Putting the "Free" in Freelance

Nov 122009
 

empty_pockets-450x343Earlier this year I began working with a sophisticated home cook and sometime cooking teacher who wanted to start a blog, write for publication, and later on, write a cookbook. That wasn’t the order, but I told her it would work best that way.

She launched the food blog, and it’s coming along beautifully. For clips, we brainstormed a few story ideas for newspapers, which would produce results much faster  than magazines. She pitched several weeklies in the state, with two responses. It wasn’t pretty. Here is the first, from the paper’s editor:

“All the articles are volunteered.  We have no budget for freelance, or for anything else that matter. Everybody does it here for love. Still, we recognize that many freelancers who query us are hoping–and needing–to sell their articles.  If that is the situation with you, of course we will understand your not being able to place it with us. If on the other hand, you are in a position to donate the piece, it would be our pleasure to run it.”

Around the same time, a second reply arrived. It came from another paper’s copy editor (in the past, a copy editor would be way too junior to respond to story pitches, but this is today’s economy). It said, “This story sounds fun…  However, we are a struggling paper (as most are) and would have to know how much you would want for the story before we say yes or no.”

Oh wonderful. She would have to guess how much the paper would pay. And if she guessed wrong? Still, I suggested she go with the second paper, because at least they were willing to pay something. I’m not a big fan of working for free. I suggested she ask for $100 for up to 500 words and two recipes. She went along with it, except she suggested up to four recipes. Then she got the reply:

“Unfortunately, we are a very small paper dealing with intense budget cuts (most of our newsroom is out on furlough today). We can’t afford to pay freelancers $100, we usually pay around $50 for a 700-word story. Thanks so much for your offer, good luck with the story!

Great. $50 for 700 words. You know what that is? It’s 14 cents per word, for probably 6 hours of work. And to top if off, the copy editor blew off the writer because she didn’t guess the right amount.

Unperturbed, the writer went back to the first paper. She’s submitting a 500-word article with 1 recipe. “If people want more recipes, they can go to my blog,” she concluded. Now, this writer can afford to submit a piece for nothing. She wants a clip. After she told the editor she was “in a position to donate it,” he said, “I’m looking forward to your first one.” He can already see that she’s good, and he wants more. For free, of course.

So dear reader, we can all agree that this situation stinks. But let’s discuss. Is she on a slippery slope? Should she have agreed to write for free? Should she continue to work for this guy for nothing, to build up her clip file? Or should move on, looking for payment for her hard work? Is $50 much better than free? What a time we live in.

(Thanks to Nancy Leson for the idea for this headline.)

  60 Responses to “Putting the "Free" in Freelance”

  1. I think in any case, the second paper is the most at fault here. The first paper at least was clear and direct with its first communication about submitting articles for nothing. The second paper makes me suspicious that they will even pay the $50! Perhaps they will see how low she will go, responding a second time with “unfortunately we can only pay $40 for an article without photographs, etc.”

    I don’t know if it’s a bad idea to work for free, at least at the beginning. Some can afford to, and perhaps it will bring her work and credibility in other areas outside of newspapers and magazines.

    The first paper should be even clearer and state their policy on their contact page so writers who are looking for pay don’t waste their time!

    • Hi Sara, I have to agree that the editor of the first paper was direct and respectful. You can’t argue with that. I’m glad she’s working with him. No games.

  2. Another aspect of all this is the role free (writing and editorial) interns play at (even the major) foodie websites.

    • Karen, Yes. Here in the Bay Area, the S.F. Chronicle uses interns from cooking school to develop recipes and write small articles. It’s chronic.

  3. I think the offer of $50 is even lower when you consider not just the time she invested to write it (and pitch it!), but presumably the ingredients and time for recipe testing as well.

    I’m on a similar trajectory as your client, but just starting out. I understand that it’s necessary to sometimes work for free or very little in the beginning. But this story just leaves me worried about the ultimate prospects of earning money in this field. I know that one does not get into food writing for the money, but still…

    • Good point, Hilla. Plus she paid me to help her with the pitch, that’s another expense.

      Re starting out, part of me says: Don’t let the lack of money stop you. If you have something you’re dying to say, just say it. The kind of “do what you love and money will follow” advice. The other part of me wonders if you have another means of support, or money in the bank, because that’s how many of us do it.

  4. Eesh, that’s a tricky one. It depends on how much the writer wants the clip, I guess. Aside from that, here are my thoughts:

    It depends on the publication; if it’s a small–super small–community newspaper, or one that’s run out of a non-profit organization, then I’d have no problem volunteering my time to write.

