Bloggers Fire Back on Working for Free

Mar 312010
 
Remember this guy from the movie "Network?"

Remember this guy from the movie "Network?"

Three food bloggers are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more.

I’m speaking of the idea put forth to them, in our social media-crazy world, they should be honored to work for nothing in exchange for exposure. (I’ve covered this subject before, from Putting the Free in Freelance to Links are the New Currency.)

In their responses, two writers use humor to get their point across, and one goes for it directly:

1. Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites made his point gently in a letter to a tire company, suggesting he get four tires for free in exchange for “tons of goodwill, some great jokes, and plenty of personal recommendations to his network.”

2. Cheryl Sternman Rule of 5 Second Rule politely gives free tips to those who wish to approach bloggers about working for free. Cheryl, on the other hand, wants to be paid.  “This currency is special for several reasons,” she explains. “It allows me to buy food, which I can then eat; it allows me to pay my mortgage, so I can have shelter; it allows me to buy clothing, so I am not naked; and it allows me to pay my monthly internet bill, so I can make fun of you on my blog.”

3. Aun Koh of Chubby Hubby goes for a more direct approach. He gives it to a publisher who wants his recipes for free for a cookbook, quoting the offer letter: “… to let the world know about your blog, and drive traffic to your site. The inclusions in <TITLE OF BOOK> will be deemed by us to be the best blogs on the internet. Make sure your blog is one of them.”

His response: “To take your argument that once content has been created it should be free, do you think that rationale would work with Reuters or with Getty Photos? Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if every stock photo agency in the world simply said, “Oh well, we’ve already taken the photos… guess they aren’t worth anything. Hey, we’re waiving any licensing fees or copyrights on these images. Whomever wants them, they’re free for use.” Or if every publishing company, magazine or book, said the same thing, that any article or content they have ever published can now be syndicated free of charge since, well, it’s already been produced, is out in the public domain, and now has no monetary value. Let’s see if Conde Nast would be cool with giving away articles for nothing.”

Excellent points. Bravo to all three.

Now, why do marketers approach food bloggers in the first place? Because they succeed. Most food bloggers blog as a hobby and are not trying to make money from their blogs. Many would be thrilled to take these marketers up on their offers, for no pay. And there are so many more of them than there are of these three, who are trying to make a living.

Do you disagree?

(Thanks to Traca Savadogo for passing on a link.)

  49 Responses to “Bloggers Fire Back on Working for Free”

  1. oh god yes. I’m sick of being approached by companies who act like they are doing me a favour rather than the other way round.

  2. Well done! Time is money, give them your talented time, they give you money. That simple.

  3. I completely agree! Last week at the Food Blog Forum Seminar, Jaden (from Steamy Kitchen), asked us to think about how much our time is worth. Then she walked us through how much time it takes to post a recipe which included: coming up with a concept, shopping for the ingredients, testing the recipe, photographing/styling the food, and writing the post. Most posts which include all of these steps take 6+ hours to create. I thought she made a great point! I don’t have time in my busy schedule to carve out 6+ hours for free.

    I’ve also learned from a few seasoned bloggers not to crave over-night exposure or success. “Slow and steady” is the very best way.

  4. There are many of us food bloggers out there that do it for free and honestly don’t look for anything in return….we just like to promote the restaurants that we enjoy. We just like a little credit if you use our content but that is not why we do it.

    I find most PR firms that are hired by restaurants to promote their business know the correct approach to take towards bloggers since many of them are bloggers too. It’s the owners at a few businesses that really don’t understand social media that make foolish requests and act like they are doing you a favor.

    I’m more mad at the old school journalists at major newspapers that sit on twitter all day and steal ideas and content from bloggers…come up with your own material!

  5. I agree. I’ve found that the folks who contact me don’t know I write professionally — some have come back with ‘Oh, sorry! Didn’t know you did this for a living!’ when I’ve informed them. Which says alot about the way bloggers — rightly or wrongly — are perceived (ie. not professional and willing to offer existing content and/or write for free).

