Writing For Free Issue Goes Viral

Mar 192013
 

Should writers write for free, for exposure, or for fun? Or maybe all three? Everybody has an opinion, sometimes heated.

An argument about getting paid for online work erupted recently, when a respected journalist blogged about an Atlantic Wire editor who asked to repost a long article online for free.

What’s unbelievable is that just a few years ago, the Atlantic magazine offered him $21,000 per article for original reporting, and now they’re offering him nothing in exchange for “exposure.”

Here’s the scoop from Reuters blogger Felix Salmon:

“The exchange has particular added poignancy because it’s not so many years since the Atlantic offered Thayer $125,000 to write six articles a year for the magazine. How can the Atlantic have fallen so far, so fast ’97 to go from offering Thayer $21,000 per article a few years ago, to offering precisely zero now? The simple answer is just the size of the content hole: the Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down.”

That’s a cogent explanation for why writing online pays so little, or nothing. (If you have time, read the whole post, which includes a link to a HuffPo article that got more than 15,000 comments!)

Meanwhile, a food blogger, Stephanie Lucianovic of Grub Report, wrote a post about why she writes for free. An Atlantic Wire editor paid Lucianovic $75 to run her essay online. Ironic, no? (Turns out Lucianovic pitched that piece to the Atlantic Wire months ago, and didn’t hear back until the other post by the journalist ran. Coincidence? More like a defensive strategy.)

As usual, hand-wringing about writing and compensation ensued on social media and blog posts. Here are two more particularly good discussions:

As you know, writing for free or little pay is one of my favorite subjects. My most recent recent post, Whose Fault is It that Food Writing Doesn’t Pay?, had remarkably thoughtful comments, and I thank you for them.

As this debate goes on, I realize my background determines how I think about writing for free, as it must do for you. Because I’m a professional writer, I think people should be paid to write. My blog is an exception. I write it for free as a branding strategy and for self-expression. It brings me clients, keeps my books in front of people, creates opportunities for speaking engagements, and produces what I love most: communicating with you about the issues we face.

My bottom line, though, it that writers should be paid to write if they’re doing a job. I like what one commenter said in response to Lucianovic’s piece in the Atlantic Wire about writing for free:

“I don’t always consider writing ‘work.’”

Except it really *is* work.

Just because the act is rewarding doesn’t make it any less of a job. And magical, “gotta express myself,” soul-of-a-writer waxing – particularly when posed in print – fuels rampant exposure-based compensation, content farms, and unpaid internships. This is a profession, not a hobby, and perpetuating romantic mythologies harms us all.

While I am in this guy’s camp, you may not be. Many bloggers write for a hobby, and they don’t think about being paid. Some people write for fun or just to express themselves, so they don’t care about getting paid either. And some professional writers have told me they wrote something for free for a website, because they too get confused about what they’re supposed to do.

It’s complicated. There are professional writers and amateur writers, and the division between them is blurring, particularly as hobby bloggers break into paid work.

Where do you stand on the issue? Is it ever worthwhile to write for free for “exposure,” if you’re used to getting paid? If you write as a hobby, is it fine for another site to post your work for free?

(Thanks to Sarah Henry and Mary Margaret Pack for sending me some of these links.)

(Photo by FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

  62 Responses to “Writing For Free Issue Goes Viral”

  1. Dianne, I pitched my tent in the same camp two years ago when I started my blog. Back then I felt like I had something meaningful to contribute to the world (still do) and hoped I’d be “discovered,” or at least compensated more than “pennies per thousands of views” for well-written (imho) words.

    Since then, I’ve discovered blogging (or successful blogging) involves a whole lot of marketing. Seems there’s a price (or sacrifice) for self-expression. “Exposure?” or “Being taken advantage of?” That is the question. Thanks for bringing this to light.

  2. Hi there, Diane :).

    Thanks for this post, though it’s another small punch in the gut for writers! Should we now *aspire* to get paid for our work instead of expect it? An unpaid internship of sorts. Many write for free because they love it and do it as a hobby, as you said, but it seems to me a reality that it’s a necessary evil (unless you get very lucky or have an in) to get clips from recognizable names, which then can help you get paid work. I suppose if the alternative is not having your work published at all, it could be worth it. But, if you’re going to let someone publish your work without pay hopefully it’s a respected publication whose name reflects positively on you.

