One of the easiest ways to get a round of vigorous applause at a writing or publishing event is to condemn those who ask (or expect) writers to work for “exposure” rather than dollars.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to writers—it applies to nearly all creative professions, from photography to art to music. There’s a certain segment of the population that assumes professional musicians, artists, and writers are OK working for free because of their “love” or “passion” for their work—while others are just crudely trying to take advantage.
Here’s the rub, however: in some instances, being more visible to a particular audience or market is just as valuable (sometimes more valuable) than getting paid for the work. This can be especially true for people at the start of their career.
When deciding whether to write for free—or for exposure—here are five questions writers should ask.
1. Is it a good method of lead generation?
Lead generation is a marketing term and “leads” are potential paychecks. For example, if you place a personal essay at a website that doesn’t pay, but it’s a well-known site read by editors and agents, you may be contacted by people who read it, asking if you have other work or a book project.
Blogging is a classic method of lead generation—especially for nonfiction authors—and as someone who has blogged since 2008, I can report that every bit of my “writing for free” activity has been critical to earning a living. It gathers an audience of people interested in what I have to say, and my name becomes associated with certain topics and categories—so that my work is front of mind whenever people think about “the business of writing.”
2. What’s your career stage? Do you need leads?
Emerging writers usually need leads more so than established authors. Back in the very early days of my blog, for instance, I frequently wrote guest posts for other sites, for free, in order to build visibility and traffic for my own site. Today, I very rarely guest post because I have far more leads than time to pursue them.
This is why it can be dangerous for early career writers to heed the advice of established authors who say that you should never write for free, or that you should say “no” to social media or lead-generating activities that suck your time away from writing. Established authors often have the freedom to say “no” because they have a range of paying opportunities or a well-developed readership. If you have neither, then the default strategy for career building is typically to say “yes” to everything that comes your way. Eventually, assuming you gain momentum, you will hit a point where it makes far more sense to say “no” (especially to non-paying or low-paying opportunities) because you need to dedicate your time for opportunities that pay—or that genuinely excite you.
3. What’s market demand like?
If you’re a poet, personal essayist, short story writer, or haiku professional, then you may find that it’s very difficult to score sufficient paying opportunities for your work because the market demand is nonexistent (or the market value of the work is very low).
Also, the more you produce “prestige” or literary content, the more difficult it may be to find publications with the budget to pay something even close to a living wage. For more on this, I recommend reading this post at Gawker.
If you’re in the unfortunate position of loving to write things no one wants to pay for, then you’ll likely need to get used to writing for very little (or free), or finding your audience on your own and learning how to monetize it. It’s not impossible—see the story of this poet—although it typically requires some serious digital media savvy.
There’s also a chance that, over time, what you write will become more in demand. Here’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates said about deciding to write for free during a portion of his career:
I was not a “young journalist.” This was not my chance to break into the profession. … I had a style and voice that had never seemed to fit anywhere. I could not convince editors that what I was curious about was worth writing about. Every day I would watch ideas die in my head. I was ecstatic any time anyone took my ideas seriously enough to offer them a platform. Most people never get that.
4. Can the publication afford to pay?
Even if you’re willing to work for free, before you agree to do so, you should (to the best of your ability) assess the financial means—or the business model—of the website/publication that is asking for free content. Are the editors or staff being paid, or are they volunteers earning nothing or very little? Is the website/publication turning a profit? Are the readers paying for the writing through subscription or donation?
5. Are you marketing and promoting something that does pay?
The classic example here is when an author markets and promotes a book during its launch. Many book authors guest at my site without payment because they know the audience is significant and engaged enough that they can expect sales as a result of appearing here.
This question ties directly back to the very first one: will writing for free help generate leads—and thus payment of another kind? This is the key question that every strategic and business-minded writer needs to ask. Writing for free is a classic, frictionless way to make people aware of your work or services. And just about every industry has some way of using “free” to their advantage, from grocery stores to game developers. If you can get a sufficient number of people to pay attention to the free material, you can begin to establish a relationship that leads to paying opportunities down the road.
I don’t find it useful to offer a one-size-fits-all verdict on whether writers should work for free, because unless we can tie it to a particular strategy for a particular author at a particular time, it’s impossible to evaluate it properly. If writing for free leads to paying work down the road, it’s smart. If it leads to no further action, then it should be reconsidered.
I don’t believe that writing for free leads to the general or cultural expectation that writing ought to be free, or that writing has low value. As the cliche goes, you get what you pay for. Publications that have been around awhile know and understand the difference between quality work that requires payment, and everything else.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.