No, In Fact, You Should Not Write For Free

The blog Lifehacker just posted a piece entitled “Why You Should Write For Free,” in which writer Nick Douglas (on staff, note) explains when he believes writing for free is appropriate — and when it is not. The headline alone is enough to fluff me up with righteous fury, as my own, consistent refusal to write for free is a matter of public record. But I’m also aware that headlines are meant to elicit a response (hopefully, to read the article) and are sometimes not entirely representative of the article.

So I read the article. It’s still wrong, but I can see where Douglas has gone wrong, and some of it boils down to a matter of definition of what constitutes “free” writing and what does not.

So what does constitute “writing for free”? Douglas’ definition is pretty simple, and wide: Writing for which one is not paid. This would include personal blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts and comments on all of the above (basically, all social media for most people), school papers, diary entries, emails and letters to friends and family, graffiti, resumes and job applications as well as material written for editorial entities, for which one’s work is not compensated — newspapers, weekly papers, non-personal/commercial blogs, magazines and so on.

My definition, probably because I am a professional writer, is rather more narrow and is focused on intent. My definition of “writing for free” is “writing work that is aimed at the stream of commerce but for which one is not compensated for its production.” More simply, work where someone is trying to make money off it, but none of that money gets to me. By that definition, no personal blog post, tweet, Facebook posting, email, etc constitutes “free” writing, since none of it was ever intended in itself to make money. But things I write for others are almost always in the stream of commerce — and somewhere along the way, someone is getting paid because of it, or at least trying to.

And that’s where Yog’s Law applies: Money flows toward the writer. If my work is being used to extract monetary value from someone, somewhere, then I need to be paid. I don’t work for free, especially when someone else is attempting to gain a financial benefit from it.

(“Yeah but Twitter and Facebook serve ads so technically they’re making money and you’re not” — correct but I am being offered use of the platform without having to pay for it because it’s supported by ads, and that would be the case even if I never posted, i.e., social media’s financial model is not contingent on my content, but rather on my use. Eyeballs, not words. That’s a different thing, believe it or not.)

Let me put it another way. I play guitar (poorly). When I play my guitar at home, am I playing “for free”? In the sense that no one’s paying me for it, sure. But I’m also not intending to make money from playing it, and that matters. I’m a literal amateur. I’m doing it because I enjoy playing, and the benefit of it to me is not financially-oriented. On the other hand, if (highly improbably) someone heard me playing and said “Wow, that’s awesome, can I record you and release your music to the world?” then my immediate response would be “I think you’re probably high” followed by “Also, how much are you paying me?” Because what’s being said here is “your product has a value I would like to exploit” and my response in those cases, for all media, is “then I need to participate in that value exploitation.”

Douglas’ definition of “free” is more expansive than mine, and for people who are not primarily or professionally writers (or who want to be) it’s probably fine. For people who do want to be professionally or primarily writers, it’s muddy, and can be used as a way for people who won’t want to pay you for your work, for whatever reason, to smudge lines which should not be smudged. Intent matters.

So, let’s apply my definition of “free” to Douglas’ advice. Should you write on a blog or on social media for your own personal interest and benefit? Sure! It’s fun, it passes the time, and occasionally you might able to leverage that writing into economic benefit. I certainly have done that — I’ve published four books (so far!) of essay writing that originated here on this blog, and two novels which I originally published here have been published conventionally and are still in print. Go me. Work here has also served as a calling card for paid work elsewhere; I’ve gotten a number of gigs because people have read something here and said, essentially, “Hey, can you do that, but for me, and for money?” To which I answered, “Oh, probably.”

Should you write for others without being paid? Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t care how tiny or noble the site/magazine/whatever is, if they want to use what you write to help them make money, then go ahead and make it your policy to get paid. If they don’t have the money to pay your asking price, then, oh, well. “Exposure” means shit (and “exposure” in the sort of venue that can’t/won’t pay means even less than shit). What matters in these cases is that you make money from the people who want to make money from you. So, you know. Don’t write for “free.” Get paid.

Let’s also recognize a third category here, which is writing you do for yourself, that you intend to exploit financially by yourself — basically, by operating a small business specializing in the distribution of your writing (and/or other creative product). This is a thing that is much easier to do now than in times past, and certainly writers do it through things like Patreon, Kickstarter, self-publishing, placing advertising on their own blogs and so on. Here in 2018, you don’t need someone else to pay you to get paid, although if you do want to get paid by running your own little writing business, you have to do what any small business does and work your ass off on it. Which is why I personally like publishing through other entities — it’s ever so slightly less work.

(And obviously, you don’t have to pick just one of these avenues. You can do them all! Wheeee!)

So, Nick Douglas is right that you should write some things that without intending to be paid for them, for the fun of it and to try different sorts of writing and to grow your skills. He’s incorrect that much of that writing — the stuff you do by yourself, for yourself — should be considered as being done for “free.” And when he suggests that you write for others for “free,” I think he’s incorrect there as well. If your work has value to anyone, then it should have value for you, and you should be at the front of the line to receive that value, because you’re doing the work.

