I’m not going to recap the brouhaha. It’s nothing new. But hi, I’m Dan. I write for free. For exposure. Not as much as I’d like to, but often enough.

It’s good for me. But that’s because I’m good at it. No, not about writing — that’s debatable — but at about the “getting exposure” part.

There are two big problems with writing for free and, in exchange, being compensated by “exposure.” Neither of them is the fact that you’re not getting paid in stuff your bank takes. Rather, it’s that

(a) You’re probably not actually getting any exposure and

(b) When you do get some, you don’t know how to convert it into something valuable.

I’m going to use myself an an example.

I write a free daily email newsletter. It’s about trivia and stuff. Like how Abe Lincoln created the Secret Service on April 14, 1865, which is pretty significant because that evening, John Wilkes Booth fatally shot him. The newsletter is called Now I Know, and you should subscribe. Or buy my book which doesn’t have that story in it, but has 100 others. (I particularly like the one which talks about pinball.) I didn’t monetize it for at least the first six months. That’s, charitably, roughly 100 articles which I wrote, for free, hoping to get exposure for articles number 101 and beyond.

Along the way, I let a bunch of other places re-publish some of my old articles. MentalFloss, who paid me for that (they’re great), is the only one to do so. But I did so for at least four or five other places within Now I Know’s first two years or so. And on a handful of occasions,both then and since, I’ve written original stuff (like this, I guess) for others, also for free. The goal was always the same: get more subscribers for the newsletter. Some worked well, others not so much. But the two which didn’t work for me? I knew that was going to happen going in, and probably should have just said “no thanks.”

But the others were valuable. Fred Wilson invited me to guest blog on AVC, which picked up 400 or so new subscribers for me. I recently guest curated an issue of Very Short List, which also did me some good (I don’t measure things in detail any more) and tossed together this listicle for my friends over at mental_floss.Those aren’t journalism — I’m not a journalist (and see the annotation over there) — but they take some meaningful amount of time and thought which the publisher monetizes, and for which I’m not paid for. It’s writing for exposure.

The goal of “exposure” isn’t “experience” or to add to the “I’ve written at X, Y, and Z” line on your resume. It’s to convert some of the publisher’s audience to your own. That’s it. Here are two rules I’ve mostly followed to make sure I’m accomplishing that goal.

(1) You, the publisher, need to convince me that you’re going to use your platform to drive traffic to my newsletter, and in a way which is going to lead to signups. This has some few exceptions, like this article here, where I have something on my mind that I just want to get down on paper (or whatever the digital equivalent is). But that’s typically not the case.

(2) Me, the writer guy, has to have a way to capture some of that exposure for a long-term benefit. The key here, for me, is that I have an email newsletter, which has a built-in capture mechanism, and that I promised more of the same if you subscribed.

Applying these more broadly, here’s some unsolicited advice:

  • Always ask the “for exposure” publisher how her/she/it is going to get you that exposure. Placement on the front page of the site. Tweets, Facebook posts, whatever. Insist upon getting a lot of that. If the publisher likes your writing so much that they want it, make them share it with their readers. That’s the point for both of you, right?
  • If the publisher wants one article, offer three or more — under the same rules as the bullet above. Your goal is to convert some small group of the publisher’s audience to your own, and a repeated presence is more likely to do that. This may drop off quickly, though, so don’t go crazy.
  • Find a way to continue your thoughts on a platform you own (defined loosely). This may be a blog or Twitter account, sure, but keep in mind that a lot of the audience you could otherwise have garnered may not be active users of RSS or Twitter. Email’s great, and I swear by it; something like TinyLetter could be awesome for you. (Ann Friedman uses it well, mimic her.) But the others could be great for you, too, depending on the context. For example, if you want to talk to me about this article, Twitter’s your best bet, because Now I Know isn’t going to talk about it and I don’t really have any interest in starting something around this topic.
  • Iterate on how to monetize your own audience. It could be ads. It could be promises to publishers that you bring the audience with you. Maybe the audience pays you to do stuff. Or it’s something else.
  • Stick with it. Writing for exposure, when done right, doesn’t yield an overnight success. I’m still not one, and I’ve been doing it for three-plus years. If I were, I’d be writing this post, for free, on the Atlantic. (Sorry.) But the incremental gains add up.

In June 2010, I wasn’t a writer — I wasn’t writing. Now, I have a book, a few paying clients, and a publication of my own which I can sell ads against. Following these rules, over time, I’ve managed to make some money writing. Not a lot, but some. (Now I Know is still, and will remain, a side project.) It’s all because I was willing to write for free, for exposure — and because that’s actually what I was doing.

Header image via Wikipedia, used under a CC license.