    But for anything larger than that–including most other community/neighborhood newspapers–they’re businesses, and ones that should at least do something for their writers. Yes, times are tough, and yes, advertising may be tough to get right now, but even small ones find ways to pay freelance writers, who aren’t even expecting the salary, benefits, etc. that staff writers get!

    Regarding interns, they’re at a little advantage over freelance writers, because like it or not, working for free in order to gain experience, get college, and hopefully get a job is just part of interning in general. I’ve done it, and the experience was invaluable. But as a freelance writer, I would expect to get paid.

    • Hi D. These particular newspapers were in the “anything larger” category. But they also know people will write about food for free. Would people write about business or technology for free? I doubt it. I also don’t know how much this has to do with being female. I might not have enough guts to get into that right now.

      Interning is a different story, and a valuable experience if the editors don’t take advantage. A long time ago I got paid over the summer in journalism school. I was the substitute editor of the “women’s sections” of three newspapers while the editors took their vacations. But I had an unpaid internship later, at a different journalism school in LA. I wanted to work at the largest circulation magazine in town. You know what it was? Playgirl. That’s another story (but a good one!).

      • You bring up a good point about the type of story. Unfortunately a writer may have to battle with the perceptions of a particular editor. However, there’s a real art to food writing and recipes, and it’s one that shouldn’t be underestimated. Kinda like the arts. A number of editors/news directors have been cutting back on arts coverage, thinking that their readers/viewers don’t care about the arts, and therefore coverage won’t do anything good for ratings. But so much of our humanity is wrapped up in the stories that one sees on the stage and the stories that a recipe carries with it.

  5. I occasionally write articles for a local arts magazine, and am paid in free advertising spots for my books. It’s a relatively new, and beautifully designed, magazine that is just beginning to build up the kind of clientele it deserves. Since we both benefit from the exposure, I have no problem with that!

    Of course we all have to eat… but sometimes there are other ways to be paid than the obvious paycheck.

    • Hi Gary. You got paid in kind. That’s an okay deal. Maybe the writer should have asked for an ad for her new blog, in exchange for the piece. What a great idea!

  6. What she should do depends on her personal situation. If she wants to be in a position to make (a little) money from food writing in a few years, then she may have to write for free now and build up her name. Another alternative is she could write the clips now, and hold on to them until times improve and people can once again pay freelancers. Depends on whether they’re timeless or timely.

    Your last sentence “What a time we live in” is the key. These are not normal times, these are not the times we grew to expect. I’m able to be in this field due to the income of my lawyer-husband, but the same issues are coming up in his world, and it’s terrifying. People who graduated from law school this year have huge amounts of debt — many of them don’t have jobs, and have started to consider offering to work for free, just for the experience. When they entered law school three years ago, we all lived in a different world…

    • Hi Erica. Like you, she can afford to not be paid. She needs to build up her clips on the subject of her book to increase her desirability to a publisher.

      Re the times we live in, I don’t know if there will ever be money again for newspapers, and I believe food writing is always going to be underpaid, because mostly women do it, and it’s not valued as much as other kinds of writing. I’ve also been wondering about stating her credentials as a blogger, and whether that harmed her further. Did she set a standard, that she was already working for free?

  7. I’m in a similar situation, I’ve been writing for “free” for over two years now. Fortunately I do work a full-time job in another field which enables me to be more patient than some it terms of waiting for my ship to come in. But as someone said with so many people out there willing to write for free one wonders if we’ll ever be able to “make a living” doing freelance.

    I think you need to do the free stuff initially to build up your clip file, get you name out there, developing a following, etc. But after a while it does get frustrating and I think you do end up having to step out on faith and start asking for pay. Your client should continue to both write for free while also continuing to seek out paid work. That’s what I do and can only pray that one day it will pay off.

    • Heather, I like your solution. It’s very sensible. Why accept that she will always be paid nothing? Although hearing it’s happened to you for two years now makes me wonder.

  8. I meant to comment earlier so a lot of my points have been made. I’m in a similar situation, having just left my full-time job to pursue food writing. I’ve had a food blog for three years and that has opened some doors to writing for other publications but the pay is pretty low. The way I look at it is, I’ll take these jobs to build up more experience and make contacts but I’m still meeting with local editors hoping to get other paying freelance jobs.

