The Dangers of “Free” for Writers


We all love to get things for free, right? It’s the best price there is. As a consumer, I love free stuff. But as a writer, I’ve grown to hate it. Why? How can I hate something that’s so obviously good? Because free is rarely good for a working writer.

Free stuff has become the bane of most writers I know. (Note that I’m talking about working, professional writers here. Those who write primarily as a job for income, not for personal reasons.) There is a race to the pricing bottom in everything from books to website content to corporate communications. Everything that uses the written word is engaged in this race, and it’s killing working writers, as well as the quality of work in the marketplace.

What’s going on? First and foremost, I think this comes from the fact that few people consider writing to be a “real job.” Since writing is something most of us have done since kindergarten, there’s an assumption that it’s easy and anyone can do it. Why pay for something you can do yourself?

That attitude spills over into the marketplace. Someone in a corporation says, “I need to write a user manual for our latest product. I don’t have time to do it, so I’ll get someone else to write it. But since it’s so easy to do, I won’t pay them very much, if anything at all. After all, I could do it, I just don’t have the time.”

So they farm out the work. The really good writers quote high numbers, because that’s what the work is truly worth when time and expertise are factored in. But Biggie Corp doesn’t want to pay that much. So they look at the people who are willing to do it for peanuts, or even for free. Heck, maybe they can even shoehorn it into the duties of another employee they already have on the payroll! Result: A crappy user manual. (Or website content, brochure, training materials, etc.) Sadly, Biggie Corp doesn’t really care. The product got out the door with minimal cost. This process repeats the next time, except next time they don’t even entertain offers from the pros. They go straight to the bottom.

This is the danger of “free” for a working writer. And it’s the danger of free for all who value quality written materials. Free or seriously underpriced work puts working writers out of work. It becomes more and more difficult to convince people of the value of quality work when there are so many “free” options out there. Companies and clients refuse to pay a living wage to a writer because they can find someone on the internet to do it for 1/2 penny per word. Or less.

And the free problem is not limited to just freelancers. Writers of book length fiction and non-fiction face the same problems. So many people/publishers give work away, either as a promotional strategy or because they value “reads and hits” over money that consumers refuse to pay for books. “Well, Author X is giving their stuff away for free, why should I pay for this book from Author Y?” This is the road that leads to piracy. People begin to believe that everything should be free. After all, it’s just a story, right? It can’t possibly be worth $10, $15, or even $20, right?

Some people argue, “Just stick to your guns. Refuse to play that game! Charge what you’re worth!” The problem is, it quickly becomes a choice: Either join the race to the bottom, or find a new career.

You can choose to engage in the free war, taking on work for little or no pay. You can delude yourself into thinking that they’ll pay for the next project, that this one freebie is just a way in. Or, you can take on five times as many jobs, working yourself to death to compile a living wage.

The former is wishful thinking. The next project will go to the lowest bidder. They won’t consider you if you demand a living wage because they are conditioned to want free. The latter is just slow suicide, both of your body and your career. How long can you keep up that kind of pace before your body gives out, or you decide that working in retail or food service has to be easier?

Sometimes the choice isn’t even yours. Your publisher puts your work up for free as part of a marketing strategy. It works great… for that one book. But it fails to convert anyone to buy the next book. Why? Because now readers don’t want to pay for it. You’ve created an idea in their head that they shouldn’t have to pay. So they either move on to the next free book, or hit up the piracy sites. In either case, you lose.

Now comes the hard part of this piece. The part where I have to admit that I have no answer. I have no advice to give you on how to deal with the free wave. I’m living through it right now, and I’m afraid it’s pushing me to find other ways to make money. My publisher tried the free thing with Broken Fate. It didn’t work. It’s getting harder and harder to keep clients when they discover that other writers will work for free or close to it. Even when they know I do a good job and hit my deadlines, the focus on the bottom line often leaves me out in the cold.

I don’t know what to tell you to do. It’s easy to say, “Refuse to work for less than you’re worth.”  Unfortunately, in this day and age, that may mean not working at all. My way of dealing with it is to try an educational approach. I try to teach my clients (subtly) about the value of well written work. I try to show them the differences between professional work and “lowest bidder” work. Some of them get it. Some don’t. But trying is all I can do.

That doesn’t help for my fiction, though. Perhaps a self-publishing model is the answer. At least I could control my pricing. But so much self-published work is free, or priced below living wage that I’m not certain that would work, either. There’s the Patreon model which might work, if I could get enough Patreons to generate a living wage. That’s a tall order, however. With so much free content out there, it’s difficult to convince readers to pay for books.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have an answer. All I can say is that the race to the bottom is killing writers who work for an income. I hope that eventually the marketplace will swing back as people realize that, generally speaking, “You get get what you pay for,” quality-wise. Hopefully, readers, users, and others who rely on written communication will begin to demand higher quality work once again. So far that’s not happening. (And I doubt it will. Hiring quality writers will drive up product costs, and end users don’t want to pay. They’d rather muddle through a bad manual than have an extra dollar tacked on to the cost.) But hope is all I have left. At least it’s free.

(Photo courtesy of Jules Marchioni)

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