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My Soap Box Speech on Giving Away Your Writing for Free

October 28, 2013
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via NY Times

You’re in luck because this Monday post was supposed to be about my very deep thoughts on choosing to get married (in light of a busy weekend with Mom attending to things like ceremony valance fabric), but then I read an article that got me all revved up, so I’ll shelve that heavy hitter for a hump day post.

Yesterday’s The New York Times Sunday Review section featured a piece titled Slaves of the Internet, Unite! written by the talented and hysterical Tim Kreider.  The thesis statement: it’s not OK that online publications both major and minor commonly do not compensate writers for content. To be clear: online sites (that make money) ask writers to submit stories (that take time to write) and then do not pay them anything for those stories (zero dinero).

Did you know that was the case? If you’re a writer you absolutely know, but for you doers of other things out there, did you know that articles you read on places like The Huffington Post – one of the largest and most successful content providers on the Internet – are written for free? Same goes for hundreds of other websites out there. Then there are those publications that pay a laughable fee, for example Thought Catalog (now publishing on HuffPost), which paid me $20 per 500 word article and Bustle, which recently offered me the same. That would be this Bustle that reportedly just raised 6.5 million dollars. That’s a lot of $20 articles…

I could rant for days about how frustrating it is to have your work devalued to the point of being expected to do it for free, but I like how Tim put it:

“I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing. I have to admit my empathetic imagination is failing me here. I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.”

Or as one editor wrote in her e-mail requesting me to write a 2,000 word expose requiring at least a month of research for free put it, “I’m so excited to offer you the opportunity to expand your mind for us!”

The common come back to these rants from still struggling writers like myself is, “yes, but what you don’t earn in money you earn in exposure.” That’s not incorrect (though exposure does not a dentist bill pay), but since it’s 2013 and places like TheHuffingtonPost are sittin’ real pretty, I don’t know why we have to settle for exposure instead of pay when we’re the reason for the exposure in the first place. Our work makes people visit your site. That’s like the E! network telling the Kardashians that they’re not paying them because the TV time is their pay when the only reason people watch E! is because of the Kardashians.

It’s a bait and switch (maybe? that expression feels right…), but unfortunately we fell for it. Now companies don’t have to pay because of the old “why buy the cow” saying. They’ll get the content for free because there’s always some young, hungry writer willing to put in the hours before or after their paying job to pursue their passion. I was that young writer and, on occasion, I still am.

I’d like to believe that companies perpetuating this problem will develop a moral compass rather than focus exclusively on the bottom line, but I’m not so naive to believe that will ever happen. That’s the issue here, though, in case there was any question. It’s not that companies can’t pay, it’s that they are choosing not to pay. Their business model is built on a platform of not paying or paying very, very little. Sometimes this is because they are struggling start ups, in which case I get it, and I do what I can to help. But very often that’s not the case.

I’d also like to suggest all of us “slaves of the Internet” unionize and stick it to the man, but the truth is there will always be scabs, and I can’t blame the 21-year-olds who will write anything for anyone to get those first few by lines. I was them.

But to get (even more) dramatic about this whole issue – what happens when most of the content on the Internet is stuff written by people willing to give it away for free? And what happens when nobody aspires to write because it’s so impossible to afford life as a full-time writer? I don’t know the answers, so I’m hoping the New York Times will assign Tim Kreider a follow-up and pay him to write it.

8 comments

  1. YES! Thank you for posting this! It’s super important to keep the conversation going on this subject. I’m in the exact same quandry right now and I definitely worry about the future of the web’s content if people don’t aspire to write as a career anymore because it isn’t lucrative. Exposure is lovely. But even if your HuffPost article gets 500 retweets, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be emailing you tomorrow asking you to join their staff at a competitive salary.

  2. Yes! I’m trying to get my name out there in writing, and I didn’t realize how many people don’t pay writers. Some sites I can understand, like the small ones. However, groups like the Huffington Post and such should pay their writers.

  3. Thank you for writing about this. I’m a freelancer writer, and I think it’s incredibly annoying – not to mention demeaning – when I get asked to do a piece for one of the big media sites for free. If I’m going to give away my work, I’m going to do so for a nonprofit or startup; if a company has the $$$ to compensate contributors, then it absolutely should.

    Another thing to watch out for – some organizations try to take or claim ownership of your work after you submit it to them. When I was younger, I got screwed over on more than one occasion because I failed to read the fine print. So if you’re a newbie or aspiring writer, make sure you read over the company or blog’s policies and/or writing contracts before submitting anything.

  4. I agree – it’s hard. I’m what they call a “seasoned writer” (sometimes with the chile peppers – read: attitude) and it’s still hard. Sadly, the non-paying, multi-deneros corporations are winning.

    Also, this seems to be a “writers only” dilemma. The other day I asked a young plumber if he’d work on my bathroom “for the exposure”. He said no. And I payed him. Too bad it’s not that simple for us.

    Hugs 🙂

  5. Writing is seriously undervalued in the Western world, and increasingly, internationally as well. People don’t realize the dedication and hard work required to write something that may only be an ‘easy read,’ let alone an essay exploring a serious issue, for example.

    Your point about what will happen to the quality of content online is something I’ve been wondering about lately as well. On one hand, as someone who is relatively confident in her writing, it makes me think I’ll have an edge. On the other hand, it is disappointing to see such a wonderful art thrown to the wayside of culture.

  6. I was really happy to find your blog post here, just as I was to see Kreider’s original piece. I’m starting as a writer myself, and have worked hard to avoid working for others “for exposure.” If someone’s going to make money on a piece of writing, the writer should be compensated. That’s the only way it makes sense to me. There’s a similar situation in photography and sometimes in music as well. The idea that creative people should somehow exist on the attention paid by others should be a concern for anyone who enjoys art, good content, or appreciate skilled people who are passionate about their work.

    Thanks for this post!

  7. As someone who isn’t a writer, but a graphic designer, I can’t agree more with what you said. In my field what you describe is called spec work. It’s something we are told never to do. Free work. I have had people ask me for designs that take time and money (programs and fonts aren’t always free) for the “exposure” and “a professional piece for your portfolio”. I am a freelance designer, my work comes in sporadically. I was laughed at for giving a quote for a large document, when they wanted to pay me a flat low fee. That fee broken down was less than $2 an hour. So a $20 dollar story that you submit to them takes time for research, writing, editing and such. Figure your time at possibly 3-4 hours total… $5 an hour. Isn’t that below what McDonald’s employees are making? Yup, we do what we do because we love it, but we also need to eat.

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