Dear Every Editor Who Has Ever Asked Me To Work For Free
I owe you an apology.
Somehow I have given you the impression that I value my work at approximately zero dollars.
It must have been something I said. Maybe when I mentioned my seven years of professional experience, you heard me say that I was so desperate for “exposure” that I valued it over a currency that would pay my rent.
The most recent version of you emailed just this past weekend that you were interested in using a 2,500-word essay I had submitted. No, you could not afford to pay but not to worry—there were “perks” to replace that boring old cash that’s really only good for eating food and paying student loans. One of them, you said, was “editor friends.”
Friends. You literally offered to be my friend if I would hand you my work for nothing. Doesn’t this feel a little like we’re in middle school, and you’re offering me a place at the cool kids’ lunch table if I’ll write your book report?
I don’t mean to be harsh. I know you mean well. I know you’re probably a perfectly nice human who doesn’t make the rules of the organization for which you work and has no idea how offensive it is to suggest that I give you my words for free. The words that begin rolling through my mind in the morning as the caffeine seeps into my brain. The words that sometimes make me forget to eat lunch as I furiously type. The words that I try to recapture from my scrawled notes and my dreams.
It’s not your fault that somehow we have gotten to a place where it’s socially acceptable to expect me to work for exactly nothing. It’s not your fault that others before me have probably taken you up on this offer of friendship payment, cementing in your mind that not only is it OK but maybe even helpful. You’re getting people published, getting them that valuable “exposure” that will definitely lead to the New York Times calling sometime next week.
And to be fair, you did also promise the chance to be part of an “awesome mission” and to occasionally receive “free stuff.” I didn’t ask about the free stuff, but I don’t think it includes the groceries I didn’t buy with the money you didn’t pay me.
One of my closest friends is a dentist. I bet you wouldn’t ask her to do a tooth extraction for free. If you hired a chef for a dinner party, would you tell that person that unfortunately the chef budget is a little thin right now—but this gig will be really great exposure and totally worth it anyway?
Sometimes I think it would be convenient if I didn’t have to pay the lady who cleans the apartments in my building. But I admit I feel a bit awkward about asking if she might accept my gratitude instead. Or maybe my saying some nice things about her to the building owner once in a while? Oh, I think I’ll just keep giving her cash. She probably likes feeding her kids.
We can probably all agree that it wouldn’t be fair to expect that our dentist or cleaning lady or personal trainer or pizza delivery guy work for free. So what is it exactly about writers and photographers and freelancers of any stripe really? Are we all walking around with a “tell me I am worth nothing” sign slapped to our collective back?
Would you even have been willing to send the “we can’t afford to pay at this time” email if you weren’t getting paid for the minutes you spent typing?
And let me be clear: I’m not even 100 percent against working for free. I’m probably 98.7 percent against it. But I do think that there are times when it can be a reasonable thing to do.
In college, I wrote two unpaid stories for a neighborhood paper with ties to the journalism department. Also in college, I worked for practically nothing for an investigative reporter who taught me how to dig into public records and build a network of sources. I learned more from him than I had in any college class and would do it again despite the fact that my $150/byline contract probably worked out to cents per hour.
So yes, I understand that when you’re just starting out, sometimes it makes sense to take a little “exposure” or “mentoring” in place of cash. When you’re at that point in your career, there is some value in those things.
But here’s the problem: We’ve come to a point where even those of us who have been doing this longer than a semester are also expected to be grateful just to see our words in print.
I don’t have any answers—I would have put them up top if I did—but I know we’ve got to find a way to change this. Because you want to be my friend, and I just want to be paid for my work.
All the best, Stephanie
P.S. Full disclosure: I was paid $100 to write you this letter.