Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this November 30, 2012 - 11:19am

It's almost time for us to get drunk (well, me and Cath will get drunk) and record the fourth episode of the podcast! 

The topic this time around is: Should writers work for free?

Sometimes it's OK to do stuff for free in order to promote yourself and your work (you think we're getting paid for doing this podcast?!), but it seems like there's an awful lot of people who try to take advantage of that.

See: Craigslist, the section where people are posting ads looking for writers. An awful lot of them are offering exposure in lieu of compensation. But exposure don't pay the bills (unless you are a stripper). 

Said differently: I don't go to my barber and tell him to cut my hair for free, on the condition I'll tell everyone he did a good job. 

So, where's the line? How much is too much? When does it stop being beneficial and start hurting?

Do you have any experiences with this? If so, share 'em, and we'll talk about 'em!

Do you have any specific questions about this topic? Ask and we'll answer 'em!

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs December 2, 2012 - 1:49am

Doing an unpaid writing job that you find on Craigslist is silly. Writing for free should be judged on a case by case basis, but usually if someone is soliciting a story from an established author, they probably should offer money. If someone hasn't been writing for a while, they probably should be writing for free. Submitting to journals that pay in "exposure" usually serves to motivate a writer to continue writing. Sometimes that exposure is valuable because the journal actually has a lot of readers, but not usually. If you're a new writer, you may want to submit to the journals that pay before you submit to those that don't. It all depends on what fits your style of writing. There may be few pay journals that cater to what you write.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like December 2, 2012 - 9:12am

If I choose to send some writing, which I've produced on my own time, to a non-paying journal, that's different from someone trying to contract me to do a job for free. I haven't and wouldn't respond to an ad which explicitly offered "exposure" in exchange for me fulfilling a writing "assignment" as a "job."

I have (for free) conducted a few email interviews for an online magazine. I wouldn't think I'm getting any monetizable exposure from it; maybe a resume item. I agreed to do them because it's interesting. Am I undercutting the pros? Would the editor really need a pro for these interviews? 

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines December 2, 2012 - 9:28am

Part of the complexity of the problem is the saturation of the freelance market (primarily creative non fiction) of credentialed journalists/writers as these people lose their jobs due to the death of the industry. There are less paying magazines/journals and the competition is thicker. Writers taking non-paying gigs to build experience in non fiction, creative non fiction are more likely to be called scabs by the bona fide than previously. 

Lots of great sites, in particular the Rumpus, do not pay.I mean, Cheryl Strayed wrote the Dear Sugar column for free for two years.

I've elected to try paying markets before non-paying for my fiction, but once the work that's submittted comes back rejected from places with even token payments, damn skippy I'll ship off to non paying sites just to set the stories free. 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like December 2, 2012 - 1:08pm

The Rumpus don't pay? You see them quoted and linked to all the time. I guess that settles the question of whether one can be taken seriously despite one not making any money.

Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons December 2, 2012 - 10:01pm

Not paying doesn't seem right. Even a small pay is good. It's not like paying writers a little something is going to bankrupt many places. Seems like the magazines that would give the best exposure are those that will pay something. I vote for payment. 

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig December 2, 2012 - 11:05pm

It depends on the market, the writer, and the writer's goals. Thing is--writers write. Unless you're contracted, you're already writing for free. The real question is whether you will give what you have written or sell what you have written. SO--if you love the market, do it for free. If you need to beef up your credits and a paying market hasn't taken your stories yet, find a good non-paying market that will publish it. 

It's a hard reality that most creative pursuits are marked by a long period of time waiting to get paid--musicians, writers, actors--even painting/drawing to an extent. It isn't that the creation isn't worthy of pay, it's just how the world works.

As for whether paying a token fee would bankrupt a place or not--I think that's debatable. A lot of markets don't pay because they can't afford to. And again, that puts the ball in the writer's court--they can decide they love the publication and submit there, or they can decide it's shit and not worth it. In the end the publications writers AND readers love will survive, and hopefully the good ones start paying once they start making enough to do so.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 3, 2012 - 7:15am

I'm curious if when you stop trying to get paid and still get rejected, does that cause someone to really feel depressed about writing? If they think Oh man, I can't even give this away.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 3, 2012 - 8:59am

Thanks for the discussion, folks. Keep it up!

We may have ourselves a special guest, to weigh in on this topic with us...