That’s how you become a professional writer: By expecting to be treated as a professional.

92 Comments on “No, In Fact, You Should Not Write For Free”

  1. Quick notes:

    1. If you’re going to post a “but what about…” objection here, I do recommend you follow that link to my previous “No I Don’t Write For Free” post, where many of the basic objections are taken care of.

    2. Don’t slag Nick Douglas here, please. As noted, I think the issue here is largely of definitions, not intent.

    3. As a matter of disclosure, I will note that from time to time I have allowed sites to reprint something I originally posted here without any additional compensation. I’ve done that because a) sometimes I didn’t feel right profiting from the piece (this is the case with my “Being Poor” essay, for which I don’t take compensation for, usually asking that the place reprinting it make a charitable donation relating to hunger), b) I’m lazy and don’t want to fill in another fucking W-2 form. Particularly with regard to the latter, I don’t recommend this attitude to others.

    4. Also to get ahead of this, I (and other writers) will occasionally write things designed to promote our own work (often work for which we’ve gotten paid), for which we receive no additional compensation — Big Idea pieces here are an example of this. In my particular case, I square that circle by noting that those promotional pieces are part of overall package for which I was paid an advance by my publisher, i.e., those pieces were paid for when I agreed to have my publisher put out my book, and they gave me an advance for the manuscript and a reasonable amount promotional work on its behalf.

  2. There’s a fourth category, which can admittedly get a little sloppy, but that is nonprofits (such as the magazine I work for). Some tiny zines may, I suppose, say they make no profit, but what I’m talking about is bona fide nonprofits: churches, denominations, advocacy organizations, membership organizations. Any pontificating on this category? :-)

  3. See, this is how we can tell you’re a professional: when I saw the headline, I saw red, bashed a few things around, and muttered to myself. You, by contrast, took a deep breath, cooled down, read carefully, and turned your response into a clear, coherent argument that is both thoughtful and useful.

    I really need to work on getting to that point myself!

  4. Kenneth Sutton:

    I’ve been paid for publishing in non-profit magazine/newsletters, etc, so I don’t see it as an either/or. Beyond that I see people choosing to forgo payment for a non-profit as a matter of personal choice, but in that case it is you doing them a favor, not the other way around.

  5. I thought of you immediately when I saw that headline and that it would push a button based on having read your previous post

  6. As a magician, I was constantly inundated with requests from others to do a free show. The offering?
    “Great exposure.”
    “Will be live-Tweeting the event.” (coming from Marketing students with 30 Twitter followers)

    My response (after my amateur experience of accepting a few) would be to explain I donate a few shows per year to causes of my choosing (the Children’s Hospital and one particular daycare were usually on the list), but I could offer a charity rate depending on their budget.

    It was a hard lesson learned from being in the trenches, but it made all the difference. I found once I kept my rates at a professional level, clients started treating me like a professional.

  7. “Exposure” means shit (and “exposure” in the sort of venue that can’t/won’t pay means even less than shit).

    My favourite way of expressing this is that if they have enough of an audience, they have enough to pay you, and if they can’t afford to pay you, they don’t have enough of an audience.

  8. Haven’t read the original article in question, since I don’t want to pick nits, but I do want to provide my own perspective on why I do a ton of writing for free. TL;DR: I strongly believe in paying forward and doing pro bono work to help people like me by providing the same types of help I was given when I was starting out. Details follow:

    I’ve been working for 30 years as a technical communicator (mostly scientiific and technical editing, but also technical writing and knowledge transfer). I’ve made an enormous number of dumbass mistakes along the way and been talked through them, pro bono, by colleagues. As a way of paying back and paying forward, I’ve written up and published what I’ve learned so others can potentially benefit and avoid those mistakes. (Realistically, since most of us learn better from mistakes than from published articles, the results may not be so optimistic.) To date, I’ve published on the order of 400 articles — mostly with my professional society, and mostly unpaid — on this basis. Some of these articles were instead paid articles. I’m largely satisfied with the balance between the two. I earn enough from my writing to pay for many luxuries, including restaurants and beer.

    I also drove a movement that persuaded my professional society (STC) to return copyright to the authors of articles in their various magazines both to set an example (“we represent professional writers, and thus respect their rights to own their writing”) so that the author could republish the information at will. (Credit where credit is due: I developed and framed the proposal; John Hedtke did the real work of pushing it through the board of directors.) Almost everything I’ve written*, I hold copyright to, and it’s freely available on my Web site for anyone to read, to use in their classroom, etc. at no cost. (I recommend but do not insist on a charitable donation in the user’s own name.) I’m very proud that many of the things I’m written are being used as classroom resources.

    * Including some stuff that commercial publishers released into my hands. Good for them!