    I’ve also been approached by researchers/producers for TV food programs featuring celebrity chefs who want ‘special insight’ into Malaysian (or whatever SE Asian country’s) food. The request usually goes like this: ‘I saw your blog/Lonely Planet food&drink chapter/article on XXX and you seem to be so knowledgeable about XYZ. Can we chat for an hour or so and can you suggest locals whom I might contact?’

    My feeling is that my knowledge and contacts have been acquired over years of research and travel. (As Amanda Hesser just tweeted: Information is cheap. But getting that information often isn’t.) You’re free to peruse the blog and anything else I’ve published, but once you ask for information that, for whatever reason, I haven’t put out there you should be willing to compensate me for it in one form or another.

    (I generally don’t apply this rule to fellow writers. We’re all better off by helping each other out, I think.)

    I respond to these emails by offering my services as a fixer or as a consultant, charging by the hour. Never made any money with this approach, but then again I don’t expect to.

    I’m curious, Dianne, to know your thoughts on this. Maybe a post not on sharing content, but on sharing information, knowledge, research findings?

    • Robyn,

      I always look forward to hearing your thoughts!

      I receive at least one “offer” a day and as my blog has developed, it’s been incredibly challenging to navigate through these waters. I’ll admit, in the early stages, I was much more interested and lured by flattering comments like “you’re one of our favorite blogs”, etc.

      Bascially if you blog on the behalf of someone else, I consider that unofficial PR. Bloggers are a goldmine for marketers & PR because so few offer any balanced analysis (re: all PRO, no CON). I too was guilty of that early on. Now, if I choose to review something, I’m very frank about the pros and the cons. [Dianne was a major influence in that change. My first review with obvious 'Cons' highlighted, the PR company and the author wrote to thank me. They were thrilled. Go figure!]

      At this point, I review a small fraction of things. For me, the average blog post takes 10 hours–whether that’s attending an event, screening a film, editing photos, and/or drafting text. To spend that amount of time, there’s got to be a win-win situation. Only you can determine what makes that project worthwhile.

      • Thank you Traca, so nice to know that I am making a difference with at least one person.

        I don’t think most food bloggers blog on behalf of someone else. But when they’re reviewing products, you’d never know.

        • Dianne,

          My thought is if a PR person or a corporation has reached out to a blogger & asked to consider their product, book, event…whatever…ultimately you’re blogging on their behalf. It’s a post that has been solicited, no? Compensation often comes in the form of perks. Some folks accept cash.

          What I have learned from you, is the importance of being objective and truthful about both the pros and the cons, and the source of your “perk.”

          What’s frustrating in the blogging arena is the dearth of overly positive reviews. Failing to note the pros and cons makes me suspicious. Many of the blogs I used to follow subscribe to the “sunshine version” of product plugs and frankly, there’s a loss of credibility.

          • I’m not sure you should look at it that way. The best p.r. people have info that might actually be of interest to your readers (I say this because I was once a p.r. person and good at it.) That is the only worthwhile criteria to decide whether to write about a product or service, not based on whatever perks or cash you might get.

  6. I absolutely agree with these three on this one. In fact, this very afternoon I declined a “generous offer” to print one of my recipes in a cookbook–for free. And in this case, they weren’t even going to give attribution!

    I think people agree to giving away their work for free for two main reasons: 1) they are just starting out and are willing not to be paid just to get their name in print; or 2) everybody wants their 15 minutes (or, in the Internet age, perhaps it’s only 15 seconds) of fame.

  7. It’s such a hard question.

    I just started a project called “Writers Getting Paid” (http://writersgettingpaid.mattbaume.com) where I interview folks who have figured out how to support themselves with their writing. And one of the issues that I’ve seen is that there’s a constant tension between just-for-fun hobbyists and need-to-pay-bills professionals.

