Paying for It: Why You Shouldn’t Write for Free

by Karen Pickering

Freelance writer and editor Karen Pickering had a ‘learning experience’ recently when she was commissioned to write a piece for a national publication – then wasn’t paid for it. Here’s her call to arms on why writers should be paid for their work.

In his excellent piece for The Emerging Writer, Liam Pieper observed that writers are subject to the kinds of stupid comments about their profession that others don’t usually have to put up with – at a party you probably won’t hear ‘Oh, you’re an accountant? I do a little maths myself…’

And speaking of doing the maths, you similarly wouldn’t ask your accountant to do your tax return, wait until it’s been lodged, and then explain to her that you wouldn’t be paying her this year. It wouldn’t fly to tell her: Sorry, it’s just not in the budget, I don’t pay my doctor so I don’t want to pay you either, or You’ll probably get more work out of doing this tax return for free once people see what a great accountant you are, or I don’t care that your other clients pay you, I just can’t. You wouldn’t say: How about I give you these free tickets I didn’t pay for instead? or You’re an accountant, this is what you want to do with your life, so really it’s good for you that you got to practice that by doing my tax return for me.

There are so many obvious reasons writers should be paid for their work.

One, IT’S WORK. As a society we’ve made a collective agreement that labour should be paid (and fairly), but we’ve become so accustomed to artistic and intellectual labour being devalued that we’ve accepted the terms offered to us: work for free or don’t work. This has to change somehow and as with most social change, it won’t be given to us by the powers that be. We have to fight for it and we start by acknowledging that we deserve it – and crucially, we start asking for it.

Two, IT IS A MAJOR REASON ANY PUBLICATION IS GOOD/READ/GROWING. Investing in the work of good writers is like hiring rainmakers at your law firm or casting a favoured actor in your show – it’s a drawcard. You expect to attract readers to your publication (online or otherwise) by publishing content that is in some way better than what they can find elsewhere. If you want to build a good publication without paying writers, that’s like trying to build a good house without brickies. You can do it yourself, or get any old person to lay those bricks for you, but the house will end up ugly, unliveable and unstable. Unless you’re a brickie, in which case you should respect the work of other brickies and not ask them to work for free to help you build your house, OKAY?

Three, IT’S UNFAIR TO YOUR FELLOW WRITERS TO WORK FOR FREE. Let me be clear about this. Every time you agree to work for free you empower that editor to ask the next writer to go without pay, or worse, you’re already their second choice because the writer they wanted asked for fair remuneration. That’s called being a scab, but as that word has so little currency these days I’ll put it another way. You agreeing to work for nothing contributes to the fantasy that writing just happens, that anyone can do it, and that it doesn’t warrant proper payment. You’re doing yourself out of a job and you’re weakening the industry. Besides, the more writers bring this up with editors, the more those editors will feel on the wrong side of this issue and pressure their bosses for better budgets.

Four, WRITING IS A TRADE. You choose this career path; you either train in it or you learn on the job, and presumably you practice so you get better. That’s a trade. Yes, it might also be your ’calling‘, your ’vocation‘, or even your ’hobby‘ for tax purposes, and you might think it’s vulgar or unseemly to put a dollar value on something you love. But what’s more vulgar is a huge workforce of thousands fighting over scraps of unpaid work for companies that make money (hits, advertising revenue, subscriptions, brand identity) out of our work. Generating content for newspapers, websites, television and radio shows relies on a huge volunteer workforce of professionals who don’t really know why they’re not paid. It shouldn’t need repeating so much, but if you ask the tiler to come and fix your roof and then explain afterwards that you don’t have the money to pay, it’s you that’s in trouble, not the tradie. But to stretch the analogy further, the tradie knows they’re getting better at the job and there’s demand for the work they do – and that growing confidence leads to price rises. It’s how it should be.

Five, IT WOULDN’T TAKE MUCH TO BUY US OFF. Most of us are familiar with that hilarious jape about what our union, the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance, says our labour is worth. You’ve heard it, right? That the average-length article you knock out for a major daily should be valued by both you and your editor at about nine hundred bucks worth of work – we all share this factoid, laugh, and move on. But when you consider that an article of between 600-2000 words can reasonably take between two and eight hours work, is it really okay that you get paid nothing for it? What is your time and expertise worth? It turns out, between $100 and $300, which is what the good-guy publications pay for articles of that size. So maybe let’s all try for at least that.

So where does that leave the writer who feels as though they can’t really exercise much control over what they’re paid? I guess it leaves them with a choice – choose to have that uncomfortable conversation. Choose to bring up payment in your initial correspondence with editors. Choose to suggest figures at the higher end of what you want and work from there. Choose to take a deep breath and remind yourself that what you do is of value to the editor and it’s perfectly reasonable to bring up a fair price for your work. Choose to ask how much you’ll be paid (even suggesting a range) rather than if you’ll be paid. Then the onus is on the employer (and they are employing you) to explain why they want work from you but aren’t prepared to pay for it. At the very least, this means it’s all in writing for any future discussions.

Of course, you’ll hear every reason in the book for why you can’t be paid. But one day you’ll hear ‘Yes. You’ll get paid for writing this article.’ And you’ll realise that it was worth backing yourself after all.