    Apart from the intangible satisfactions resulting from my approach, there have been many tangible benefits: I’ve been flown around the world to keynote at conferences, including Bangalore and London, and to teach at the United Nations, in China, and in many North American cities. I haven’t grown monetarily rich from this, but I’ve grown experientially rich by visiting many places I would not otherwise have visited and meeting many people I would not otherwise have met, including my wife.

    I’m fortunate in having been well paid in my day job, enough so that I didn’t have to earn a living from the writing I did outside of work. As I transition towards retirement, I am increasingly looking towards monetizing my writing, as I’m already doing with my non-fiction books. Were I solely dependent on my writing for income, I’d be much more aggressive about monetizing it, so I have no objection to writers who won’t publish for free. I fully get why you shouldn’t do that.

  9. I’ve developed a relationship with one church denomination and done quite a bit of work for them over the years. That has led to some work from churches in other denominations as well. By now I’ve made the decision (and implemented it) not to do work for churches or their organizations anymore.

    Unfortunately, the churches and church organizations I’ve worked with ride their religious/nonprofit status to death, question every aspect of the job to nickel-and-dime me, and attempt to guilt-trip me whenever money comes up. This has held true over every church so far. There are probably exceptions, but it’s not worth it anymore.

    One of the last church projects I worked on deteriorated to the point where I said to the client, “Are you really trying this hard to communicate to me how worthless my work is? Why would you want me to do this for you if you think so poorly of my work?” And the person didn’t backpedal from that. I finished the job and got the heck out.

    Having said that, I have done a few singular pro bono projects for causes I believe in that I chose for clients I approached myself. That’s different. It doesn’t invalidate your point–these were exceptions to the rule. The rule being I get paid.

  10. Nick Douglas seems to agree, in comments he says your should not write for free when someone is profiting.
    Also, did you ever go through a phase where you wrote stories for copies of the small time magazine?

  11. I wrote a blog post (ooh, free writing!) on this topic last year. And I agree with you. Intention is the dividing point for me, as well. If I write something (blog post, story, poem, whatever) that I intend from the start to put out into the world for free, that’s one thing. If I am doing some sort of promotional thing, and am offering stuff for free, fine. If I write something that I intend to sell, that’s where I will draw the line. No, you can’t have it free. Free is my choice, since it’s my work and my time that went into the thing. I’m far from a known, successful writer, but free is still not an option. My time is as valuable as anyone else’s, and I should get paid for it.

  12. Thank you for that, because yeah, I saw the headline, thought “oh, this is bound to be good,” skimmed the article, and my response was “this is a semantic problem more than it is a work-for-free problem,” but I didn’t have the time or arguably the place to unpack that further.

  13. Bryan Gardner:

    Nope, once I left college I always got paid for work (and when I was in college my college newspaper had profit-sharing, and I did freelance gigs for the dailies and weeklies in town). Also, re: fiction, when I started writing it, I didn’t send it to places that didn’t offer payment.

  14. I actually sorta disagree (to my surprise).

    I am fine writing for no monetary compensation IF something of value is being offered to me. Writing for exposure is, obviously, almost always bullshit. But there are situations when it isn’t, and I’m open to the idea of doing so.

    The big caveat here is that you need to have some idea of the value of what you’re being offered – how big is the audience, etc – and some plan for actually using what you’re getting out of it.

    That said, it’s really rare that these situations arise – I haven’t done so for years.

    (The only free not for me writing I’ve done in the last five or so years is for charity. Which, you know, it’s a donation, just of time and not money. )

  15. Amateur musician checking in.

    I tell people I’ll gladly play for friends, for tips, or for free, but I won’t play for anyone who is making money off of me. And if it is for free, my inconvenience threshold is pretty low- if it’s a long commute or parking is an issue, well, I don’t need to do it.

    Much of my competence in my preferred niche comes from playing in a pub once a month. They feed us, but it’s a long commute and no pay. Tips are often low, and often we outnumber the number of patrons. But doing that a couple of hours a month for a decade has really brought us individually and collectively to a much higher plane than we were before: stage presence, musicianship, and repertoire are much better than they were when we were just jamming in a basement. An audience focuses the rehearsal process wonderfully. (Side note: I often live-stream gigs on Facebook. While this is ‘performing for free’, it gives the opportunity to share our performances with family and friends, and because it’s the simplest way to record the performance for easy review by the band later.)

    I would also point out that before this kind of music, much of my free time was spent in community theater. I’ve paid good money to see professional theater…. that sometimes wasn’t as good as all-volunteer efforts.

  16. I think the thing is, not being a bestselling writer (or, uh, pretty much at-all selling writer lately), is that I put a lot of time into writing that I don’t get much back from. Short stories I can’t convince a magazine to take, manuscripts I can’t get published, etc.

    Nor do I get much social reward, although I’ve been toying with posting short stories on Medium or my YA novel manuscript on Swoon Reads, not because I think it’ll make much money but because, I dunno. I just want supportive comments. I want people unrelated to me to say: “hey, that was funny,” or “what a strange idea; I’ve never thought of that before.”