    Someone mentioned an ad for your client’s blog. When doing something for free, I say look at the size/reputation of the publication and ask them to include something in the footer of the article about your blog (i.e. So and so is a local food blogger at xyz.). In the case of newspapers, if space becomes an issue maybe they can do it on the online version of the story if there is one. You talked about links being currency. They are in a way. They’ll help your client drive visibility and hopefully traffic to her blog.

    • Good point, Paula. I think she gets a little bio at the bottom with her blog address, but I’m not certain. It’s something she should check.

      I guess everyone has to answer for him or herself: when am I done paying my dues? It’s a good question, in food writing.

  9. Given that your client’s end goal is having a cookbook published a presence in a local newspaper is essentially an exercise in brand and audience building. In this instance and in these uncertain economic times, she should look at the opportunity to write for them regularly as free advertising. Because it is. If her goal was being a freelance foodwriter then offering copy without charge might not be prudent.

    • Heather, yes, her goal was to write a cookbook, and not to be a freelance writer, so from your standpoint, she doesn’t have much to lose.

  10. Okay, I’ll jump in: it’s not just food. People writing about “serious” subjects are also being asked to “donate” their work to publications in business to make a profit (whatever journalism started out to be, today it’s primarily about the bottom line). No one is thinking big picture, but the side in this dispute that stands to get hurt worse is the one posing as “legitimate” publishing. If you want material produced for free, it’s all over the internets.

    A biz journalist I met at an opening recently told me (and I’m quoting) that pros will write for the Daily Beast over the Huffington Post because the former pays. $25! But it pays.

    • Hello Regina! In a way, I’m glad to hear it. It’s not that I want to share the misery, it’s just a nice change that it’s not just food writing that doesn’t pay. And when you’ve got Deepak Chopra and Nora Ephron writing for free for the Huffington Post, well, I guess they don’t need the $25 they’d get at the Daily Beast.

  11. This made me want to cry. I’ve been met with so many of these same responses… for local papers as well as those with larger distribution.

    I’ve been writing market guides for a freelance organization, and can I tell you how difficult this is? How many times have I been told by editors, “tell your colleagues not to bother pitching because we can’t afford to buy anything at the moment. We’re writing everything in-house.”

    Since she’s starting out, though, I’d say that she should do it for cheap or free – for a short time. Once she’s got clips under her belt, she’ll be in more of a position to demand better payment, and she’ll be more likely to get it.

    I really hate that I just said that, but it’s a sign of the times. :/

  12. Dianne-

    I think for a first article, free works because your friend gets something she wants too, namely a clip. When I started out writing 15 years ago, I did write for free but not for that long. It inched up to $0.10 a word and so on.

    Now I write for national magazines and websites and get at least $1.00 a word or more. But I didn’t start there. And, no it is not okay to continue to write for free. Unless, of course, you have a book to promote or a website or blog. But you know what they say, “Pay peanuts, get monkeys.” So no, don’t keep writing for free. That’s just counterproductive to your career.

    • Judy, I hadn’t heard that one before. Hilarious! It may not be counterproductive if she’s trying to build clips to write a book. It’s just not a good situation.

  13. I think this is a highly personal decision. Many established (and some not-so-established)writers think it’s an outrage to write for free. I think that you have to be selfish here and look at what your own personal goals are. If you need the clip and truly enjoy the writing, then why not? If you need the money and can’t afford to write for free, then of course, find a market that pays. It all comes down to what works for you and what the specific circumstance is. Many other writers will disagree, thinking that if writers write for nothing, then they are degrading the entire field in general.

    • Sheryl, I have often thought that as well. When I was an editor at newspapers and magazines, it would never have occurred to me to not pay someone for his or her work. But maybe those were different times.

  14. Let’s look at some perspective here.

    Many of us write for free on our blogs. We do it for fun and some do it for the praise of readers.

    These small papers are now competing with blogs and other websites – seemingly thousands of them in the foodie space – who are, of course, publishing their work for free across the board. Okay, so some are getting 3 cents per Google ad click… but you get my point.

    I’ve had the good fortune of getting paid for some pieces in national and regional magazines – jobs which began the OTHER way; that is, the editors sought me out. Will I ever get rich from this? Hell no.

    Here’s another tangential point that few people mention: When an article appears in a newspaper or magazine about you/your blog, your blog will barely see a discernible increase in traffic. I’ve come to learn – through experience – that human beings very rarely read about a site/blog and make the effort to type in the URL in another setting.

