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No, I Won’t Write For Free Anymore. (And I’m sorry I did for so long.)

April 24, 2015

In the last few years I have scrambled to earn the right to call myself “a writer.” But that’s all I earned. My work has been on hugely high-profile sites, it has gone viral, I can rightly lay claim to “breaking the Internet” a time or two. I’ve had bylines and editorial titles, and written things that others were afraid to write. I have poured my heart and my soul into it. I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that my writing has made the world a better place, in some way.

I have flippantly – but with true humble pride – told people that I am paid in thank-you notes. I save many of them. The people who tell me that I saved their life. That they have hope that they’ll recover after rape. That they no longer think they’re terrible parents (or feel they have to be scarred by their own terrible parents.) That they finally had the courage to divorce, find love, find health, become who they want to be. Because of my writing. Because of me.

There is, truly, no better reward.

But it takes work. Hours and hours and hours of it.

And I have never been paid. Not one penny. The sites my work has appeared on have all collected ad revenue based on the clicks I provided them. However meager, the editors of those sites have made money – and continue to – on the writing that I gave them. Their brands have been bolstered with my writing, and the writing of hundreds of others just like me. Indeed, the work of people like me, who have justified it as a “labor of love” is what makes their business possible.

And I feel like shit about that.

I comfort myself that I make the world a better place. I feel gratitude that both of my husbands have supported my desire to write, and not balked when I brought in no money. I know that now, my primary income comes from the gym that we own.

For a long time I thought that I could afford to write for free. Now, I feel like I’ve truly made it, because I realize that I can afford NOT to write for free.

I can afford to not get sucked into the myth of exposure. (As so many artists say, exposure is something you die from, not something you pay the rent with.) All of my exposure hasn’t really gotten me much of anything, except the right to call myself a writer. And other big sites asking if I’ll write for free.

You do all know that the Huffington Post doesn’t pay for content, right? People do it for “exposure.” HuffPo is one of many sites that make money from a writer’s willingness to strip soul-naked in public, in order to be seen. The writers? They’re just naked and exposed.

If I don’t write, I will die. I mean that literally. The voices in my head will consume me. The stories I see will envelop me. The jumbles of ideas will never get sorted into any sort of order from which I can figure myself  – and my world – out. I will never stop writing. But the ONLY place I will write for free, from now on, is right here. On my blog.

Step back for a minute and imagine a restaurant in which the cooks weren’t paid, because, you know, they have to learn how to cook. They want the practice. Would we stand for that? Or maybe a clothing manufacturer who doesn’t pay their sewers, because they need the experience, and if they really cared or were really any good, they’d just go start a fashion line of their own? How about the people who maintain our city parks? I mean, they also benefit from nice parks, and the knowledge that they create a safe place for children to play? Why pay them?

I feel 100% fine about giving my content to sites that make no money at all. Where everyone is volunteering. Where it is truly a labor of love for all. You bet.

But the moment you start making ad dollars on the content of writers, you start paying writers. Period.

In large part, this became crystal clear to me when my husband and I opened up a gym. We pay our trainers a living-wage. We offer them insurance if they don’t have it otherwise (even part time.) We sink all of our time into our gym, because we believe in it, we change lives, it is our passion. You know who we pay LAST? Ourselves. We pay the rent, we pay the utilities, we pay the trainers, we put money into equipment and improvements, and then, if there’s money left over, we pay ourselves. But our #1 priority is our trainers. Why? Because THEY are our product. THEY are our brand. THEY are the point of contact that changes lives. THEY get paid first. If we run the business well, we get paid too. But the trainers get paid no matter what.

I know that it costs less to run a Web site than to run a gym.

I realized, as I was sitting on an article that is probably the thing I’ve been most excited to write  in a long time and I can’t get it out, that I’m stuck. And I’m stuck because it’s for a site that doesn’t pay. It never has.