    I know that writing for exposure is bad, but when getting my work accepted into non-paying magazines and websites (or, last year, an illustrated flash fiction gallery show) is encouraging, and it gives me the sort of energy boost to keep going, isn’t that a good thing?

    Or does it mainly mean that I’m just a bad writer? How long of writing without being paid is a good idea before I should quit and try something else?

  17. A comics writer whose work I’ve liked recently tweeted that newbies/beginners should be willing to work for free. “Your selling point is being willing to work for free.”

    “*AHEM*” was my reaction. “No, my selling point is being able to write some pretty good stories.”

  18. IndoorCat:

    I wasn’t always a NYT-best selling author, but I always placed value on my work and time. I also believe to a non-trivial extent the former is related to the latter.

    Also, writing for exposure isn’t bad, or make you a bad person, or a bad writer. But writing for exposure only does not, in my experience, has much of the benefit it proclaims it does.

    Beyond that, I say do what you enjoy doing. If it makes you happy to share what you’re writing or doing, do that. Maybe do it places where other people don’t get an economic benefit from it you don’t share in. That’s the bad behavior, if you ask me.

  19. I started writing for free, as a happy amateur, and jumped onto Patreon once I felt I had built an audience large enough for it to be worth it. (The nature of the story-telling I do is such that I can’t sell individual stories, and I knew that only a small fraction of readers (seems to be around 1/400) would consider Patreon.)
    But nobody else profits from what I write, unless I’m paid too. I am happy for readers to illustrate, or make comics of (or, in one case, make a short anime of) any story of mine, if they release them for free, but I will not allow anyone to do that and profit from it in a tangible way without paying me too.

  20. I would observe that famous people are in fact providing more eyeballs by attracting people than they are by visiting/viewing the site, and that at that point, there’s some credible argument that the site is monetizing those people.

    If the site would use a picture of you or a link to your words as a hook to draw people in, they’re arguably monetizing you.

  21. As an academic, most of my writing is “for free”/”for exposure” and profits Elsevier and similar journals. But I guess my salary (and your tax dollars) fund that, so in theory I’m getting paid indirectly. In practice, raises don’t really seem to correspond to my H-Index unless I decide to go on the market. :/

    Now I’m depressed.

  22. Can I suggest that in a case like Facebook or Twitter what one is doing is writing for barter? Because they definitely are monetizing one’s work – there would be no eyeballs without the words. But they are providing a service in return for content, which is the ability to interact with and have fun with a bunch of friends, acquaintances, and strangers in a way one couldn’t otherwise. It’s an exchange of services – writing for fun. This also suggests that a useful lens to think about a given social media platform is, “is the effort I’m putting into creating content for this platform commensurate with the amount of value I’m getting out of using it?”

  23. This is an interesting issue to me on two fronts. Professionally, I act as an expert witness in my state, and I have been actively campaigning for the various DAs and PAs we testify for to foot at least travel and hotel bills, not because my program can’t handle the bill, but because, as the Vito above described, when people have to pay there is a definite change in how THEY value the service provided for them.
    Personally, I make memes. I’ve had a couple go somewhat viral, including one that got over 25K likes and 10K shares on FB that I found. While I don’t care about getting paid, I will say I found the sites that didn’t give name credit to the creator (not just on mine but on any they had) really bugged me. They are posting people’s creative efforts to drive likes, hits, shares, and ultimately generate more ad revenue without even crediting the original creators.

  24. This: Because what’s being said here is “your product has a value I would like to exploit” and my response in those cases, for all media, is “then I need to participate in that value exploitation.”
    should be quoted widely as a fundamental principle of any business.

  25. John said, “If my work is being used to extract monetary value from someone, somewhere, then I need to be paid.”

    Can relate.

  26. ““Exposure” means shit (and “exposure” in the sort of venue that can’t/won’t pay means even less than shit).”

    AMEN, Brother!

    I work in professional live theatre; I’m a scenic designer in the Washington DC metro area. I have been making my full-time living in theatre for twenty-seven years, and I ***STILL*** occasionally get approached about doing shows for exposure. Far more often I get approached about shows that offer a small stipend or honorarium … maybe a hundred dollars or so, for several weeks of work.

    I decline.

    Even if I wanted to accept, I can’t AFFORD to. This is not my hobby; this is my job. My time and expertise at my work has a value, and it’s through that work that I keep a roof over my head and kitty-kibble in my feline masters’ bowls. If a theatre is going to profit from my work, so ought I profit.

  27. I’ve been a paid musician a lot. I’ve also been a “tip jar and beer” musician a lot. Paid is always better.

    But it isn’t just in the arts that this phenomenon takes place. I’ve been asked by representatives of major luxury car manufacturers what my company could do for free (answer: nothing.) I’m doing “free” work right now for a billion dollar Fortune 500 company because my grossly inexperienced management thinks there is some future benefit to it. It is natural to wan the most for the least. That’s just business negotiations. It is entirely unnatural to think that giving it to them for nothing accrues any benefit to anyone except the recipient of free stuff.

