A Note to You, Should You Be Thinking of Asking Me to Write For You For Free

Because apparently it’s that time again.

1. No.

2. Seriously, are you fucking kidding me?

3. Did you wake up this morning and say to yourself “You know what? A New York Times bestselling author who has been working full-time as a writer for two decades, who frequently rails at writers for undervaluing their own work in the market and who is also the president of a writers organization that regularly goes after publishers for not paying writers adequately is exactly the person who will be receptive, through lack of other work or personal inclination, to my offer”? And if you did, what other dumb things did you do with your morning?

4. If you didn’t know that I was that guy in point three, and just asked me to write for free for you because, I don’t know, you heard I was a writer of some sort, although you couldn’t say what kind or what I had done, then what you’re saying to me is “Hey, you’re a warm body with an allegedly working brain stem and no idea of the value of your work — let me exploit you!” I want you to ask yourself what in that estimation of me would entice me to provide you with work, starting with the fact that you didn’t do even the most basic research into who I was. Rumor is, it’s not hard to find information about me on the Internet! Just type “John Scalzi” into Google and see!

5. If you try to mumble something at me about “exposure,” I’m going to laugh my ass off at you. Explain to me, slowly, what exposure you possibly think you could give me with your Web site or publication. Please factor in that this Web site gets up to 50,000 visitors on a normal day — with spikes into the hundreds of thousands when I write something particularly clicky — and that it’s regularly ranked one of the top ten book sites and top 100 entertainment sites on the entire Web by Technorati (at this moment, number five and sixty four, respectively).

6. If you try to mumble something at me about “Huffington Post,” I might smack you. Yes, there are some people writing for the Huffington Post for free. They typically are a) People in the 1% who aren’t working writers who don’t already have a well-established way to get their meanderings out there on the Internet; b) Writers and/or other creators promoting a book/album/TV show/whatever. I’m not a) and when I am b) I have a publicist who handles my media requests; talk to her and be aware I am picky. You’re probably not Arianna Huffington in any event. And if you were Arianna Huffington and asked me to write for free, I would send you over to points one through three. I might let Huffington Post reprint something I had already written here, if it amused me to do so (I’ve let Gawker’s sites do that a couple of times this year), but something new and original? Fuck you, pay me.

7. If you try to mumble something at me about writing for free on this site, I might feed you to wild dogs. When I write here, it’s me in my free time. When I write somewhere else, it’s me on the clock. Here’s a handy tip to find out whether I will write for you for free: Are you me? If the answer is “no,” then fuck you, pay me.

8. If this is your cue to complain to me how this attitude of mine suggests I am selfish, you’re right. I am very selfish with my time. This is all the time I will get in this universe, and I’m going to spend it how I see fit, and this does not generally include writing for free for people who are not me. There are lots of people who will pay me to write, which allows me to eat, shelter my family and otherwise live a tolerable life on this planet. I’m going to write for them instead. This plan has worked pretty well so far.

9. If this is your cue to complain about how this makes me an asshole, ask me if I care. Go on, ask!

10. But now that you mention it, saying “fuck you, pay me,” to you does not make me (or anyone else from whom you are hoping to extract actual work from without pay) the asshole in this scenario. It makes me the guy responding to the asshole, in a manner befitting the moment.

Update, 12/10: Some followup notes, plus a free gift.

200 thoughts on “A Note to You, Should You Be Thinking of Asking Me to Write For You For Free

  1. Also, before someone asks: Yes, science fiction and fantasy has a well-established community of fan writing and “fanzines,” in which everyone who contributes does so for the fun of it. I do that from time to time and don’t expect to get paid when I do. It’s a highly specialized and contingent exception. The entry isn’t about that.

    Also: This entry will undoubtedly be the cue for many of you to link to that Harlan Ellison video. Try to keep the links to that down to one, please.

  2. Do the goobs who ask you to write for them for free also think that people who wrote their term papers for them in college expected to do it for free?

  3. So putting together the text for my Christmas/Hanukah card would be a no go then?

    On a serious note, it is frustrating to me when people ask me to do video/editing/marketing work for free because ‘it will look good on my resume.’ No it won’t you idiot. It’ll look like the only job I could get was with someone who couldn’t even pay me. Even my university (who is not all that good at paying students above minimum wage, because they don’t have to) pays to me do work. When I write for the newspaper or the yearbook, I get paid for that, too.

    Just because you don’t have enough money to pay for a quality creator, doesn’t mean that a creator should be obligated in any way to give up an opportunity for them to be paid just to help your cheap ass out.

  4. Preach it, Brother John.

    Two quotes I keep handy for such occasions:

    “Writers, actors, and prostitutes all face the same fundamental economic problem: they are competing with amateurs who are pretty good and will work for nothing.” Moss Hart

    “After you ask a writer to dash something off for you in his spare time, invite a farmer to spade your garden in his.” Evelyn Waugh

  5. I always thought the only person who got to ask you to write for free was your wife.

    The rest of the world can pay you. You’re a professional and professionals get paid for their work: that’s how the whole “professional” thing works.

  6. Huh. I may have to take on some of your attitude in self-preservation. Before this year, it was never a problem. I wrote things. I tried to sell things. People in my life smiled at the person who thought she was a writer. Until I started getting checks for the writing thing. Now they suddenly want me to write things for them for free, or write up their great idea for them (because I don’t have any of my own?). It’s beginning to get rather irritating.

  7. When I tell people that I have been working for 20 years as a professional writer (first in abstracting and then in software/IT documentation), people look at me in disbelief. Many people seem to think that all writers are desperate to get something, *anything* in the public’s eye. As Ira Gershwin put it, “it ain’t necessarily so.”

  8. Question: What one would have to offer to an accomplished writer to write something for a special occasion (without unintentionally insulting him)?

  9. I am not a NY Times Bestselling Author (though there is still hope, if I ever learn to write over 50,000 words on one topic in one cohesive form), I am a knitter. And I knit big stuff, like sweaters.

    Invariably someone will ask me to knit a sweater for them . “I’ll pay you,” They’ll say. Then I explain the mathematics of hand-knit sweaters. Roughly $100-200 for yarn alone. Then a living wage for me. Let’s say fifteen bucks an hour (far less than what I get at my real job) for upwards of fifty hours at minimum, usually closer to a hundred hours. So, I’ll absolutely hand knit a sweater for you, if I know you and I have time… for $1600 to $3200.

    Yeah. People who create stuff are constantly being asked to do free things. And sometimes we will (though knitters know the boyfriend sweater curse intimately) of our own free will. And when we are just starting out in a field, sometimes we’ll do free stuff for exposure…

    But to ask an author at the top of his game to write for free (with the possible exception of for a charitable cause close to his heart)? Chutzpah!

  10. I could *maybe* see if a charity organization asked you to write something for them, you *might* be willing to do it out of the goodness of your heart, because you support the charity’s aims and you know they probably couldn’t afford your fee. But that’d still be totally your call as to whether you’d actually do it or not.

  11. Good grief, do people actually do that? My species appalls me. Ah, well — you’re fun when you’re agitated.

  12. Reminds me of the days when I was freelancing speeches for high prices. Normally, there’d be no quibble over the fee because I was writing for CEOs and the more a CEO spends on himself the more important it makes him feel. But sometimes a new client who’d been referred to me would say, “I need a fifteen-minute speech,” and when I quoted him my standard four-figure fee, he would say, “How can you charge that much for just a few hours of your time?”

    And I would say, “You’re not paying for the few hours it takes me to write your speech. You’re paying for all the years it took for me to be able to do it just in a few hours.”

    But I guess some people confuse us professionals with all those “4theluv” writers swarming around out there. They think every one of us is an artist with an inner vision that has to burn its way out. Which we’re not. We’re mostly tradesmen with families to feed.

    Try asking a plumber to express himself by fixing your toilet. I bet he’ll express himself just fine with a pipe wrench. Though it won’t be applied to your thundermug.

  13. Maureen O’Danu: I feel you on the hand-knitted (or in my case, crocheted) sweater thing. I made one sweater for a friend who lives out of state. He wanted pure wool, so I asked him to reimburse me for materials. I have another friend who lives in the UK. I’m making her an afghan. When she found out I crocheted, and she asked me to make her one, I looked up the shipping cost and mentioned it to her. I’ve had out of state/out of country friends balk at shipping before, so that’s usually where the conversation stops. My UK friend readily agreed to reimburse me for shipping (I didn’t ask her for materials, since we both consider it a belated xmas gift), so as soon as it’s finished, within the next week or so, I’ll ship it out. I don’t mind cutting breaks for friends, but when people start asking you to make things for people *they* know, then I’m a lot more inclined to play hardball. Which probably explains why I haven’t sold a lot of my stuff. Oh well.

  14. Preach it, Brother John.

    I’m a computer professional. I provide free tech support for the following people: my wife, my children, and my in-laws. Anyone else…well, I’ll make the rate reasonable for them, but (to steal a line from Lois McMaster Bujold): what they get for free, they’ll expect as their due. What they pay for, they’ll value.