And I think I’ve realized the enormous guilt I have for that. Guilt, not resentment. I’m thrilled I get to write the piece, and I will do it because I already promised it. But I feel guilty because I realize that by writing it for free, I am supporting a system that utterly abuses the work of writers. Literally devalues it completely. And as long as people like me are willing to write for free, then the work of writers will continue to have no value.

Fine. I am supported by my husband’s job and the gym we own. But not everyone is. And because I write for free, other people won’t be paid for their writing either.

I cannot be part of that system any longer.

I do not retroactively regret the time and energy I’ve put into writing for sites that don’t pay. I believed in their missions, their teams, their visions. At the time, I believed I was part of something important, that as a result, I was important. And while I still believe much of that, I also believe that in order for something to BE good, it has to DO good. And not paying writers is not good.

Not paying for the product that you turn around and sell isn’t good. It’s more like a black market for stolen ideas.

It’s the worst kind of co-dependent relationship. If those sites were men, I’d have left them long ago. What with them not valuing my time and money, throwing me compliments when they know I’m on the verge of leaving, not appreciating the things I do, but convincing me that I need them, that without them I’m “nothing.” Not even a writer. Would you stay with a partner like that?

So ya, I’m not writing for free anymore.

I wish I could get others to do it. But I know that my personal journey is not a universal truth. There will always be people willing to strip soul-naked just to be validated. They will always write for free. And there will always be people willing to take advantage of them, sell those bare-naked souls for a profit they don’t share with the writers.

I wish we would all stop. For a week. Maybe a month. The Internet would be so quiet if no one wrote for free.

Cue the cat pictures.

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56 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2015 10:32 am

    And why would you write for free? It’s work, it’s a job… Who would go to work for free? 🙂

  2. April 24, 2015 10:54 am

    BOOM! Well put.

  3. April 24, 2015 12:51 pm

    So set up a way for us to pay you. Lots of other writers, film makers, etc do that.

  4. April 24, 2015 1:12 pm

    I’m glad you know it, and i’m glad you’ve owned it. Now be it, and go forth and get that paycheck, no matter how meager. I suffer from this, and know that any of us that work for free or less, WILL be taken advantage of.

  5. April 24, 2015 1:39 pm

    you could almost hear the brakes of my mind screeching to a halt while reading this. You make an excellent point! Wow. I never really thought about writing for the “big blogs” like this, but you’re absolutely right. Well done.

  6. April 24, 2015 2:14 pm

    ***If I don’t write, I will die. I mean that literally. The voices in my head will consume me.**

    Me, too!!

    I love love love this post.

    I’ve been naked and exposed for as long as I can remember.

    For Free.

    No tips. No Money. ( Unless you count the 50 dollars I won in that writing contest )

    …but I shall continue, unfortunately, selling my body, my blood, my soul.

    For Free.

    PS. did I mention I LOVE this post?

  7. amyfsherman permalink
    April 24, 2015 2:40 pm

    You have nailed it. Not writing for free will not reduce my income at all. What a concept! More and more writers need to stick to their guns. We need a union.

  8. April 24, 2015 3:13 pm

    I’ve been writing all my life and we used to get paid. You are saying things I have said for years. Thank you.

  9. April 24, 2015 5:24 pm

    Excellent post! I reached this point a while ago. I was writing for places like Huffington Post for “exposure.” And then one day I realized it was BS. Like you, the only place I write for free is my own blog. But I had a revelation the other day. For several years I have run a popular series of guest posts on my site. And paid the writers nothing. Because I can’t afford to. But it’s not fair to ask other writers to do something I myself will not. I wrote this today:

    http://www.thewriterrevived.com/2015/04/the-day-i-realized-i-was-being.html

    So I’m with you. 110%!