    Jennifer

    • Yes, quite a dilemma. If you want writing clips outside your blog, it may be worth it to you to blog for free. That’s why people blog at the Huffington Post, for example (not to mention that doing so can drive traffic too.) I suspect editors justify your being willing to write for free as marketing (also called exposure) and there are plenty of people willing to do it.

  3. Wow. I had no idea that some writers got paid that much.Tough one Dianne, and the issue is not going away any time soon. In fact, it may get worse, as you said, with the lines blurring. It can be a sensitive, emotional issue for many writers or bloggers as your posts have highlighted.

    Whether work to be posted is free or paid is up to the writer. Fun or not, you are right. Writing is work. I don’t think just because a person writes for a hobby that they should not ask to be paid. In fact, if you are asked, negotiate. Ask for some money. Why not? The promise of exposure often goes nowhere and does little. But it also depends on who is asking.

    If bloggers/writers all stand up and ask to be paid, do you think things will change eventually? Has anyone said yes to one for free, if they can become a contributor to build their name, gain recognition and experience, then be paid?

    One thing bloggers need to keep in mind is that duplicate content issue with Google. If the article is posted on your site and another site as well, Google will penalize you. I often get requests to use a recipe.I explain that they can use our photo, describe the recipe, maybe list ingredients, but linking back to our page for the full recipe is a must. If they want the whole thing, I say no. Once you explain the Google thing, they understand, and people (companies) have been good about it.

    But you have me thinking…lately a few of the requestors have been the online versions of well known magazines. Next time, I should ask what they pay and see the response I get. The answer, sadly, will probably be nothing. Never hurts to try.

    When I think of the zillions of hours we have put into our blog, and get paid relatively nothing for, some days I wonder why I/we keep doing it. But nothing feels as good as getting a post out, then comments from a reader who says it just changed their life, or they finally got their family to eat a vegetable, or some neat story.

    Kent did, however, sell a chicken image from a few years ago to a company to use on packaging. That was a big check! The first one!

    • Thanks for this long comment, Sally. I always advise people to ask for payment. Then I advise them to respond with, “That sounds a little low.” But free…well, there’s nowhere to go from there, except to decline if it offends you. You can try to negotiate up from a little amount but you’re kind of stuck if there’s no budget at all.

      I don’t think bloggers or writers will all stand up together and ask to be paid. It’s a nice idea, but too many people need clips (as Jennifer mentioned in her comment), want traffic (That’s how Tastespotting and FoodGawker get their free photos as you know) or are “humbled and honored” to be asked because it hasn’t occurred to them that their work has value.

      Re well known magazines asking you for free recipes, you can ask for payment, but the problem is that they can say they’re just reposting pre-existing information, and you didn’t do any new work. The trick is to get assignments.

      Re Kent getting paid, good for him! I see he didn’t try to make a living as a freelance food photographer, but went back into full-time work. Smart man, if he wants to keep living at a certain level.

  4. For obvious, or perhaps not so obvious reasons, I don’t care if the posts on my blog net me any income. I am not writing for anyone but myself at this juncture. The same holds true for writing for an online publication on campus. These are things I choose to do in order to get experience and have a place to feature my writing.

    Since I have not written professionally for several years and have admittedly lost my touch, I’m not against writing a select few things for free. If I suspect I am being taken advantage of or will get taken advantage of and the business or individual in question is just looking for free work, forget it. Whether I write for free is entirely dependent on the reason why. If it’s not a compelling enough reason and there’s nothing from a non-financial aspect that will be beneficial I won’t do it.

    I see too many writers who will take anything just to call themselves published writers. Ego and the chance to say they’re published trumps self-respect (at least it seems that way) and a paycheck. I don’t get it. Exposure rarely benefits anyone and I don’t see how anyone in the industry can possibly earn respect from their peers and/or businesses if they’re the chump who always does free work.

    • Well, that’s good, because unless you’re doing sponsored posts or you have immense readership and an ad network, making money from a blog post is going to happen anyway! Just sayin’.

      Writing for experience is a good idea. Isn’t that what blogging is all about? I guess it depends what kind of writing you want to do. For features with quotes, or reported writing, you need to be published elsewhere.