    Harlan Ellison summed it up pretty well: http://www.writersgettingpaid.mattbaume.com/amateurs-mess-up-media/

    On one hand, professionals aren’t entitled to job security, and if a better business model comes along, why should we keep producing content the old-fashioned expensive way?

    On the other hand, just because the Internet makes it easy to generate content inexpensively doesn’t mean that that content is as good as the old content was.

    I think, in time, everyone will figure out that quality content costs money. But whether quality is important enough for people to actually pay for — well, that remains to be seen.

  8. I find these letters/emails frustrating. I put a lot of time in developing recipes, photos, sometimes a video as well, to give it all away. I love free PR, who doesn’t. I can’t pay bills on goodwill, and the promise of extra traffic. I like many others work very hard at their craft, and take what I do seriously. It’s very frustrating when someone doesn’t give any value to your work.
    What we all should be doing is guest blogging, and teaching each other what we do best, so we can grow our craft and stomp out recipe mill websites.

  9. What this comes down to is knowing why you blog and what you want out of any and all exposure you get from blogging. From the time I started to now my goals have changed. And I’m very cautious about any and all offers that come my way, continually evaluating what I do on the blog and what I can get out of anything I do – whether it is guest blogging, freelance work, or charitable contributions.
    But these three response had me laughing, slapping in the table in a Hell Yeah! and shaking my head at the incredulous requests people make. Next time I get one of those lame pitches I’m just going to send them the links, I couldn’t say it any better.

  10. I read this post with great interest, because I was one of those bloggers invited to participate in the “Foodies of the World” project which has everyone up in arms.

    Whilst I totally understand why the bigger, more famous and/or already published bloggers are outraged to be asked to work for free, I am wondering if, even when they were starting out, they were so adamant about not doing anything for free. I have been blogging for just under a year and just scored my first paid blogging gig, for Food Network Canada as a freelance blogger on an ongoing contract. Let me tell you, the money was not even a factor in accepting the offer – it’s very much a token stipend but for me, a newish blogger, the exposure, opportunities and credibility this brings me are priceless. As they say, you have to spend money to make money and for me, that translates to making some efforts for little or no compensation to get your name out there. Or am I wrong?

    I am seriously toying with the idea of participating in the Foodies of the World book project since what they are asking for in terms of content is fairly minimal and quite frankly, the idea of being published is very enticing for me, being new to all of this. Also, let’s be honest, the chances of me ever having my own book are very small. Even being published in print (i.e. a magazine or paper) is a bit of a pipe dream right now!

    So my question to you is: Do you think that if I do choose to participate in this project it would ultimately do me any harm? Looking at it, I feel as though I have nothing to lose, but potentially the respect of other bloggers and that is a huge thing.. Or will people forget about it eventually?

    I certainly do not wish to continue doing work for free but perhaps it will showcase what I can do and lead to other paid opportunities?

    • How brave of you to speak up, Mardi. I appreciate it.

      I guess the issue is…How great is this book? Is it worth being published in it? What do you get a as a result? Will editors respect you more if you add it to your list of credentials? Will anyone actually see it and get excited about it? You have to decide.

      Re the respect of other bloggers, don’t worry about that. And yes, people will forget about it eventually.

      Yes, the chances of getting your own cookbook are small, right now. You are building your career and it’s not the right time. But once you have a platform, there’s no reason to assume you can’t have your own cookbook. And now that you’re working for Food Network Canada, it gives you the opportunity to pitch recipes and article ideas to publications. Use it as a stepping stone to move forward to paid work. The paid work will create a platform that gives you the credibility to write a cookbook.

      That’s what I would do. But I’ve never been in your situation. (My first published piece was in the daily paper, when I was still a journalism student. I remember being paid $105 for it, and it was hardly edited at all.) So you have to do what’s right for you.

