It never ceases to amaze me as a professional writer how often I am solicited to write for free.
For some months I’ve been having a simmering dispute with a longtime market of mine over language (or lack thereof) in our contracts, and for a while I believed the matter resolved. Then this week it erupted again.
Without going into the nitty-gritty, the company basically said to me, Jackson, we’ve enjoyed your work so much all these years that instead of paying you, we want you to write for free. But don’t worry — if we happen to find any spare change under the couch cushions, we’ll think about sending some your way!
Unwilling to continue under their absolutely Mephistophelean terms, this past Wednesday I resigned in cold disgust.
Being a writer is like being a restaurant owner whose clientele is just as likely to sprint for the door, half-eaten burrito in hand, as to pay you. And yet while anyone — even the culprit, else why would he run? — recognizes dining-and-dashing as theft, no one blinks an eye at not paying a writer.
The writer, the artist, the photographer is the first to initiate the chain of commerce but the last to benefit from it, the first to act but the last to be paid.
The majority of my career has been spent freelancing and yet the bulk of my income has always been from web-related services, not writing. The few individuals I’ve known who wrote freelance full-time lived in near poverty. The gravest problem with freelancing is not the low pay — many jobs pay terribly — but the erratic or late payments, making it impossible to depend on them to cover bills (although Mrs. Kuhl is quick to point out that many companies suffer from late or non-payments; the difference is that bigger entities have the capital to ride it out or absorb the losses, whereas a freelancer — a company of one — feels the razor’s edge more sharply). Just ask this Columbia J-School grad, although for what it’s worth she can take solace in the fact I’ve run up much larger tabs than $1,200 with delinquent markets.
I am not a Harlan Ellison I-don’t-take-a-piss-without-getting-paid type but I believe in writing without payment in only two situations.
The first is if I’m promoting something — like, say, Smedley or an anthology I’m in. This is easy to double-check because generally the title of the thing I’m promoting is right there in the article. Whatever time and energy I’ve invested in such promotion is a marketing expense, a commercial sent across the airwaves that may, or may not, result in a sale of the thing. If I think my efforts have led to at least one ring of the cash-register bell, then I count myself ahead.
The second instance is when I’m trying to grow my platform or, to put it another way, promote my brand. Writing a personal blog pays dividends, if only to telegraph to readers that the cats haven’t started eating your corpse yet.
Where you have to be cautious is when you don’t own or control the content. There is a species of coprophage that will try to entice you to write “for exposure.” Any editor who uses the word “exposure” is a BS artist, because either their readership is too low for it to be worthwhile or it’s so big they could actually pay you in the first place. “Exposure” is the recompense offered by amateurs and thieves.
The big red flag is when an editor or publisher won’t pay but nonetheless charges readers for the content. A few months ago I was asked by an editor for permission to reprint an article of mine in an e-magazine she publishes for tablets and e-readers. The magazine is not free; in fact, its cost is comparable to other e-magazines on the market boasting much higher circulations. The only compensation offered was a link to my website. In sum, this editor is assembling a virtual magazine in her kitchen from contributions she hasn’t paid for — so her overhead is effectively zero — but charging a non-nominal price for subscriptions and single issues, and therefore all of the money she makes on the magazine is profit, or at least goes to pay the salary of her single employee: her.
Apparently, working for exposure is fine for some animals, just not for others.
Even if no money exchanges hands, I still have to question how much effort is spent growing my platform versus growing theirs. Frequently I’m asked to commit to regular contributions to other people’s websites. Half of me is flattered and the other insulted. Once in a blue moon I will scribble a post for John O’Neill at Black Gate, and even if my time is wasted doing so, based on what scant behind-the-scenes knowledge I possess, I can hardly complain I’m being taken advantage of. This type of writing is very dependent on circumstances and must be handled on a case-by-case basis, but my natural instinct is always in favor of my time, and hence the answer to regular contributions is always no, and to occasional articles a hard maybe.
While I wish the ending had been less acrimonious, I’m happy to have severed ties with the company. Installed in our gorgeous house with the renovations complete, Mrs. Kuhl and I feel that our lives are on a new trajectory, and we’ve been consciously embracing better habits and choices while simultaneously pruning dead wood.
I’ve been in this business long enough to understand there are rarely hard breaks or fast stops — writing is a series of waves, often overlapping, in which you write on a subject or for a market as it builds and crests but by the time it recedes, you are already surfing another flow.