      We’ve all got egos, and it’s normal to brag about where we’ve been published. Re earning respect, I suspect most readers and colleagues don’t know who’s been paid to write, unless it’s obvious that they’re professional journalists writing long, reported pieces. For example, I was impressed to see a colleague’s story on Atlantic Wire, but then she told me she wasn’t paid, but did it for the prestige.

  5. Yes, I completely agree that writers should be paid “if they are doing a job.” My larger point in my “Why I Write for Free” piece is that not everything I write is a job. And as I said in that piece, I will never write an assigned piece for free.

    • That makes sense. Because a job, as one of your commenters explained, is work.

      The trick is to get paid for the other stuff that we write for fun, or to get something off our chests, or for self-expression. Writers do it all the time. You did so with your piece.

      (And I love that you got paid for writing a piece on why you write for free.)

  6. Dianne, exactly. For instance, that “Why I Write For Free” piece was just something I wrote in an afternoon as a thought experiment as I get ready to be on an IACP panel about the finances of food writing. It was fun and while I “worked” on it, it wasn’t a job/work.

    This act of writing for free is definitely not something that writers don’t want to talk about, but as evidenced by pieces even beyond mine and written by writers far more well-known, I do believe it’s something that is done quite a bit. Especially in aid of promoting a book, etc.

    • Yes, it’s not the same kind of work that the journalist gets, where he pitches a story and spends months researching and writing it. That’s where the $21K comes in. I was really shocked by that number. I thought it was a big deal when Gourmet handed out $5k for a major story.

      • Precisely! That IS work and should be fully compensated accordingly. That sort of writing should never be given away. What also bugs me are places who pay sometimes.

        It’s fine if you’re a place who never pays and you say so up front and people still pitch you (The Rumpus, McSweeneys, for instance). And I mean “fine” in that the writer knows what he or she is getting into upfront, but it bothers me that I’ve pitched places I know pay only to have them say they can’t/won’t pay me for my pitch but still want it. In those cases, I’ve removed my pitch from them and shopped it elsewhere.

        However, if all paying places reject me and the piece is done and dying to see the light, I might consider going back to that original place that was receptive to the writing but not for the paying of it. I also don’t like places that exhibit a lack of transparency about their payment. Like, there are some who never pay and they don’t say that in their submissions or about us information.

        Another thing that I refuse to do is rework a finished piece in a manner suggested by a non-paying editor. That’s work I’m not being paid for and I won’t do it. It’s not worth it to me.

        • Brava! I would have done the same thing. I hope you called them on it. But then, you couldn’t go back to them if no one else wanted it. Kind of a dilemma. If your goal is to get the story out, sometimes that’s what it takes.

          Re reworking a piece, I’d say it depends. If you can learn something from that editor in the process, it might be worth it. Can you tell that I used to be a magazine editor?

  7. I write for (non food) clients during the day and for my blog at night. I do make money off the blog, but definitely not as much as my non-food writing. I do do it to make money though, through the advertising, but I don’t pursue other paid food writing jobs as the daytime writing is plenty already.
    I’m curious though as to what you think about people playing music for free, etc. There are plenty of other creative skills/crafts that many people do for free because they like to do it, while not expecting to make a living at it. “Amateur” musicians will play for much less money than professionals, or free for the audience. What makes food writing (or just writing) different?

    • I dont think there’s any difference. Some people express their creativity just for the pleasure of it, and that’s their right. But they’re not going to get a $21k assignment. They don’t have the skills.

      It’s great that you can make money as a hobbyist, as most people can’t.

  8. Dianne, I’m curious to know if you’ve seen this TED Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_palmer_the_art_of_asking.html. If so (or if you have time to watch it soon), I wonder what you think it could mean for the future of the arts, and more specifically of writing, in the future.

  9. Diane, thanks for your thoughtful (and well linked) piece. The issue goes beyond writing online. Now some print publications also expect writers to write for free if, say, they have a new book out and want publicity for it. I was confronted with this situation with one of these new lifestyle magazines that are targeted to wealthy zipcodes around the country. To the editor’s surprise, I asked for payment. However, having been a freelancer herself, she was sensitive to the issue and I did get paid — but a fraction of what would have been considered adequate pay 10 years ago.
    Whatever the situation, I think writers should always ask. They may well be turned down but they have at least indicated that they are giving up something if they take the assignment — and that they regard getting paid as the norm.

