50 thoughts on turning 50 #27: Writing for free

I'm many things, but a doormat isn't one of them.

I’m many things, but a doormat isn’t one of them.

I was contacted recently by a website looking for someone to write three, 500 word articles a week, for $20 an article.

I considered it. Sixty dollars a week – or $240 a month – would be helpful right now, especially since after taking a long creative break my monthly writing income is smaller than the weekly allowance for most American teenagers.

In the end, I decided that it wasn’t enough money to justify the time I would need to spend writing the articles. And while I would retain the copyrights and could resell the articles, I’m not writing in that genre any more so I wouldn’t have a ready market for reprints.

Too much work, not enough money.

This was on my mind this morning when I read this great piece by Revolva and her offer from the Oprah Winfrey folks to perform at Oprah’s “The Life You Want” tour – for free. (Really, Oprah?)

Back when I was covering entertainment for Christian and community publications, my writing income ran the gamut from several hundred dollars an article to next to nothing. And sometimes nothing.

I hear a lot from people who criticize writers who write for free. It devalues your talents, they tell me, and they’re right. But every once in a while, I’d have a legitimate reason to give away a reprint or pen a new piece for no financial compensation. I considered it a sort of tithe, a sacrificing of my gifts for the benefit of someone else.

The key was that I made the decision to offer my services – often to a local band that needed a press kit bio, and always when it was someone I respected, believed in and wanted to see achieve their goals.

When it came to publications? Almost never. I wrote for cheap – and I mean super cheap – for publications that had almost no budget. And I wrote for lovely compensation from publications that had the budget to pay and me happily did so. But when it came to publications with lots of money who offered me nothing? No way.

A magazine editor once asked me to do a rush piece on a topic I’m pretty familiar with, because the writer they’d originally hired to write the piece turned in crap. It would have been a piece of cake to write it, they knew they would get a quality article from me, and I could have done it in the rush two week turn around they needed. But when they said they didn’t have the budget to pay me? I think I may have laughed in the editor’s face.

This is a super high quality, four color, glossy magazine that runs television ads to promote their publication. The TV station gets paid. The printer gets paid. The distributor gets paid. The magazine owners get paid.

Guess what? The writers need to get paid, too. Especially when it turned out that the free writer they originally hired couldn’t spell her own name correctly and they needed a replacement super quick.

The editor said he understood and added that if they were ever able to pay the writers, he’d let me know. Except I probably wouldn’t write for them, even then, because I could never get on board with the mindset of a magazine that placed such little value on the thing that made the magazine: the articles.

On the flip side, I wrote for years for a small magazine called Christian Voice Magazine. It was also full color and glossy, and had a very limited budget. When the editor approached me about writing a column, he apologetically offered me $25, adding that he knew it was low and understood if it wasn’t enough.

Fora  long time, I wrote for Christian Voice Magazine. I loved working for them, because my editor was kind, easy to work with, trustworthy and very generous.

Fora long time, I wrote for Christian Voice Magazine. I loved working for them, because my editor was kind, easy to work with, trustworthy and very generous. This was one of several cover stories I did for them over the years.

I took it. For what I did, it was sufficient payment. Plus, I really liked the publisher. Over the years I went on to write numerous articles and cover stories for the magazine, and many times when payment came it was for more than my invoice, usually with a handwritten note thanking me for my work and telling me they wished they could pay me more. That’s because the editor recognized the effort that went into writing and the value a good article brought to his magazine. He still puts out a high quality magazine, within budget, and does it while respecting the people who make the publication happen.

I’ll take less pay but steady work with a great editor over lots of money from someone I don’t trust any day of the week.

Sometimes I do things for free when I’m going to get something more out of it than a paycheck. Last week, for example, I spent several days on the set of the TV show “Midtown” that was filming here in Rochester. (You can read my blog post about the experience here.) I was an extra in one episode, and I hung around for a few days, taking pictures. I didn’t get paid (nor do I think my acting is worthy of pay); my parking costs set me back maybe $15.

Me with the stars of  "Midtown", Tom Malloy and Scott Baker.

Me with the stars of “Midtown”, Tom Malloy and Scott Baker.

But I got a lot out of the experience. I got column material. I had a new adventure. I met some great people who work in film here in Rochester.  I got out of the house for three days. They fed me lunch. I learned a lot about making a TV show.

I also talked about improv with show stars Scott Baker, who does improv and teaches classes at Hofstra University, and Tom Malloy, who shared his experiences in film making. I figure the time Scott and Tom spent giving me pointers or sharing their expertise far outweighed any compensation the show could have paid me.

So I’m not of the mindset that you should never work for free, and I know not everyone agrees. But if you are going to give away your art or efforts, make sure you ask yourself these questions first:

  • Did you volunteer (which is really what working for free is) or did someone approach you, expect everything and offer nothing? (If you volunteered, then it was your decision; if someone offered you nothing, then be wary.)
  • Is everyone else getting paid? (If they are, then you should too.)
  • Is there something else you might be getting out of it that would benefit you as much as actual cash in your hand? (The mortgage company doesn’t take free copies of a magazine, but there are times when you get something of more value than money. But only you can decide if it’s a fair trade.)
  • Do you like and trust the person you’re working with? (I once had the opportunity to write for a magazine that paid well, but the editor was a giant pain in my ass. Obnoxious, rude, sarcastic, demeaning. There wasn’t enough money in the world that would have made it worth dealing with the guy.)

And just a tip. “Exposure” alone is rarely adequate compensation for your creative efforts. Unless you’re looking for a job as a stripper. But that’s an entirely different topic.

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