Why Writing for Free Can Pay Off

By Helen Razer

Last week, Karen Pickering asked, why should writers work for free? She wasn’t stuck for reasons why they shouldn’t. But long-time professional writer (and fellow freelancer) Helen Razer believes that in today’s economy, ‘where virtually everything costs nothing’, a savvy writer can turn writing for free to their advantage (and into writing that pays). Here’s how.

At the time of writing, I am not having an easy time of writing. Nor, for that matter, are any of the wretched sots who, like me, are fit to do nothing else but write. This difficulty has nothing to do with ‘writer’s block’; ‘writer’s block’, like gout, is a disorder chiefly diagnosed in those with inherited wealth.

This difficulty has much more to do with a market in crisis. One which sees me and many other full-time writers upchucking around 5000 heavily discounted words each week to make something like basic wage.

This year, two regular print outlets have ceased publication and the newspaper section for which I write most often looks set to disappear. Conventional print media is unable to turn a profit and sustainable models for good reading and writing online are yet to emerge.

No one is to blame. Other of course, than the architects of late capitalism where virtually everything costs virtually nothing. For many years, the digital economy has been in impatient motion toward zero. The only thing that can help the full-time writer survive is money. There just isn’t much of it about.

Last week, my colleague and warm acquaintance Karen Pickering wrote here of her concerns for the crashing market of words. Following a transaction in which she provided commissioned work to a national outlet and was not paid, Pickering was cheesed. And justifiably so; the chick’s a good writer.

This has happened to me a handful of times across the 18 years in which I have supported myself as a freelance writer and I always find it insolent. My usual response is to send a Letter of Demand or invite the knob to discuss the recovery of my debt at VCAT. Pickering’s response was to write about it publicly.

I’m not sure all writers, emerging or otherwise, should be taking the advice she offers.

This is not to suggest that it is wrong for Pickering, or anyone, to turn indignation into a sparky essay. It is to say, however, that it is a little misguided to extrapolate truths and give advice about the current marketplace solely from one’s experience as a creditor. I think we writers need to have a bit of a look beyond the Capitalist and Worker model if we’re to maintain a working life lived chiefly in elasticised pants.

Writing for free, Pickering, says, is wrong. Moreover, to do so is, really, to poop on the Light on the Hill. In the text, any writer who agrees to write for free is called a ‘scab’.

To my mind, this is a serious accusation to publish. Certainly, it is a slur I nay privately utter when, for example, I am paid for my opinion in an amount identical to hobbyist bloggers fluent only in the language of false analogy. But, I would not say this publicly because (a) I would like to keep working, albeit for diminishing sums and must pretend to support amateur writers and (b) the times, they are a-changing apace. Gotta swim or sink like a stone.

One of the ways in which we maintain buoyancy in an already stormy market flooded with free content is by sometimes giving stuff away for free. I offer my stuff for free sometimes and I do so not because I am a ‘scab’ but because this gifting helps me stay afloat.

The digital marketplace has many features of the gift economy. I’m hardly alone in the view that giving stuff away for free can often be a wise business decision. A few years back, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief at Wired magazine, corralled ideas that had been milling about online for ten years or so on ‘free’ as a business model in the book Free. Which is, of course, available free of charge.

We find the men of Monty Python are Anderson’s ‘free’ radicals. In 2006, Python established a YouTube channel. Users were greeted with the message, ‘For 3 years you YouTubers have been ripping us off, taking tens of thousands of our videos and putting them on YouTube. Now the tables are turned. It’s time for us to take matters into our own hands.’ Users were then promised, ‘No more of those crap quality videos you’ve been posting. We’re giving you the real thing – HQ videos delivered straight from our vault.’

According to Anderson, Python sales at Amazon increased by 23,000 per cent. ‘Free worked, and worked brilliantly,’ he writes.

In my small way, I have certainly found that I can improve the currency of my byline by moving it around the internet for free.

On their YouTube channel, the Pythons wrote, ‘We want you to click on the links, buy our movies & TV shows and soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years.’ They didn’t try to conceal their strategy and, when negotiating with business people who ask to publish my work sans remuneration, I do not conceal mine. It is almost always my goal to acquire more work out of ‘free’ and it almost always works.

Of course, economic futurists often get it wrong. Free, a model that still dominates online, most especially where written content is concerned, may soon have its very own subprime mortgage crisis. After years of over-investment, it may turn out that ‘Free’ has negative equity.

For the moment, though, I can work with free as an occasional business tool and run no risk of bail-out eligibility.

For a freelance writer to survive solely on writing income, our idée fixe about money needs to come undone. We don’t always need to put a price on everything. In the long run, it is sometimes better for us to acknowledge the value of nothing.