    • Hmm. I wondered about this, because now that writers have to be their own marketers, they are getting good at it. They have to pitch stories when their books come out, so editors can see it as publicity instead of a featured piece. Fascinating. This would make an interesting blog post, Jan!

      Yes, there is nothing to lose in asking. You still have to write the piece for the publication, and it can’t be some kind of sell job for your book, or they wouldn’t take it.

  10. Dianne, I mentor young women on online business innovation (and business models) and we often discuss when exposure transforms into ‘taken advantage of’.
    The rule of terms in my professional circle is this:
    - if you are a well-known expert in your field (and possibly a thought leader), then it’s a clear ‘taken advantage of’.
    - if you are entering a makert/a field/a circle, then it’s exposure.

    For example, from the Authentic Suburban Gourmet blog, I learned about an online program called ‘adopt a blogger’, in which the author of Authentic participated and was mentored by another blogger, Love and Olive Oil. That’s how I learned about the new book, Breakfast for Dinner, authored by the Love and Olive Oil blogger, Lindsey.
    http://www.loveandoliveoil.com/

    This online adoption program is the ‘exposure-giving’ instrument, and the writing that happens as a result of this is what makes it work.
    Also, the Secret Recipe Club, the various Swap programs can be very good examples.

    However, if you already bult-up a reputation and performance track record in a field, I would not consider it ethical if a well-known venue contacts a well-known author to ‘give him exposure’.

    Cheers.
    PS. The Authentic S.G.blog is at:
    http://authenticsuburbangourmet.blogspot.nl/

    • Hmmm. Funny you say this. I was just contacted by a well known venue to do a video talk for free. I will have to apply this logic. I like it! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Dianne,

        You bringing up: talks for free is very interesting: where do we draw the line? When I did bookstore events to read from and sell my book, my appearance wasn’t for pay because the idea was that I would sell some books. However, now that I’m 8 months outside of my pub date, I now charge for my lectures. I no longer expect to sell my book in large amounts (and at these targeted lectures I generally don’t), so I have to make money somewhere.

        That said, there are professional associations for whom I will be essentially working for free: being on a panel at IACP, being a James Beard Award judge, doing an IACP webinar, etc. To be fair, JBA compensates judges with a ticket to the awards and a year’s membership to the foundation, so I guess it’s not technically working for free. But appearing on a panel or preparing a webinar — these both do require work. Is it volunteering for the good of the community? I truly don’t know. I don’t mind doing it, I will enjoy doing it, but the definition of what “work” is continues to morph as it both contracts and expands.

        • Stephanie, I am leading an Experts Are In session at IACP. I have spoken at an IFBC conference, 2 FBC conferences and at a conference in South Africa. I see it as exposure. I do get entrance to the conference for free and/or have gotten a token few hundred dollars on top of the conference ticket. It is a lot of preparation, a lot of time, thought, research and work. But I also know that I can reuse whatever I have prepared either for written pieces or another conference, so that work or research I have done isn’t lost or wasted. And it usually is pretty good exposure.

    • Hi “La Torontoise”, you mention you mentor young women and I was wondering, do you think it’s different for men? There is an excellent book called Women Don’t Ask and a lot of the comments here remind me of the stories in that book – women often feel awkward, if not guilty, about being compensated for their time, skills, and effort. Men tend to not feel that guilt, and tend to believe they should be compensated at a higher level. My impression is that the majority of food bloggers are women, and I’m wondering if we’re shooting ourselves in our collective foot by being humble.

      • I was wondering something like that too. I don’t see a lot of men commenting here about writing for free. My friend Howard isn’t even a food blogger. He’s a former colleague with a roaring business as a computer industry writer and consultant.

  11. This is a question of balance. I hand off my weekly blog without compensation to a site for my target demographic exactly for the exposure (it’s about boomers, but has AARP’s Nancy Graham Perry seen it and called me begging to write for her mag? NO!). But I can only do that because I have an actual writing business that more than subsidizes anything I do for free. It’s important to CHOOSE what you do for free.

    • Yes absolutely. I think that’s what Stephanie’s piece was all about. Also, Nancy Graham Perry probably hears from dozens of people who want to write personal essays about growing older, so you have some very stiff competition for pay. But for free, you can do and write whatever you like. There’s something to be said for that.

