Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

I Don’t Work for Free. Please Don’t Ask Me.

I really didn’t want my next entry to be a rant.  I fear I might be coming off as negative.  😉

But this subject just keeps rearing its ugly, venomous little head, and if I don’t do it now, it’s just going to sink its nasty needle-sharp teeth into my cranium and gnaw away until I’m gray-matter hamburger.  So forgive me. 

It’s the whole “we don’t really have a budget for content/photos but we’d like you to donate your work to us anyway” thing.

Drives me fucking nuts.

I’ve never been able to fathom why anyone and everyone thinks they can get into publishing in the first place.  It seems to be one of those things where skills and experience have no bearing on the decision.  I have no background in plumbing, so to date I have never woken up with an uncontrollable impulse to plunge my head under the sink and rip out a few pipes, because really, how hard could it be?

But publishing a magazine or a website?  It’s Mickey Rooney territory.  “Hey, we’re show folks … we can put on a show in the barn!  Sally can dance, and I can tell jokes, and Mom can sew all the costumes.  It’ll be swell!”

And then they proceed to launch a magazine (or website, or whatever) with absolutely no editing skills, only the most rudimentary grasp of the language, and zero emphasis on quality content.  There are three typos on the cover alone?  No matter, it still looks SPIFFY, doesn’t it!  We’re so proud.  Advertise with us.

This total lack of journalistic training results in a complete disregard for people who produce content, and almost invariably, nothing allocated in the budget for said content.

Photographs are free, after all. You can get ’em all over the Interwebz.  The photographers won’t mind, because we’re giving them (wait for it) … Valuable.  Exposure. In Our Fine Publication.

(More on this in a moment.)

And editorial ….?  Well, we’d like you to write for us of course, because you are well-respected and clever and we have read your articles and we looooooove them.  Look how honourable we are being, asking you to write something original instead of stealing your content from said Interwebz and running it sans permission.  (Oh, wait, we did that too.  Oops.)

We would like you to write for us for free because (choose one or more):

a) we’re a struggling little start-up and if you’re nice to us, maybe we’ll be able to pay you something sometime in the dim, dark future if we don’t fold first

b) we’ll give you a byline and what fantastic (wait for it) EXPOSURE it will be for you

c) we’ll barter you some ad space or give you a free subscription or something else equally worthless.

d) we’re a non-profit (but we’re paying our editor, our production team, our printer, our marketing agency, and a host of other people, including the plumber who had to rip out the pipes under the sink in our office because we wouldn’t touch that stuff with a 10-foot pole).

Ohhhh, who hasn’t sung this refrain to me?  Most recently, I was approached by a start-up which is going to cover all the sparkliest and most luxurious elements of the horse industry.  It plans to attract ads from Ferrari and Rolex and cover high-goal polo and multi-million-Euro warmblood auctions and such … and it isn’t paying its writers.

So, um, I’m supposed to somehow sneak into the sponsor’s tent at Aachen in my ripped Walmart jeans and my beaten-up Blunnies with the soles peeling off (only because the Prada is at the cleaner’s, you understand) in order to interview the latest royalty who has purchased six showjumpers for the Beerbaums?

Cuz hey, I was gonna be there anyway …

I’ve had requests that are even more insulting than that, actually.  A few years ago, a local lawyer who was enamoured of Canadiens (the horse breed, not the Habs) decided to launch a slick, glossy magazine celebrating Canadiens at work, at play, and in provocative poses (or something).  I encountered her at a trade show and she was positively ecstatic to meet me, gushing that she had read my books and my articles and how WONDERFUL it would be if I were to write for her fantastic magazine.

I gave her my card.

Two days later, she e-mailed me, gushed a little more, and then offered me what she clearly considered an unparalleled opportunity.  If I would like to sell a few full-page ads for her new effort, then I would be welcome to write about the advertisers.

For free.

Was there some satisfaction in seeing her magazine last two issues, then fold?  You betcha.

Once a writer, now re-classified as a “content provider” (sometimes with gratis ad sales, apparently) with all the appeal and value of an intestinal parasite.

(My friends say I suffer from low self-esteem.  Hmmm.)

