Should professional authors write for free?
From Tim Kreider’s well-thought out New York Times article “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” to the profanity-laden rants of best selling novelists offended by the request, which I won’t link to here, the question sparks a lively debate fueled by a variety of responses that leave even the most prolific authors speechless.
I understand the reasoning on both sides of the debate. I hate when writers agree to write gratis only to sue for payment later (see “An Unnecessary Lawsuit”). I also hate when professional organizations and highly successful authors swear to never give away a piece of work because it will destabilize writing as a viable career. After all, other professionals, from lawyers to contractors, work pro bono under certain circumstances.
I’ve been writing professionally since 1985 and I’ve given away as much writing as I’ve sold.
Here are the top three reasons why I’ve written for free:
In a world where more books are published than there are people to read them, advertising is a key element to boosting sales.
Unless you are a known author with a wide following, you can’t expect a new book to instantly result in a spike in sales. You have to let people know about your book long before it hits the bookstores.
Writing for free to promote your upcoming release is similar to paying for an ad on Goodreads or the New York Times Book Review. For those authors without a publicity budget, writing free articles on your book’s topic is cheaper than paying for a well placed ad in the same publication because it only costs your time. Additionally, it gives readers a chance to sample your work.
Most authors who advise against writing for exposure have enough devoted fans to guaranty a steady stream of income. Therefore, they can either rely on their fame to sell books or can afford a publicist who will do the job for them.
Whether it’s the school fundraiser or finding a cure for autism, I have donated my writing. I don’t ask for a tax write-off, although I’ve received them from larger organizations. If my writing can generate funds for a good cause, I’m willing to do it for free.
Sometimes it’s as simple as a poetry booth where people pay $10 for a customized poem. Other times it’s autographing copies of books that will be auctioned off at a charity ball.
Either way, the satisfaction I receive from being of service is enough payment for me.
A lot of times I will research and write articles on speculation because a topic interests me. One such article focused on healing for women who had undergone an abortion. When every paying publication rejected my article, I queried a local publication that paid in copies.
Three weeks after the article appeared, I received a message through the publisher from a woman who had written a letter.
“I read your article and I’ve decided to return to the Church after 20 years,” the woman wrote. “I had an abortion 20 years ago and have never felt the same. I mean, I’m lucky, I have two healthy boys who are now teenagers, but still, I haven’t stopped thinking of the first child, and sometimes I have felt so alone, like I was the only woman who regretted having an abortion, even though it’s what I wanted at the time.”
I kept that letter. It’s a reminder of the greater reason why I write. Helping to transform someone’s life is the most precious payment I could ever receive.