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Is It Worth Writing for Free?

In my most recent book giveaway on Goodreads, I opened the contest up to Canadians, Aussies, and Brits. It was an experiment of sorts because I had no idea what postage is like to those places. Well, of the three winners, one was from Great Britain. The postage to send one copy of The Telling to someone in GB was $11.62. This doesn’t count the cost of the book.

Or the cost of packaging.

Or the time (and gas) it took to drive to the post office and back.

Or all the time and money and hard work that’s gone into my writing career in general.

But someone in Great Britain will soon have a copy of my book. Not to mention the 990-plus people who entered the contest, showed interest in the story, and now have my name floating around in the dark recesses of their brain.

I haven’t made a lot from writing. Not yet. Yes, I received two modest advances. But I’ve yet to crack the royalties threshold. Perhaps by next year. My ebook novella, Winterland, has done pretty well. Although at .99 a copy, I’ll have to sell a lot more before I can move to my dream house in Malibu Canyon. And between money invested in conferences, books, and writing supplies, and time spent blogging, interacting with authors and readers, at this point, it’s pretty much a wash.

Most of the authors I associate with are somewhere in this limbo between writing for free and actually seeing the monetary fruits of their labor. I’m not shy about saying I want to make money writing and blogging. I’ve never been hip to writing “for the love of the game.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’m entitled to anything. Rather, I am writing for free on my way to getting paid.

Earlier this year, my agent mulled this question in a post entitled Do Authors Have a Right to Be Paid? She was referencing an interview with Seth Godin on the future of publishing. This is the snippet she highlighted:

Rivera: Many authors hear your message about being willing to give away their books for free, or to focus on spreading their message but their question is: “I’ve got rent to pay so how do I turn that into cash money?”

Godin: Who said you have a right to cash money from writing? I gave hundreds of speeches before I got paid to write one. I’ve written more than 4000 blog posts for free.

Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage. The future is going to be filled with amateurs, and the truly talented and persistent will make a great living. But the days of journeyman writers who make a good living by the word – over.

Godin is not suggesting we just randomly give stuff away for free, but that we spend the time deserving to be paid.

We should write for free as a means to getting paid.

Sometimes I wonder if self-publishing confuses this issue, it gives us the false sense that everybody deserves to get paid for what they write. However, I’m not entitled to be paid for anything. Writers and bloggers are not owed a living. They must earn it like everybody else. And in this wide open market, the competition is fierce. Simply put, if your writing is valuable enough to enough people, the market will reward you.

So until then, I’ll keep logging blogging miles, chugging away on new stories, and sending books to Great Britain.

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{ 36 comments… add one }
  • Katherine Coble October 10, 2012, 5:52 AM

    Heh. I’ve been paid to write and I’ve written for free.

    Few things gripe me more than the attitude that so many writers have these days (especially the great swathes of them from the Millenial Generation) that their time and talent is so rare and golden that if they aren’t paid the rest of the world is broken.

    Writing is a thing where there is much more supply than demand, so the demand sets the price. There’s also, in many cases, a huge gap between a person’s self-perceived talent and their actual work.

    My latest peeve is the meme floating around various author fora, Facebook and blogs. Writers are complaining loudly and long when those who receive free copies of their work don’t “even bother to take the time to write a review.”

    The world does not owe you a parade. Especially if you’re a writer. But if you keep doing what you’re doing you’ll find that the rewards do come. Often they come in ways that surprise you.

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller October 10, 2012, 11:06 AM

      If Mike had thumbs up or likes for the comments, I’d have hit the button, Katherine. Especially this: “There’s also, in many cases, a huge gap between a person’s self-perceived talent and their actual work.”


  • Jay DiNitto October 10, 2012, 5:53 AM

    I remember a few years back there was a big surge in the web/graphic design community, against the tide of “design contests”, for an entity’s new logo or website. Designers were tired of doing work for free. Sometimes it has to happen, especially when just starting out, but eventually you have to gauge whether your production calls a legitimate market price.

    The solution was simple, though: if you don’t want to do something for free, then don’t. But you may have to in order to get somewhere. Basically, what you said in the post.

    And, I cringed when you invoked the “r” word. I personally think someone doesn’t have a right to someone else’s property (in this case, money) unless it’s voluntary.

