Giving It Away: Should We Write For Free?

[By pure co-incidence, fellow-writer Patsy Collins has also been blogging about the same topic this week, although she is talking about the provision of free books for Kindle. Read her article here.]

If there is one subject that seems to cause more conflict among writers than any other, it’s the question of giving our writing away for free. I’ve seen some quite vicious arguments break out on some of the forums (and as writers, we all know how to use our words as weapons, don’t we?) each time the question is raised. At the one extreme, there are some people who believe that we should never write anything for nothing; we may be craftspeople, but we still have to pay the bills; publishers and printers all get paid, so why should writers be any different? At the other extreme, there is a view that the words are more important than the money and that we should use any and all opportunities to get our writing published — even if we have to pay for the privilege rather than the other way around.

Personally, I sit somewhere in the middle — and as always, I am looking at it from the point of view of a business-woman as well as a writer. We should never be ashamed to expect payment for our writing. It may take thirty minutes, an hour or a day to write something; but it has taken twenty, thirty or more years to learn how to write that something.

However, very few of us only do one type of writing all the time. We tend to write in different ways for different purposes. For example, here are some of the ways in which we might write. Most, but not all, further our businesses, although not all of them do so with direct financial returns. The key thing is to understand which is which and to decide whether each individual piece of writing is worth it or not.   

·       Articles for newspapers and journals are generally written on commission. Hence we have a formal or informal contract and an expectation of payment on delivery or on publication. (Don’t forget to send an invoice with the piece.)

·       Non-fiction books and fiction books by established authors are generally written on commission. We would expect a formal contract and, if we are lucky, an advance paid at time of contract and/or delivery of the manuscript. Further payment will depend on sales of the book, although we will not be asked to pay back the advance if the book bombs.

·       Fiction books, for first-timers, are generally written on spec. We are continually being told that this is not the way to a fortune, unless we are very good and very lucky. Hence this would come under the heading of potential financial returns.

·       To succeed as a writer these days, we all need to develop our ‘platform’. Increasingly this implies engagement with social media plus blogging.  No-one is going to pay me for writing this column (and nor would I expect them to) but if it brings my name to the attention of more potential readers, it is beneficial for my business.

·       Like musicians, writers get better with practice. When I first started writing creatively, I spent some time working on articles for one of the dreaded content sites. I never expected to make much money from those articles (and my expectations were not exceeded) but working out how I could improve my writing and watching my ratings to see what worked and what didn’t was a valuable exercise.

·       All businesses need planning and development. We covered planning in an earlier article. Development might include writing proposals for articles or books. Not all of those pitches will be successful, but the more we do, the ‘luckier’ we become. We would never expect to get paid for these proposals (I’m always suspicious of anyone who offers me a ‘free quotation’ — what else should it be but free?) but they are an important part of growing our business.

·       Writers get all sorts of requests to provide their work for free. And we always have the option of saying no. But sometimes we might want to say yes. I write for and publish Chudleigh Phoenix, a small local community magazine. It has no funding, so my co-editor and I don’t get paid. But that’s our choice — and I make sure it doesn’t eat into too much of the time that I need to devote to my business. (I also make sure that the readers of the magazine know about my books and short stories as well, so even my ‘donated’ writing can benefit the business in some way.)      

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By Elizabeth Ducie

Elizabeth Ducie was a successful international manufacturing consultant, when she decided to give it all up and start telling lies for a living instead.

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