Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Pro's And Con's Of Writing For Free

New writers often write for free to build a name for themselves, but while it’s nice to have a long list of publications behind you to impress agents and publishers, how does this affect the people trying to make a living from their writing? I spoke to Dan Witters about this in the 4th of our 5 part series.

Dan, how do you think this affects current writers, as editors may become reluctant to pay if new writers are writing for free?
That’s true up to a point. There’s nothing on the published material to show that a writer has provided this work for free, so you can certainly build a profile with it. I just think that you should set yourself a limit and not do more than a few. Otherwise it will become a habit that editors will take advantage of. There is a definite advantage for new writers to do this but not excessively. Editors do tend to believe that there’s an endless stream of new writers out there who will write a large part of their content for free, rather than just the occasional article. These editors can just select what they need from this constant stream of work and use this as a replacement for their paid writers.

There’s obviously a conflict of interest between the writer who hopes to get paid for an article and one who does it for nothing, so that they can raise their profile. These interests are diametrically opposed.

Some markets, such as martial arts magazines, have become non-paying. Is this something you’ve noticed?
No I haven’t but there’s definitely a risk of this happening. You’ve given the example of martial arts magazines and presumably there was a time when that was paid work. But here, there was such an influx from enthusiastic amateurs that this has now moved into an area where it’s very difficult to get paid at all. As you mentioned, this has a knock-on effect later when writers who have been working for free find that they’ve shot themselves in the foot. Why would an editor pay you when previously you had been working for free?

So, what can you do? Writing here in the UK isn’t a unionised profession, whereas in the US you see writers striking from time to time to put pressure on television studios. There’s some headway made occasionally, but even there you often see writers breaking rank and conducting work when no one’s aware of it. It’s very hard to see how unpublished new writers can take action; whereas published writers with a track record of working for television, can take some joint action. There’s very little contact between new writers, and there’s a vast group of them out there trying to get work. It’s almost impossible to see any concerted action that can be taken by writers against editors who take advantage of free writing.

I also think that the situation can vary depending on what type of writing you’re involved in. For instance, say you’re writing a short story. You can supply this for free, on the basis that there’s a footnote at the end of the story saying that it’s taken from a collection and then telling the reader where to find the rest of it. Consequently, if you’re writing for a magazine, then you have the chance to do some genuinely targeted advertising. Saying, not simply this is my name, but also that this is part of a short story collection, and if you like this one then go to my website. Likewise a writer of travel or lifestyle articles can have a note at the end of their work saying that he is a UK based travel writer and this is where my website is. This way, writers take a direct benefit of having the free work published. If you are going to provide work for nothing you have to ask yourself how you can get a tangible benefit from doing so.

Look at the chap who goes around saying that he’s just had an article published and he’s now building a CV. This guy needs to think about how he can focus his work. What you are trying to do is deal with two types of people, the first of which is the buying public. In this case you need to show the audience how to locate the other work that you’ve done. The second type are editors of other magazines who might like your work and want to know how to contact you, with the intention of getting work from you themselves. I can’t see a magazine having any strong legitimate objection to having a writer’s contact details included at the end of an article or story. I think if you’re going to give free work to a magazine it’s reasonable to insist that, as you’re not being paid, you’d like this information included.
Then there’s the question of review. Most magazines publish letters that state how much readers have enjoyed the articles. So it’s quite common for there to be a follow on here from the article itself.

You asked me if I’ve personally seen many traditionally paying markets become non-paying. Well, take magazines that deal with online games as an example. These have a lot of teenagers and younger readers whose contributions are more commentary and review than anything else, based on their reaction to the games they’ve been playing. Therefore they aren’t doing this to make a living but actually reacting to the subject matter and this is exactly what happened to the martial arts market. People liked these areas so much that they flooded the magazines.

These days we’re trying to support app development, whereas the publisher is concentrating only on the printed word. A lot of publishers are trying to get a price for the app, which isn’t a lot below what they get for their printed work. There’s enormous pressure from the public to get anything digital for free, which obviously drives down the price that editors will pay. So, what we’re seeing here is becoming a trend. This is a different industry from e-book conversion. What we now have is a magazine that can be downloaded free, because the publishers can get their revenue from the advertising contained within the app.

Other apps are often given out free because the publisher makes their money from the weekly, or monthly, add-on. The purchaser isn’t making these distinctions, or even asking themselves how the publisher’s making their money. People don’t understand that certain downloads are free because of the advertising, whereas other apps don’t have advertising and so can’t be free.

You were also talking about keyboard slaves: writers who produce work for free and make their money from direct sales from their own sites. I think you’ve hit on a real threat there. Magazine publishers who move into the world of apps are under pressure to provide free, or very low priced, downloads and they will automatically try and get their content for nothing to compensate for this. Consequently, the consideration for acquiring your article suddenly becomes an intangible thing. The publishers might say, that this will give you exposure and thus build your profile. This way the currency that moves between editors of magazines, publishers and writers ceases to be a tangible currency like money but becomes a currency such as profile.

Do you think this will cause the standard of writing to drop?
If you have a trend towards unpaid writing the standard of writing is going to drop. If you want an analogy for that, think of the conflict between newspaper journalists and bloggers. Journalists have an enormous resolve to investigate issues properly, whereas bloggers tend to just do online research and then offer their opinion. They might not be concerned about fairness or accuracy, simply because they aren’t going to be sued or even held to account by a press association. So, as the public tend to turn to blogs to get their information this can create a problem. Journalism isn’t particularly viable now, and if independent bloggers are going to replace journalists the quality of the reporting we get declines considerably. There are major blogs like the Huffington Post who often have the same standards as newspapers, but many other blogs don’t. It’s the same with magazine articles. Unpaid writers certainly have their moments of quality, but generally the new and unpaid writer will provide a lower standard than paid-for writing from established writers. I think there’s a danger of an assumed quality of the market dropping off.

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