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines December 3, 2012 - 9:22am

When I had a freelance column with a national newspaper, they paid me $50 for 800 words and accompanying pictures. No remuneration for expenses. After 6 months, as much as I loved it, I couldn't justify it anymore. The editor wasn't even proofing, so I couldn't sluff it off as a learning experience. The most I've ever been paid was for a feature piece for an American Magazine; $500 dirty dollars. I don't expect to see that kind of cheddar again for a LONG time--if ever. 

H.I.Marcuson's picture
H.I.Marcuson from Toulouse is reading a book on spelling December 3, 2012 - 10:15am

I did a Gonzo style peice of journalism for a local events guide and was paid in beer.  Does that count?

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines December 3, 2012 - 10:24am

Oh, hell yes. 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. December 3, 2012 - 4:33pm

Beer is the currency of the world.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. December 3, 2012 - 4:36pm

I've never gotten paid for writing, and I don't expect to any time soon.  But writing for hire, as is the case in those examples, means money.  If somebody asked me to write them a short story or essay on a specific theme, I'd expect monitary compensation.

But when you write for hire, you lose a lot of your copyright rights (is that right?).  So, that might be the trade-off right there.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 5, 2012 - 9:01am

This is a really great question and there are definitely people that feel strongly on all sides of this issue. I'll try to give my opinion on it, but it's very complicated.

By nature, MOST professional paying markets (.05 cents a word and up) are difficult to get into. Most have an acceptance rate of <3%. Really, most are less than 1%. So that means you have to essentially win the contest, beat out 99/100 authors to get in. Very tough. So, there's that issue to keep in mind. If you feel that you MUST get paid professional rates, it's very tough. A quick search at Duotrope pulled up 254 professional paying markets (not an exhaustive search). But when you narrow it down by genre? Horror: 27. Fantasy: 41. Science Fiction: 45. Suspense/Thriller: 5. Mystery/crime: 11. Literary: 188. And some of these overlap.

Of the literary markets (1,967) there are only 429 that pay anything (ranging from token [.01 a word] to pro [.05 a word and up]). That means that 1,538 literary journals don't pay anything at all. Which is pretty insane, right?

I am a member of the Horror Writers Association, and you have to hit a certain mark for professional rates in order to get in. I took me YEARS to make it. You'd be surprised how hard that is. And many people in the HWA advocate ONLY selling stories for pro rates. If that was the case, I think I'd have four stories published by now.

It's tricky. Early in your career, aim high, but when those don't work out, aim a little lower. I'm not saying publish at a terrible website, journal or in a sketchy anthology, but understand the reality of it all. Of the 65 stories I've published, I've only been paid for eight. Some were pro rates, some were less than pro rates, and some were percentages of royaties in an anthology. I'm not includeing my short story collection, Herniated Roots. I've also "given" stories to friends that were editing something (originals and/or reprints) because I wanted to support them.

I think you also have to understand the realities of what pro pay is. On a 3,000 word story, at .05 a word, you're only getting $150. But still, getting those checks? I just got one for $48 the other day, and I was kind of thrilled. I mean, comparing it to the real world, what I make as an art director, it's a joke. But I think about Stephen King and how he sold his stories to men's magazines when he was just getting started, and those checks kind of mean a lot to me. It still feels good. I'm getting paid for my WORDS. How awesome.

Also, there is a debate between print and online. MOST online publications don't pay. BUT, to build up your body of work, to start getting attention, to expand your audience, people need to be able to get to your work, and not everybody is going to shell out ANY real cash for a book or anthology by an author (or many authors) they don't know.

I do think it's funny that a lot of people are upset about Duotrope charging $50 a year starting in 2013. Presses/publications get really pissed when you say that maybe THEY should pay, instead of the authors. And yet, those same places, MANY of them don't pay their authors. See, it's complicated.

If I had any advice, it would be this: WRITE LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER. And spread your seed far and wide. Start at the top, work your way down, always aiming for a publication (pay or no pay) that you are proud of. Publish alongside authors you know and respect. I've basically been chasing people like Stephen Graham Jones, Matt Bell, and other prolific authors, for years. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me.

I'm trying to build up my CV and I need recognizeable credits, typically print publications (as many universities still don't recognize online publications as legit). Would I still publish in Barrelhouse, Bat City Review, Black Clock, BOMB, Caketrain, Canteen, Conjunctions, Copper Nickel and Cream City Review without pay? You bet I would (I stopped at the "Cs" as you can see, but assume there were MANY more places on my list). These are MY goals. What are yours? In the end, do what makes you happy. I've seen so many authors here break through, so don't let anything I'm saying discourage you. Understand the realities, stay grounded, but shoot for the stars, yeah?