    My answer to “free” questions is always the same. All free does is establish the value of your time. When I’m playing guitar, sometimes that is free. When I’m working my day job, it is never free.

  28. Agree with Kenneth Sutton – there is a fourth category, making a charitable contribution to a non-profit by writing something that benefits the non-profit (along the lines of John’s Quick note #3).

    But that takes us back to the original point – be compensated for the work, then donate that compensation. You get a charitable deduction (at no cost to the charity), the non-profit gets donated value, and everybody wins.

  29. As for churches, the applicable phrase is “The labourer is worthy of his hire (wages),” from Chaucer, late 1300s, who got it from the gospel according to Luke. (I googled it)

  30. Any time I hear about or think about writing for free (and yeah, I see what you mean about definitions in the Douglas article), I have to remind myself that somebody’s getting paid somewhere unless it’s blogging or whatnot that’s just to flex your muscles and get an opinion out in the world. But if you’re writing to be taken seriously as a writer, yeah, definitely get paid.

    Of course, when I’m having a really bad day and wondering if I’m kidding myself about ever writing well enough to get paid for it, I just think of Harlan Ellison, who said it best (if with more profanity):

  31. When I worked professionally as a writer (which I only did for about a year and a half) I did it for compensation or I didn’t do it. When one of the people I was working with promised me (clearly) compensation for a piece and then, when their circumstances changed told me AFTER I’d done the work that they didn’t want to buy it, I was pretty angry and never worked for them again. Don’t make me a promise, waste two weeks of my time and then go back on it. That’s unprofessional (also technically illegal as it is a written contract but it wasn’t worth it to sue).

    As much as I loved writing for a living, I never got to the point where I made enough to comfortably handle the bills. Now when I write, I write for fun. Lots of it is fan fiction and the like and, hence, not salable but it’s fun to write and the IP owner is tolerant and even encouraging as long as you don’t profit. All good.

    But that’s not written to make money. It’s for fun and, while I’ve been told it’s good – and in fact I know I do pretty decent quality work, what I lacked was John’s connections to convert the work sufficiently into cash so that it could provide the kind of living I wanted. So back to the day job – which does involve a fair bit of writing but also pays well.

    Based on that – I expect I broadly follow the Scalzi standard of ‘not working for free’. And I do agree that if someone is making money off YOUR work so should YOU or you are being taken advantage of. But I expect that there are a great many strange situations which form exceptions.

    Good write up Mr. Scalzi. Enjoyable read.

  32. I’ll submit a story to a charity anthology (like “Waiting to Be Forgotten”, a crime story anthology; the proceeds went to a foundation that helps combat vets).

    Otherwise, no. And I’ll sure as hell never sign a contract with AOL again.

  33. @brucearthurs: That person seems unclear on the concept of “selling”.

  34. In the immortal words of Dr. Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” But he was made of pretty stern stuff. As far as I know, he didn’t even keep a journal, and after his Dictionary made him famous and independent, he wrote hardly anything at all.

  35. For me, it is just too hard to try to find someone who’s going to pay me to write or do art. I don’t have the energy or care after my draining day job (which actually provides money) to put that much effort into trying to find someone who wants my stuff. If I care enough to publish it, I can do it on my own blogs in 2 seconds and nobody cares if I do that either. So yeah, I’ll do stuff for free, but nobody wants it anyway so big deal.

    But then again, I’m not ever trying to make a career doing what I love. Those who actually try to do that for a living, well…that’s different.

  36. I am hoping this will not be considered a violation of your Rule #2 for this post, but I did find it amusing that a piece about why writing for free is a good move for someone who wants to write for a living was so muddled — just bad writing. I also think it is interesting to note that Douglas’s professional writing background (at least according to his bio graf) is in the online world. The online universe seems to have different, more relaxed notions of what it means when something is “free” — as many have noted before, when anything on the webs says something is free, it means you are a product.

    As far as writing for non-profits, I don’t think that is a separate issue. I have done a fair bit of that myself, and it is just another way of providing a donation for the non-profit, like writing a check, or donating one’s time. Though the writer may not be be obtaining something of monetary value for the work, she/he is donating something of (potentially) monetary value, and thus the writing is not for free.

    I always enjoy your posts about the business end of professional writing — many thanks.

  37. John, Quora is currently non-monetized, but is apparently headed that way. I use Quora pretty much just as a way to “scratch the itch” to say something that is a useful contribution to the Quora knowledge-store. So, I use it pretty much like I use social media, if social media provided useful quotes like “Romney is a ‘how genius’ but a ‘why zombie.’ ” What are your thoughts on eventual profit-sharing for writers on Quora?

  38. I did some free writing to promote the dojo where I was a member, back in the 1980s. The benefit to me was the possibility of more dojo members, though I would not have been making money.