  10. Genevieve permalink
    April 24, 2015 6:38 pm

    Love this story, so happy I came across this! I’ve walked away from sports writing because I got sick of writing for free- and all the drama that surrounded it. It’s a lot of work – a lot and I had to pay to get myself to the events. It’s extremely time consuming and exhausting- and it always feels like no one respects a writer. The only free writing I’m doing now, is the novel I’m writing and I’m going to submit it to an agent and try to get published the old fashioned way.Thank you for this, thank you!!!

  11. Fifty Jewels permalink
    April 24, 2015 7:36 pm

    Perfect. It starts with one.

  12. April 24, 2015 7:56 pm

    Thank you for writing about something so many of us feel. Yeah, I write to help others. And I’ve written plenty for free. But I also need to make a living. We pay plumbers, teachers, electricians, lawyers, policemen. Why not writers? We deserve it just as much. And so it goes…

  13. Melissa Swedoski permalink
    April 24, 2015 8:29 pm

    Lord, this is exactly what I’ve been thinking for over a year. Everyone squees when their piece gets picked up by a “big blog” or site, but…um….you still didn’t get paid, do you realize that? And they did make money off you. And they’ll keep asking you for more great stuff if you let them. And now, freelancing has become this huge cesspool in which some “writers” work for pennies a word. Ugh.

  14. April 24, 2015 11:14 pm

    Compelling points and a way around I hadn’t really thought of. Thank you for making me think new thoughts on this 🙂

  15. April 25, 2015 2:39 am

    I had to make that difficult decision, too. It means that I don’t get my name out as much as I’d like, but it also means that when I do, it’s with a site that values my work. There is validation in that.

    As a freelancer, I have a minimum I’ll accept for work (because even blog posts about insurance are worth more than $3) and as a blogger and writer, I won’t write for free. One site told me I should feel grateful to do it because they have 12 million monthly visitors. I reminded them that if they have that many visitors, they should be able to pay their writers. The system won’t change until we, as writers, stand up and say we deserve more. We deserve to be treated as professionals.

  16. Anne Bardsley permalink
    April 25, 2015 3:09 am

    Kathy,
    This is all so spot on. I think at first I was happy people liked my stories.
    I wanted to make people smile. When I like something, I buy it: clothes, shoes etc. It’s worth
    something to me. I would never go to an art show and expect the artist to give me
    his or her work to make me smile.
    Thanks for enlightening me this morning!

  17. P Bobby permalink
    April 25, 2015 3:30 am

    Perhaps try a tip jar rather than a wish list?

  18. April 25, 2015 3:41 am

    Congratulations! You now know your worth. Wonderful article.

  19. April 25, 2015 4:29 am

    I’ve never been published by an “exposure” site, but I only submit to those that will pay me. If I do decide to submit something to Huff, it’s because it was well received on my own blog already.

  20. April 25, 2015 6:34 am

    Well said! I have thought this since I began a full-time writing career about eight years ago. I whined about wanting to be “published” even if it meant giving away my work. A very smart writing instructor told me to wait. For the reasons you cited. I waited and since then have received money for every article I ever wrote. I just had to work hard to find those places. Now I have my third novel coming out, with a real paying publisher. Those who give away work ruin it for the rest of us. And those who take advantage of authors and don’t pay to give them exposure (esp. when they have ad revenues), well, they should be ashamed.

  21. April 25, 2015 7:50 am

    Well done, Alyssa.

  22. mithraballesteros permalink
    April 25, 2015 7:59 am

    Courageous post. Keep hollering about this. Others will follow your lead.

  23. April 25, 2015 9:00 am

    Me too, Tammy. I wrote freelance for the Globe and Mail. First, they paid me $200 for a column. Then a few years ago, they switched to $100. Then a year later, they decided not to pay any of us writing for that column. I said goodbye. I don’t need more exposure, I have so much freaking exposure that people are downloaded my books in droves for free on pirate sites. What I need – and every author needs – is sales.

  24. April 25, 2015 9:02 am

    Shoot! So sorry Alyssa. I was pointed to this blog post by Tammy, and had Tammy on the brain. I knew it was you, dammit. Feel like an idiot.

