In this continuation of my previous post on writing for free, I’m going to look at one more instance when it’s time to say no to not getting paid for your work.

In Part 1 of this post, I mentioned two situations where you should move on from writing for free to getting paid:

1) When you’ve already done free work for a “customer” and they want you to continue working for free

2) When you already have several writing credits to your name

Please refer back to Part 1 for the details on these two scenarios.

A third and final instance I want to mention is…

When you’ve already built a platform or created a brand for yourself. Now, you’re probably thinking, How can I create a platform or brand if I don’t have much writing experience yet? But the truth is, branding has become so important for a writer, that many are doing this first before they ever begin to start trying to get published.

I have heard of many writers who did not start out as writers, but rather as experts in their field. So, they built up a blog or a website, many even held workshops on their topic, and did all they could to become the “go-to” person for their area of expertise. Then, once people knew who they were, they started writing for magazines and then eventually books.

Depending on your subject area, this is a very feasible way to go, especially in today’s viral market. And, once you have established yourself to the point where you do have some name recognition and have begun to build a decent platform of exposure (through speaking engagements and so forth), you will have some leverage when approaching publishers.

You may not have writing credits to your name, but you can approach a publisher by letting them know how many followers you have on your various social media avenues, plus how many speaking engagements you do every month or year. In essence, you’re telling that publisher, “People know my name, and if they are interested in the subject I will be writing about for your magazine, they will come to you to read it.” Having a built-in following before you ever approach a publisher gives you a good case for getting paid for your work.

A great example of this is a now-author I know who began experimenting with a food fast. She wanted to clean up her body and kick-off a major lifestyle change. She had tried many different kinds of fasts, but chose one referred to as the Daniel Fast, after the story of Daniel in the Bible, who basically only ate fruits and veggies and nuts and seeds, despite the king’s offer of giving Daniel the best meats and “delicacies” he had available.

She recorded every single thing she ate as well as how she was doing psychologically and physically during this fast. She blogged about it, tweeted about it, even set up a website for recipes. After a period of time (a few months, I believe), she had so many people following her blog, asking her about her recipes, and trying the fast for themselves, she decided to turn her experience into a book.

She got picked up by a publisher because they could see how much interest there was in her subject, and since she had been though it herself, she was an expert so to speak, in this type of fast. She was not a writer before this experiment, but she is now. We are seeing this more and more in the publishing world.

The point of all of this is to say, don’t think you have to continue to write for free. If you have the credentials, and you have the experience, and people want to hear what you have to say, you should get paid for saying it!

Recently I was asked by a writer friend, “How long do I have to keep writing for free?” I told her, “That’s up to you.” I guess that wasn’t the answer she was expecting, because she gave me quite a surprised look. Maybe you’ve got that same look on your face right now! So, let me explain…

Many people in the writing/publishing business (myself included) will tell you to accept pro bono jobs when you’re starting out and trying to get yourself on the map as a legitimate writer. I still agree this is a good idea. It’s the same principle as a new business in town giving away samples of their products or services for a limited time so their prospective market will take a chance and experience them.

There’s nothing wrong for a writer to offer to do an article for free–perhaps in exchange for a link to his website and a bio. Or, to give away some copywriting expertise to a local business in order to gain exposure and build a resume. Not only is it not wrong; it’s smart business. But at some point, you need to draw the line and start collecting money for your work. So, when do you know when to start saying no?

Here are a few scenarios when you should cross over that line:

  • When you’ve already done free work for a “customer” and they want you to continue working for free. I will usually give the same customer two freebies, depending on the nature of the job. If it’s extremely time consuming, or if it didn’t seem to produce much exposure for my work, then I will only give away one job. But, after working for someone twice for free, they need to start paying!

The exceptions to this are if you’re working for an organization you care about and just want to help them promote themselves, or if the company is offering you a consistent gig that will not consume too much of your time. I have worked for free writing a monthly article for a nonprofit but only because it didn’t take very long for me to write. I was able to build my business alongside this free job, and all the while I was accumulating writing credits.

The problem with continuing to give away your work for free to the same customer is that the longer you do it, the harder it becomes to tell that customer they need to start paying. (This is similar to the problem with ideologies like Socialism, but that’s for another blog.) But, the truth is, if they liked your work enough to ask you to do something else for them, then they should pay for it. And, deep down they know this; and more often than not, they are waiting for you to call them on it. Chances are, they won’t say anything if you don’t.

So…how do you transition a client from nonpaying to paying?

One thing I’ve done in the past is to set up an escalating fee scale with my pro-bono customer. After I did my first freebie and they decided they liked my work enough to ask me to write for them again, I proposed a payment scale that started out at 50% of what I would normally charge for that particular job. The pay increased 10% every time I did a job, until we reached my full pay rate. So it took 6 jobs for me to reach my full pay rate, but at least I was making money, and we were moving in the right direction! And, they agreed that as long as they were happy with the work, it was worth it for them.

Another way to handle moving from a nonpaying to a paying customer is to negotiate a contract (make sure it’s written and signed) stipulating that you will do 2 or 3 freebies, but then you get paid at a certain rate for 2 or 3 more jobs (or whatever terms you can agree on).

  • When you already have several writing credits to your name. This is the case with the writer friend of mine whom I mentioned in my opening paragraph. She’s been published in magazines and online a few times now (all for free), but continues to accept more nonpaying jobs.

Once you have published work, especially in print media, future publishers really should not be asking you to write for free. There will always be nonpaying markets–both in print and online–but you will know going into a job whether it pays or not. Once I had a few published pieces, I no longer submitted my work to nonpaying markets. Now again, there are reasons why you might:

–It’s a market you really want to break into, because you know it could lead to other opportunities or because it will give you a chance to do something out of your niche. When I first started writing for kids, I took a couple nonpaying jobs because it was new for me. I wanted a chance to prove myself as a children’s writer, so even though I already had writing credits, I did some children’s work for free to gain exposure in that market.

–It will give you an opportunity to promote yourself or your work by offering bios, website links, or book promotions. In the past, I have traded the chance to get paid for an article with the opportunity to promote my book and my website because that was more important to me at that time.  Many magazine markets are willing to do this if you have an article that will fit the theme of their magazine.

Once you have published credits and have experience to put on your resume, limit your search to paying markets (unless you have a good reason not to, as mentioned above), and send those publishers clips of your work and your resume when you submit your query letter or manuscript. If an opportunity comes to you where the business owner/publisher does not want to pay for your services, you should send them clips of the published work you’ve already done, along with a rate sheet for the type of services they’re asking for. That should give them the hint that you don’t work for free. If it doesn’t, then it will be up to you to tell them or…take yet another nonpaying job.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will continue the discussion on when you should say no to nonpaying jobs.