    These days, I have a blog, and it’s for fun, although it’s also a place for people who might hire me to see that I write well without an editor.

    I make my living as a technical writer, which pays well. I have a small, but paid, side career as a classical music/opera reviewer & general writer.

    Back in the 1980s or early 90s, my dojo was asked if were interested in being responsible for publishing the quarterly newsletter of our martial art. I would have been the editor and publisher. I talked to people who’d done this job and concluded that it was way too much work for a volunteer job, even if I would get to put editor/publisher on my resume. (I wasn’t yet a writer.)

    Years after this, the person then managing the organization came to me personally and said he’d love it if I became the editor/publisher. It took me about three seconds to say “I write for my living and I am not giving up my weekends to publish a newsletter for this for [organization[.” Among other things, the subject-matter experts (high-ranking people in the martial art) had oversight powers and could order me around about what I published. So, I couldn’t write or publish anything the slightest bit controversial. (“Why are you making the black belts all go through background checks when [known pedophile] was never arrested and wouldn’t have been turned up by your background check anyway?”, for example.)

    I have never regretted this for a second.

  39. OH, I think you can write as a professional and not expect to be paid for it. I write military history book reviews for both paywalled journals (e.g., the Journal of Military History) and Internet journals (e.g., the Michigan War Studies Review), and have also contributed to Vietnam Magazine, the Journal of Cold War Studies, H-WAR. A couple of these latter pubs actually paid me ($200 seemed standard) but most didn’t, and I don’t mind. I enjoy getting my views out there, on subjects I’ve learned something about. Intellectual discourse. I’ve paid my dues in the workplace, and am now retired, doing a lot of stuff for free — church, charity, etc. So writing book reviews, unpaid for the most part, is just something I like to do, for the benefit of . . . well, whoever’s interested.

  40. IIRC, there are a number of on-line “magazines” whose business model is getting people to write their content for them for free and making money off of it. I think I heard the Huffington Post being given as an example.

    I’m not a professional writer (although my day job does involve a lot of writing — I’m a software developer, and it’s amazing how much human-readable stuff you have to write.), but it always seemed to me that that model was pretty exploitive.

  41. I’ve published short stories in magazines where the payment was very minimal, but even that little bit of money made a difference in how I felt about what I was doing.

    Just as an aside, I’m an English professor and sometimes when people hear that they say they’ll have to be careful about their grammar. My reply to that is always if they expect me to correct their grammar, they’re going to have to pay me.

  42. Popping back in to say that as an editor of a magazine organ of a nonprofit, I was wondering about the question of payment from an author’s (specifically John’s) perspective. From the perspective of an editor (specifically me), we pay for everything we solicit at a mutually agreed rate (be that text, photography, or artwork), and we also pay an honorarium for unsolicited submissions (often to the great surprise of the authors or artists who are *not* professionals).

  43. In theory, is it that bad if I submit some “just for fun” writing pieces to exposure-only venues? I don’t think so, if you know what you’re getting into and know going in that it’s for free. Getting that little bit of exposure, especially for beginning writers, can increase your confidence. Nonetheless, I agree that if you are serious and have put in time into your writing that you should expect to be compensated.

  44. Dear Kenneth and Manuel (and others),

    The matter of nonprofit/charity is, I think, a red herring. In neither entity (they are not the same) are people required to work for free. Only rarely does everyone work for free. The matter of nonprofit/charity status concerns itself with what happens to income above and beyond the cost of goods and services. It does not concern itself with you.

    If the entity is one that is serving a cause you consider so worthy that you would make a donation to it, then feel free to write for them as a donation. It would also be useful (both socially and individually) to include in your confirmation email something to the effect of how worthy you think their cause is so that you are making this donation of services (in lieu of a cash donation). Remind them that they are, in fact, receiving something of value. Because so many of them don’t have a freaking clue.

    Manuel, the following is not meant as a criticism of your decision or the anthology… But you still might be being taken advantage of. Was ANYBODY paid for producing that anthology? Did all the editors, proofreaders, designers, and layout people volunteer their services? Did the printer donate the printing services (presuming it’s a physical book — there’d be different questions if it’s an e-book)? Were the paper and ink and other material cost donated? If the venture needed a financial professional like a bookkeeper, accountant, or tax consultant, did they donate their services?

    If all of these donated their services, then you weren’t singled out for exploitation. It doesn’t mean you’re obliged to contribute, but they’re not being unfair in asking. If ANY of them got paid, then you were exploited, because in your case they assumed (correctly) they could get away with it.

    This is a test worth applying to anyone who comes to you with their hand out for free writing. If they’re willing to pay for other (people) costs of doing business, but not you, don’t go there.

    [PS — Kenneth I just read your second post. Bravo to you! That’s exactly the right attitude. I bow before you, sir.]