PS: I mostly am talking about short stories here. Nobody would sell their novel for nothing, right? Short story collections are a great way to earn money after all of your stories have been placed. Novels will most likely earn you more money as well. And above and beyond that, selling your film rights will eclipse what you earn for your novel, most likely. This story doesn't begin and end with the short story. Just wanted to say that.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 5, 2012 - 9:02am


drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines December 5, 2012 - 9:04am


ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig December 5, 2012 - 2:29pm


Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 6, 2012 - 8:12am
OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz December 6, 2012 - 9:36am

Thanks for that long post, Richard. Excellent insight. Is much of that going to make it into your January Storyville article?

I've written for free - not fiction, but I covered music in the Boston area. I'd basically get to pick and choose to go to shows and festivals I'd want to go to and go for free. I see a ton of music anyway. So, for a few hours work I was paying for a ticket I'd probably have bought for myself. I also got friendly with a few publicists for some of the national touring acts and they obviously had other clients and would take care of you. I did a small handful of interviews with some critically acclaimed artists, one of them being my favorite songwriters (Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers). We talked for 20 minutes, he was a great interview, and I met him after the show - he told me he read my interview and he thanked me for my work. That was an incredibily cool moment from someone I respect as a songwriter.

What I didn't get was income. And I should. But I knew the music editor and he wasn't making any money and his promise always was "if we ever get this going like we want, I promise you'll be paid." So there's that to think about to. If you like the person, trust them, believe in what they're doing, putting work in early can potentially benefit you later. If you align yourself with people who share a common vision, you might work for free, but you're thinking long term.

As of right now, I stopped for the moment doing music reviews/previews/interviews but that's not an interesting story for this particular topic.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 6, 2012 - 10:07am

i don't expect much of that to be in the January article, no.

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz December 6, 2012 - 10:10am

Then I'd better take some notes! I appreciate the insight.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer December 14, 2012 - 3:57pm

Great post, Richard. I've been going over this a lot. One one hand, I feel I am a good enough writer that I should be getting paid, and as you said, the Horror Writer's Association advocates only submitting to paying markets, specifically pro payment. I haven't managed pro payment yet, but I have had a couple of stories sold for semi-pro or token payments. But when you get down to it, how much difference is there between getting paid a token payment and not getting paid, at all? I haven't made enough through writing to pay for a single year of Duotrope. Maybe the publications SHOULD be paying it. Essentially, they are using the system to find (mostly) free labor.

I read someone's comment recently that Ray Bradbury couldn't make a living writing short stories these days. That's a bit scary for a writing at the beginning of a career. It isn't going to stop me, by any means, but with so few professional markets, and so many of us competing for slots, I can't imagine consistantly selling to pro markets unless you are already a name-brand writer. Unfortunately, I am not Stephen King, or even Richard Thomas. Is it better for my career, at this point, to get something published every few months, even if I am not paid well for it, rather than hope to sell a story or two a year for actual money?

It's a lot to think about. I don't think I am ready to say pro or nothing just yet.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 14, 2012 - 10:28pm

don't give up. it's just a matter of getting better and then also knowing your markets. you'll break through. and if nothing else those stories that didn't get paid can be your first collection!

Americantypo's picture
Americantypo from Philadelphia is reading The Bone Clocks December 15, 2012 - 8:55am

I'm a firm believer in getting paid for your work. There are numerous reasons for this and it is just MY opinion, so I don't think it's the gospel and don't think less of anyone if they do otherwise.

The way I look at it is that if I write a story, it takes me about a week or two to write a first draft. During this period, I'm researching the story and I'm spending a lot of hours with my ass planted in a seat, typing away. I prefer a word processor over a notepad, so I'm usually editing as I'm writing. After that, I let it sit and work on something else, then do that again, and then finally come back to the original story to read it with fresh eyes and do a final edit. I then go to duotrope and try to find a home for my story, make sure its formatted correctly according to their submission guidelines, write a query, all that. Sometimes I do a simultaneous submission (Richard has A LOT to say on this matter, but that's another discussion). Then I send it off.

Considering all of this... I would be really frustrated to receive nothing for my efforts. Some would argue that after subbing to pro paying markets, I should sub to semi-pro (which I do, and sometimes that's my first target if I think the zine will like the story in question), but subbing to a non-paying market does, in my opinion, do two things. One, it encourages a market place that won't pay their writers. In other words- if we keep giving our stories away, zines will continue to not pay their writers.