  15. Okay, as I read this well-deserved and marvelously phrased rant, a random thought occured… I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a typo in the Whatever. Do you have another party edit your posts or do you just happen to write so perfectly? It doesn’t seem like you’d have the time to self-edit obsessively enough to catch all the mistakes that befall human fingers, and another pair of eyes are always faster and better at catching infelicities. Inquiring minds ask the question…

  16. Yes! Thank you! Occasionally at writers groups and various places around the internet, when I talk about submitting stories to better paying markets first or suggest to another writer that, hey, their writing is really good and they should submit and get paid for it, I get the “but it’s not about the money. If you’re worried about the money then you’re not writing because you love it.” At which moment I start to foam at the mouth a little because of the implication that if I want to be paid for my writing, I must be a hack who doesn’t write for the love of it.

    The way I see it, I’ve reached the point in my writing that I *can* be paid for it! I should be able to expect that, and yes, expect perhaps better pay as time goes on.

  17. There are a lot more talented and experienced amateurs in many fields today than there were in the past. With things like photography and videography it’s quite obvious, as is the cause (cheap cameras + internet making feedback easy to obtain). I suspect the same is happening with writing.

    So perhaps, oh cheapskate, you could try one of those people?

  18. It constantly amazes me what some people try to get for free. Ask me about being a freelance IT consultant sometime. Or not – we both can probably tell similar insane stories.

  19. Hey John:

    Out of curiosity, how does “Whatever” feature in that whole “writing for free” thing?

    Is there a revenue stream associated with the site, or is this that “writer’s satisfaction” codicil?

    Thanks.

    -pp

  20. “Fuck you, pay me.”

    Attention writers, and I mean all writers: This is your mantra. Learn it. Repeat it a hundred times a day. Train yourself to respond with it whenever you even HEAR the word exposure, regardless of context. And if anybody ever responds “why?”, then walk away.

  21. It never ceases to amaze me that people have the gall to ask people to do for free what they do for a living. I would no more engineer a communications solution for a company “for free” than I would attempt to get to the moon by flapping my arms. And I don’t see how asking someone who works in a creative field to create for free is in any way different in a material sense.

  22. Lym–there’s the occasional typo here. Pretty sure there’s even one in point number 3 in this piece, unless I’m reading it wrong. John is only human, even when he’s a relatively pissed-off human. :^)

  23. Lym: There are occasional typos and words left out, but Mr. Scalzi is easily understood regardless. I can’t help proofreading; it’s a curse.

  24. I think this is true of most professionals. Oh, you’re a doctor? Take look at my knee. A lawyer? Give me some advice. An accountant? Prepare my taxes. (I get this one. I’m not that kind of accountant; you don’t want me doing your taxes.)

    And as stated upthread, I’m also a knitter/crocheter, so I get asked to make sweaters and blankets for people. NO. If you’re a friend/family, I will make you things because I like you. Otherwise: NO.

  25. When I was in high school, my parents thought it neat that I could draw and write so well. I wanted to go to art school and develop my talents, so that I could do as John has done, and make a living by being paid for my creative output.

    Then my aunt decided that my hobby could make her some money. She was a bridge player at the time. Went to tournaments and everything. She decided that because I liked to draw comics and write science fiction stories, I should draw 12 bridge themed greeting cards, because as you well know, greeting cards are the pinnacle of those crafts. She would have them printed up and sell them in bundles at tournaments. My payment for this labor? “Something to put in your portfolio.”

    I declined, until my parents stepped in and said I would change my mind and do the greeting cards, or kiss goodbye any assistance from them for college. Being a teenager and seeing my dreams on the line, I acquiesced.

    My aunt took them to a few bridge tournaments, sold a few, then got bored with them, because it turns out selling things requires work, and she couldn’t be bothered. The stock sat in her basement growing mold until she remarried and moved to Costa Rica, at which point they were trashed.

    Thing is, it’s not really their fault. Our capitalist culture doesn’t value creative output at all. It’s seen as either a quaint hobby by most people, tolerated as an aberration (you make stuff? Why not just buy stuff instead?) unless you’re in the marketing game, in which case it’s a naturally occurring resource that needs to be tapped and monetized. They didn’t know any better, and at the time, I couldn’t have told them why they were wrong. They were simply doing as they were taught: taking advantage of a resource to try and make a quick buck. That it wasn’t their resource made no never mind. After all, I wasn’t using it properly, so why shouldn’t they?

    Which is of course why I have such respect for our host and the good work he does defending and promoting us lousy, shiftless creative types. Keep up the good work, John!

  26. I’m another who thinks “exposure” is a dirty word. I’m writing several thousand words a week, and almost none of it has my name attached anywhere except the payments. I’m fine with that. I don’t write for “exposure,” I write to pay the bills.

  27. This rant made me feel like a kid in a class getting scolded, like I had somehow been involved in the misdeed. Then I just started feeling grateful that your ire wasn’t actually directed at me. Only my old track coach had that kind of effect, well done

  28. In addition to my day job, I’m also a professional photographer. Not a job that I’d want to do full time, but I make some decent chump change shooting for magazines, newspapers, restaurants, and corporate events. I’m not a Joe McNally or anything, but I do good work and have plenty of repeat customers. Had a situation recently where a friend of my wife wanted me to shoot some photos for her restaurant for a book in which the restaurant was going to be featured. Quoted her my usual fee. She balked, and explained to me how valuable this “exposure” would be. (Right. 99% of my business comes from word of mouth. People don’t look in cookbooks to find a photographer.) Long story short, because she was my wife’s friend, I caved in an did the shoot for 1/4 of my usual fee. It was a disaster. She spent the whole shoot telling me how great a photographer her son was, how lucky I was she chose me for the shoot, etc. I gritted my teeth, smiled, got through the shoot, and delivered her photos a couple of days later. She called me and told me the photos were shit, that she showed them to the author of the book and he would be embarrassed to have them in his book, blah, blah, blah. She wanted me to re-shoot for free. So I called the author of the book to ask him what was wrong with the photos so I could reshoot to his specifications. Turns out, he’d never seen the photos, and that he wasn’t picking the photos for the book. He was going to use whatever photos the respective restaurants sent him. I sent the photos to him, and he said they looked great. So I called the restaurant lady back and calmly and politely told her that I was tearing up the release I’d signed for publication of the photos in the book, and I was refunding all her money. Given that she talked me down to a fraction of my fee, then lied to me about showing the book author the photos, I knew that I should cut my losses and get out. That job was only going to get worse, and it wasn’t worth the pennies I’d make off of it. By the time I finished, I’d be making less than minimum wage for the time I spent.

    I found out later that this person has pulled the same crap with two contractors, a landscaper, an interior decorator, a graphic artist, and a painter. It’s her modus operandi. She’s apparently notorious in the community. Wish I’d known before I took the job.

    Lots of lessons from that one, but the big ones are never settle for taking less than your work is worth, and if someone starts telling you they can give you valuable exposure, run, don’t walk, to the nearest door.

  29. John, have you read a lot of Harlan Ellison’s essays? Because this rant sounds like vintage Ellison, and I mean that in a good way. I’ve read most of Harlan’s essay collections over and over, and when I write angry, I always wind up sounding like him. No one does angry as well or as entertainingly as Harlan, but I think you might be the man to take up the mantle.

  30. Yup. I used to get this with sewing all the time. And when I refused, folks would always pull the exposure argument on me–they’d tell everyone I made it, so I’d get so much business!

    I was perpetually amazed at how insulted people got when I informed them that I already had more business than I could handle. Like I was rudely rejecting the gift of their work. Which they did not intend to pay for.

    Also, really? “But you write on your blog for free?” Really? Hey, Scalzi, can I have twenty bucks? After all, you raise/donate money for charity fairly regularly. In so doing, you’ve clearly committed yourself to handing out a crisp twenty to anyone who asks. Oh, right, that’s not how it works, is it? And even if you wrote a free short story for every fanzine that asked you, that still wouldn’t be how it works.

    While I’m sure there are publications/blogs you could write for that actually would ‘increase your exposure,’ every one I can think of monetizes their content in one way or another. I can think of few things tackier than asking someone for free work that you then intend to turn around and make money from (excusing, of course, charities, who tend to have the grace not to act as if they’re doing their donors a favor).

  31. John, this totally seems like something Harlan Ellison would have written if there had been blogs and web sites 30-40 years ago. I hope you’ll take that as a compliment, as that’s how it was intended.

  32. As a graphic designer, I’m always being approached to do free work (I won’t even call it pro bono, because that would elevate it to something I actually believe in). Numerous local bands, professors, family, friends all think they can reach out and touch me for work. Most receive a polite no. Those that don’t accept that or think they can talk me out of it get the “If I’m working for free, I’m doing it on my own schedule… that means a wait of two years right at the moment, and then whenever I get a free moment after that” speech. I’m willing to give discounts for people that I like working with, but if they want free they go to the absolute bottom of my priority list.

  33. My designer friends were talking about this at breakfast this morning. My designer friend does professional cover art, and she was going to take a job, but the guy said, “I’m looking for a couple people to work on speculation, and then I’ll pick the one I like best and pay them.” My friend sent him a lovely e-mail about how the price is fine, the project is doable, but fuck him if he was asking for people to create things on speculation because he was only going to get a shitty project from half-baked designers and artists.

  34. Ooh, I’m totally going to link to this the next time someone yells at me for not explaining economics to them when they’re already being assholes. It’s nice that I’m not the only person who wants to get paid for doing my job.

  35. “And I would say, “You’re not paying for the few hours it takes me to write your speech. You’re paying for all the years it took for me to be able to do it just in a few hours.”

    That’s a great quote, Matt Hughes.

