“Ms. Wells, we have been following your work for some time and we would like to offer you the opportunity to write a piece to appear in our next publication!”Well, this sounds like an intriguing offer, I think. I am always cautious, though.
“What kind of piece are you looking for? What’s the deadline? How many words? And what are you paying per word?”There is a pause at the other end of the line.
“Well, Ms. Wells, we don’t actually pay our contributors. This is a really a chance to increase your exposure...”Aha, I think. There it is, the catch.
“You don’t pay ANY of your contributors?” I ask. “Do you charge for your publication?”“Well, we pay some of them,” she replies. “The professional writers, or the known names who don’t need the exposure we can offer. And of course we do charge for our publication or we wouldn’t be able to operate financially.”
“Huh,” I say. “I AM a professional writer – I write all day and am paid to do so – and I would argue I am a known name in my community and maybe even my province. And I need to operate financially as well, because I have bills to pay, too. Does this mean I will get paid to create content for your publication?”There is a very, very long pause, and the voice says, somewhat sharply: “I am guessing you do not wish to write for us, then.”
“Not for free,” I respond. “Let me know when you are interested in paying for the content I generate, and give me a call.”
I wish I could say that conversation is atypical, but it isn’t. I suspect anyone involved in a creative pursuit of any kind, whether writing, painting, music, photography or videography, has at one point been asked to create content for others for free. Now, to be clear I will often do free work – or ‘pro bono’ as I call it – for friends by helping them with their resumes, or for local social profit organizations that simply cannot afford the services of a professional writer and need assistance. I do that work, however, as a way to give back to my community and my family of friends. I also submit work at no charge to local publications like Northword and to websites like Huffington Post Alberta, but I do so of my own free will and not because they have asked me to provide content to them for free. And for over three years I have written this blog and not earned a penny. When I am writing for organizations or publications that generate revenue and that are asking me to provide content, however, I expect to be paid, and not unreasonably so.The concept of “exposure” is often dangled as a carrot in front of us who generate creative content. This mythical “exposure” will supposedly lead to more work, hopefully some of it eventually paid, and allow us to actually derive an income from the work we do – and it is work. But the concept of exposure is absurd as what we do as creative individuals is fundamentally no different than what someone in the trades does.
Ever asked a plumber to do work to increase his or her “exposure”? A house painter, a drywaller, anyone who does a clearly defined task? No? So why do we think it is acceptable to do this to artists, writers, photographers and others who do creative work?The sad part is that three years ago when I began writing I probably would have snatched at that dangled carrot. I would have willingly written for them for free, not even realizing the tremendous bargain they were getting and that they were taking advantage of someone who did not yet understand the value of the work they created. The reality is if someone wants your work then it has value, and if they are asking you to create it then they know it has value.
There is no doubt in my mind that we undervalue the arts and those who pursue them. We anticipate paying tradespeople for their services, but we balk at the concept of paying those who are involved in the creative arts as if there is some difference, and yet we are all trying to make a living doing what we do. I may not be able to fix a toilet, but I can write compelling content that will attract readers. My work is of no less value than what a plumber does – and yet nobody ever suggests plumbers should work for free.So my work won’t be appearing in that publication, at least not until they are ready to cut a check. I will continue to offer to write for free for my friends and my family and for the social profit organizations I hold dear to my heart. I will continue to submit to Northword, which is where I often bare my soul through my written words, and to Huffington Post Alberta where I write for pure fun. And I will continue to author this blog for free, because it is what I have chosen to do.
But everyone else? Well, they can pay cash, because this writer is no longer wearing a “will work for free” sign. You see, there is no such thing as a free lunch - or, in this case, a free writer.