  • Gina Burgess October 10, 2012, 5:58 AM

    Gosh, Mike, it cost me $15.65 to send my book for “free” to a reviewer in Great Britain. Your postage was cheap 😀

    Yes. It is worth it to write for free. I’ve been writing seriously since 2005 and have not gotten paid more than what I’ve spent. My blogging and my columns on LiveAsIf.org are because I cannot keep from writing what God is putting in my heart. It’s this thing that is inside me that fights to get out and if I don’t write I go into a horrible funk, depression washes through me and takes my joy. Writing is something I have to do.

    I emailed Jon Acuff and asked him how he got 30,000 followers so quickly. He emailed me and told me that as soon as I write 50,000 words on my blog, spend and hour a day on Twitter, and yada yada, I’d have 30,000 followers, too. Ha!

    But, the things that keep me going are those emails from people around the world who tell me that a few words in a post helped them through a dark night, through a lonely day, through the sorrow of family conflict and other times when Jesus seems far away.

    It’s for God’s glory. That is enough for me.

    Engraved in His palm,

  • Steve Rzasa October 10, 2012, 6:00 AM

    “Simply put, if your writing is valuable enough to enough people, the market will reward you.”

    I agree entirely, Mike. My writing is always in need of improvement, and each book I aim to make better than the last. Working full time and writing makes that extra challenging.

  • Michael Snyder October 10, 2012, 6:08 AM

    Stellar post, Mike. My advice has always been (even though I don’t always believe it) has been to write for the love of it, get a little better every day, and never apologize for (eventually) getting paid for it.

    I’ve written for free (doing it right this second, in fact) and I’ve been paid pretty well for it a few times. And although I like cashing checks better than not cashing checks, the experience of writing–the thing that I ostensibly do for the ostensible love of it–is not improved one teensy bit by getting paid for it. I can honestly say a) that the experience of writing, as well as having written, trumps the paycheck, and b) I REALLY like getting paychecks too.

    Write for free? Absolutely. Get paid for it? For sure. But you still have to EARN the paycheck, the advance money, and/or the royalties.

    • Michael Snyder October 10, 2012, 7:38 AM

      Btw…a while back I realized I had fallen out of love with writing and stopped for about 18 months. Now I’m back in the proverbial saddle with renewed expectations (some higher,most lower) and waiting for infatuation to blossom into fullblown adoration again.

      I’m sure I’ll “pay” a hefty “price” for taking all that time off. But it’s what needed to happen.

      Also, “hating” writing is just as good and healthy and productive as “loving” it. It’s all that wishy washy middle ground I cannot abide!

      • Mike Duran October 10, 2012, 6:32 PM

        Mike, it’s great to see you back in the loop! What kind of writing projects are you currently working on?

        • Michael Snyder October 10, 2012, 6:51 PM

          I’m literally starting over…blocking and tackling and all that. Working on a short story, building a blog, noodling around on Twitter. Mainly just enjoying that childlike wonder that used to motivate me to write all those long hours before.

          • Virginia Hernandez October 11, 2012, 5:14 PM

            I, for one, am glad to see you back Mike 🙂

            • Michael Snyder October 11, 2012, 5:50 PM

              Well, you’re way too nice Gina. But I’ll take it!

  • Nicole October 10, 2012, 6:40 AM

    Competition is ultra stiff. Marketing is a black hole. Most writers would prefer a paycheck as their “reward”. We write for free because we must to “earn” our recognition, to find those of like tastes, to keep doing what we feel called and/or compelled to do. Good post.

  • Jessica Thomas October 10, 2012, 7:15 AM

    This post and the following comments are brutal. The truth hurts. Goodness, I’d like an extra 2k to pave my weed infested driveway! (My poor neighbors.)

    My short term monetary goals are relatively small (see above) but I’ve yet to make more than a couple bucks for my writing.

    Is it worth it to *me* to write for free? I wonder this more often than I’d like to admit, but I suppose it is worth it because I’ve done it for so long. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t dream of sustaining myself off my writing one day, if only in my (early) retirement.

    As for writing for the “love” of it? Perhaps I’ve grown cynical because the idealism behind that whole idea makes me a bit nauseated. Or maybe I have too many other interests begging for my attention. Of all my creative talents, however, I think I excel most at writing and God put the desire in my heart very early, so I take these two signs as evidence that I should stick with it.

    Do I thinked skilled (operative wors) artists should work for free? Absolutely not. Does the majority of the buying public seem to think they should work for free? Sure seems like it, especially in this digital age.