  36. As a nurse, my response is usually: check with your doctor… As a knitter/sewist/crafty person it’s: if your very dear to me (funny none of my family has insisted I make something for them, though I do regularly and I avoided the boyfriend sweater curse by waiting to make one for my husband until we were married).

  37. I dont think there’s anything wrong with asking for free labor. People do stuff without pay for all sorts of reasons. Where it goes off the rails is when the person asking for free labor thinks the person declining the request is the bad guy for saying “no”. You can ask me for donations. I can say no. Thats the deal. If I dont get to say ‘no’, then you dont get to ask in the first place.

  38. And equally as evil as requesting free work from a professional are those “crowd-sourced” websites where a comapny looking for some type of creative work–logos, designs, writing, brouchures, etc–posts their requirements and offers a modest stipend to the one they like the best, if there is one they like best, to anyone who is willing to submit an entry. I’m all for competition, but asking for someone to freely create a finished product for you to buy if you like is a really crappy way to do business (although I expect the next step will be to hold a reverse autcion on the price–send in your entry with the fee you want, as long as it doesn’t go over XX. Then we can see competionion on both price AND quality for creative endeavors)

    (And I’m not talking here about the established process of requesting proposals for projects–from ad agencies, etc. That’s not expecting useable, completed products done at no cost to the solicitor.)

  39. @Whitney – you (and others) love writing so much you want to do it full time, and that means being paid for it. You’ve got to eat!

    I’m frankly gobsmacked at some of the stuff people have tried to pull (particular sympathy for Kenneth B; and well handled in the end) and for once rather thankful that my job (civil servant) is not one that people ever ask me to do for free!

  40. Dear The Intarnet:

    Many of you have been puzzled by the question “How can I get John Scalzi to write something for me for free?”. I alone have the solution, and I can prove it! As proof, please see his blog post of 9 December 2012, which happened AFTER I sent him a message. And I’m willing to share this secret with you, for only $20!

  41. Yay! I didn’t come in too late for the obligatory, “So does that mean you won’t ghost-write my new novel for free? It has clowns and llamas and unicorns that shoot lasers. In space. It’ll be great. As soon as you write it.” comment.
    Sweet.

  42. FL Transplant, having worked in studio (including two “dream” jobs), in house and for a printer doing visual communication design, several corporations started the reverse auction model over a decade ago (GE Lighting was my first experience with it). Although they didn’t expect work done until after the award, some shops did do spec work as a part of their bidding package. While at a printer we did a reverse auction for a very large and complex print job that was specific about the paper they wanted (among other things, like a tight deadline). We lost the bid to another local company that bid below the cost of the paper (we had the best preferred pricing from the paper vendor, so we know they weren’t getting it cheaper than we were).

  43. I know, Man! It’s a lot like being an attorney. These scumbags are like: “Hey, I got arrested the other day for something I didn’t do, but I don’t have a cent to my name because the bank foreclosed my house five years ago and I haven’t been able to work because I have epilepsy, and yadda yadda yadda. Can you help?” And I’m like, “Listen here, Bud. I didn’t become an attorney just to be a damned charity!”

  44. I COMPLETELY agree, especially since you DO do a lot of pro bono things for worthy causes. However, weren’t you a bit rude about it?

  45. Sadly, writing is an exceptionally undervalued talent. Everybody writes, so the thinking goes, especially now that business runs on e-mail and PowerPoint. (I’m still waiting for someone to use PowerPoint as a truly effective storytelling medium instead of a dumbing-down of real writing.)

    Writers should not only insist on their talents being respected via payment, as John suggests, but they should take pains to correct others when that common misconception arises. Educate people on how much time something takes. Talk about messaging, emotional impact, call to action. Let ‘em know that we don’t throw it up on the wall to see what sticks!

    And by all means, tell ‘em how LONG it’ll take, even if you’re pulling a Scotty on your estimates.

  46. Wow. That was rather more epicly (epically? damn you, English language) epicishly angry than I’ve seen from you in a while.

    But not unmerited. Writing is your work, and if somebody wants you to do it for free, they’d better have a damn persuasive reason. Instances where a free article by you could cure cancer or prevent World War III, however, are thin on the ground.

  47. I would never ask you to write for free but I have the marvelous idea for a novel & if you would ghost write it form me I’d gladly split the advance with you

    Come on! How can you turn down an offer like that? (h/t to Donald Westlake’s “The Hook”)

  48. I’m a nurse, and I get people asking me medical questions all the time. C’mon people, are you really so cheap that you’ll bug a mental health RN about your headaches/kidneys/bowels while standing in line at Walgreens, rather than see your doctor? (that was the last time I forgot to take my name badge off after work)

  49. As a guy with a skill I am occasionally asked to give my knowledge and skill away for free. I do that when it makes ME happy & resent the fact that people who lack a skill assume someones knowledge and skill do not have real value. My daughter is in the same sort of boat & I am going to send her a link to this post. Maybe she will figure out that she should take the same attitude.

  50. My brother-in-law, Dan Springer, earns his living as an artist, and he’s not a young kid starting out, either. All kinds of people believe he should do free work for them “for the exposure.” You know what the best exposure is for an artist? To sell work. One of his paintings was on a wall in an episode of “The Sopranos,” and THAT was excellent exposure. For which HBO paid him.

    Just once, I’d like to see someone ask an accountant to work for them for the exposure.

  51. Thank you for posting this. Every time you do, I get paid for my work for the next three months until I forget why I resolved to only do free work for limited charity donation

  52. Eeesh. Sorry that idiots are being idiotic. In addition to working full time, I have a small biz doing face and body art for events and parties. I get lots of requests for doing things for free for exposure. As other artists have pointed out when we gripe about it together, “You can die from too much exposure.”

    There are several charities I support, but I can’t do all the requests for freebies and still remain fiscally solvent. Thanks for the cogent and well phrased rant! I’ll be pointing folks here to enjoy it!

  53. I get the same thing as a teacher- parents expect me to tutor their child for free. They don’t understand when I politely decline.

  54. @ Lym

    I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a typo in the Whatever.

    Right here: …is exactly the person who will be receptive, though lack of other work or personal inclination, to my offer”?

    Should be through.
    @ Keith Edwards

    Thing is, it’s not really their fault.

    Yeah, no, that’s bullshit…sorry. And your aunt sounds like a twit (going by having heard just one side of the story). As for your parents, mine couldn’t afford to help with college so I earned an academic scholarship, worked part time, and took out loans to get my education and degree. If your folks helped with college, that was a bonus. And I went to USC (the University of Spoiled Children), so I saw the full range of entitled spoiled-brats in all their blood-sucking glory.

    Our capitalist culture doesn’t value creative output at all.

    It values whatever buyers are willing to pay. The masses may not value your creative outlet, but content creators make bank when what they’re selling is what people want to spend their money on. Amazingly, producing material wealth takes work and will continue to do so for some time to come. People whose labor produces that wealth get remunerated for it (though often at exploitive rates of pay) in the form of measured buying power, also known as money. Then they get to choose what needs and luxuries (including creative content) they want to spend it on, demonstrating what they value enough to trade the fruits of their own labor for. You may not agree with the value of their selections, but that doesn’t make the content they purchase “uncreative” output.

    They didn’t know any better, and at the time, I couldn’t have told them why they were wrong.

    And yet, they damn well should have known better.

    They were simply doing as they were taught: taking advantage of a resource to try and make a quick buck. That it wasn’t their resource made no never mind. After all, I wasn’t using it properly, so why shouldn’t they?

    Yeah, see, willful ignorance is an explanation, not an excuse. Also, there is a reason exploiting child labor is frowned upon.

    @ Annalee

    I was perpetually amazed at how insulted people got when I informed them that I already had more business than I could handle. Like I was rudely rejecting the gift of their work. Which they did not intend to pay for.

    The world (especially the more affluent parts of it) is full of entitled pricks who think everyone’s lunch is free because they’ve mastered the art of getting as much for as little effort as possible through exploitation, leaving others to do the work they’re too lazy to bother with, and general lack of integrity. Most of them were probably in a school band at some point in their lives.

    People who don’t know me but know I ran a company usually, and with rare happy exception, fall into one of two categories. They either think I loaded (hah!) or that I’m so piss poor I should be grateful for any work they offer not to pay me for. I guess because I drive 40 year old car and don’t spend money like water, they assume I’m either broke or some kind of rich eccentric. Never my family, though, because they all know the value of hard work. It’s all right, though; it lets me know which dipshits to avoid like the plague they are. Sadly, John’s mildly famous, so he’s bound to get random crackrashes emailing him these wastes of time, which I assume sparked this post.

    @ Angie B.

    However, weren’t you a bit rude about it?

    The sort of people at whom the post was aimed are already insulting honest workers. What in the name of all things holy would be the point of rebuking them politely when this…
    whatever.scalzi.com/about/interviews-appearances-articles-and-etc/
    …already gave them a polite answer and it obviously didn’t sink in if they’re still asking for free labor?

  55. pretty much.

    although the definition of “free” or “paid” can be broadened to include other forms of exchange as long as the value of the barter is equivalent to what the cash would be.

  56. Full agreement here. I don’t personally have a job of the type that anyone would ask me to do for free, but my father is a part-time professional photographer, and I get very offended at how often his work (and that of photographers in general) is undervalued – people assume that because their mate with a brilliant camera (read: one not attached to their phone) was willing to photograph their wedding for next to nothing, that professionals should charge about five pounds more. Or do it for free for their friends.