Two- forcing myself to submit to pro/semi pro-paying markets is also a quality control issue for myself. If I write a good story, it'll sell eventually. If I write a clunker... well, it won't sell and eventually it'll either get chucked altogether or I'll have to do a complete overhaul and rewrite it until its good enough to see the light of day. And quite frankly, I don't want my work to be published if it doesn't meet the standards of the pro/semipro market. It can be an ego killer sometimes, and it sucks to have spent so much time on a story only to toss it, but the reality is that not EVERYTHING we write is going to be good and sometimes we have to let stuff go. Also, for those of you overwhelmed by all those rejection letters- I spent like 10 years writing before I started selling stories. So, it sucks... but it just takes time before you start hitting those marks. If you're getting rejected by pro markets, it might  very well be because you're writing isn't yet up to that standard, so what you have to ask yourself is whether or not you want your work exposed if it isn't as good as it can be.

Another way I look at this is that I have every intention of writing a novel at some point and when I approach a publisher or an agent, I'm going to need a resume of published work. Now, as great as it would to have every single story I've ever written published SOMEWHERE, I'd rather have the ones that were actually good published in a zine that was kind of hard to get into. Richard has a great point about the difficulty of getting published, but to counter what he's saying- he writes A LOT of stories, and there are only so many places to send your work. So lets say I followed the route of aiming high, then went lower and lower until the story was sold? Sure, it's cool to have another acceptance, but what if the story just wasn't as good as I could make it and I settled? And what will an agent or a publisher think if they see my resume and nearly all of the acceptances are places that are easier to get into than pro paying markets? The work will speak for itself in the end, but the resume of published work might say to them, "W. P. Johnson wasn't able to sell a decent amount of his stories, so why should we pay him?".

Anyway... that's just one way of looking at it. I have given my stories away (to friends, and a few because I misunderstand the payment guidelines). I also write a column at Manarchy Magazine for free. But for the most part, I try to never give anything away for the reasons stated above.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 15, 2012 - 10:36am

don't think that all non-paying markets don't reap ANY rewards. there is more to publishing than just a few dollars. being in good company, establishing your legitimacy, getting exposure. for example, my story at Metazen, unpaid, was nominated for a Pushcart. in fact, i think 4/5 of my Pushcart nominations were for non-paying placements (Metazen, Pear Noir, Blink-Ink, StepAway and Flying House [this last one paid in the form of a grant from Poets & Writers magazine]).

but my personal opinion (as stated above in a long rant) is to evaluate where you are in your career, and based on a story-by-story basis, decide where to send your work. you can always start with the best, the paying markets and then work your way down. at least then you know you tried.

3000 word story x .05/word = $150, .04/word = $120, .03/word = $90, .02/word = $60, .01/word = $30.

of course, this all being said, i just got a check for $30 and a check for $50 this week and i was pretty stoked about that.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 15, 2012 - 10:47am

oh, and one thing in your post Bill i wanted to address: settling and publishing in weak markets. NEVER submit to a market that you aren't proud of, ever. it may not pay, but there are a lot of publications that still have a great repuation and they don't pay. i listed a few above, like Black Clock and Barrelhouse and BOMB. so if you feel that at some point you've exhausted every market that is good enough, pay or no pay, put your story aside. there will be other opportunities in the future, new anthologies, etc.

for instance, my thesis stories. i have only sent those stories to the "best" literary markets in the country. some pay, some do not. but i will not lower my standards for those, and so far it's been six months. i will take two years if i have to, in order to work my way through them. so, i get what you're saying.

and bill mentioned my thoughts on simultaneous submissions, here is a link to that article:

also, i should add, that i VERY RARELY pay to submit stories. only if i get a subscription, or if mailing it in is the only OTHER way and the postage is the same. the places that make it MANDATORY to submit and pay $2-3 per submission? i do not agree with that approach. that AND they don't pay? i think not.

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz December 15, 2012 - 11:34am

I remember reading an interview with Gregg Allman, talking about the only music advice he gave to his son Devon Allman, "Don't pay to play."


Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer December 18, 2012 - 8:11am

I paid to submit a story once, only because it was less than postage to send a paper manuscript to them.

No more than most markets pay, especially now that I am going to be dropping fifty bucks a year just on Duotrope, I can't imagine making a habit out of paying for submissions. We produce the product they sell. They should be paying us, not the other way around.

