Why You Should and Shouldn’t Write for Free

The do’s and don’ts of being an Internet slave

People who play around on the Internet and get paid for it— and those hopelessly aspiring to one day do so themselves— were in an uproar over the weekend when the New York Times published “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!,” by Tim Kreider, a writer and cartoonist.

Over the course of several hundred words, Kreider makes his case for why he’s fed up with a disturbing but hardly new trend— people low-balling for ‘content.’ While I don’t know enough about Kreider to assume he’s struggling— he probably is, because I don’t see Dan Brown complaining in an op-ed about people not paying him— it really doesn’t take a genius to figure out that writing is a profession, like a lot of professions, that is in a lot of trouble.

Kreider asserts that writers giving away their work for free makes his job difficult. In short, he can’t get paid because when someone else will do it for free, there’s less incentive to pay him for what he does. Why pay a plumber to fix your toilet when your neighbor knows how to do it, right?

His solution, because he somehow thinks the value other writers place on their writing somehow negatively affects the value of his— weird reading of market economics there— is that people should stop giving away their content for free.

The odds of that happening are, well, zero. But I don’t know anything about anything really, so my completely unscientific advice on when to write for free is as follows:

  1. It’s okay to write for free if nobody is paying you yet. Look, nobody’s buying a car without first taking it for a test drive. You’ve got to show people what you can do before anyone’s going to offer you money.
  2. It’s okay to write for free if you’re a writer who typically gets paid, but you’ve determined nobody will pay for an idea you want to write about. The market sets the price and there just is no market for certain things. If you want to write about an obscure German punk band who released one album on cassette back in 1983 or some other weird general interest you may have, chances are that very few brands are going to have money for that in 2013. How important is the story that you’re looking to tell?
  3. It’s okay to write for free if the outlet you’re writing it for practically guarantees you an audience. Kreider makes the case that publications like to entice writers with free promotion. Kind of like the lie that Arianna Huffington sold everyone. But was it really a lie? Reality is that many writers did benefit from writing for free for the Huffington Post. Content is in abundance these days, while attention spans, however, are not. Eyeballs are priceless. Would you rather be well-paid or widely-read? I’ll let the millions of books collecting dust in libraries all over the world answer that for you.
  4. It’s okay to write for free if you’re using it to promote the sale of something else. Like a book, perhaps. There are a handful of writers on this very site alone who are publishing for free, and whose kindle books I’ve purchased just because they posted an interesting excerpt or some other piece of compelling writing. The technological revolution has made anyone with a great idea and some work ethic into a small business. And yet we’re still somehow beholden to letting the “other guy” decide whether he/she is going to pay us for our work? Fuck that.
  5. It’s okay to write for free if the creative process in and of itself is your primary end goal. Regardless of how you may feel about its literary ambitions, E.L. James’ Fifty Shade of Grey was available for free online long before it became the blockbuster it is today. Perhaps the old adage— focus on the art, the money will follow— is still remarkably apropos.

That said, you shouldn’t run around aimlessly producing writing/content/art/whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-it for any and everyone without expecting something in return. This doesn’t just apply to writing. It goes for anything, really. On a pure business level, even if you’ve never been paid before, you should still ask to get paid for whatever it is you’ve created. The worst that can happen is someone tells you ‘No.’ Then you can look to my handy guide here— but more importantly, inside of yourself— and assess what the opportunity means to you. Still, my advice on when not to write for free:

  1. Do not write for free if you’re already being compensated well. Because giving something away that already has monetary value is the best way to to devalue it.
  2. Do not write for free if you really don’t want to do the work in the first place. Writer’s write, and consequently, that often means taking on a lot of commissioned assignments just for the sake of assembling a clip portfolio (or rather, ‘link’ portfolio, in today’s parlance), despite often having no real interest in the work itself. Never ever ever ever under any circumstances should you do that type of work without pay. Even if the pay is crap, make sure you get paid.
  3. Do not write for free if the company that is asking you to write unequivocally has money. Seriously. If a company tells you they don’t have it in their budget to pay you, tell them they need to give you something, anything, for you to write for them. If they come back and say they have nothing for you, then move on. Trust in the fact that some fat cat publishing exec is sitting there drinking gourmet coffee and talking about ‘brand experiences’ with advertisers while his/her editors are telling you they can’t pay you. You will never feel right internally when you’re subsidizing the lifestyle of someone else with your uncompensated hard work. That’s getting hustled, basically.
  4. Do not write for free if it will cannibalize your business. Blogging for online ad dollars is very five years ago. Everyone who was in that game who didn’t eventually quit altogether has either been hired by “the man” or is now putting their best content in e-books.
  5. Do not write for free if you don’t think anyone will read it. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether or not an outlet has the type of reach and audience to justify giving them something free of charge. But if in your heart of hearts you don’t think the work will be read— maybe it’s a site that publishes a million pieces of content a day, and yours will be lost in the shuffle— then don’t do it. You’re better off publishing it on Tumblr or at some editorial property that can be directly linked back to you. Heck, it can even be Facebook. Always remember, this isn’t a charity. Someone’s getting paid, even if you aren’t.

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