    Personally, I consider that with the massive amounts of expensive kit my father has bought, the training he has undertaken (and paid for), the decades of practice and experience, and the time and effort he puts into it (not just the actual photoshoot/event, but all of the preparation, and then hours, days or weeks of processing the photos afterwards and creating albums etc), most of the time he doesn’t get paid *enough*.

  57. Reading over my previous comment, just wanted to clarify that I have no problem with amateurs photographing their friends’ weddings – my dad did it for decades before he became a pro. I just hate the idea some people have that it is isn’t really much different from hiring a professional.

  58. When I retired and went into civilian law I was warned “There is no client more demanding than one who isn’t paying you.” Words to live by. Creative folks who do things for free find that abject gratitude is not the received response. Instead it is “Couldn’t you make that a little larger?”

  59. A corollary is being asked to provide professional help in an area tangentially related; Andrea and Joyce touched on this as nurses being asked for off-the-cuff medical advice. Sorry, I cannot do the slog work required for you to gain a working knowledge of how to use Google, a word processing program, or the mouse. No, I will not type your resume for you, or fill out that online application. There is no substitute for practice.

  60. I think that one aspect appearing from the thread is that frequently nice, kindly people haven’t a clue as to how much fabric/yarn/materials etc. cost, and they are even more clueless about the time it takes to create something with that fabric/yarn/materials.

    My version of pro bono is that I shall be donating the sales proceeds of some items I have created at the upcoming Christmas Craft Fair to the Women’s Refuges. That way it goes to people who need it, as opposed to the people who want it but don’t want to pay for it…

  61. Thanks, I needed this. In my particular case, I run a free online game — a MUD, specifically. I am already making my creative output available for free. Because I’m such a driven goddamned artiste, or some such idiocy. And I have had to have multiple unpleasantly frank conversations lately due to people being absolutely unable to shut the fuck up about how I should be doing what they want me to be doing for them for free instead of what I am actually motivated to do, and the energy it takes to control the screaming rage when another goddamned instance of same comes across my monitor has distressingly often lately turned out to be all the spare energy I had that day.

    Hell, don’t even pay me. Just get your damn hand off my elbow.

  62. At least point #7 leaves open the possibility that you’d write for free if the request comes from John Scalzi From The Future. I mean, you surely have a secret codeword for verifying that, yes?

  63. We used to call it the bestseller fire wall (as in wall of fire they have to go through, not computer virus protection.) The more an author sells, the more people know the author’s name, the more your name is known, the more requests you get to do free stuff. When you get on the NYT list and other major bestseller lists, then they come out of the woodwork in zombie hordes — can the author speak at a workshop for free, a charity dinner, a classroom? Can the author do a convention or festival and pay all travel expenses? Can the author write a little something for this organization’s newsletter? Can you send us free books? Etc. It’s not so much that they’re telling you it’s exposure as it is telling you, this will make you look like a nice person in your exposure. And if you don’t agree with that, well then you’re an arrogant, entitled jerk who doesn’t deserve your success. If an author becomes a major bestseller rapidly — a fast burn — it’s exactly like hitting a wall of fire suddenly. They get overwhelmed and try to do some things and sacrifice writing and career time and get frustrated. Then they tended to go hide in a cupboard for a bit. Those who rise more slowly, which is more usual, have more time to adjust to it, but it’s still a wall of fire because they keep coming at you in great droves, and no matter how many nice things you might do for free, for charity, etc., that you don’t do all requests means that you are not a nice person, but instead an arrogant celebrity. And you will fall, fall damn you, and be burned to a crisp because you didn’t do what they want.

  64. @Gulliver

    They should know better but don’t. Many people should know things they do not. For instance: perhaps I should have known about the ins and outs of student loans when I was 17 and being emotionally blackmailed by my parents, and stood up to them. I didn’t though, because for some reason people don’t take the time to explain complicated financial instruments (or the long term effects of emotional manipulation) to teenagers. If they did, the world would be that much better for it. But they don’t, so we learn as we live and grow older.

  65. I understand what you’re saying, John. In my youth, I confess, I didn’t quite get it. As a young man (this was more than twenty years ago), I was a member of a large science fiction club in Los Angeles. I was in charge of an outreach program for the club that involved distributing a children’s science fiction recommended reading list and answering the questions in letters that children had written in to us. As I was writing these letters in answer to specific questions that the children had written to ask of the science fiction club, it occurred to me that there may come a question that could be best answered by a professional science fiction author. There were a few professionals who attended the club every week. So, I asked one if I could ask him a question from a child, then I would write the answer and send it to the child. “No”, I was told, “That would be an inefficient use of my time.” It was an important lesson, and I never forgot it.

  66. Can’t help but wonder whether anyone inclined to request your writing output for free would not give the stock answer “But of course that would be wrong!” when asked how they would feel about someone accepting payment up front and then failing to deliver the paid-for service or commodity … or whether anyone would recognize how symmetric the wrongnesses of their request and the scenario above are.

    Perhaps it is time to announce a new agency akin to the Internet Complaints Center (1060 W. Addison, Chicago, IL – write today!) which exists only to fulfill such requests expressed by the deficiently clued?
    [Oh, and they ship cinnamon-farting sparkly unicorns too!]

  67. Wait just a fucking minute. I thought capitalism was evil. Did I miss a memo?

    Seriously, though. Have you considered that the rise of the Entitlement State, for which you have so eloquently advocated, might be contributing to the number of people who expect you to give away the product of your talent?

  68. John,

    The more I read you, the more I admire you. Keep slugging.

    And remember R.A. Heinlein’s quote: “Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.” That quote regularly helps me deal with humanity.

    Cheers
    MichaelH

  69. Billy Quiets:

    Yes, if you’re referring to the entitlement attitude of the top 10%. Because, speaking from long experience, 90% of the time the people who want something for nothing are those people called, in some circles, “job creators.”

  70. I don’t know. Your commentary echoes what a lot of people who produce things all across this country are thinking.

  71. Most people “who produce things all across this country” are THE WORKERS.

    Without whom, those who are the owners would not be able to be the owners.

  72. Billy Quiets:

    I could just as easily suggest it’s an example of the rapacious nature of capitalist jerks who don’t see the point in compensating those who create value for them. Which would actually make more sense because the sort of people who typically ask me to work for free are the sort who have built up a business plan predicated on cheap work.

    However, I think it’s less about political leanings than cluelessness/obnoxiousness, and also the idea of jamming in a tiresome political conversation here, from either side of the spectrum, does not enthuse me. So let’s not.

  73. I have heard people tell children, trying to encourage them, that they can do anything they want to make a living. This can lead someone to pick a profession based on how much money they can make. Studies have shown that money is not a long term motivator. Another motivating factor is preferable, and in our culture, possible, for choosing a profession – an attraction to something about the profession. So a probable prerequisitie for being a writer is liking to write. A successful writer has to have dedication to become good in their profession; the person must like to write enough that they have put in time and effort learning their craft. Since, in this faulty thinking, the writier would be writing even if they weren’t paid because they like it so much, why not try to get the person to do the project without paying them. The major fault with this reasoning is that if someone has put in enough effort to become good in their profession, they will have enough paid work that they do not have time or interest in doing free work. Like the speech writer, some of the payment is for the effort that goes into learning to do something well.

    I suspect that the ones who ask for free services have never learned a complex skill to a competent level to know how much work such learning can take. Then again, some of them are scammers that thnk they should get something for nothing. Both types deserve to be ignored. Or worse

  74. Fair enough, John. I agree with you, of course, that we should all be compensated for our labors. And let me also apologize for the profanity. It was unnecessary. I may have been spending too much time on reddit.

  75. @Frankly: yes, The Hook is pretty much the last word on why you-write-my-idea is a very bad plan. One in which you are apt to lose more than your hat.

    @Tyler: the thing about being an attorney is you don’t get the ‘but but exposure!’ argument very often.

  76. Speaking of workers and capitalists, over the past three decades, productivity among US workers has gone up considerably, wages not so much. That could be construed to mean that the extra work those workers are doing is, essentially, for free. But any of them who refused, a la J. Scalzi, to work for nothing, would risk finding themselves out on the street.

  77. @Tyler: There is a difference between someone saying “I am scared and in trouble and need your help” and “I think your time and work product is worth so little that you should give it to me for free.” The legal profession has a long and respected tradition of pro bono work, as you know. I get that people are often too quick to think attorneys can just work for free. But being caught up in a terrifying legal system and reaching out in desperation is miles away from the sort of thing John is talking about.

  78. I live in the small town where I grew up. A lot of locals know I used to be an editor in my former life and that I am working on my own novel. I have been hit up for free writing a little too much. “Oh, you should be the one doing the church web site” (we don’t go to church). “You should help the school out with their paper.” OK, I do give in now and then. I proof-read a political ad because it was for a family friend and I wrote ad copy for a local business organization because I sit on the board. But it amazes me that people value the ability to write a coherent sentence but no one wants to pay for it. It’s too small of a town for me to say “fuck you, pay me” but oh gods I want to.

  79. “Here’s a handy tip to find out whether I will write for you for free: Are you me?”

    That depends; are you a solipsist? ;)

    In all seriousness, though, this seems to happen a *lot*. “Oh, you’re a photographer? You can do my wedding photos for free, right?” I sometimes wonder if this is a side effect of the Internet generation, the whole “I deserve it for free” mindset that seems to float around in many corners of the online world. :(

  80. @Rachel, the dang kids and that noise they call ‘music’ did not invent the phenomenon of asking people ‘hey, that thing you do for a living, can you do it for me for free?’ by any means. Given crowdfunding, one wonders if they’ve inverted it.