  12. Wow ~ I had no idea that writers could be compensated at that level in recent past (notwithstanding a bestselling book or shocking expose, etc.). I think that it’s just a sign of the times and how media is communicated. I remember when the nightly news was current news. By the time 6:30pm rolls around now, I’ve heard or read all the headlines more times than I can count.

    • I didn’t either! It was kind of shocking, don’t you think? It made me realize that this guy is doing deep, investigative reporting and writing — a full-time job and a long story, and so that is worth a lot.

      Yes, true. I usually find out the news on Twitter.

  13. I am so thrilled that this subject is getting another, well-publicized airing. We need daylight on the subject right now more than ever. So thanks for bringing this up again, Dianne.

    The one aspect of Nate Thayer’s recounting of his correspondence with theatlantic.com that keeps echoing in my head is the fact that he repeated his need to be paid because he has bills to pay. I know what he means, of course, but why should he even have to justify asking for payment? Even if he were independently wealthy, he could ask to be paid and it would be equitable. The hard truth is that those of us who scramble to make a living writing (or doing anything independently) often have another source of income (a day job, a spouse with a full-time job, etc.) to sustain us. But whether we have our bills paid some other way or not should be irrelevant to the discussion.

    It reminds me of when I was in graduate school for social work a few years ago (long story) and went to an industry conference. On the subject of being paid for providing therapy (a subject social workers are loathe to talk about), one brave woman spoke up and said, sheepishly, that she tells her clients that the caring is for free, but she must charge for her time so she can afford to keep the lights on. How ridiculous! How about she charges for her time because it has value? I wish those of us who want/need to be paid for our work would stop feeling the need to make excuses for asking for reciprocity. I learned a while back to ask my blog readers to buy my books, and only one person has complained about my asking – and everyone else responded to the complaint before I even had a chance to. Fair is fair.

    Great links. Great post. And I hope everyone clicks on the link to that TED Talk that Shanna posted!

    Best,
    Nicole

    • He should not have to justify asking for payment. You are right. It reminds me of the time my boss told me that the editor under me should be paid more because he had a wife and children. I said if that’s what it took to get higher pay, I was going to run right out and get a penthouse and a Ferrari.

      Now, the editor asked him to rewrite a pre-existing piece and cut it down, so he should have given her an amount for that work, in my view. And then she could take it or leave it. The whole thing was a disaster.

      Re asking people to buy your books, wow. I don’t think I can do that, at least not directly.

      Thanks Nicole. I always look forward to your thoughtful comments.

  14. I’ve been writing my recipe blog for fun for nearly 4 years (though I’m hoping it will pay off someday), but this subject struck me in how it relates to my work as a musician. I’m not a full-time professional musician, but I play in a few different bands, and have played many gigs over the years that pay just a bit. Still, I and my bands are constantly being asked to play shows for free. Playing music falls into the same trap as writing, where because it seems more fun than, say, banking, people think you SHOULD do it for free or for exposure. I have an ongoing argument with a bandmate who says “You should never turn down a gig.” To her I say “You should never turn down a PAYING gig!”

    You’d never ask a lawyer to represent you for exposure, because law is hard work. Well, playing music (well) is hard work, too, and so is writing! Working for free is like saying that your time is worthless, and thus, you are worthless. I have yet to see an “exposure” gig pay off monetarily. Non-paying gigs have only ever led to more non-paying gigs. I’ve found that if you give something for free, if you put it out there in the world that your time is worth bupkes, than you will continue to be payed bupkes. You gain respect by telling people that your time has value. (My personal exception is doing favors for friends or family.)

    I’m actually a professional baker, and have also been asked to bake desserts for events for “exposure.” Which I did precisely once and then realized what a raw deal (har har) I was getting.

    Thanks for writing these thought-provoking articles, Diane! Really enjoyed all the comments and points of view here.

    • Good analogy between playing music and writing, Alanna. I can see why you would not write for free. Or bake, for that matter.

      I am always thankful for musicians who don’t take much money, because I can afford to hear them play. I would not be willing to perform at gigs where I get paid very little. I think, if I’m going to put a lot of time into something, I want to get paid for it, unless I’m doing something for self promotion reasons (ex. conferences that pay my expense). I would never make it as a musician!

      I suppose you can argue that getting paid a little bit is more respectful than being offered nothing. But it still doesn’t add up to the time you’ve put in, and your expense of getting there, etc. This is why so few musicians and writers do what they love full-time, unless they have patrons or trust funds. It always seems to come down to that.