  25. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    April 25, 2015 9:06 am

    Melodie, if that’s the most idiotic thing you to today, you’re in way better shape than me! I’ve already turned the oven on even though I had bread rising under a towel, walked around with my pajamas open and sent an email to one of the most sought-after CEOs in the world right now to ask him if I can pick his brain. 😉 So ya, no worries! xo – a

  26. April 25, 2015 9:08 am

    You should have done something about it earlier…. becuse it’s a really competitive market out there. People are paying for the simplest things… and writing.. GAD! I know how time consuming it can be.

    http://www.ayeshajamal.com

  27. April 25, 2015 9:16 am

    Spot on! You go girl!

  28. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    April 25, 2015 9:18 am

    I appreciate your sentiment, Ayesha. But that feels like an over-simplification to me. And one that dismisses the very real struggle of a lot of people. I was “lucky,” because making money didn’t have to be a priority for me. Others aren’t so lucky, and the time spent looking for those scraps is sometimes more than they have. Which feeds the belief that “if I just get my name out there, the rest will come.” So time and energy gets spent looking for exposure and “breaks,” rather than work. Meanwhile, the work that pays – much less pays well – is harder to find because enough people are willing to do it for free. It kills me that the big sites, the ones where exposure is supposed to mean the most, are the ones that don’t pay. It’s so backwards.

    But, for me, it still boils down to a belief that saying “there’s money out there if you just try harder” is dismissive of the larger problem. As a society, we love the idea that if you just try harder, you can have the American Dream. But that’s not very true. Especially when systems are set up to make that nearly impossible for most people. Even with writing, it’s not a simple as ‘just look harder.’

  29. Tom permalink
    April 25, 2015 9:31 am

    Brava!lll You have declared your self-worth, and I see you write very well indeed. Never surrender, never give up, never back down, and never set out on a starship commanded by Tim Allen.

  30. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    April 25, 2015 9:32 am

    Especially while wearing a red shirt!

  31. Deborah permalink
    April 25, 2015 12:19 pm

    Alyssa, I completely understand your frustration!

    I too, was someone who for years, either gave my services away for free or ended up charging people next to nothing for some pretty remarkable work. So I decided to do a little soul searching, as I knew there “must” be a reason why I was “allowing” this to always happen to me! We all have a “purpose” in life and I needed to find mine. It seems to me that you have found your purpose in life by “writing”, and in those writings, have “touched” a lot of people and “souls” To save you from hearing the whole story as to how my life has changed, I’ll give the short version — Some months ago, a complete stranger was introduced to me and at the end of that chance encounter this person gifted me a book to read and it has completely changed my life. That book was called “The Go-Giver” by Bob Burg & Dave Mann? It is a short success story based on “The Five Laws of Stratospheric Success” Give it a read, I think you will enjoy it!

    One of the first laws…The Law of Value

    “Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment”

    You are on the right path Alyssa, keep up the great work as you and your writings are destined for much bigger and better things…

    Deborah

  32. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    April 25, 2015 12:23 pm

    And, that one made me cry. Thank you!

  33. April 25, 2015 12:50 pm

    Bravo! I enjoy writing and creative pursuits of all kinds including making and designing websites, oil painting, refinishing furniture and even building dog houses. I certainly don’t work for free but more often than not, I don’t get paid enough for what I do, so I have recently decided to just work for myself on my own projects. I am retired and live on a budget so I don’t depend on free lance jobs. Q: How do you know you aren’t getting paid enough? A: When you find yourself wishing you had not agreed to do it at that price and would rather be doing something else.