  11. I agree with Robyn and others above.

    For as long as I’ve worked as a travel writer, I’ve had ‘editors’ (generally of digital, not print) emailing me asking me to write for free, and my husband, Terence, a pro-photographer continually gets asked for pictures for free.

    I also have blogs and over the last couple of years, I’ve been getting an average of 2-3 requests a day via my main blog, because most of them don’t bother to read anything about me to know that I’m a professional writer and therefore make a living out of writing. It was bound to happen.

    I generally draw attention to the fact that I’m a professional and let them know the fees I’d charge them for whatever it is that they want, and that’s usually the last I hear from them. I’d suggest that bloggers who aren’t necessarily full-time writers do the same – develop a fee list, a range of rates you’re willing to write for, depending on the task, the degree of difficulty, the blog stats, etc and send out a standard response. Nobody should work for free.

  12. Obviously Matt Armendirez, Jaden and experienced bloggers don’t have to write for free but I have to say with so many bloggers out there, people should think twice about the opportunity in front of them.

    Yes, Time is money. I agree but I have to say that if a major publication contacts a new blogger and asks them to use some of their content, I would think that writing for free would be a smart move.
    Many of the bloggers who won’t write for free are not even sure what path they want to take their blog. Many of these bloggers don’t really know if they want a book or advertising or whatever. I definitely think it’s okay to write for free for two reasons 1) credibility and 2) to see where you want to go.
    Life is a journey and you never know where an opportunity will take you.
    Closing doors is not a good thing and to be honest, if you don’t do it someone else will.

    As for companies that contact bloggers, people should not ridicule them but be happy that someone has taken the time to connect. If it is something in their interest, why not ask for money, negotiate. And if not in their interest, just press delete.

    I totally understand how an established blogger can get annoyed and overwhelmed but new bloggers who are still not sure of their blog…

    Looking forward to seeing you next month in Seattle.

    • I don’t know if it’s a smart move. It devalues their work. It brings down the opportunity for everyone to get paid. But then, if they’re just beginning or doing it for a hobby, it might be a thrill. I’ve never been on that end.

      Do you mean you’re coming to the Foodportunity event in Seattle? That would be fantastic, Fran!

      • I agree with Dianne – it’s a really bad move to write for free. It’s like offering to mow a stranger’s lawn for free. Would you really do that? As for credibility, you’re destroying it by doing that. You’re not closing doors, you’re just showing ‘editors’ (and take note, ‘real’ editors don’t ask for content for free), that you don’t value your own writing and that it’s worth nothing. Hold your ground! Your writing is worth more than nothing, I’m sure. :)

        • I think people who blog for a hobby are not thinking about this. They’re just flattered. So thanks for bringing it up.

  13. Just today I learned my lesson about this. I took on a very short “5 top picks” assignment for an airline magazine that would have included my profile and a link to my blog, thinking it would be good exposure. After doing the work, the magazine ran with the same piece, by another blogger! I think it was highly unprofessional, but at least if I had done this for pay I would have gotten a kill fee. Let my story be a warning. Beware of an airline magazine offering you exposure and asking you to write something for free!

    • That’s infuriating, Amy! Obviously it’s the last time you’ll do anything for free for them. But you would have been okay if they ran your piece for free, because of the exposure.

      Readers, here’s a long-time, well-known blogger who’s willing to do work for free. Not everyone is in the same box.

      • I thought it would have been worth it in this instance because it would have given me exposure to a new audience. It was also not a ton of work. But had I known they were not treating it like a real assignment and would be pitting me against another contributor, I never would have done it. I don’t enter contests and that’s what this turned out to be. The upside is with a little more work the piece will be posted on Frommers.com and I will get paid for it.

        • Excellent! You’ve mastered one of the mysteries of making money as a freelancer — repurposing work.

