The Difference Between Writing for Free and Being a Chump

See full issue for 2016 02-29

Say you’re a musician. A good one. Damn good. You dream of being a rock star, of people finding special meaning in your words, of listening to what you have to say, of snorting cocaine from various parts of your body.  Maybe you get there, maybe you sort of get there, but more likely you don’t, and realise that you probably never will. So what do you do? Give up? No. Maybe you start busking, maybe you join a covers band, maybe you become a session musician. You’re not a rock star, but you’re getting paid for what you love, and that is as much a dream as any of us can hope to achieve.

But here’s the difference—a rock star, rich and famous and secure on her podium, has the luxury of remaining true to her vision, should she choose. A jobbing musician? Not so much. A working musician will take the gigs he can get, and maybe not always get the pay he deserves. Hell, maybe sometimes he’ll work for free.

Sound familiar, fellow indie authors? That’s us. Most of us. You might be the nth percentile who makes it big and spends the rest of his days taking shirtless selfies on a boat, but it’s not likely. More likely, if you’re very lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to work extremely hard to make a living doing what you love. And at some point, you absolutely will write for free.

And that’s not a terrible thing. You need to hone your voice, get your name out there and build your portfolio and individual platform. Nobody owes you for that.

I myself sometimes write for The Ginger Nuts of Horror, for no other reason than I respect their fiercely independent platform and that I’m a fan of horror movies. I write for a meager offering at Underground Book Reviews not just because they have compromising photographs of me with a notable First Lady, but because they’re passionate about supporting indie authors, like myself.  I am not paid in the slightest for pretending to be a sexually attractive monk on the Authors and Dragons podcast, but god damned do I enjoy pretending to be sexually attractive.

But here’s the thing—when an established website like Huffington Post gives you the exciting opportunity to write for them in return for “exposure”? The only thing you expose to them is your butt crack as you turn and walk away.  If somebody can afford to pay you for your work, but doesn’t, they’re letting you know exactly how much they think you’re worth. You’re not an intern, you’re not a suitor, you’re not operating under the illusion that one day you will be accepted into an inner sanctum of huff po writers who don’t have to shovel road kill just to fill their freezers. To visit our musician analogy again, a kick ass bass player might record for free for a buddy or for his solo album “Back to Bassics (The Extra S is Unnecessary)” but if he’s playing backing on an Elton John record he’ll expect to be paid. Elton John can afford it. Elton John probably brought four bass players on his way home from the grocery store, simply because he forgot to check the cupboards before he left.

I’m an old fashioned guy from before the days of broadband, and I can scarcely think of any profession from that time where an established company would not only ask for people to work for free, but base their entire business model on it. It seems ludicrous to me that anyone would participate in such a giant scam. After all, if the exposure from writing for Huffington Post is as good as they claim, then the profitability is there. They’re just not sharing it. The only thing fueling their engine at this point is your desperation to get your work out there.

Here’s the thing though- there are plenty of people willing to pay you for your content. Trust me, you’re talking to a man who once got paid to write an article about drinking beer in his kitchen. Often the standards are higher, and there are more hoops to jump through, but they’ll give you a shot. You know why? Because content is everything. It is the only value these websites have. Without it, without you, they are nothing.

Want to write about cars or fitness? Give Maxim a try. Comedy more your speed? Have a word with Cracked. If you enjoy reading a website, any website, just take a minute and ask them if they’re looking for article pitches. If not, what have you lost? Exactly what you’ll gain from writing for Huffington Post. Nothing.

By all means write for free, just make sure you’re writing what you love, for who you love, and not under some delusion that feeding a giant makes you grow.


Steve Wetherell

Visit Steve Wetherell‘s website.

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