Giving It Away: The Impact of Free Labor

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?

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