  81. Thank goodness! If you wrote $h!t for free we would have to wait longer between books. For the sake of your fans please keep the pro bono to a minimum (unless it’s ths site, which doesn’t count because it’s your hobby).

  82. Keith Edwards

    I didn’t though, because for some reason people don’t take the time to explain complicated financial instruments (or the long term effects of emotional manipulation) to teenagers. If they did, the world would be that much better for it.

    That’s true, and that’s a world worth striving for. But in the meantime, sometimes thriving, or even just surviving, means being proactive. When no one else can or will help you, you can either help yourself or let reality run roughshod over you. It’s a sign of our times that we (our culture) are no longer capitalists, we’re passive consumers. Ideas like savings and investment (such as the investment that student loans represent) have been replaced by passive debt. Financial “services” brokerage has gone from a relationship between lender and borrower to dishonest usury where the lenders take bets on expected defaults. We’ve become a nation of vampires all the way from Wall Street CEOs to fools taking out store credit cards to spend what they don’t have on crap they don’t need.

    @ John

    I think you’re overthinking it.

    I think Billy Quiets doesn’t grasp the difference between a low-income single mom trying to put food on the table and a middle-income family buying a plasma TV instead of saving for their retirement. It’s a common conservative myopia to mistake genuine neediness for spoiled entitlement. It’s also a common liberal myopia to think being unable to pay for college or other luxuries is neediness.

    @ reddit

    I may have been spending too much time on reddit.

    Always a dodgy proposition, though profanity is strategic weapon judiciously deployed.

    @ MarilynHJ

    Since, in this faulty thinking, the writier would be writing even if they weren’t paid because they like it so much, why not try to get the person to do the project without paying them.

    I write oodles of stuff without trying to get paid for it…for me. Why any fuckwit would think I or anyone else would want to spend my non-work time doing work for their benefit is…but of course they don’t think, either before asking or much at all. Sort of like people who use the word capitalist without a clue what it actually means. I’d like to take a hard-bound edition of Adam Smith and whack them over their heads, but I doubt there’s a lot between their ears that could be further damaged.

  83. @ Rachel

    I sometimes wonder if this is a side effect of the Internet generation, the whole “I deserve it for free” mindset that seems to float around in many corners of the online world. :(

    OMFG…THIS! The next time I hear some whinny snot-nosed middle-class white hipster tell me they pirate everything like it makes them Robin Goddamn Fucking Hood, they better pray they’re separated from me by the internet, because I will not be responsible for their anatomical rearrangement.

    @ mythago

    Rachel, the dang kids and that noise they call ‘music’ did not invent the phenomenon of asking people ‘hey, that thing you do for a living, can you do it for me for free?’ by any means.

    No, but they sure as shit raised it to the level of acting as if their give-me’s are noble activism. I’d like to drop them in rural Bihar for a year, right after deporting the Westboro Baptist Church to the Sunni Triangle. In retrospect, it’s a good thing I’m not dictator. Airlines would be overbooked.

    [Forgive me, John, for I have double-posted.]

  84. The most depressing Kickstarters I’ve seen are the ones that are asking for donations to support the sort of hobbies that we used to do at home, with whatever we had around the house. .

    …but it does give me an idea! Help me become a famous author, by donating to my Kickstarter! Everyone who donates more than $50 will receive a signed copy of the book I haven’t actually written yet!

  85. @Gulliver – the kids aren’t doing anything the previous kids did with mix tapes and copying floppy disks and all that, and the “information wants to be free!” bohos were running around long before Napster was a thing. Yes, snotty hipsters are annoying. No, they are not new. No, they have not upped the game on When I Take Shit Without Asking It’s A Noble Cause. Yes, every generation is convinced the next one is more annoying than they ever were.

  86. @ mythago – Yeah, but one small pleasure of being the previous generation (well, a previous generation anyway), is getting to shake my cane at the kids on my lawn :)

  87. Gulliver: “No, but they sure as shit raised it to the level of acting as if their give-me’s are noble activism.”

    I agree with Mythago. Every generation in their youth are having their brains formed and so a good percentage of them are impulsive and clueless, starting out, and every generation in their youth is called lazy, selfish, myopic, anti-social, addicted to technology, distracted, greedy, entitled, disrespectful, obnoxious, worse batch ever, etc. And also the people who program our machines for us as they usually know how to do them better than we do with more time to learn them. Every generation is more liberal, in secret or in the open, than the one before it, and every generation, whatever the individual’s personal beliefs, believes they are engaged in noble activism (and sometimes they are.)

    So young people can be clueless and ask for free stuff. But the knock down battles I’ve had over Internet info be free stuff have not been with younger people, who are trying to scrape through on little cash and who know less and thus are fairly easy to present with facts. It’s been middle aged upper middle class people who believe that they are entitled to stuff because they buy other stuff and think that there is no real labor with e-books, etc. And they are inevitably the majority who ask writers and others for free labor too, in my experience. The young are often willing to give free labor because it is a learning experience for them, and thus they sometimes don’t evaluate labor the same way. But young or older, you get a lot of demands because they are hoping that demands will get through from force of will, and it’s a good lesson in life that this is not how it works usually. It’s just not a pleasant lesson for anyone involved.

  88. Wow, that’s possibly the most vitriolic post of yours I’ve ever read. There must have been a large number of particularly galling such requests lately.

  89. I would argue that #7 is false because while you aren’t getting paid directly for the writing you do for this site, it brings in a significant amount of indirect revenue. I know that I had seen your books in the SciFi section of my library for years and thought that they looked vaguely interesting but it wasn’t until I started reading Whatever and decided that you seemed both to have interesting things to say and a entertaining writing style that they got pulled out of my ‘pile o’books that someday I should read’ (which grows at roughly twice the rate that I read things from it). Since then you earned your back catalogue paperbacks, a hardcover, and an upcoming digital ebook thingy – and I’ve heard similar comments from others both in the comments here and in real life.

    All of which is to say – being highly visible and influential in the community you sell to is a very profitable thing.

  90. I remember when my co-workers found out that I prepared tax returns as a sideline-and their exact words were can you do my taxes so I don’t have to pay so and so; and then got upset when they realized that they still had to PAY me. Even though I was charging less than they would pay the other guys. I knows it’s not quite the same but I understand where your coming from. On a pleasant side note opened an e-mail today from Amazon with Redshirts listed as one of the Top 10 Sci-fi & Fantasy of the Year-Congrats. It’s the first time I’ve actually kind of known one of the authors listed LOL,

  91. Beth:

    “I would argue that #7 is false because while you aren’t getting paid directly for the writing you do for this site, it brings in a significant amount of indirect revenue.”

    Yes, but I can’t claim “indirect revenue” on a tax form, and in any event the “indirect revenue” isn’t why I write here; I was writing here seven years before I ever had a novel published from it.

    Also, mind you, there are lots of people who come here, see what I write here and resolve never to buy anything from me again, so in that sense it also represents a loss of revenue. All the more reason to think of it as essentially revenue neutral.

  92. John – it worked the opposite for me, I had stopped reading SF & then accidentally stumbled onto this blog. Not only has it sold several of your books to me it has caused me to start reading SF again.

    @mythago – I was very interested in Westlake’s description of a writers relationship with publishers (in The Hook), how it had changed and how it affected the market and writers. Given that he was a very successful author for a long time I guess it was not just fiction. That he wrote that before the advent of ebooks and the upheaval that causes in the publishing world makes it more interesting.

    I’d love to hear John’s take as President of SFFWA & as a successful author & Internet leader (in the sense that he has done a lot of stuff before others) on how self publishing ebooks will impact the market, publishers and authors. (thats not a request to write for free! Simply a suggestion that if he thinks its an interesting topic to clog the blog I think it would be worthwhile)

  93. The wonderful post reminds me of the frequent requests that professional musician friends of mine get to play at someone’s restaurant/bar/coffee shop without pay. I believe the response was always, “Sure, then you are going to come to my house and cook for my friends and family for free right? By the way, we don’t have food so you will need to bring it. We won’t pay you, but your cooking skill will get a lot of exposure and you can set out a tip jar if you want.”

    * * *
    You know I was about to ask you if you would like to guest-write our family Christmas letter (readership approximately 120), but I am guessing the answer is no. =)

  94. This constantly being asked to do stuff for free is the main reason I stopped doing art for a few years. I just couldn’t deal with it, especially because I had people in my life insisting that it’s worthless because it came to me seemingly easily.

    Funnily that I put up my own webcomic up for free in the moment, but that’s because I want to draw it for myself.

  95. John, I wonder how you feel about blog tours and blog interviews. Essentially, writers are asked by another blogger/writer for content for free. They are ubiquitous, and the reason most writers do them is for publicity/exposure. (Which is why so many writers are interested in participating in your The Big Idea column.)

