In a previous post, I cautioned unpublished writers about magazine markets that don’t pay. I stand by my statements: I think that magazine publishers should pay writers something for their work, even if it’s a token amount. Why? Because professionals should be paid for their services. In what other field are people routinely expected to donate their services to help someone else get his/her business off the ground?
However, I’m not saying writers should never write for free. I just think they should do it when the benefits outweigh the costs (time and effort) and when the working conditions are not one-sided in favor of the publisher. For some people, the benefits have nothing to do with business: they write for publications that support causes near and dear to their hearts or that cover topics about which they’re passionate. Altruism is a good thing.
But if your goal is to earn money as a writer and you have not yet signed your first contract, how do you know if writing for free would help your career? Unless you have a crystal ball, you won’t know for sure. But the following three questions can help you evaluate the costs/benefits of writing for free.
Question #1: What else can the publisher offer if they can’t give you cold, hard cash?
- Large readership: How many readers will see your work?
- Prestige: Is the publication (or editor/publisher) highly regarded in its field? Will another editor to whom you show the clip respect the publication?
- Networking: What other industry connections does the publisher have that might lead to additional, paid work for you?
- Longevity: Does the publication seem well managed and financed on the business end? It can be hard for a writer to find out, but it’s important to try. A byline in a flash-in-the-pan publication has very limited value.
- Affiliation with new market or medium: Is the publication doing something original or breaking new ground in some noteworthy way?