Why write for ‘nothing’?

25 Mar

It’s a question I’ve seen raised a couple of times recently in writing magazines, for example, a writer being invited to write for a local newszine without the offer of payment – should a writer ever write ‘for free’. Now, obviously, as I run a small press that doesn’t pay writers beyond a complimentary copy, I need writers who are willing to let their work be published without a monetary payment in return. But, why should they?

The question, I think, should be less binary. Not ‘should I ever write without being paid’, but ‘where am I in my writing career, what are my aims for my writing and what will I get out of seeing this particular piece published here’ – because not all writers and not all writing is equal. What makes sense for one writer at one specific time or one particular piece of writing will not necessarily make sense for another writer or the same writer at a different point in time or a different piece of writing.

So, why write for ‘free’?

  • Because you just want to see your work in print. Not every writer plans to make a career in writing or will be able to, for a variety of reasons. Writing for a small press or a local magazine might just provide you with the satisfaction you desire. Don’t sell yourself short – if your writing is good, why not profit? But, sometimes, publication is a means to an end in itself.
  • For feedback. New writers generally have some way to go before they have honed their craft and writing for small presses and other non-paying outlets can help you to build to the level required for paying success.
  • To gain exposure. New writers need to gain writing credits and a readership, as well as confidence and contacts. Appearing without pay is one way to build a foundation for your fully-fledged writing career.
  • Other tangible rewards, such as a complimentary copy or entry into a ‘best of magazine’ competition, might be equal in value to the payment that the piece would ellicit elsewhere.
  • Sometimes there are intangible rewards, too, such as getting your name into a prestigious small press publication, having an opportunity to appear alongside writers you admire or appearing in a medium that will impress friends and loved ones, such as a local magazine.
  • To maintain exposure. Unless you really are highly successful and well-known, you need as much exposure as possible to keep your name and your product in view of the market (and even well-known, successful writers can always use a little more publicity). This is a similar idea to giving away free samples. As long as you don’t create a glut that cheapens your brand, appearing for free can be a great way to maintain your profile and gain new readers.
  • Testing the water. A subcategory of exposure. If you are planning a move into a new area, such as a different genre of fiction or from prose to poetry, it can be a good idea to start on a small scale and ensure a readership before taking a drastic leap.
  • To keep the small and local presses alive. They might not pay, but they are a vital aspect of artistic life which needs to be celebrated. Especially if you started in the small presses, it would be nice for successful writers to make the occasional appearance in order to remind people that small and local presses do have value.
  • Recycling. Knowing that they cannot pay, many small presses are willing to consider previously published work. So, if you retain the rights, why not give your work a further lease of life in the small presses? This goes hand-in-hand with maintaining your exposure and also gets the most out of your work once you have made as much money as you can out of it.
  • Unpublishable work. By unpublishable work, I don’t mean terrible writing – reputable small presses won’t touch it either! No, I am referring to work that, for whatever reason, just cannot find a home in mainstream publications. Articles for which no paying hobby magazine exists, stories that do not fit neatly into genre, the vast majority of poetry. Sometimes you have just got to write something to get it out of your head, but it will never make you money. Why waste that time and effort?

If any of those situations applies to you and your writing, why not send it along to a small or local press?

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