  96. Well, when it comes to free services, nothing makes people think they Can Have For Free like owning a sewing machine.. The conversation goes like this
    Person “Oh, you can mend my trousers”*
    Me “No”
    Person “But you’ve got a sewing machine..”
    Me “You have a willy, but that doesn’t make you superstud”**
    * Not “can you” – note
    ** Never had a woman say this. I’ll make another riposte if I do

    I had a nicely laminated price list for years
    “Trousers turned up £50 per leg
    Zip in trousers £50 plus zip
    Zip in leather jacket £250 plus zip
    All garments must be dry-cleaned before repair”

    Funny how few people (n=0) came back with the items after that

    What REALLY pisses me off is when people pick up my patterns (sewing and quilting patterns take a hell of a lot of writing) and merrily tell me that they will “copy it for a friend” Yes, it’s 8 pages for £5 but it took a Lot of Writing and Sampling to make that..

    This happens in class, too.. (Usually the most incompetent) students announce in class that they will “buy the supplies and teach their friend, who was too busy/poor/idle to come”
    I usually look down my nose and say “OK, tell me what your insurance company has permiited you to do and I’ll send you a licensing agreement and the invoice..”

    This usually leads to the sulks, but hey..

  97. “Here’s a handy tip to find out whether I will write for you for free: Are you me? If the answer is “no,” then fuck you, pay me.”

    What if I’m your future duplicate who, through a strange mishap with a mallet and a time-machine, am stuck here in the past lacking the ability to write coherently?

    Bu, bs pbhefr, V jbhyqa’g or noyr gb fraq lbh gur erdhrfg va gur svefg cynpr – phefrf, sbvyrq ntnva!

  98. I thought that was a beautiful rant and I agree with every point. But it’s almost Christmas, and I believe in Christmas, if not in the actual religious origins of Christmas, so I have to say that I think it’s okay to ask people to do things for free– copy-edit newsletters, draw pictures, even knit sweaters. To me, expecting people to contribute their labor for free isn’t the problem. It’s the total fucking lack of reciprocity that is the problem. I write for free because I am part of a community and that’s my contribution. But I’ve had requests that make me go, “Yeah? And what have you done for me, lately?”

    I think we should all do things for free. And I don’t think we should expect tit for tat, exactly. But I do feel like there should be some balance in the giving and in the return over time. I will write your newsletter for a year and maybe some day you will make me a sweater and we won’t haggle about exactly how many hours I spent on formatting issues and how many you spent on knitting and perling.

    Reading the comments, it doesn’t really seem that people mind doing stuff for free. What they really hate is getting no respect for their work. That and having total strangers think they get to be on the receiving end without being on the giving end, too.

  99. “Also: This entry will undoubtedly be the cue for many of you to link to that Harlan Ellison video.”

    My first thought, early in the post, was of you Ellison and the carnage the two of you could wreak together.
    ………………………………………………

    “There’s more than one recently.”

    We can take out multiple targets. Unleash your drones.

  100. As a solo attorney, it’s amazing how far people think they can stretch payments into the future, especially the big ones. I spent a few hours working for a fellow on spec — the guy was a real estate investor, big assets, strong cash flow — and after a couple of hours he decided he wanted to hire me to argue an appeal — something I can do quite well, thank you — but wanted to make my payment contingent on (a) winning the appeal including winning a new trial, (b) winning the second trial and (c) being awarded attorney’s fees. Even if I were able to do all those things which were (a) plausible (b) unlikely and (c) all but impossible, it was going to be 2 years (at the earliest) before I’d see a nickel. When I gently suggested this would take half of my time for about six weeks and that he’d need to pay me, the potential client thought it would be “good experience” for me and might lead to more work with him.

    On the other hand, my mom-and-pop business clients are as scrupulous as all hell about paying me on time.

  101. Obliquely related, or so it seems to me: last year I was the deputy head official at the national championships of a sporting event. The thing was held in one arena at a multi-rink ice complex, and people who were at the place for other reasons in the other arenas would wander over and ask if they could see what was going on. Sure, we said, we’ll just need to see your ticket. Almost invariably people were shocked that they were expected to pay money to watch an athletic contest with national- and world-level implications. One guy looked me in the eye and said “I just want to watch for five minutes.” He was not persuaded when I asked him if he thought he’d be able to pop in without a ticket and watch five live-in-person minutes of the Stanley Cup finals, or Wimbledon, or the Super Bowl. But the moral of the story is the same: no, we will not let you consume this resource for free just because you’re interested and sincere. Fuck you, pay me.

  102. A thought which may be of some use to newbie and about to be newbie writers: I maintain a rate sheet, and when contacted about a writing project, I ask if people want to see it. People who want a freebie say no and walk. People who want a cheapie get it and either give up, or try to bargain (to which my answer is we are not in the bazaar here, though we may be into the bizarre, and there’s no reason for me to haggle. In younger days I treated my rate sheet as an opening position; nowadays I just say “I do this, this, or this, for this much, take it or leave it,” and life is much happier.) And once in a great while, someone says sure, and pays the rate, and we both end up happy (because I set the rate high enough so that I can make decent money on a fussy, difficult client, and great money on a an easy client.)

  103. John already does things for free for his community – he devotes time as President of SFWA. Writing is how he makes his living. As President of SFWA, it’s his job to make sure writers get paid, not unpaid.

    But ask yourself, if you’re a person asking ANY writer to write for free – are you representing a part of the community that writers sometimes donate time to? If not, you’re probably going to get a similar response to what John tells people who ask him to write for free, and you should get that response. The industry is full of people who are trying really hard to make a living as a writer. Taking time away from them means you’re taking that living away from them

  104. I’m in the translation business and I have numerous publishing houses (BIG HOUSES!) and agents who have come to me over the years asking me to do 30 pages or so “on spec” (just fyi…about 1 entire full time week) with “if we like it, we’ll hire you.” I have never gotten work from that! Now I just say “sorry, I don’t do things on spec.” I have work for the next six months, so it hasn’t hurt a bit. In fact, it allows me to do weeks more of paid work every year!
    Of course, I will translate family papers for my father for free. He paid for my year abroad back in the day when I was an undergraduate, even though he feared for my financial stability.
    Other random people: “Can you just dash off a translation of this five-page letter?”
    “Sure, for $20 bucks.”
    Either they pay it, or I don’t do it. Not because I’m mean, but because I value my time and I don’t know these people.
    But what has amazed me is the big houses — they should know better.

  105. Haha! I immediately thought of the Harlan Ellison video!
    I completely agree with the message in this blog post. Creative work is work. People who do the work should get paid for it. Photographers had the same problem, by the way. So many people expect photography for free, because way too many people offer it for free, that they’re unwilling to pay for professional photography any more.
    Thankfully, I work in IT where no one ever asks me to do anything for them for free! Hahaha!

  106. Cindy Lou Who: Meh. I’m all for being part of the internet that drops on someone’s head when they’re being awful. But as annoying/clueless it is to ask people for free work, that’s a far cry from, say, stealing their work, or fraudulently claiming their endorsement.

    Dogpiling cheats and liars to pressure them to make amends is one thing. But these people have already been refused. Sicking the internet on them at this point would basically just be piling on for the heck of it.

  107. I know a lot of pro writers. Every one of them would agree with John’s post. The post reminded me of a Heinlein quote on a related topic:

    “It is easier to deal with a footpad than it is with the leech who wants ‘just a few minutes of your time, please — this won’t take long.’ Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few. If you allow yourself to fall into the vice of agreeing to such requests, they quickly snowball to the point where these parasites will use up 100 percent of your time — and squawk for more!
    So learn to say No — and to be rude about it when necessary.”

  108. @mythago: I said nothing about the entitlement mindset on the Internet being specific to young folks. Believe me, it isn’t. ;)

    Really, though, I think the problem is that the Internet has given rise to a new *ease* of getting-stuff-for-free. Previously, if I was a lazy editor who wanted to use someone’s photograph in my work without paying them, I’d have to find a way to get a decent copy of it to use in layout and typesetting. Nowadays? I just hit up their portfolio and slorp down the file they put up. (Says the irritable photographer who shares about half of her stuff under Creative Commons, and invariably has people try to use the other, All-Rights-Reserved half.) Or, of course, you have the various travel brochure companies and such that email photographers going, “We want to use this photo of yours here, isn’t that exciting? Of course, we won’t pay you for it, but you will have Exposure!”

    So there’s this combination of “everything on the Internet is right there for me to click and use,” along with a sense (for many folks just starting out), “well, now there’s like 5000 other photographers I could ask, and *one* of them is going to tell me that yes I can use their stuff for free, so you should do it and have YOUR work be what gets exposure! You don’t need payment on *this* one, right?”

  109. Tangential:

    @KSB: There is a difference between someone saying “I am scared and in trouble and need your help” and “I think your time and work product is worth so little that you should give it to me for free.” The legal profession has a long and respected tradition of pro bono work, as you know. I get that people are often too quick to think attorneys can just work for free. But being caught up in a terrifying legal system and reaching out in desperation is miles away from the sort of thing John is talking about.

    This just makes me sit and try to imagine a situation in which one might be scared and in trouble and caught up in a terrifying legal system in which one’s only possible salvation lies in the creative generosity of a fiction writer. “One story… just a paragraph, a scrap of dialogue, anything! Good God, man, lives are hanging in the balance? Have you no mercy in your soul?”

  110. my observations:
    often – people that want stuff for free, could afford to pay for it – they are arrogant/ think that professions other than thier own are less worthy/valuable for some reason

    same mentality: “teachers make too much and only work 9 months out of the year- they shouldn’t expect to be paid well – what they are doingis a “calling”

    same thing for sopcial workers, nurses, firefighters, etc etc- if you are not in a profession where success = being rich – your work doesn’t have value

  111. I agree with the sentiment, but I can’t tweet this due to the rather boastful nature of the piece. You could have made the point without being so bombastic.

