Thursday, 11 September 2008

#11 – Don’t work for free

Or why if your starting price is nothing, it stays as nothing

Undercutting established professionals
One thing that established writers tend to get angry about is seeing newcomers trying to get themselves established by working for free. Most of this fury is entirely selfish, of course – it means that the established professionals are being undercut. In an industry where outlets are continuingly going under and pay rates rarely – if ever – rise, it’s easy to see where they’re coming from.

No benefit to working for free
But hey, that’s market forces for you. So what if a few noses are put out of joint? Well my argument about not working for free is that, with the exception of doing work experience at a publication, there is absolutely no benefit to it.

The myth of needing clips
Many new writers seem obsessed with getting ‘clips’ - published articles that they can show to other editors to prove that they can write. This is madness. Editors really couldn’t care less about where else you’ve been published. And frankly, if that clip is from a publication that is based on getting free copy, then they’re probably more likely to look negatively upon it.

Send the article
If an editor likes an article, he or she will buy it, irrespective of previous experience. My first ever freelance article was published in a magazine that paid good rates and it’s one that many established writers are dying to crack but haven’t managed. Same goes for my second regular publication. I have heard similar stories from many other writers.
The clips are meaningless. The best way to prove you can write is to send the article.

Setting your price at zero
The other main reason not to write for free is not that it drives down prices for everyone else (although that, of course, is bad from my standpoint). In purely selfish terms, from your own point of view, it’s that offering work for free sets your price at zero. It’s very hard to go back to a publication and say: “Seeing as you got that one for free, would you like to buy one from me at the normal price?”

Get the going rate
It’s not going to work – your value is zero from then on with that publication. And if the piece is good enough, believe me, the editor will buy it at the going rate.


Kim Wildman said...

Amen! ;-)

Robin Noelle said...

This is my biggest pet peeve, not just writers willing to work for free but websites and magazines that expect writers to work for free.

Writing is my profession, not a hobby and I can't think of any other profession where one is expected to provide free services to make a name for themselves.

That said, there are two instances where I will work for free: charity organizations and for incredible exposure. For example, I wrote a short essay for an extremely high volume website who caters to the exact market I am looking at to buy my upcoming book. In that case, it was a business decision and profitable for both of us.

David said...

Ah... "Exposure". That's the magic word for a lot of these tin pot operations that expect people to work for free.

I guess it makes sense if you're promoting a book, but otherwise, I'd say it's a waste of time. You can die from exposure - just ask polar explorers.

Ann said...

Good to know. So, as an unknown, unpublished writer would it be better for me to write an article, that I feel works with the style of the magazine, and send that in or to just write a sample shortened sample? I have absolutely no experience with query letters, so I don't really know the process.

Fiona Young-Brown said...

Well said, especially the point about clips. If your query is well-written and compelling, editors don't care about clips.