    Dear folks,

    I’m surprised no one has brought up Nick’s misuse of the concept of “writing on spec,” which has absolutely nothing to do with writing for free. In fact, the opposite — “on spec” is used in contrast to “on assignment,” with the usual unstated implication being that these both involve selling your work. “On spec” only means that you don’t have an understanding **in advance** that someone will buy the (satisfactorily completed) work.

    Most professional writers have to work some (or even all) on spec. You have to establish a level of reputation and reliability before someone will commit to paying you for something you haven’t done yet, even more so if it involves giving you money up front. I’ve been both fortunate and focused on this — 99% of my writing career has been on assignment. That’s abnormal.

    Even then, a well-established and experienced writer may do work on spec when they move outside their established arena. John Sandford (who also hasn’t worked on spec in God knows how long) and I wrote SATURN RUN on spec! Because it was an experiment — we didn’t know how well it would work, we didn’t even know if the book would get finished. No way in hell John was going to go for a contract if there was a possibility we would be unable to fulfill it.

    John didn’t discuss it seriously nor show anything to his editor until the book was more than 80% done… and we knew what the other 20% was going to be. Then we very quickly had a contract. But up to that point, we had no assurance we would see a penny for our efforts; it was possible (albeit unlikely) that all the publishers would say, “Sorry, John, but this is too far from your usual audience, we’re not sure we can make mondo moolah on this.”

    That didn’t mean we were ever intending to give the book away for free!

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  45. You shouldn’t do anything for free. From Wired about software development:

    Sociologists Examine Hackathons and See Exploitation

    One pair of sociologists recently examined hackathons and emerged with troubling conclusions. Sharon Zukin, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, spent a year observing seven hackathons, mostly sponsored by corporations, in New York City, interviewing participants, organizers, and sponsors. In a study called “Hackathons As Co-optation Ritual: Socializing Workers and Institutionalizing Innovation in the ‘New’ Economy,” she and co-author Max Papadantonakis argue that hackathons create “fictional expectations of innovation that benefits all,” which Zukin writes is a “powerful strategy for manufacturing workers’ consent in the ‘new’ economy.” In other words, institutions use the allure of hackathons, with sponsors, prizes, snacks, and potential for career advancement, to get people to work for free.

  46. I’m a little disappointed by those in science who are saying their writing is done for free – sure, it’s not paid for by the journal, conference, whatever – but try going without writing to communicate your work & see what your employing institution thinks about that. Writing is as essential a part of scientific work as experimentation or field observations – if you do either of those things but no writing to reveal those experiments/observations with others, you’re not really doing science. Your employer, whether it’s a university, research institute, government agency, or corporation (gray literature counts too) is usually paying you to write; they’re just not separating it out as a specific line item or paying you by the piece.

  47. That said, the journal model where Elsevier makes a ton of money off writing that UCLA, the Dept. of Agriculture, or The Brookings Institution is paying for, is a foolish model for many reasons and needs to be tossed out.

  48. Barry Longyear has a similar conversation take place in his novel, “Circus World.” Granted, this is a barter economy taken to the extreme where every question and answer comes with an exchange of money. But the point is the same: if you expect value and profit from my work and information, then, I too, expect value and profit.

    ‘You demand payment for such a thing? Absurd!’

    “Garok came back and explained. ‘What I say now, stranger, has no value to me and I let you have it for free. I know where Tarzak lies, and you do not.’ ”

    ‘So much,’ said Allenby ‘could be deduced from my question.’

    ‘That’s why it is of no value. But, the direction of Tarzak is of value to you, is it not?’

    ‘Of course.’

    ‘Then, it is of value to me.’

  49. Thank you for that. I think I will try to more emulate that way of submitting work.

  50. This is a reasonable personal argument, particularly for the type of writing that you do, which tends to be a solitary activity or very small teams. But, there are other models that should be acknowledged where people do work (and write) for free and you significantly benefit from.

    I have written quite a bit for free. I’m not talking about stories or articles (I wish), I’m talking about code. While it is well and good to have this philosophy that you should never write for free, this site would likely not exist in this form were it not for an army of developers who update, maintain, and secure WordPress, mostly for no personal benefit other than contributing to an open source project. There’s also Apache, PHP, MySQL, and Linux, all of which you are currently depending on and are developed mostly by people willing to contribute their work to a community for free. And that software is driving a huge corporate machine that is certainly commerce. Many companies directly make money off of that software, including But the community (and you) do get the benefit of a huge infrastructure of software tools that they do not have to pay to use.

    If you had told me 20 years ago that this country would spawn a massive industry of people freely contributing software development services solely for the benefit of the greater community, I would have said you are crazy. But, it has happened. I’m glad someone at the outset of these projects did not tell them that they should value their work and never work for free. You should be glad as well.

  51. Even though I don’t get paid cash to write reviews on my website, I do get advanced copies. I consider that a worthy trade in kind at the moment. It saves me some cash on books that I’d likely buy anyways. (Although sometimes I still buy the book anyways if I like it that much.) However, I have turned down one offer that wanted to reprint for exposure.

