My Pay off for Writing for Free

When I read the same message three times in one week from different sources it gets my attention. Apparently the message is not to write for Huffington Post… at least not for free.

The most pointed of these messages came in the current issue of Authors Guild Bulletin in which Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson questions the benefits of writing for HuffPo. In her message, Writing for Free, Robinson acknowledges that venues like Huffington Post do provide writers with more access to readers. However, she believes that these readers get attached to the ideas presented and rarely remember the authors who created the work. Thus, the writer loses and the only winner is the big internet companies who benefit from all of those clicks that come as a result of its free content. “They count clicks and sell ads and pay salaries and give big bonuses because of your brilliant phrases and your dazzling ideas and thought-provoking comments, all of which you’ve given them for nothing,” Robinson stated.

She makes her point and from a financial win/lose perspective it makes sense… if that is your only framework. I do not make my living as a writer. Although indirectly as a university professor (now in administration) I have undergone the publish or perish process and did manage to publish successfully enough to achieve tenure and keep my job. I also write outside of academia and have been paid for my essays and articles, and I receive royalties from books that have been traditionally published and those that have been self-published. My writings have led to many speaking engagements for which I have also been paid. And I have written for Huffington Post since 2009 for free.

So when I read the admonishment, “The thing is, the more we write for nothing, the more people think that’s just what we deserve,” I took pause to reflect. Was I diminishing myself as a writer by sharing my ideas in this space? And by doing so was I also cheapening and casting disregard on professional writers? Am I being duped by the big online companies who want me to write for free?

I can only answer each of these questions for myself. My response is clearly no, nope, nah. I made a decision to have a career that would allow me to use my professional skills and get paid on a regular basis in order to pay my bills and live the kind of lifestyle that I desire to live. Doing so affords me the benefit of increasing my choices for how my written work can be disseminated. As a writer, especially as an African-American woman writer, I want to have many choices for how I share my ideas, especially since the gatekeepers of the publishing world in the U.S. are overwhelmingly White. Among those choices are writing and disseminating my work without expectation of monetary compensation.

Writing for free is not without benefits:

  1. It allows me to add my voice into meaningful conversations on current hot topics in a timely manner.
  2. It allows me to sharpen my thinking on a topic and track my progression of an idea. I could do this in a journal but when I publish my work, I have the benefit of receiving feedback, both positive and negative, from all different kinds of folks outside of my immediate circle.
  3. I often write about race relations, a prickly topic for discussion and one from which the general reading audience experiences fatigue when they are exposed to reading about it on a regular basis. As a result, traditional publishers limit the number of times and the space they will commit to articles about race. Huffington Post has entire sections written by a diverse group of contributors on topics of interest to many different identity groups. The articles in these sections are written for the benefit of us all. I can write about race when there isn’t a national race crisis and submit it to the Black Voices editor. I can also read topics important to a number of diverse groups every day of the week and not have to wait for special editions.

I agree with Roxana Robinson on one point. I have never had any expectation that people will buy one of my books as a result of reading my posts (although I am thrilled if they do). But I don’t agree that writing for free is without benefit. We know from the research outlined by Daniel Pink on what motivates people that money is not a key motivator for why we do something. Autonomy, mastery and self-direction are what drive us. This sums up why so many writers, like myself, exercise the option to write for free.

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