    I used to get excited when papers published articles about my silly little corner of the web… Until I realized the hits just didn’t come in. In fact, I’d bet that I’ll get about as many hits from my link on this comment from this blog from a bunch of you who have no idea what you’re about to read than I have from articles in large papers in my state. It’s just the way it is.

    I wish I had something more constructive to say, but keep your collective chins up and keep doing what you love. If you do it well, you will be rewarded.

    • Steve, interesting perspective. I wondered if, when she said in the query that she had a blog, she established she was willing to write for free, so why should an editor pay? But on the other hand, like you say, she’s doing what she loves and she’ll be rewarded with a clip.

      You’re probably right about the hits. That’s really depressing!

  15. Hi Dianne,

    Just this afternoon, I happened to reread the section in your book regarding pitching stories and the low/non existent pay – I already knew this, but reading it over just depressed me.

    The longer I work in the food world the more disillusioned I become with the industry as a whole. Nobody is willing to pay people who work in this industry what they are worth. Considering the amount of time, creativity and/or physical labor that goes into food related jobs, it is astounding that the pay is so unbelievably low – if there is any pay at all.

    I distinctly remember the day I had a near panic attack regarding my choice to pursue a career in food. There I was, a magna cum laude NYU Food Studies graduate/ Le Cordon Bleu diploma recipient, with over $30,000 in school loan debt, earning exactly $9.09 an hour (before taxes) working ridiculous hours as a pastry cook at a top NYC restaurant. I was barely able to pay my rent, never had enough time or money to eat a proper meal, and accrued over $1000 dollars in ER bills because I had no health insurance.

    Few people pursue food careers for the money, and I have no fantasies about ever owning a mansion, but is it asking too much for a paycheck that will allow you to have a decent standard of living? There is a tiny group of people making money in the food industry, but everyone else has to do something else just to survive in order to continue pursuing their passion and love of food. I find it appalling, but I have just as much enthusiasm and passion for food as I did when I was a 12 year old PBS cooking show addict.

    Sadly, I feel the situation is only going to get worse.

    • Erika, this is a sad story. Remember that book called “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow?” I always thought that was crap. But you’re still passionate about your profession, and that’s probably a position of privilege.

  16. it’s each person’s own decision, of course. but I’d point out that it is a decision that impacts not just the individual, but all of us who are working to make a living as freelancers. would the publications rethnk their business models if no one wrote fro free? would they close the door to freelance writing? would they go out of business? I’d imagine we’ve all seem each of those happen. just making the point that a choice to write for free, while an individual decision, also has an impact on others, and possibly on one’s own future level of income as well. I live in college town and used to work a [well paid] freelance gig in television. there are so many students who are so eager to work ‘for the experience’ though, that the general level of tv wages here, even for very experienced folk, stays quite low, and once the students graduate, they wonder why the pay scale is so poor. that’s a scenario I’m thinking may apply to writing as well.

    • Kerry, that sounds fantastic. I would love to see the day when no one would work for free. But in our business, it’s not going to happen. That’s just how it is.

  17. Dianne,

    Great post with thoughtful comments from your readers. My input is off-subject in some ways, but this thread is exactly what blogging is about to me. A bright and respectful community, contributing to the whole. This “conversation” is a good example of that.

    Now, since this post and your responses required time, do you sprinkle annoying ads on your blog to make a few cents here and there? Or do you blog for free and use this as part of your marketing plan? The same principles apply here. It’s food writing whether you’re maintaining a food-related blog or trying to make it as a freelance writer.

    How do you make money at this while maintaining your authenticity and a sense of class? If you include in your bio that you have a blog, therefore increasing your traffic, does it really matter if you don’t make money in the process (if that is your goal). It’s a bit of a Catch-22. Kind of like public speaking and book publishing. To be a speaker, you need a book. To write a book, you need to be a public speaker.

    You also mentioned in your class last Tuesday (I took part in your “killer cookbook proposal” class, which by the way, was wonderful) that in order to get the attention of a book publisher, a blog should receive at least 5000 hits per day. That’s a LOT of traffic and a lot of time, effort and money in getting there. It’s a never-ending circle of what comes first, the chicken or the egg. The book or the speaking engagements. The blog or the freelance gigs. The volunteer jobs or the paid jobs. :-)

    The bottom line is that few of us will become the next Pioneer Woman. Most of us need a back-up plan in the form of a trust fund, a well paid partner, or a winning lotto ticket.

