Free fiction: A contrary viewpoint

Posted: August 27, 2012 in In my opinion...
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Recently I came across this blog post which posits the theory that anyone who requests to publish your work “for exposure” (i.e. without paying you) is an evil, manipulative, scum-sucking bottom feeder (I’m paraphrasing – but the phrase “bottom feeder” is mentioned here).

By Just chaos (Bottom Feeder) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This is not the first time I’ve heard this opinion – Harlan Ellison springs to mind (warning – contains coarse language).  And yes, I agree that in an ideal world, writers and other creative professionals would be paid for their efforts in sufficient quantities to at least guarantee a certain minimum standard of living.

But should this be a hard and fast rule?  Should you, as a writer, never EVER make your work available to anyone, anywhere, for free? Off the top of my head, I can think of several reasons why you might want to “work for exposure”, as follows:

1.  You need the ego boost that comes with being published by somebody else.

By Andy from Los Angeles, US (2007 Writer Strike) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsMany, if not most, of us writers are an insecure bunch, especially when we’re at the beginning of our careers.  It’s hard to be objective of our own work, and it’s easy to consider ourselves unworthy.  Whether we’re getting paid for it or not, if a publisher says, “I like this well enough to associate myself with this story and to spend time and money in publishing it,” then it can let you know that you’re on the right track, and can be just the encouragement you need to keep writing and keep submitting material.

2.  You want some publishing credits on your CV.

Again, in an ideal world, all stories submitted to a publisher would be judged solely on their merits and not on the track record of the writer; a first-time-published writer would be given equal consideration alongside a seasoned veteran.  Many publishers work on this principle already.

And many don’t.

If the submission guidelines ask you to submit a cover letter containing a bio and/or a list of your most recent publication credits, then you can bet they’ll be judging you on that bio or list before they’ve even looked at your story.  Having something, even a list of “for the love” publications, on your list of credits will give you an “in” and will show that you have a certain level of dedication and professionalism.

3.  You want to help out a friend.

You might have seen this analogy before – you wouldn’t ask an electrician to rewire your house, or a mechanic to fix your car, or a hairdresser to cut your hair in exchange solely for some word of mouth advertising, would you? So why would you ask a writer to provide his or her services for free?By USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Extending that analogy, if I had a friend who was a mechanic, I might ask her to take a look at my car and neither party would expect an exchange of payment, because that’s what friends do. Somewhere along the line I would probably return the favour in some way, and I would definitely recommend her to other friends (unless she’s a shit mechanic, in which case, I probably wouldn’t have asked her to work on my car in the first place), because that’s also is what friends do.

If you’re involved in the wider writing community, you will make friends and acquaintances.  Some of those friends and acquaintances will start up publishing ventures.  An e-zine, perhaps, or a POD magazine, or a folly of an anthology with a very specific and non-commercial theme.  Maybe they’ll make a little money off it; more likely, they won’t, and will be funding the entire thing from their own limited financial resources.  Most likely they’re doing it for the love of reading and writing and want to share the love.  They might invite you to contribute a story or two for free to help them get their venture off the ground, or just to be a part in the love-sharing.

Harlan Ellison would advise you to “just say no” (or words to that effect).  And I say – may you never become so mercenary that money becomes your primary or sole motivator for doing anything. Support your friend – it’s the right thing to do.

4.  It’s for charity

I shouldn’t need to explain this one.  If I do, chances are you stopped reading anyway at #3.Giving away free samples is part of your overall marketing strategy.

This point is worthy of a whole ‘nother series of posts, and has already been covered by many successful indie authors, such as Scott Nicholson, who use freebies wisely and well.  If this works for you and you know what you’re doing, then who is Harlan Ellison to tell you you’re wrong?

5.  Money just isn’t that important to you

By Vmenkov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsEric Pulsifer had this to say in his aforementioned blog post:

“Most people, I’ve come to discover, have at best a grudging tolerance for their jobs. Those are the lucky ones, too. Many others would sooner gargle razor blades than go to work. That’s when the rationale kicks in: If you love what you’re doing you can’t be working, right?”

Which kind of proves my point.  Most people hate their jobs because they’re only doing it for the money.  If you work for a reason other than money, that is when your work becomes joyful and not merely an exercise in tonsil-shredding.

Maybe you’re independently wealthy.  Maybe you’re financially supported by a parent, partner or spouse.  Maybe you have a day job –which I sincerely hope you love – AND you write.  Maybe you’re a starving artist in a garret, but you get more joy out of seeing your creations read than you do out of eating.  As long as you’re not hurting anybody, then do what makes you happy.

(One small caveat – just because I’ve espoused the joys of free fiction in this blog post, doesn’t mean I’m going to give away my own. I’m well past #1 and #2, am unconvinced that #5 is right for me right now, and although I have a supportive spouse and a joyful day job, I’m still quite partial to money.  If you fall under #3 or #4, feel free to ask me and I’ll seriously consider it.)

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Comments
  1. Glynis Smy says:

    I have only given a few freebies away, and will continue in that light. I plod along quite happily earning a few cents for my hard work. Dropped by via Indie fest.

  2. Whoa, I think I stepped in something here.

    Tracie, thank you for breaking it down and getting into specifics here. Although I do come off as a battle-hardened vet, you’ve outlined instances where I will work for free.

    I’ll help a friend out and do stuff for charitable purposes. Absolutely. It helps to keep my own perspectives straight, and I love what I’m doing anyway.

    Even maintaining a blog falls under this category. I do it to gain more valuable writing practice, to meet cool people, to serve and share, and maybe to buld a sense of community. It’s exposure. It’s my platform. There’s no turnstile or admissions booth to the blog either.

    But I do set boundaries and guard them zealously.

    Truth be told, I love what I’m doing so much that I would do it for free. But I’ll never admit that at the bargaining table.

    Thanks for reading,
    – Eric

    • And thank you, for giving me the inspiration for a blog post and for taking it in the spirit in which it was intended! It was a little cheeky of me, comparing the apples of an exploitative business owner making money off unwary authors to the oranges of donating to a charity anthology.

      We’re actually both on the same side, because we both place a high value on what we do and we both work to support our fellow authors.

  3. ajponder says:

    Pretty accurate post methinks – only I’m having trouble with the numbering system – where’s 4?
    PS I love your bottom feeder Orectolobus maculatus he’s exquisite :)
    @ Adrian – I might be wrong but a big name project – not for charity – without even a token payment – seems wrong enough to me that paraphrasing is possibly in order…

  4. Excellent. I think too many writers starting out on their journey hold Harlan’s rant as gospel, and it’s easy to forget that a non-paying market can really boost your audience. The BFS journal doesn’t pay, but it’s read by many industry professionals and movers and shakers in the spec-fic world.
    Anthologies can be a tricky business: there are certain ‘publishers’ who make money from publishing first-timers and these books are seen by no-one; but an anthology like Aaron J French’s MONK PUNK – while ‘for the love’ (and I hate that phrase) works because it had a mixture of big names and lesser-known writers.
    If a project like that has professional writers contributing for free, you know it’s not to be sniffed at.

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