          • I was approached by an airline magazine asking if I wanted to do a piece recommending five places in Miami.The person who contacted me went out of her way to say that their reaching out to me was not a guarantee that they would pick me to be featured, which was fine. I exchanged several emails with the person giving suggestions and such. I then got the email saying, okay go ahead and do it. I, naively, thought this meant that I had been picked to do the five picks but after submitting them I got an email saying something to the effect of thanks I’ll let you know when I decide which list to use. I haven’t heard so I’m not sure if they picked it or not, but I was a little annoyed about being asked to write it to give the editor a choice to pick from.

          • Sounds like the person handling this project is not a good manager. I’d be annoyed too! You could take a tip from Amy and recycle it, if they don’t use it.

          • It sounds like Amy above & Paula just below were approached by the same airline magazine – in-flight magazines actually pay very well most of the time. Which magazine was it? It sounds like the ’5 picks’ was more of an interview-style piece – in the old days a writer would have phoned a blogger (or chef or designer or some other local) and did an interview on the phone. These days they tend to do them by email.

            When they’re asking for 5 picks in this manner they generally don’t expect you to do a tonne of writing and go to any trouble, they just want the names of the places so they see how interesting you are, what kind of taste you have, whether you’ve been imaginative in your choices etc.

            And then, again, for these kinds of pieces they don’t normally expect you to go to too much trouble as far as the writing is concerned. They’re not interested in how you craft your words, but your reasoning – why you chose such and such a place and why you think people should go there. The words should flow as if you’re speaking to somebody & the best way to do these pieces fast is to tell someone about them out loud and record yourself.

            Because these things don’t take any time to do, and are like interviews, no, they don’t usually pay people. And they *are* good exposure – think how many people read airline magazines – far more than the actual print run.

          • What was annoying to me is that they asked more than 1 person to do it and then chose only one. If you’re asking people to do work for free, you should use it.

  14. Besides being a blogger, I’m also a personal chef. Because I was getting too many “free” requests for my services, I now have a printed list of fees for different types of cooking I provide. I send this to all inquirers, even those wanting me to cook for a party of 50 for the “privilege of exposure.” I did do two events for free at the onset, but what I found was that my work was not appreciated as much as it was for similar events where I charged a lot. I got more referrals from my paid “gigs”.

    Being a fairly new blogger, I have received only a few “blog for me for exposure” requests. When I received the first one, I said, “Oh no, some spammer found my email address! Delete now!” After I received the next few, I realized that it’s not only family members that want freebies, even strangers ask for them. Responding with a price list works best for me (although I loved Mattbites “tire” letter). If I don’t hear back, that’s ok. I am missing out on exposure, but as many previous commenters stated, exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

    • Good for you, Kathy. I like your attitude. I didn’t realize the same thing happens when you’re a chef, but it makes sense.

  15. Dianne, this is such an important topic to air out in the open, because it touches so many of us in so many different ways. I had a friend contact me today asking what she should do about a PR person who was pushing samples on her. I explained that how you handle accepting freebies, or working for exposure, or setting your rates is so personal, and such a moving target.

    I know I was motivated by frustration when I wrote that rant you linked to on my blog, but that’s because I’m a seasoned writer. I would have felt differently 5 years ago for sure.

    Thanks for exploring this topic in such depth, and for encouraging a diversity of opinions.

    • Happy to do so, and you’ve provided a great belly laugh in the process. You say you’d have felt differently 5 years ago. Can you say more about that?

      • Sure. When writers, professional or not, are just starting out, they need to get their feet wet and cultivate an audience. I agree with your poster above (or maybe it was you) who said you need to invest time and money at the beginning in order to see a payoff later. This is certainly true. No one starts a new job at the top rung of the ladder, and for bloggers, the bottom rung, or starting off point, may be blogging for free. That’s a legitimate choice, but eventually it won’t be sustainable.

        I do feel, though, that those of us who do it for cash shouldn’t judge the motivations of those who do it for experience.