    No easy answers. Especially in this economy. But hopefully we can have fun, spark creative conversations, share our passions and make some new friends in the process.

    Oh, and eat well.

    Melissa

    • Hi Melissa, these are good questions. They’re all part of the same issue: the woman in this example wants to write a book, so she needs a platform. That’s why she’s writing for free, and that’s why she started a blog. She may not get to 5000 readers per day, but then, very few people do. And yes, in the meantime, she’s having a great time, making progress as a food writer, and enjoying the ride. That’s got to be worth something.

      Thanks again for taking my teleconference class.

  18. In this case, writing for free is an investment in building her author platform – which is so very critical to publishers when she goes to pitch her cookbook. Plus, the columns and blog posts can be a starting point for the cookbook.

    • Jamie, absolutely. That was my plan. She also gets to see if she even likes the process of writing and developing and testing recipes. so far she’s having a blast.

  19. Hi Dianne, interesting point you’ve brought up here. I’ve just started writing myself, but I’ve read and heard about the stories of low / no pay in this industry. It’s sad, that within the food industry people pay top dollar to eat at fancy restaurants but somewhere the pay gets lost in translation and it’s sad that the people behind the scenes (i.e. the chefs / apprentices / writers) don’t get their dues. The whole business of working for free (both as apprentices and as writers) seems to be “acceptable”, albeit somewhat grudgingly, in the name of experience. I see the point of print media having to compete with blogs and other electronic forms but I still thing it’s sad. We shouldn’t have to bow to such expectations, it totally ruins the market and will serve to chase away prospective talents out there who want to write / cook but can’t do it for free because they have to pay the bills. Does a law exist outlining minimum fee for freelance contributions?

  20. There are three stages to being a freelancer writer: unpublished, unpaid, and unknown. You have to start somewhere.

  21. As a beginning illustrator a while ago, I donated plenty and times were good then.
    I needed print samples to put in my portfolio.
    I would have paid them probably if they’d asked :)
    You need notches on your belt. Street cred.
    Who starts at the top if your family is not in publishing?
    OK $100 bucks is not exactly at the top but…
    I like Gary’s idea of a trade-off.
    Whatever it takes.

    • Hi Paris, interesting to know that illustrating is no different.

      I’ve only written two articles for free, for the same publication. I had ulterior motives for both. One was a write-off to review restaurants in a far-off land; another got me into an expensive conference.

  22. Best topics in delicious for 2009-11-13…

    Best topics in delicious for 2009-11-13…

  23. As a relatively novice freelancer I see it as not really being about the amount of money. These are hard times for publishing and I am desperate to get that ‘clip’. I do think the comment about doing it for a small community paper is valid, especially since they were up front in stating that they don’t pay and everything is volunteered.

    • Linda, yes, unlike the other editor, the first one was polite and straightforward about the situation. I’m glad the writer will be working for him. We don’t need games on top of no pay.

  24. While at the BlogHer food conference, I had the pleasure of hearing Jaden Hair from SteamyKitchen speak. Her advice on this very subject was:

    “Get paid with either Cash, Credibility or Visibility. Regardless of how you get paid, you always should be paid something in one of these three ways.”

    Which of these three you are willing to accept depends greatly on your current situation. It’s a personal call, and is dictated by your goals and ambitions. You have to know where you are going with your work in order to know what you will accept for payment.

  25. Crying poor is a rich man’s game.

    Most of these “struggling” publishers have plenty of cash and just want to increase their profits on the backs of the hard-working naive.

  26. As crappy as it seems, 14 cents per word is actually pretty good. I know award-winning, long-established, internationally distributed magazines that will pay only 6-8 cents per word, with a minimum payment amount (at say a of minimum $50, so you’d have to submit at least 834 words).

    It sucks, but that’s why writers and journalists are so often seen as struggling and poor.

    Books aren’t that much better. Unless you’re Stephen King, don’t expect to make a killing publishing your cookbook or any other kind of book. A majority of published authors work full time jobs while they write on the side.

    • Yes, but these are the two extremes, being Stephen King or making 14 cents per word. For a long time, you could learn a living as a freelance writer making decent pay. It seems close to impossible these days.

  27. I don’t remember where I read it recently, but someone else was prompted with the same situation and their answer was to offer the first article for free and then list prices for subsequent articles. I really thought that was a great idea. That way they get a taste of your writing but know that they will need to pony up if they want more.

 Leave a Reply

(required)

(required)

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>