  52. Good food for thought. It’s funny, the nonfiction articles and marketing materials I write for my day job–I would never dream of doing for free. But the stuff I love, my fiction, I write for free, for “exposure.” Maybe I need to rethink that.

  53. Great article, great thread but no time to read all comments. Let me just say this after reading you: BINGO, that’s it. I fully agree.

  54. Photographer checking in:
    We have EXACTLY the same discussions in the photography world! Beginners often shoot “for exposure” which rarely amounts to anything. I may not charge for photography if I am getting unique access to a person or a situation that I would not normally have access to (like a back-stage pass), but otherwise even as a happy hobbyist, I’m expecting to get paid when I do professional work.

  55. Photogs, writers, designer, videographers, podcasters. We all have the same problem: being first in line to wring compensation for our work out of the system. Particularly annoying how the platforms keep changing the compensation formulas.

  56. “That’s how you become a professional writer: By expecting to be treated as a professional.”
    Indeed. Great article. I appreciate your meticulous defining of terms.

  57. Your blog post got me really fired up, too (lol), so I only got about halfway before I HAD to comment (and then I’ll go back and finish reading).
    Basically, thank you SO much for saying this. As a writer, it is very hard to get jobs sometimes because people basically expect me to write for free. It’s difficult to do what you love when you have to turn down opportunities, but I also stand by the principle that my work should be valued. And I think that doing so helps your fellow writers, too: offering your writing for free devalues others’ (a bit of nerdiness coming from an economics major). There’s a lot of pressure now to do this, which I think is absolutely absurd. Writers deserve just compensation for their work. Anyway: you’re my hero.

  58. Interestingly enough, I had a similar reaction toward your headline that you had toward the original, albeit for the opposite reason. I couldn’t imagine why people shouldn’t want to write for free, but I was thinking of material that isn’t considered professional writing!

  59. There’re many reasons people write, it may be the passion for writing but there’re instances when nobody wants to waist their time writing for free. It takes time and opportunity cost to write. It is a good idea to prioritize a nd know when to write for free or use the time for other important stuff.

  60. As a professional musician watching the revenue stream collapse due to non-professional musicians CONSTANTLY working for free, I have zero desire to write for free. As a fledgling writer, I have no intention of cross-contaminating the literary field by writing for exposure but I see the same collapse taking place around me. It’s a shame that artistic/creative values are no longer respected or honored.

  61. If my work has any “value”, then it is through choosing to share the work, and let my voice be heard, over worrying about monetary gain. That is not the “value” of your work; that is placing a price on your work, for someone to buy it. Value and price. They have two different meanings.

  62. lol everyone is hating on the article but i completely agree before getting into freelancing writing i was doing free lance graphic people would always ask me to do them a photo and be like i can pay when i see how it turns out or if you draw me yall get more expo like no !! If i’m going to draw something for free its going to be what i want and when i want i have no reason to do art for free! people like that are why i quit art because they made me feel as if my art was valueless !! If you do anything for free it should on your own platform like your twitter, wordpress, instagram or something that could potentially help you sell your skills!

  63. As a professional writer who is in the middle of four weeks of mandatory, unpaid overtime, this is hitting me on so many levels.

  64. Good insight. I certainly believe that people respect others more when there is a cost involved. No doubt it’s difficult when non-profit is involved but there needs to be some balance.

  65. Hey John,

    Love your books. Collapsing Empire was a total knockout for me – absolutely fantastic.

    This opinion about writing for free, however, is incomplete.

    Right now, you are writing for free on this blog. You are creating your own exposure.

    Exposure is incredibly valuable for writers IF THEY HAVE SOMETHING TO SELL – and if that exposure will lead to sales.

    For example, I’m positive this post will get shared… and generate some book sales for you.

    So, in this case, you are technically NEVER writing anything for free. But, you also are.


    What do you think about less well known writers who are struggling to get known?

  66. Bingo! As more and more freelancers realise that ‘exposure’ means nothing and that all writing and other works need to be paid; the industry will greatly benefit from it. That is the only way forward.

    Thanks for this :) Will share.

  67. I haven’t read the article you are referencing, I don’t think I have lifehacker has ever caught my interest. However, you are correct. I might actually use your analogies in real life whenever this question is brought up.

  68. John… I’m new at blogging and only started this week actually. But for a beginner that was a great piece to read and understand things more… thank you for sharing that knowledge with us…

  69. unfortunately too many prospective writers in the market which reduces their bargaining power. On top of it many publication houses (newspapers, magazines, news sites, etc) have reduced the budget of their editors due to cost control primacy, hence in many cases the editors are less qualified professionally than what used to be the case as only they come cheaper. So they are evaluating the over-supplied writers. Imagine the dichotomy! Who will really pay in such realistic circumstances. Online publishing is a lifeline to these publications now as all go digital, but digital also comes at wafer-thin profit margins for the publication business. So one cannot really blame them if they want to undercut all the time. Its actually a pathetic situation. Speaking from experience.

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