  112. Nice one, John! Me… I’m in a job that pays much better than writing…. that’s why we’re short of the best of the best writers, with a few exceptions of course!

  113. Before I was a writer, I was a literary agent. Half my time was spent trying to convince my clients that they didn’t have to give their work away for free. Whenever people want something as badly as aspiring writers want to publish, exploiters will find them; and it doesn’t help that so many writers DO give their work away in exchange for “publicity” or “writing credits.” Thanks for this post; and check out this memorable rant by Harlan Ellison on the same subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

  114. When people ask me to knit sweaters for them, I offer to teach them how to knit. No one has taken me up on this generous offer yet, but none who received this offer has asked me to knit them a sweater twice.

  115. Rachel: What’s funny about that is that if I want to put something up on the Internet that I made, I can and ta-da, instant exposure. So why would an artist need specifically to give the picture to one website for free for exposure? Scalzi has his blog; he doesn’t really need to go giving pieces of writing away for free for exposure on the Internet. So the argument for why you should do it for free on the Internet for exposure really makes no sense. It’s not like we all can’t get into the Internet without their help. Maybe one day that will be true, but currently, if you want an artist or a writer or a knitter with a pattern to come and display it on your particular corner of the Internet, then you’ve got to offer more of an inducement than exposure in a public square in which they are already participating.

    That being said, I did ask a friend to make me a small graphics art picture for my blog and he did it for free because it was a gift and because I’ve spread word of mouth, helped him out for free, etc. So I’m guilty as any. But I did say for my future plans of wanting works from him, I’m going to pay for it, because his work has value, even if he often displays them on the Internet for free, and he has paid me for work of mine because he knows my labor has value too. When you don’t know the person, though, that relationship of voluntary give and take is not there (and when it is there should not be abused.) You are making a professional request and so you need to make it worth the person’s time.

  116. I have a PhD in an engineering field; I worked in R&D generating patents etc until my employer fired me rather abruptly in 2006. By their account, they no longer needed my skills; mindful of the law of defamation, I won’t give my own thoughts as to why it happened. But I will note that they advertised a very similar position a few months later – IIRC, just long enough to avoid any complications with our unfair dismissal laws.

    I spent a year out of work – being overspecialised in a narrow field will do that – before switching fields and starting again at the bottom of the ladder. And then one day $EX-EMPLOYER’s patent lawyer emailed me: “hey, we need someone to write a 20-page technical report comparing two patents, and we think you would be really good at this.”

    Not just “work for free”. “Work for free for the guys who fired you on the grounds that they were no longer doing that kind of work.”

    I quoted them $150-hour consulting rates, and they have never contacted me since.

  117. OK, I get you’re too busy to write something for free for me.

    Just send me $1,000 cash instead. Preferably small bills, and we’ll call it even.

  118. Further down the scale are jobs that require not just time and materials, but certification and insurance. Doctors and accountants fall into that category, but I’m thinking manual trades. Ones that aren’t very valued, but where a failure of the work can be just as fatal as a doctor guessing wrong.

    For me to weld something for someone I need a certificate ($200+/year) and relevant insurance ($500+/year). Sure, the marginal cost of any one job is zero, but the money has to come from somewhere. There’s a particular look of horror on people’s faces when I say no worries, I’ll make something for them for free, but: in my own time; using whatever junk I have lying round; I will bin it and they can choose to scavenge it if they like; I will deny all knowledge of the job; and accept no liability. So when it fails and their life is destroyed it’s not my problem. The great thing about that list is the way the “what, in your own time” anger turns into “accept no liability” horror as I run through the conditions. And I’ve seen car crashes from people scavenging parts that were thrown out after being inspected and found defective… this is why (for example) electricians usually cut the power cords off appliances before throwing them out.

    I do all sorts of stuff at a hobby level, and often donate those skills or stuff I’ve made, but that’s my choice. People ask for help all the time, and 99% of them happily accept my refusal. The rest? This page is a great resource.

  119. In my first career, I was a professional costumer. I still do occasional sewing, and I will even do it for others. I will do it for free for my primary partner, who does not charge me for her cooking. I will do it for less than my full rates if I feel like it, which I sometimes do, but not often.
    I used to undercharge — waaay undercharge. Years ago, a friend of mine who was a professional artist did me a tremendous service: she told me the full arc of her progress from charging too little to charging enough. “I found out that people would value my work based on how much I valued it. If I let a friend buy a painting for cheap, it becomes a cheap painting, and they don’t enjoy it as much. Why would I want my friend to have a cheap painting?”
    After that, I developed a new line. When someone asks me, “Oh, you sew? Can you do [project]?” My immediate reply: “Of course I can! One word of warning, though: I’m expensive. I’m very good, and I’m expensive.” (biiig smile)
    I don’t get much work that way. But I don’t want the work anyway. Not unless I’m paid what I’m worth.
    I did have one customer, the friend of an acquaintance, who agreed, paid (at full rates, plus nuisance surcharge), and then complained to the acquaintance that I charged to much. The acquaintance told me. I was deeply relieved, since I sure as hell didn’t want to have to deal with that bitch again.

  120. I get it all the time in the UK and 9 times out of 10, it has the ‘exposure’ word attached. And it’s not just writing either, as an expert in my field (sports culture and soccer hooliganism) I am frequently asked to provide comment on both TV and radio and all for little more than expenses.

    Never mind 16 years of research, the hundreds of thousands of books I’ve sold around the world or even the award winning movie I penned, they expect me to drop everything to do them favours just for the thrill of being on the news.

    As if…

  121. As condescending, incendiary and insistent as your open letter may be, sadly, none of it is redundant or inappropriate. As someone who intensely values the craft of writing, with its unique ability to present, in crystallized form, the best acrobatics and discoveries of human thought, I am continually depressed by how it seems to be almost entirely devalued by our culture (even though it demonstrates constantly the need for skillful writing by soliciting it, whether for nothing, or else for a pittance). I read all this as a side effect of the fact that we are indoctrinated to fear both knowledge and curiosity, as these render individuals resistant to both coercion and the coma of over-consumption. Anyway, thank you for landing a few spectacular punches for this colossally underappreciated and necessary skill.

  122. I wish I were surprised that you have this problem. Clearly, though, you have the power to solve this: Hook up the people who want you to write for free with the people who want you to read their writing for them. Sure, technically the people who want something written for free probably don’t want the specific writing that they’ll be sent to read, but… Well, what do they expect for free? At least this way they have some words, and the people who want someone to read their stuff have had someone look at it. Everyone wins!

  123. @ Clive Watson

    As condescending, incendiary and insistent as your open letter may be, sadly, none of it is redundant or inappropriate.

    There’s nothing condescending about calling shysters on their bullshit, but asking someone to write “for the exposure” is about as condescending as it gets.

  124. Talking about Ellison….
    My first wife did once ask Harlan if he wanted to write something for her!
    We were at the 1983 Australian Natcon in Sydney where Harlan was GoH.
    She had started writing a letter to her best friend and first one of our friends took it off her and wrote a couple of paragraphs. Before we knew it dozens of others had written in it and it was about 25 pages long. Karen asked Harlan if he would like to write in it but he said no.
    Understandable – even at the time! But it would have been nice…. :-)

  125. Seebs: “Hook up the people who want you to write for free with the people who want you to read their writing for them. ”

    That would be a ton of work specifically using agenting skills that Scalzi would be doing for free. Let them find each other instead. :)

  126. Not to be too blunt, but you are writing for a variety of charities, hand-outs, boondoggles, waste, corruption and other pointless exercises for free for about the first third of the year. Don’t worry, though. If you’re lucky, you can get that bumped up to 50% or more shortly.

  127. I worked my way through high school and college as a dishwasher,fry cook,prep cook,line cook,and ultimately,saucier in an award winning French restaurant.
    Two of my colleagues and I decided to open a restaurant as partners-manager,maitre d” and chef.
    We were a success and sold out at the top of the market.
    I was now 30 something with no real credentials,so I took some of my capital and enrolled at a prestigious culinary academy.My first job was at a high end caterer.A few years later I opened my own shop.I did well.
    My neighbor asked me if I would cater his son’s wedding.He gave me a sketch of the menu,and I told him it would be $100 per person.
    He was annoyed because he calculated the food cost at about $20 per.
    I asked him if he had a licensed and inspected kitchen with $40K of cooking equipment,$25K fire suppression and ventilation,$10K small wares,$10K tabletop gear,$40K refrigeration,$2K/mo. lease,
    $$1K/mo. insurance,and 2 live- in pit bulls ($50/mo. food and vet bills).
    End of discussion.

  128. About number 7–like you said, it’s your free time. And I’m glad you chose to use it to write this, because if you hadn’t, I probably would have never heard of you. This entry was linked on one of my forum groups in Ravelry, and I enjoyed your “free” thoughts so much, I’m checking out some of the things you’ve written that I’ll have to (and will happily) pay you for.

  129. I am a knitter and I get the “exposure and more business” comment alot. I now use this when someone asks me to knit socks (my specialty) or anything else – “If I do not sleep with you or have not given birth to you or you had no hand in my conception or my husband’s conception then I do not knit for you”. Works every time.