  34. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    April 25, 2015 1:05 pm

    Getting paid “enough” is really a gut-check. I certainly wouldn’t want to map out the hourly rate on writing. It’s not even possible, really, given how much of it is just “thinking,” and the weird thing that happens when the thoughts start to organize themselves and come out. (This post took me 20 minutes to write, but I thought about it for a while before it started to flow.) But if I agree to do something, I generally do it. I don’t regret the decisions I made prior, I just learn from my reactions to them. I’ve told people I’d do a contract gig for, say, $100. During it, I realize that I should have charged more, or that I don’t really want to do that kind of work. So, next time, I either say “no,” or charge much more. There is never much point in regretting a past decisions, really. You just learn from it and let your past inform the decisions you make about your future.

  35. April 25, 2015 1:24 pm

    I totally agree. Once I agree to do a job for a specified price, (or even for free) I keep my word and do it, but I hopefully learn from that mistake and re-adjust my new “company policy.” You have to learn to say “no.” For some jobs that have the potential to be complicated or to grow into something other than what was originally understood or agreed on, a written contract is always a good idea. Once has to remember to conduct these things in a professional manner. People will pay more attention to that when there is a contract, and when they come back with points not covered in the contract you know when to say no.

  36. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    April 25, 2015 1:30 pm

    I LOVE THAT CLIP. I put it on my Facebook page!

  37. loisaltermark permalink
    April 25, 2015 4:29 pm

    I hear you, I relate, I am totally with you. But we all need to band together to make this work. How do we make an impact?

  38. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    April 25, 2015 4:46 pm

    I wish I knew. I’ve got some ideas brewing, but I have to see if they take shape. I am still in love with the idea of no one writing for free for a week, what would happen? I can think of more than a few sites that would just grind to a halt. But it’s awfully hard to get a creative diaspora to do such a thing. In the meantime, there have to be better ways to monetize. That serve writers first.

    As a small business owner, I simply don’t understand the idea of not taking care of the people on whom you are utterly dependent for the survival of your business. If your business is the selling of content, then content creators should be your primary concern. Keep them happy, and you’ll corner the market of great content.

  39. April 25, 2015 5:47 pm

    Hero. You are my hero. I’ve never bothered submitting anything I write for any other site but mine. sometimes that’s because what I reveal is hard enough as it is for it to go truly “public” so I’m safe on my little blog. Other times I feel it’s not trendy enough. I’m not a quick sentence writer. I dream and wander in my writings. I’m not a niche writer either. I often wonder what it would be like if F. Scott Fitzgerald had a blog… That’s sometimes what I like to imagine mine would be like.

    I’m excited for you. Congratulations for taking your steps back to yourself.

    Kindly,
    Molly

  40. William Underhill permalink
    April 25, 2015 9:42 pm

    Interesting and thought-provoking. Thank you for this. I’ll bear this in mind for when I’ve gotten to the position of having actually written 🙂

  41. April 26, 2015 2:44 am

    Part of the problem is that so many beginning writers are putting out books that needed editing more than publishing, and so it devalues the work all professional writers produce. We need more professional training and more mentorship, less backstabbing, and more commitment to quality work.

    I know that I will re-evaluate where I want to donate my writing. It’s a small step, but it’s something.

  42. April 26, 2015 4:04 am

    As a musician I see a very similar thing go on in my chosen field. People enquire about booking our band then can’t understand why we want to get paid, because, surely, it’s our hobby and we love it?

    As an example, we played a wedding last night at Warwick Castle. To get there in time to set up I had to leave home in Shropshire at 3pm and didn’t get home again until 3am, so a 12 hour day on a Saturday, all this before the effort involved in setting up before the guests arrived in the hall, soundchecking quickly so as not to disturb them, then hiding away until we’re needed to perform to a, largely, uninterested crowd (wedding gigs can be soul destroying!)

    Behind all this is the thousands of hours of practice and thousands of pounds worth of gear that allow us to perform at a standard high enough for the job. The band last night was a 4 piece, so there were (on the face of it) 48 man hours involved. What would any other profession get paid for 48 hours of work at the weekend? Double time at the very least!

    If you’re good at something, never do it for free. I’ve only read this blog post by you (to my knowledge), but I can see that you know what you’re doing.

