or take a class. Start a blog and publish excerpts there. At the extreme, self-publish, but at least charge a little something for your e-book or whatever.
People do not value what they get for free. When a writer gives away his work, he is essentially saying that his writing has no value. And that’s usually true — free writing is generally, in my experience, bad writing. But good writers, professional writers, know their worth, and they charge accordingly.