Should You Write for Free?

Debates rage in chat groups, on Facebook and LinkedIn, and on writing sites like She Writes and Redroom. Should writers write for free? In a word, no. 

If you want to make writing your profession, or if you are already a professional writer, you should not – ever – write for free. Not for supposed exposure. Not for promised attention at some future point. Not for the possibility you will be hired later. Don’t do it.

As a professional writer for the past 30-plus years, I can’t afford to write for free. It’s my living. In the past two years I have been approached a number of times with invitations to write for free. The supposed advantage is something along the lines of, “You’ll get exposure!” or, well, I can’t think of anything other than that, and it turns out that could be a very empty promise. Exposure adds up to exactly what?

When the Huffington Post first started, I was invited to blog. It seemed like a great opportunity at the time, but after several months and a half-dozen blogs, it became clear I was spending a lot of my time writing for very little tangible benefit. About a year ago I was asked by, an author promotion site with which I have an author page, to write a column for Redroom offered to donate $100 to a charity of my choice for doing it. So I did. But when they asked me again, I said no. The time I would have to take to write a thoughtful, well-researched piece for AOLNews’ opinion or travel section (which they had proposed) would have cost me far more than I would realize in either book sales or potential clients.

Yesterday I received another “offer” to write a monthly column for a website. They promised me exposure to their members (the number of members and the number of unique visitors to the site weren’t specified), plus promotion on their home page and links to the sites where my book is for sale. Earlier, at the urging of my publisher, I had written answers to questions about publishing they posted as an interview on their site, and they seemed pleased by that. Thus the invitation to write monthly for them.

Honestly, it’s tempting. But the time it would take to write a monthly column would be time taken from the hours I would otherwise be making money by teaching, coaching or writing for other publications. If I knew that each column would result in the sale of at least, oh, I don’t know, say 100 books, it might make financial sense. But that is a very big if.

Professional writers are under siege these days. Many of us are former journalists whose newspapers have folded or downsized. We are experienced. We know our ways around a government agency. We know how to track down a scandal or root out corruption. We are expert at researching and interviewing, and we know how to nail a source to the wall if need be. We also know how to write a balanced multi-sourced story and make it interesting and informative.

Changes in the publishing industry, not least the rise of internet publications, has created a new world for those of us with longtime journalism and writing experience. Unfortunately, our skills and talents are devalued, and we are competing against people – young and older – who are willing to write for free to get the experience they need to (perhaps) get better writing jobs.

The Huffington Post has come under severe criticism for essentially profiting on the backs of thousands of bloggers who helped make the Post a major player in the world of internet media. I think much of it is justified. But we as writers have to do our part and refuse to be exploited.

In HarperCollins vs. Librarians, No One Wins

You may have heard about the rift between HarperCollins and the nation’s librarians. HarperCollins wants to limit the number of users of e-books in libraries, in effect forcing the libraries to re-purchase the book periodically. Librarians, who have watched public funding diminish substantially in recent years, are understandably upset and oppose the plan.

I admit I’m torn. As an author, I want and expect to be paid for the work I produce. Unless you are James Patterson or Sue Grafton, a traditionally published book isn’t going to make you rich, by any means. In fact, most writers are thrilled if their books make enough to earn back their advances and then some.

With the increasing popularity of e-books, which sell for much less, on average, than a printed copy, the question of reimbursement for a writer becomes more important. An e-book sells for $9.95 and the same hard-copy book sells for $24.95, so you can see why e-books are the fastest growing segment in book sales today. Publishers – and authors - hope to make up the difference in volume. At some point, if enough e-books sell, the publisher makes more money, and the author makes more in royalties.

But if a library buys an e-book at a reduced price, is it fair that the library gets to lend it out in perpetuity? With a hard-cover book, at some point it wears out and is replaced, though that may be years and years. HarperCollins wants to limit the number of times an e-book can be lent by libraries to 26, which they figure means the “book” will last about a year if it’s a popular title. After that, the library would have to re-purchase the e-book.

Not surprisingly, the American Library Association opposes this. I agree with them that this plan could make it difficult, if not impossible, for some libraries, particularly small ones, to begin or expand e-book collections. Libraries have been under a budget siege the past few years, and many have cut employees, services and the hours they are available to the public. The library in my hometown, Santa Barbara, is no longer open on Mondays, and has reduced hours on Sundays.

Libraries play a crucial role in our society and – honestly – are especially important for authors and publishers, too. Without libraries, readers would not discover new voices or old classics. Many children wouldn’t be exposed to literature and the joys of reading. A library is still one place where all the knowledge of the world is accessible to everyone. Yes, I know the Internet offers the same, but believe it or not, not everyone has access to the Internet.

So, we have to do what we can to support and help libraries continue to do their important work. I propose a compromise: Instead of 26 times, make the allowable number of lendings of e-books 100. It’s as arbitrary a number as 26, of course. But it would give the library a lengthier use, and still ensure that the book would have to be re-purchased at some point.

It’s not a perfect answer. I don’t think there is one. As publishers look for ways to capitalize on this new era of book publishing that includes increasing e-book sales and an exploding trend of self-publishing, it behooves them to remember that libraries may be as important to their ultimate goal (staying in business) as short-term profits.

Navigating Book Party!

Had a great time at the party Saturday for the launch of my new book, Navigating the Rough Waters of Today’s Publishing World, Critical Advice for Writers from Industry Insiders. Despite a bit of a breeze, it was warm and sunny in the Santa Ynez Valley. (See photos here.) Many thanks to our hosts, Jeff and Joanne Lockwood of Bella Cavalli Winery and Horse Farm. What a beautiful setting! Thanks to all who joined us!

The book is officially out June 1 from Quill Driver Books, but you should be able to find copies in bookstores soon, and it can be ordered online as well.

Here are some early reviews from folks who bought it Saturday:

“Your book is splendid! What a valuable writer’s resource you have created!” – Dianne Dixon, author of The Language of Secrets, just out from Doubleday.

“Your new book is SO INFORMATIVE and interesting – an easy read that can save writers hours, maybe years, in the struggle to get published. Thanks for sharing your expertise!” – Sharon Dirlam

“I began reading your book the moment I got home and am so grateful for the wisdom you share. I will recommend Navigating the Rough Waters of Today's Publishing World to every writer I know!” – Janet Lucy, writing coach and author of Moon Mother, Moon Daughter

“I went straight home and read your book cover to cover. Got lots of great ideas and my SBWC fix all in one sitting!” – Lynn K. Jones

This is a difficult time for writers and publishers alike. Traditional publishing has been turned upside down by technology and the economy. How can you, as a writer, navigate all the changes? My book offers some much-needed guidance in a world of uncertainty.

I will be speaking to writing groups and conferences in coming months, and would love to come and speak to your writing group about publishing challenges, as well. Send me an e-mail if you’re interested.

And keep writing!