  43. April 26, 2015 5:23 am

    I work as a freelancer to support my novel writing. I ghostwrite whatever gets handed my way (can’t talk specifics because of the contracts) and I get paid for it. But I charge $0.01 per word, which is lowest industry standard in the fiction magazine market, and I regularly get underbid. People want to pay $0.008 or even half a penny per word, and they’re finding writers who will take those offers.
    I’m all for exposure. I often give away copies of my books as prizes (at least the digital copies). I have a short story available for free (with over 200 downloads and 0 reviews).
    But I refuse to work for free. I can’t pay my beta readers or the friend who is helping me with the website and the marketing – so I send them all cookies and free copies of the finished product to show them that they are worth something to me. And maybe, when writing starts paying I will be able to pay them money too. Because no one deserves to work for free, even if they love their work, even if they’re working for their friends.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  44. April 26, 2015 2:06 pm

    Reblogged this on leanne cooper – Author and commented:
    Absolutely loved this post! Really makes you stop and think about what a rough deal writers can get.

  45. April 26, 2015 4:26 pm

    I’m on the mobile version; does the web version have ads for us to click on? (-;

  46. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    April 26, 2015 5:22 pm

    Nope. Like I said, the only place I’ll write for free is here, my blog, for myself. 😉

  47. April 27, 2015 10:41 am

    “As a small business owner, …”

    Then you are a rare small business owner, Alyessa. When it comes to marketing and advertising copy writers, which is the bread and butter for a lot of aspiring novelist, small biz guys are merciless in getting what they can for free, along with enough derision to last a life time.

    Many of them are shocked to find that your day rate equals more than $15/hr, never mind anything over $22.

    And there’s no trust or respect either when you make that much for “just writing.” And, by the way, what we write is ad style and it uses the AP style book. So when your mother – the retired English Teacher – wants to give a second opinion on my “essay,” tell her that’s a headline, not a title, and we’ve been using sentence punctuation for headlines for years.

    And if you can find someone who can do it for half my price, why are you haggling with me? The action either insults my intelligence or says something about yours.

  48. April 28, 2015 7:21 am

    Reblogged this on Skylark Landing.

  49. May 4, 2015 2:23 pm

    I’ve read this over and over and over. In fact, I may include this in my daily morning ritual. Since I could have written it word for word, I’ll take it as a wake-up call and affirmation that I am not alone. Exposure, altruism, inspiring others and serving a greater purpose all truly matter. But, so does making money. Thank you for this!!

  50. May 14, 2015 9:13 am

    I was already feeling and thinking the same, expressed as much to a few confidants, then posted on Fbk about making a living before voluntarily giving away my time and talent. Then, a friend posted this blog entry on her Fbk page. Providence.

  51. August 23, 2015 7:29 pm

    We spend our lives doing something we love. However , we’ d love it a lot more if it actually put some money in our pockets

  52. September 2, 2015 4:36 pm

    I could not agree with you more. I have written for paying markets (magazines) and free ones. I work just as hard on the free, only I don’t have anything tangible to show for it. I feel like the blogosphere has devalued writing for the professional. If we’ll do it for free on our own sites, people think we should do it for free for them. I would join you in the “not writing for free for a week” campaign. BTW I’m also a spiritual director and churches are always trying to get me to come and do retreats “for the exposure.” They don’t realize individuals pay me $60 per monthly session for spiritual direction. And so I do a lot more spiritual direction than retreats or writing these days.

  53. December 8, 2015 3:12 am

    Writers are the ones who give these sites exposure. Writers create content which help websites get indexed on search engines, we help readers find answers to their questions etc., we help bring in page views so that these websites can get higher advertising offers,affiliate sales., and we should get paid.

Trackbacks

  1. When Free isn’t | Shadow And Clay
  2. NO to The Huffington Post, YES to These Sites That Pay Writers | Just Alyssa

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