  130. I’m happy to write/speak for publications/organisations for free if I admire them. I make enough money as a researcher/lecturer that I can afford to write for a publication in my free time if I want to. There’s examples of publications running on such a tight budget that I really admire to the point that I’d rather they didn’t pay me and kept the money for their print costs! On the other hand if I get asked to do something by a university of organisation I know can afford to pay me and they try and avoid doing so by spinning the exposure/vocational slant, that is infuriating. I accept not everybody will agree with this opinion. I’m sure for a lot of people, my wilingness to produce for free at my discretion economically devalues creative/knowledge work done by me and others. But I also think that the pressure on a good publication to be financially successful enough that they don’t have to rely on any kind of goodwill or free labour might also potentially result in an outcome thats less interesting and more mainstream, or in intensified intellectual property regimes. I think something like Mute is a good answer to this. They insist on paying authors, their online content is free and they use a crowdfunding model.

  131. As a crafter, I’m often told I should sell my stuff. I decline, because selling is work, and I do my stuff for fun. Now, my job, I do for pay, and not for free. Want your library cataloged for free? Fuck you, pay me.

    I’m also amazed at how often organizations ask me to do work for free. I tell them I can’t economically work for free. Amazingly, they often turn out to have a budget after all, and hire me at my going rate.

  132. The thing about the people who contact you and say you should do things “for the exposure” is, if you didn’t already have that exposure, they wouldn’t have heard of you and wouldn’t be offering.

    OK, that doesn’t help with the bottom-feeder “no compensation” ads for writers on Craigslist, but it ought to cross the mind of people who are approaching well-known writers, photographers, or professionals in any other field.

  133. You know, just self-geeking here….

    There was a time I’d have thought this kind of thing was arrogant or rude. And why? Well… to be brutally self-honest, because I wanted to become A Writer and I would have written for free because I dreamed that this would lead to my Being Discovered and suddenly my Genius Would Become Understood, and….

    And what I had to learn was this: that I had not made sales and had not received strong editorial feedback (NB: typically, meaningful editorial feedback is *good* even if they’re telling you that X_passage was garbage – they don’t bother wasting time if they assume they’ll never make a purchase from you) was evidence that I was chasing a pipe dream. I was not a professional quality writer. I was a *decent* writer. I could write a short story that my friends would like, but I couldn’t write for a mass market, or even a limited market.

    I wanted to write – I wanted to write and wanted my writing to be enjoyed, and, yeah, wanted to have fans who thought I was wonderful because I wrote fiction they enjoyed reading. My own hypothetical complaints would have been based upon being upset that I don’t have that. “You *have* what I *yearn* for, and you scorn the results of having it! How dare you have it! I should have it; I deserve it more since I wouldn’t be so scornful!”

    I’m older and wiser now, and can recognize that. If I could talk to my younger self, I’d say “your anger of such a thing shows that you know the truth, deep down – that, right now, you’re not a professional quality writer, and aren’t about to become one. Keep writing – for *fun* – and see if that changes, but in the meantime, lighten up.”

    As for the rest – if a wonderful charity, or hot tech company asked me to do database administration for free, I’d have the exact same attitude: fuck you, pay me. Database administration is easy for me, and I’m very good at it, and I like to be admired for it, but it’s *work* and it’s worth money! So now I agree 100% with your attitude.

  134. There’s another category of Huffington Post writers: The ones who don’t know they’re writing for it.

    I once wrote a guest post for someone else’s blog, just because I like(d)[<- Note past tense] the blog and the blogger. That process in itself was annoying, because the blogger had some pretty stringent requirements, considering that HE came to ME to ask for content, and also because he introduced some weird arbitrary capitalization. But then he apparently just GAVE my post to HuffPo, without contacting me or asking my permission. HuffPo likewise failed to contact me, even though my email address and URL were on the original blog post. They reformatted it as a slideshow–a format I particularly hate–and opened up comments.

    Of course, by the time I found it (after Googling my name in preparation for a job search), comments were closed, so I couldn't respond to any of them: the positive, the negative, or the ones chastising me for capitalization inconsistencies.

    While there are a lot of things I don't like about HuffPo, I can't say for sure that I wouldn't have written for them for the exposure. After all, I'm not a bestselling author (I'm not an author at all; I'm an IT consultant and an occasional copyeditor who used to have a book blog), and I might have been kind of flattered if someone had approached me to write for a major media outlet. I mean, I was flattered that someone approached me to write for a little niche blog. :-) But I certainly never meant to write for HuffPo by having my work given away by someone else.

  135. This is why I DON’T ask friends to “do favors” for me in their professional areas. If I need legal advice, I will ask my lawyer friend for a recommendation, on the assumption that they probably know someone who’s competent in that specialty. When I wanted a logo for my business, another friend put me in touch with a graphic artist who quoted me a reasonable fee. And if I ever did ask anyone to do something for me in their field of expertise, I would be sure to explain that I know this is an awkward request and am prepared to take “no” for an answer.

    Actually, being prepared to take “no” for an answer with good grace is something that should go without saying any time you ask anyone for a favor, period.

  136. On the other hand, my mom-and-pop business clients are as scrupulous as all hell about paying me on time.

    Exactly! I used to do computer repair in a low-income neighborhood, and they were some of the best customers I ever had. Almost never complained about rates (which is good, because my rates were about a quarter of what Geek Squad would charge for a given job). Almost always wanted to pay. Sometimes wanted to pay even when I didn’t feel like I deserved it. :P

    Maybe it’s because they know what it’s like to be in a financial situation where getting stiffed out of $100 may well mean not making rent, or not being able to eat that week. You take your rich-ass execs and shit – a hundred bucks is nothing to them, so they figure, eh, it’s nothing to you, either. Not that that’s an excuse; they’re just assholes when it comes down to it.

  137. Something that just popped into my head, set to the tune of a perhaps recognizable song:

    You want free words?
    You must be crazy!
    So here’s my answer:
    “Fuck you, pay me.”

  138. I appreciate this, not because I’m a writer or artist, but because I’m a minister. I have a 83 credit-hour master’s degree (MDiv) from a top 5 University-based Divinity school and over 10 years professional experience. I get asked to do weddings for free ALL the time! The logic goes that if friend X can just get “ordained” on the internet for $20, why should they pay me? After all, I “work for God.” I politely reply that they can do that if they like and their wedding will look like it. However, I have particular expertise in religious/spiritual ceremonies that took years to acquire and the education to design them correctly. Moreover, I usually do 5-6 sessions of pre-marital counseling (also part of my training) which includes ceremony design consulting. All told, it takes over 24 hrs of my time to prepare for one service. I think a $500 honorarium plus travel expenses and lodging if necessary is perfectly reasonable. After all, the reception alone will cost several thousand dollars. Why should the ceremony not be as well done as the reception? Of course, this is for non-members in my congregation. For those people, officiating is part of my ministry and I usually ask for a modest honorarium — maybe $150-200.

  139. I’m glad I found this article. Was going through the same thing…people can be so thoughtless when it comes to this issue. We writers have to make a living, too.

  140. I’m a math teacher … lots of people expect me to tutor their kids for free because I must love teaching to be so good at it. I do love it, I am good at it. If you’re not one of the students I’m paid to teach, I’m worth $40 per hour.

  141. Writing for free is a gift. And like all good gifts, it should be given voluntarily. That is to say, if you feel the urge to give someone the gift of writing, then do it. It is yours to give. It is not, however, for them to demand it of you.

    If ever you should ask a professional writer to write “for free,” it had better be one of those “donate the royalties to charity” situations, where it is clearly understood that you are asking for something of value, in lieu of actual money. And even then, it’s best to let the writer volunteer for this donation, and not call them up demanding it.

    This reminds me of a sad story I once read:

    A woman was organizing the building, furnishing, etc. of a charity hospital. She was a real go-getter, and did EVERYTHING, from the most menial task to the highest level of organization. She had her hand in every aspect of this charitable project. She had enlisted the aid of many pillars of the community, businessmen whose time was highly valued. When it came time to open the hospital, these men were honored with plaques, a different type of plaque for each different level of donation, based on how much time they had given, and computed at how much they charged professionally for their time. For example, the lawyers who helped with all the official paperwork charged $X per hour, and spent Y hours working for this goal, so they got bronze plaques. Doctors who charged $A per hour, and spent B hours working for this goal added up to significantly more monetary value, and got gold plaques.

    But what of our heroine, who had spent more time than anyone, and was involved in every aspect? She was merely an unemployed housewife, whose time was not valued. Since, they did not know what value to put on her time, she was recognized not with a plaque, but with a verbal, “Oh, and thank you to Mrs. C, who was so helpful throughout the project.”

    Yay. No one who wasn’t there at the opening ceremony even knew about the acknowledgement.

    When asked about it later, she sadly agreed that she did not know what else they could have done, for without an hourly rate, she did not know how to place a value on her time, either.

  142. I’ve still only got a few short story credits, and haven’t finished my first novel yet, but I’ve already learned about “exposure” rather pay. The day I decided not to submit to nonpaying markets anymore, I felt something shift in my brain; since then, I’ve taken my own work more seriously. (I expect I’ll still occasionally donate a piece for charity, though, which is different.)

    (Here’s a free tip: don’t sign a contract with AOL. They might just up and decide they don’t feel like paying you anymore.)

  143. Thank You for posting this. I am dealing with a dilemma which would have involved throwing away earned leave. Your statement “Fuck you pay me” and point 8 has helped me put things in perspective. So, thank you!

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