Often overlooked in the controversy is investing in one’s own work and career for a later financial win.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images; Courtesy of Anchor
If you are a writer and in the business of instant financial gratification, more power to you.
Most writers are not there yet.
Stephen King was not always there, either.
Doubleday purchased hardcover rights to King’s “Carrie” in the spring of 1973 for an advance of $2500 against royalties. Released on April 5, 1974, the book sold modestly. The 26-year-old Hampden Academy high school English teacher, however, who had previously written three other novels that had not sold — Rage, The Long Walk, and Blaze — saw his fortunes increase exponentially when New American Library purchased the paperback rights to “Carrie” for $400,000, a fee that would be contractually split with Doubleday.
The hardcover sold 13,000 copies. The paperback, released the following year, sold over a million copies. Signet, a division of New American Library, published a film tie-in version to Brian De Palma’s hit 1976 film adaptation, and sales increased all the more.
King wrote four novels on spec before selling his first and becoming a multi-million-dollar brand not long after.
What happened from there is the stuff of legend.
It is now nearly 2021. It is no longer 1973 (which gives pause to this old-timer who fiercely misses his leisure suits). The world has changed; publishing has changed along with it, as has every writing-related field.
Our pandemic has altered our collective literary dynamic still further.
This is an article that should not need to be written. However, the wrong message is being sold to aspiring writers, and I am compelled to vocally state the flaw of that message in my argument.
King, like most novelists and screenwriters in the early stages of their careers, wrote on speculation, meaning he wrote for himself — for free — in the interests of selling his work later.
No different than most any debut author.
So, when one emphatically states to newer writers to NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES write for free, the message received can be mixed at best and career-killing at worst.
You may say in return, “Come on, Joel. Writers know the difference between writing for themselves and being taken advantage of by writing for someone else for free.”
Perhaps, but within that mindset of yours consider this favor: Don’t ever assume.
If what you say is true, it would not happen so damn much.
A Matter of Semantics
We may well be saying the same thing.
But you really do not want to leave any room for doubt.
The questions that should be asked, then, which are in truth based on little more than semantics, are the following: 1) When is it not okay to write for free? and 2) When is it okay to write for free?
Understand it’s all about the message and, at times, within that equation there are shades of gray.
When is it Not Okay to Write for Free?
- When asked by an individual or production company to write a script, for example, and the individual or company has no track record. Counter: If as a writer you elect to take a chance in this regard, be sure to retain an attorney to review your agreements — which you should always do anyway — and be certain you retain 100% of the rights to the work, in perpetuity, until or unless you are paid by said individual or company.
- When a publisher proactively asks you to write a book for no upfront cost and only the promise of a royalty moving forward. Sounds ridiculous? It’s not. There are publishing companies out there that prey on newer writers to build a catalog. Your work must be valued, otherwise you risk becoming unhirable and known as free labor.
- On a related note, many if not most of you know to stay away from any company that charges reading fees. Similarly, do not set up your work with a self-publishing company that will supply you with “marketing materials” such as utterly useless bookmarks that will not help you sell a thing. This is amateur hour. Work on your craft as often as you can, and smarten up to the business. Writing for free is already a polarizing issue; paying a company to sell your work may well be a crime.
When it is Okay to Write for Free?
- When you write for yourself on spec, or even if you write but have no desire to sell your work.
- When you write for online content pages (Medium, Vocal, News Break) that pay based on an internal algorithm, such as number of hits an article or story receives. Do you risk making nothing, or literal pennies? You do. Can you earn well into the six-figures writing for online pages as your following builds? You absolutely can. Do I write for these outlets? I do. Do I earn money upfront? No. Do I need to write for these outlets for financial reasons? I do not. I choose to write for content pages and earn a very nice side income for the same reasons I spend entirely too much time on Facebook: I enjoy doing so, and it builds my brand.
- Here is something else I will ask you to appreciate: Every time you write a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn post, you are writing for free. And there is nothing wrong with that as you are building your exposure, and hopefully your brand. Writers give advice on social media pages constantly. Many group pages are devoted to sharing information. Do not be hypocritical with your efforts. If you are writing on social media for free, you can certainly write novels and screenplays on spec — until you no longer have to — without standing on ceremony.
- You are an independent filmmaker who wants to maintain control of your creative vision.
I see far too many writers worried about plying their trade for free. Frankly, how the hell is a writer supposed to perfect their craft if they do not diligently practice?
For those of you who have taken writing courses, in school or elsewhere, were you not writing for free?
A writer typically does not get paid to practice. Yes, there are exceptions … as there more answers to prove that point to the above two questions.
I would like for you to do yourselves a favor, though: Do not stress. Write for free … but only when you believe you have to write for free. That’s your call, not mine. I strongly suggest you follow the above guidelines, however. Smarten up, beware of unscrupulous jackasses looking to make a buck off you, and do not be a mark for others based on your talent.
Many writers have built lucrative careers by prudently networking and at times engaging in partnerships with those who could influence their futures.
Never quickly say “no” because you emotionally feel as though you are supposed to. Just check your savvy and your open mind in equal measure before proceeding.
Thank you for reading.