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What effect does working for free have on our industry?

allworkA couple of recent events brought the issue of working for free into sharp focus for me. First, there was the news via one of my close friends that a popular blog, whose content I very much enjoy, solicited only unpaid submissions, only offering a “byline” as the motivation for would-be posters. It surprised me, considering the source, who would seem well able to pay contributors.

Second, the same issue came up at a recent installment of #editorchat, a weekly group meeting held on Twitter for professional writers and editors hosted by @milehighfool and @LydiaBreakfast. The question was whether writers ever did work just for the byline, exposure, and/or clips for their portfolio, and what people thought of that kind of activity. In general, the group was very averse to it, because it encourages publications to seek free submissions instead of paying writers.

There are exceptions to every rule, however, and we did agree that when you’re starting out, it’s fine to do free work for the purpose of building up your portfolio. But in today’s climate, as companies look to cut costs, will more businesses turn to unpaid resources?

If you work online, even if it’s not in a writing or editing capacity, you are bound to do some work that you don’t receive any compensation for. Sometimes that’s not your choice (I’m looking at you, clients who conveniently ignore invoices from small fish freelancers), but sometimes it is. When you do choose to do something for free, does it weaken the revenue-generating powers of the industry as a whole?

I try to limit the work I do for free to clearly defined categories. That is, I will work for free in segments where I don’t think enough capital exists to support an ecosystem of paid professionals. For example, the Canadian small press literary scene. There is no way that this space would even exist if all of its players sought compensation for their efforts. Additionally, I hope that my work in this area  supports the arts, and that is reason enough for me to pursue it.

Are my justifications for doing this work free of charge unassailable? Definitely not. One could argue that the only reason money doesn’t flow in that particular market is because there’s a glut of writers and editors like me, doing work for free that would otherwise become publicly or privately funded.

What I can’t abide is private, advertising-funded sites soliciting repeat, free submissions and offering their writers nothing but a byline and, maybe, the faint hope of a paid position writing for their print publication. That kind of behavior fosters the impression that blog writing is something not worthy of pay, making it awfully hard to be recognized as a professional in the field.

Can working for free also help you? Of course it can. Writers just starting out need some way of building their portfolios, after all. But the more the big players see this sort of thing is possible, the more reluctant they’ll be to part with their money.

I’ve talked mostly about writing above, but you could easily substitute in examples from the world of web and graphic design (check out the movement against spec work in design at no-spec.com), business consultation services, and many other web working areas.

Am I just jealously guarding my own sources of income, or does the prospect of someone doing the work you should get paid good money for, absolutely free of charge, leave you feeling out of sorts as well? Is there room for both, and where do we draw the line?

  1. Darrell, you’re justified in feeling unhappy about sites soliciting free articles (and writers providing them).

    These sites are ~businesses~ that exist to make money for their owners. If the site owners are not prepared to pay for content, they should write it themselves.

    No-one should agree to provide articles or writing services for free. If an article is procured from a writer and published on a site with the intention of producing revenue, it should be paid for in advance by the site owner.

    At this point I hear the site owners saying “But what if the article doesn’t attract enough clicks to turn a profit?”

    My friends, there are few guarantees in life. That is the risk or gamble you take by being in business. Why should professional writers assume any of your risk???

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  2. I go back and forth on this issue.
    I’ve taken on projects for free, or at a significantly reduced cost, in order to boost the portfolio – but to be honest, sometimes I do it because I like what the organization is doing (this mostly applies to nonprofits), and I know they can’t afford to pay full price. Does it lower the value of the work? Maybe. Though in some ways, it may raise it, too; if an organization decides that service has been important, it may feel justified in the expense on the next project.
    Then again, I find that clients that don’t have *anything* invested in the project often take advantage of the work being done.

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  3. So many factors here:

    - Do you believe in their cause?
    - Do you honestly think they could not afford to pay for the job they request?
    - Do they consider themselves too big and you too small to even consider paying you?
    - Do they constantly ask for free work?
    - Do they get interns only to fire them at the end of the internship and get new interns so they can monetize on their work and not pay a dime? (I know local, non-US, companies that do so).

    Know exactly why are you giving them a deep discount or work for free, so the next client that comes along and doesn’t meet your criteria gets an explanation as to why they shouldn’t even be asking for it.

    By now you should get acquainted with the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License:
    http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/

    But I guess that if you really have something to write about and want to do it for free, you could start yourself a new blog. Let them pick up your writings and give you trackbacks or pingbacks. (e.g. Jay Hilgert from http://bittbox.com – His freebies have appeared so far in CNN, MSNBC, New Amsterdam on FOX and the trailer for the movie Inkheart).

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  4. [...] referring to us as a feed aggregator.  Or I feel a personal twinge of guilt when I read posts that deter writers from sharing their content for free, in exchange for a byline and free [...]

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  5. This reminds me of what my dad (an attorney) used to say, “Never give free legal advice. People think it’s worth what they paid for it.”

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  6. Sometimes free labor is great for word-of-mouth advertising. For instance, if you, as a designer, work for free on a project for a local non-profit, exposure and a good taste in people’s mouths could be very good for business!

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  7. [...] and define the project scope so that everything is clear to both parties. Also, be aware of the disadvantages that can come with working on projects for [...]

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  8. [...] Read article by Darrell Etherington here [...]

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