  15. Writing isn’t work? Oh, I guess raising kids isn’t actual work either, right? Whoever said that is a bonehead.

    • Stephanie, I said it. And I stand by it: for me, no. I don’t consider all my writing to be “work.” (If you read all the comments here, you’ll see my explanation.) Writing my book was work. Writing articles like “Why I Write for Free”? Was not work.

      Without name calling, that’s my opinion based on my personal experience. You are clearly entitled to yours as well.

      • I do see your point, Stephanie, but I do agree with…Stephanie: No matter the purpose, no matter how enjoyable, writing, parenting, almost anything is work. Sure it can be done just for fun and games – kicking a ball in the street will never qualify me for a soccer player. I write my blog for no money but it is work – maybe because I consider myself a professional? A writer? – and in some way or other I expect a return. With my writing there should always be a return whether that return is money, exposure, a ticket to a conference where I can meet people who can further my career, anything. It is up to me to decide in what way I am remunerated.

        Writing “Why I Write For Free” was work – and I think the key is that you wrote it to be read by others and not only yourself. I think that many of us chose writing as a career BECAUSE it was fun or enjoyable. It is still work. (Lucky those of us who enjoy our job!) I am wondering if the difference is just that – when we make that decision to be a professional writer, have a writing career, and once we begin asking to be paid for that work, then it all becomes work? I wrote for Huff Post for 2 years for the exposure. It worked for me. I rarely write for them now (that would require a new blog post by Dianne to know why) but I do still write for free when I think there is great value AND when I am sure there is no money to pay me (when I personally know the editor).

        I do think this is all a personal choice for each of us: how we define “work” and when to work/write for money or not. Do I think that one of us accepting to write for free destroys someone else’s livelihood? Maybe, but I think that would be platform specific. I would also hope that a great platform that really wants quality content would hire professionals and pay for it. There are a lot of mediocre writers out there willing to write for free, but where they are published is a choice made not by us as writers but by an editorial staff.

    • Some kinds of writing are fun, other kinds are work, and some are both. The former is for people who don’t care if anyone reads it. Does that make you feel any better?

  16. Thanks for the article, Diane!

    This week’s New Yorker had the following comments on writing which are insightful: “Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches. It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer. The strange anatomy of the new literary manners has yet to be anatomized….”

    As someone who spent a career as a product designer (and yes, there were many requests annually for donations of free products) and now coming into a second career as a writer, I am struck by how few writers realize that their writings are a product which requires promotion in a clogged and crowded market environment, and what thankless work promotion can be at times. True, there is a mystique and art to writing but that doesn’t mean that most writers can rise above the need to learn about market forces. You must know how to identify the sharks and carnivores who just want to eat and not share so you can make informed decisions. The best protection is building your platform and brand so that you are obviously in a position of strength, not just krill.

    Personally, I don’t know where the balance is between free and for fee. BUT….I can say that our marketing budget for products based on my design/art work averaged 23% of our expenses annually. This is over a +30 year career. It seems reasonable to me to expect to devote about 20% of my writing efforts to promotional, platform-building activities. The difference here is that the 23% was cash out of pocket, month after month, year after year. My writing activities generally only involve my time. (Worth money, certainly, but to participate I’m not bleeding cash.)

    Hope putting a number on this helps create some perspective. At least it gives me a framework of expectations and peace of mind.

    Thanks,
    Christie

    • Thanks for the New Yorker quote, Christie. I love how the writer put our situation in context. Well said.

      Re the promotion time, you are so right. That’s why I discuss promotion on this blog, and why I spend so much time on the promotion section of book proposals when I consult. It is not just about writing.

      I like the percentage analysis. It’s the right number for my own promotional activities.

      Re spending your own cash on promotion, I try not to. Some promotion doesn’t take any money, just time, like building a following on social media, and writing articles to get known.

  17. Once again, a very interesting post. I realize that as an academic I was used to indirect forms of compensation for writing. Academic journals never paid for articles and neither did people publishing your work in an anthology. My academic books did not make money either, but writing was the path to promotion. So indirectly I was paid.
    Now in writing for a general audience I find that all the emphasis on platform building and branding promises a similar economy. Write to build a platform and this will help you down the line. We’ll see.
    In the meantime, people who always wrote for a general audience are much more insistent on writing for places that pay.