This has been the evolution of the publishing business.  I dabble in photography, but I have many, many friends who are Real Photographers, and I know the world of hurt that has resulted from the digital revolution.  Where once, a photographer’s skill was valued, now anyone can plunk down for a professional-quality camera body and some decent glass, and get publishable images — if one isn’t too fussy about composition and such.  Photoshop is your friend …

And likewise, where journalism was once a respected profession, now everyone’s a bloody blogger.  (Gawd, including me.)  “Citizen journalism” is free, and it amazes me how many people apparently have time on their hands and are tickled enough to see their names in print, to contribute it, no matter how inaccurate, badly written, or flogging-an-agenda it might be.  It’s free, so by gum we’re a-gonna run it!

All of which makes we professional content providers, I guess, look rather cheeky to be expecting to get paid for what we do.

On the photography side, here are a couple of blogs which tackle the subject even more frankly than I’m doing right now.  Please have a look — they’re well worth reading.

Tony Wu’s “Reasons Why Professional Photographers Cannot Work for Free”

Tony Sleep’s “We Have No Budget For Photos” 

and Mike Spinak’s “When Publishers Request Freebies”

Though photogs have been particularly outspoken on this issue, you could pretty much insert the word “writer” wherever you see “photographer” in any of these articles.  Or “graphic designer”, “illustrator”, or just about any creative content provider.  The issues are essentially identical.

So please, launch a magazine.  Sew the costumes, hang the curtains, pass out the playbills.  But have the sense to hire a director who knows what he/she is doing, and create a budget which allows you to fairly purchase the content you’re doing to need to earn you that Tony … er, Pulitzer.  Otherwise, don’t bother.

And please, pretty please, don’t plead poverty to me when you come, cap in hand, to my doorstep, all obsequious and ingratiating.  I could teach you a couple things about poverty.  Sheesh.

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20 thoughts on “I Don’t Work for Free. Please Don’t Ask Me.

  1. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Although I had a giggle or two while reading your “rant”, trust me, it was only your witty words, not the message, that caused the smiles.

    As a writer and photographer, I share your angst. I am sick of being asked to work “for free” when everyone else involved in the project, including your friend, the plumber, will be paid. I was recently asked to submit a photograph for the cover of an as yet to be published directory of suppliers to the horse industry in the Maritimes. IF my image is selected (from among the no doubt hundreds submitted) I would enjoy, you guessed it, unprecedented exposure.

    Bull pucky!

    you have MY firm support.


    • Yeah, don’t you love it when they turn these things into contests, Ceci? Then you’re supposed to compete for the rarified privilege of having your work used for free! Nice way for the publication to get a whole folder full of rights-free images. I’ve even seen some publications charge an entry fee. The mind boggles.


  3. P.Park on said:

    I so agree with you. As one who has had the fun, along with the problems, of having my own business, I am awares of the fine line that exists between what clients view as friendship, and, oops, the need to make a living.
    I am the type of person who probably shouldn’t have her own business. I become close friends with those I work with and always put them first. However, I do keep track of the bottom line and sometimes working with those friends/clients makes attaining that bottom line a very rocky road.
    Oh, I just noticed. I put the word friend before client.
    I am not in the same profession as you. My world is smaller which sometimes makes it incredibly cut throat. Please do not use my name or email.
    And good luck to all of us!


    • No worries, your e-mail isn’t visible. Thanks for commenting! Yeah, it’s particularly frustrating when your friends take advantage of you. There’s a certain amount of that in all professions, I know — doctors get prodded for on-the-spot diagnoses at cocktail parties, lawyers for informal legal advice, HR professionals for insider tips to get into the company. But most other professions haven’t gotten QUITE as devalued as writing and shooting for publications, I don’t think. Most of us know that, past a certain point, we have to cough up $150 an hour for an on-the-clock consultation with that lawyer, even if he’s a cousin of your kid’s soccer coach, but my job doesn’t even seem to be considered a special skill anymore. Very discouraging.


  4. Nice read Karen. I feel your pain. I struggle with this issue everyday- still probably underpricing my work so I am able to make some kind of profit. It seems like besides the issues you raised above, there is a general acceptance of mediocre work these days. I see all kinds of bad photos that people buy, get published, etc. I think people don’t really know what quality is anymore in a world where all you need is a credit card to buy a pro grade camera. No art or photography courses needed anymore. It is very hard to sell work when people are willing to accept bad photos that are free instead. What can you do- well, I’ve been thinking about paralegal school! Seriously, an art professor once told me that “going down the art road” was the hardest road to take (maybe I should have listened to her). Why not be a doctor or lawyer like my mom always said? Well, because I followed my heart and talent. Problem is, talent is not appreciated anymore. Know any good paralegal schools?