Carly Berg's picture
Carly Berg from USA is reading Story Prompts That Work by Carly Berg is now available at Amazon December 19, 2012 - 7:44pm

My response is only for short stories. I guess it depends on your goals. Some people don't feel like it's an honor if they aren't paid, whatever the prestige or acceptance rate of the journal. I wouldn't submit if  I  wouldn't get a kick out of an acceptance, either.

However, some new writers believe that "professional level" pay means you are playing with the big boys, and "semi-pro" or "no-pay" is lower on the "amateur-professional" spectrum. It's not like that, with short fiction. Some genres (SFF, erotica) tend to pay; literary is more likely not to, in my experience. Some top  prestige markets don't pay, some McDonald's level ones do. And then, if you are mainly trying to make money, writing short fiction is just not your best option.

However, if your main goal is to become an established fiction writer, then focusing on pay per story is short-sighted, in my opinion. If I had only submitted to paying markets, I'd probably have a couple hundred more dollars this year. What I wouldn't have this year is half a book's worth of previously published flash stories, an invitation to submit from an in-demand agent who saw one of my stories in a no-pay magazine, nor a Pushcart Prize nomination from another no-pay magazine.

So, to answer a question with a question, would you rather have those things or a couple hundred bucks this year? In other words, forest or trees?

That's my two cents. Literally, because it's all I have, haha.

Americantypo's picture
Americantypo from Philadelphia is reading The Bone Clocks December 20, 2012 - 9:00am

Yeah, I agree a lot with what everyone has said. I think Richard probably hit the nail on the head- don't submit to a place you wouldn't be proud to be featured at. That said, my view is a bit skewed by the fact that I mostly write horror and I tend to forget that a lot of literary zines don't pay, whereas a decent amount of the "good" horror zines do pay because the Horror Writers Association discourages a non-paying market.

So let me put it this way- I currently have a story that I'm having a really hard time selling (it's been rejected about fifteen times or so). I keep tweaking it, keep working it over in hopes that it'll eventually sell. Now... if I really wanted to, there are several places I could send it to and I'm 90% sure they'd take it, but it would be dissatisfiying to me and those places wouldn't be as much exposure, whereas if I just have some patience, let the story sit and come back to it with cold eyes, I might get it tight enough that a pro/semipro paying zine in the horror market will give it a home. At the very least, lets say the story is good but I'm just having bad luck with it- I could always put it in a collection if I'm ever fortunate enough to have one published.

OR, the story just isn't good. So I chuck it.

So yeah, to clarify- my viewpoint is skewed by the fact that I write genre. I keep forgetting that there are a lot of well read zines that don't pay anything. I DO think they should, but it is what it is and as writers you have to take what you can get to develop your name.

But to tag Richard- don't ever settle. It would be great to be published, but what publisher will care if you're story is up at Billy Bob's wordpress, getting 2 views on a good day?


Admitedly, it does feel pretty good to see money show up in my paypal for a story, even if its just five bucks (which is what Niteblade paid me for my story "Tonight, Tonight"). I broke my ass writing that story too, and maybe it could've gone for more somewhere else, but I was happy to sell it to them all the same because I like them.


Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 20, 2012 - 9:23am

and don't toss a story, bill, just because it gets rejected by the top horror magazines, with acceptance rates of 5% or lower. it doesn't meant it's BAD, it just means that particular editor didn't like it. i had several top horror magazines rejected "Stillness" before Cemetery Dance took it for Shivers VI. i've had stories that were rejected win contests. just put it aside and wait for a new opportunity. there are new, credible anthologies coming out all the time, new magazines getting launched as well. all of that is assuming YOU love the story. i know if a story is weak or compelling. if it's weak, i may not send it out at all. but then again, what do i know, i've had stories i thought were "weaker" get snatched up, and ones i thought were "stronger" take a really long time to place. so, don't be so hard on yourself. if it sucks, you wouldn't be sending it out at all, right?

part of building a network and getting noticed is getting your work out there. i KNOW that people have seen my work because i've spread it far and wide, and if they like the work, they sometimes even approach you. i've been asked to contribute to anthologies by editors that have seen my writing at non-paying markets. so just keep that in mind. maybe after you've published 10-20 stories and really grow and build you brand and voice, maybe then stick to paying. i've published 65 stories and i still submit to non-paying markets. like i said about the literary journals, a LOT of the top journals don't pay. it IS better in genre fiction, much better, but still.