        • Thanks for the vote of confidence, Cheryl – that was me who said that about investing time and money at the start of your career… If I choose to write for free in exchange for exposure, it’s certainly part of getting my feet wet and establishing what I can do. I am glad you said you would have felt differently 5 years ago and that you remember what it was like to start out…

  16. Thanks for bringing up this subject. It seems like writers are getting more outspoken about this and maybe that’s what’s needed to improve the situation. I’ve been blogging for three years and when I first started I had a very well-paid full-time job. When I left that job six months ago to pursue writing full-time, I got many opportunities to write for free and at first I considered some of them. I weighed the publication, the type of exposure and time commitment, etc. I did it mainly because in a way I was getting started and I wanted my foot in the door. However, the more I learn the more I realize that if I’m going to write for free, I’d rather do it for my own blog. Sadly even when I do get offered paid gigs, the pay is very low for the effort required. What bothers me most I think is that because I have a blog, people think that they’re doing me a favor. It’s like because you have a blog, people forget you have a background and experience that is worth something.

    • Hey, good for you, Paula, for taking a risk and writing full time. I hope you saved up a lot of money when you had a full-time job. I’m not trying to be funny, just realistic.

      This ridiculously low pay thing needs to improve. It’s only slightly better than being asked to work for free.

      Maybe the people who approach you put all bloggers in the same category — they’re hobbyists who would be delighted to have more exposure. Not.

  17. I spat out my tea this morning when I read response (1) not because it’s funny, but because of its veracity.

    A soon-to-be-wed (impoverished?) food blogging couple in LA asked a restaurant (not in the wedding sector) for a free rehearsal dinner due to the presence of food bloggers who, supposedly, could offer “tons of goodwill, some great jokes, and plenty of personal recommendations to [their] network.”

    Smart wedding planning? Heck yes. Unscrupulous? Not quite. Couth? Absolutely not.

    Let us not lambast the PR firms and the product promoters as these relationship are clearly symbiotic, if not sometimes parasitic.

    • Wow, that is too much! I’ve heard about self-entitled food bloggers from a restaurant p.r. person. I’d like to think there aren’t many people like that in our industry, but maybe I’m naive.

    • Really? I guess it doesn’t matter what side of the fence one is on… It smacks of Star Jones and her fully advertised wedding years back.

      I like to think of any blog posts/tweets about establishments or proprietors as an opportunity to start/develop a relationship. This will go a lot further in developing my exposure in the local community and as a credible writer. Same reason I don’t want ads on my blog.

      • I don’t think being a credible writer and having ads on your site are related, actually, unless you are writing advertorial about the blogs.

  18. Wow, what a great disussion! I always learn so much from your blog Dianne. I blog simply because I love the craft of food writing and I like to challenge myself to be a better writer. Like everyone else, in the almost 1 year I’ve been blogging, I recieved multiple “fabulous” offers to have my content posted on other websites simply for the exposure. I am a “hobby” blogger and don’t need my blog to make income in order to survive. However, that said, I don’t think it’s good for anyone, even hobbyists to give their work away for free. Giving away work undermines the value of the work itself and I think it also hurts the credibility of ALL bloggers- professional writers, hobbyists and everyone in between.

    • Love your philosophy, Julie. I’m so glad you’re not giving away your work. Absolutely agree that it undermines all bloggers.

  19. The only place I really contribute free content is to my congregational monthly newsletter, which is an all volunteer publication, anyway.

    It so happens, a local assignment editor read my cooking column there, liked it and contacted me. Now I write a paid 2x/month cooking column for a local news weekly.

    I have to say it is probably a very unique situation.

  20. Fantastic write up Dianne! I really loved reading how everyone approached it. I have had a few companies ask and one even went to the extent of sending over this INSANE contract asking me to waive all rights to my content, etc saying it was a “standard” form.

    I think it’s great to get recognition, but, the publishers should also know that even small payments (as my Husband jokes $1) show that they value your content and respect you as a writer :)

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