    • Thanks for the comment, Kathy. Not surprised about the paralegal idea … I’ve actually been seriously considering training as an ultrasound tech! I figure the hours are civilized, you’re indoors, you’re not really dealing with anyone infectious or doing anything invasive that patients will hate you for, and the pay HAS to be better than freelance writing. (Slinging coffee at Tim Horton’s pays better than freelance writing, truth be told.) If it weren’t for the waiting list for the program, I would totally do it.

      Accepting mediocrity if it’s free is one of the points I’ve been trying to make. Don’t need to hire someone, I can do just as well myself, even though I don’t know what half of these buttons on the camera do! And it’s a vicious cycle. Reader sees mediocre content, decides not to buy magazine anymore. Advertiser notices circulation going down, cancels her ad. Ads are down, so editor cuts content pages and reins in budget further, deciding that more content must be generated in-house or procured for free, no matter how crappy. Reader notices not only is magazine content increasingly MORE mediocre, but now there’s even less of it. Decides to start her own blog instead. Lather, rinse, repeat.


  5. Last year I was asked by a close friend to contribute to an Irish free magazine for LGBT women. Okay no pay, but that was fine, I’m semi-political and was more than happy to help them. They didn’t have advertising, funded it purely through donations, and genuinely paid noone beyond the printers for anything. Fine.

    I was asked to write about BDSM. Good idea after all it’s where most of my experience lies. So I did. Then tey decided that what I was writing about was too….fluffy to be real BDSM.

    Well the result is my blog. So I learned from that one.


  6. Completely right. Newspapers accept free iphone pics instead of asking a pro . Customers want our work for free but sell theirs … not cheap. Microstock pump our photographer’s blood to make their bread.

    Ban all cheapos. Let’s do a black list of them.

    They kill our work just like they’re killing other activities.

    They want free photos, go get them in China 🙂


  7. Deanna on said:

    The sad thing is, so many people do work for free so it completely devalues us. I’ve been a photographer for 15 years. I do NOT work for free.

    A publication I worked for full time and still freelance for had the audacity to call me and ask to use one of my images for free because they didn’t have a photo budget for this particular pamphlet they were putting together.

    And how exactly is that my problem? My answer was simple, “No, I don’t give away my work”. My work has value, photocredit does not pay the electric bill. Trust me, if it did, I’d have the best Christmas light display EVER!


  8. I suppose they have the right to ask and you have the right to give them a big, resounding NO! I did some free work when I first graduated. It looked nice on my resume and helped me land my first job. Free work can help you when you’re first starting out. Your article made me a laugh because I write for the plumbing industry!


    • Sure, there are always exceptions … if it helps you get your foot in the door and there really IS the prospect of paying work down the line because of it, then it’s the right call. I have also been known to donate my time and work to causes I support, or barter them for something I want.

      Bet the plumbing industry trades pay a whole lot better than the ‘nag mags’!


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  11. “Glad to know I’m not alone…..Thanks for listing the blog posts of the photographers in this situation I’ll be reading them..I have a big heart but also get very angry when I feel taken advantage of (I’m a photographer). You don’t want to come across as heartless but when you are homeless will these people help you? probably not 🙂 and I love the idea of asking: so, is everyone else on the project getting paid? so many times photographers get so abused. I work with animal organizations something so dear to my heart…but where do you draw the line?


  12. On the photography side, even if one (theoretically) had no skills, I don’t know how anyone could assume there’s no cost to camera bodies, lenses, and software to produce a publishable image. How anyone has the chutzpah to ask for freebies is beyond me.


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  15. sara l. on said:

    most americans are so far gone, mentally deranged/cluster ABC mental derangements that their value system is defunct. they really believe that someday, they’re gonna strike it rich by ‘hard’ work, ‘exposure’, etc.. all a us SCAM. say NO to moochers, time vampires, and other do nothings in academia asking for free work, free reviews, free this, free that. tell em to pound sand cheapie.


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