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