    • You wrote because professors are supposed to do so to get ahead and to attain prestige, I imagine. Now you write for different reasons — for your own pleasure, because you have something to say. And a book came out of it! So I’d say that’s successful. There probably wasn’t much money in it either. There never seems to be for the work involved, but that’s not the main reason why we do it.

  18. Hi Diane,
    Your post was so timely. Last night I was at an industry (garden) event and the editor of a non-profit highly respected quarterly journal sought me out and asked if I would contribute, gratis. I didn’t have to think long to accept. I see it as a form of promotion, too, and another platform, which ultimately could lead to more work. Variety is the spice of life, and with publications shutting down left and right, I don’t think it’s wise to focus all of one’s energy on one publication, even if things appear to be going well. A diverse portfolio will better prepare me for the unexpected, even if that means occasionally writing for free. But I do strongly feel that we have to each set our own standards. Would I write free for a publication that has a questionable reputation for using writers? No, because to me, it lessens my marketability. It’s not ego, it’s brand, and once you’ve established it, it’s hard to go back. Just look at Dennis Rodman.

    • Hmm. I have to think about this. You’ve been writing for a daily newspaper and want more writing work. Will you get it as a result of writing for this journal? What kind of work do you want, and how will it attract that work? And why can’t they pay if they’re highly respected?

      Sorry, your comment brought up a lot of questions for me, Sophia.

      • Diane, I appreciate your pause and your insights. That’s why you do what you do so well and why we participate in this dialogue. I haven’t done it yet and will take your questioning into consideration. I guess that’s why we are having this discussion. It is difficult but necessary.

  19. Reading Felix’s quote about print versus online content (“The simple answer is just the size of the content hole: the Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week.”) makes me think about how absolutely overwhelmed I feel coming online some days. There’s just not enough hours in the day to read all of what’s interesting or useful.

    Over time, as we become saturated, I wonder whether websites and blogs will stop focusing on quantity and start focusing on quality to gain loyal readers. I’d rather save up my reading time for one well-written article (or blog post, like yours!) rather than be flooded with shallow, useuless “10 tricks for better blog posts” emails daily.

    • Aww, thanks Jill. That means a lot. There is so much to choose from online, and I’m always thrilled when people decide to come here.

  20. I have written for numerous publications that could not afford to pay. If the publication had financial resources and expected me to write for free, that would be unsettling. Naturally, I want my work to reach as many people as possible. Exposure might help a fledgling writer like myself. I cringe to see more successful writers struggling to get paid, when they have clearly PAID their dues…

    • That would definitely be unsettling. Clearly you don’t feel that people have taken advantage by publishing you for free. Many prestigious literary journals don’t pay, but landing in them could lead to book deals, although I think this is primarily for fiction.

  21. My words and my byline appear on a hugely read website: nytimes.com. Yet I have never once received a query about another job or another writing opportunity from my writing that appears there.
    I have, however, ended up with quite a few writing jobs that came to me via a site I do regularly write for, for free: my own. And mostly the writing I do for EatingAsia is fun …. but it also takes a lot of time, which is time I can’t spend on work that pays in the conventional sense.
    Everyone will have varying experiences but my feeling is that if you are going to write for free, do it for yourself. Spend time creating fantastic content for your own website/blog, content that will draw readers and ad dollars (if you want to go that route) and admiring editors who want to give you work, and that can serve as high-quality clips to use in pitches if you plan to go the freelance route. Why contribute your content to build someone else’s brand when you can build your own?
    Of course my tune may change if I ever have a book to sell and some gzillion-hit website asks for a freebie. :-)

    • My sentiments exactly. Since you make a living as a freelancer, you probably have not considered writing for free. It doesn’t pay the rent.

      That’s fascinating about the NY Times. You still have to pitch them in the conventional way, because apparently the assigning editors don’t notice what’s happening on the website.

  22. You have to start somewhere. Writing for free my be just the ticket to gain notoriety and eventually become a demanded commodity. Never having the opportunity to get paid for what I write, I would be a poor one to ask… LOL. Just my thoughts.

  23. I’m with you on this one, Dianne. Writing may be a labor of love for most of us, but it is still work and it is still time-consuming. I simply don’t understand this attitude that just because something is being written for online publication, it’s not worth as much as something for print. It’s the same amount of work that requires the same skill. No other industry expects to get work out of people for no money. To use a common metaphor, I would never ask my mechanic to fix my car in exchange for “exposure.”

    “Hey, Joe. If you fix my transmission, I’ll let everyone I know who has a car what a wonderful mechanic you are. It’s a great deal because I’m offering you EXPOSURE. Take it or leave it.”

    I’m not saying that you should never, ever write for free, because I think there are circumstances in which you may benefit. If you’ve never published anything before, maybe. If you’ve been offered some space in the New York Times, maybe (but even that would raise an eyebrow). For charity, okay.

    But these offers of “exposure” are ridiculous. If I write an article for “Dung Beetle Monthly” for free, is that really going to be such a platform coup for me that it would be worth my time and energy?

    Nope.

    • I think the answer has to do with the Reuters guy I quoted’s explanation of why online sites don’t pay well. The ads don’t pay well either, compared to traditional media. They make less money and they need tons of content all the time. That’s not a good combination.

  24. I am a little late to this discussion, but I cannot pass not to add my two cents worth. I could not agree more with Robyn and I actually wrote a post about guest blogging in my new blog about medical writing (I know it is not food writing, but it is writing) that is planned to be launched on April 2nd. Anybody interested you can read it by clicking on:

    http://www.medicalwritingcoach.com
    Username: sneak peak
    Password: previewwin201

    Just to summarize what I wrote about guest blogging is this:

    I believe the genius that came up with this idea must have fashioned his/her recommendations on systems that work at academia. They are the first one that implemented the student abuse system. The student does all the work for the professor on the assumption that he/she will get a better grade and the professor gets the glory of book authorship, Nobel Prize, etc. Very “fair” system

    Then came the older bloggers whose rise to fame was the easiest thing you can ever achieve (there were very little competition at the time). Eventually, they got tired of writing at least twice-a-week a post, which in order to maintain their reputation, has to be brilliantly outstanding (or in Corbett Barr’s words: epic sh..t). So, why not create a hype for all those newbie bloggers that are desperate for traffic; advise them that we will graciously allow them to write for us (only if they know how to write a killer article) and in return they will get subscribers from our huge audience.

    I assume everybody knows, that when we are desperate, we are bound to do stupid things. Guest blogging is one of them. For instance, I asked a couple of bloggers if they know how many people (or what percentage) subscribed to their site following a guest post. Based on the sketchy responses, the numbers seem to be quite limited, even though most site prepared a special landing page for these visitors where they offered free gifts for their e-mail. And if you ask, how many of those purchased something on their site or how long they stayed as subscribers, they could not respond to it.

    Think about the hours you worked on this guest post; most likely more than you would work on a post for your own site. And how about the rejections? I am sure most of you can relate to that. Yet we still continue to write guest posts and waiting for the thousands of visitors.

    • Aha, Georgette, you are the first to bring up guest posts. I have published two guest posts on this site in 3 years. In both cases they were colleagues who knew more about a subject than I did and had a first-hand experience that would be valuable. I did not pay them and they did not ask for pay. Did they do it to drive traffic? I don’t think so. They did it to share info with their peers.

      On the other hand, there are people who swear that guest posts are the way to bring tons of readers to your site, and I recently found a guy who teaches classes on how to do so, based on his experience that guest posts catapulted him to fame. So everyone’s got their own take on these things.

  25. Thank you Dianne, some people don’t realize that writing is a service. Although I am not sure that is an excuse for media companies like Atlantic. I am a Nutritionist and a Food and Nutrition writer and write about the Mediterranean diet and cuisine that I grew up with. I have my blog to promote the Greek diet and correct misconceptions but also to promote my work, sort of a portfolio. I have received requests of companies that sell mediterranean products to use my articles (for free of course), in exchange to a link to my site. This is so funny because their websites not only have less visitors then mine, but they are in essence using my article to sell their products. So I always reply politely no. My general rule is that I don’t write anything for free for companies that are for-profit. If they are making a profit, then they can pay me. For non-profit and guest blogging it’s a case by case situation.

    • That’s funny! You could also tell them you’d be happy to let them repurpose your content for a fee, or you can write original copy for them for a fee. See what happens. At least you’re opening a door for a discussion.

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