    At times this writing gig feels like mental prostitution, but that analogy is flawed. Prostitutes get paid.

  • Fred Warren October 10, 2012, 7:17 AM

    Most of my recent book purchases have been prompted by an impression made from “free” writing…stories published online in free venues, blog posts, etc. Much more effective with me than advertisements and other marketing appeals, which I tend to ignore as noise.

    Hang in there, Mike. You’re playing fine AAA ball and I won’t be surprised when you get called up to the majors. 🙂

    • Mike Duran October 10, 2012, 6:39 PM

      Ha! So that’s what this is… Triple A league.

      • Fred Warren October 11, 2012, 11:39 AM

        I, on the other hand, am playing utility infielder in the church softball league.

        It’s just a silly metaphor I use when racking and stacking authors of my acquaintance. Two people I tagged as “AAA players” three years ago, who were in positions comparable to yours, ended up with Hugo and Campbell Award nominations and multi-book deals with major publishers.

        Then again, I root for the K.C. Royals.

  • Melissa Ortega October 10, 2012, 7:30 AM

    Someone would have to pay me a fortune to *stop* writing! And I wouldn’t want a penny from my labour until it was warranted. That’s why I will never self publish.

  • sally apokedak October 10, 2012, 7:38 AM

    Jesus preached for free and he was supported by a bunch of rich women.

    I think writers do deserve to be paid–don’t muzzle the ox, and all that. If someone is speaking to me and providing me with nourishment or benefit, I should pay him. I hit the pay pal button on the wordpress plugins I love, too. I believe I should pay the workman his wages.

    But I also believe I should write for free and leave it up to God if people pay or not. As long as God is providing for my daily needs, I can keep on writing.

    If he created us to write, then we ought to write, whether we get paid or not.

  • Nikole Hahn October 10, 2012, 8:30 AM

    I’ve been struggling with the issue of whether to write for the secular or Christian market now after being told three times by agents how hard it is to sell Spec Fiction in the Christian market and yet in the secular it’s all you see or hear about is fantasy. It’s popular; just not in our circles. I’m sending in my spec christian piece to one more publisher, but then, I will be setting it aside for a year so I can have fresh eyes on it. Meanwhile, I am beginning a new novel, but not sure if I should keep it secular or go christian spec? Any advice here?

    • Nikole Hahn October 10, 2012, 8:51 AM

      By the way, the post on market questions was supposed to be on the Christian Ezine. Sorry. I read both posts in chimpmail. LOL. I’ll copy and paste and post this comment in the other post.

  • Nikole Hahn October 10, 2012, 8:32 AM

    I do agree with your post, too. I love writing, but want to make money blogging and writing eventually. Seth is right. We earn our right. We build our platform, be authentic with our readers, and write because it’s a calling. Eventually, being persistent I believe will bear fruit.

  • Jessica Thomas October 10, 2012, 8:33 AM

    “But I also believe I should write for free and leave it up to God if people pay or not. As long as God is providing for my daily needs, I can keep on writing.”

    I’m conflicted over this sentence. Yes, God ultimately provides, and some he provides for without requiring work, but those who are able bodied, he requires us to work in order to have a roof, a bed, and food. Why should writing be separated from other forms of work for which individuals get paid?

    Perhaps this goes back to the question…Is writing a “higher” calling (is it akin to preaching/teaching/ministering), and if we assume so as writers, are we thinking to highly of ourselves? As if taking tolls at a toll booth is somehow not as honoring to God and His kingdom as the pursuit of writing?

    • sally apokedak October 10, 2012, 8:56 AM

      You can replace writing with anything in that sentence, as far as I’m concerned. If God made me to make shoes and I can make my neighbor’s life better by making shoes for him and he doesn’t pay me, that’s between him and God. He should pay me. But as long as God is giving me my daily bread, I will keep making shoes regardless of whether my neighbor pays me or not.

      If God has given us a skill to help others, we can’t be happy if we don’t freely give that away, I don’t think. We Christians don’t need to worry about being paid for our services. God will take care of us if we work hard at the work he’s given us to do.

      On the other hand there are shoemakers and writers who are not good but they keep thinking that God has called them to do those things. They are mistaken, probably. God has not gifted them in those areas. Sometimes when you can’t sell you need to say, “Oh, I guess God never gifted me in this area.”

      But not always. Sometimes you put out quality product and people love it and they take it for free and they tell all their friends, but they simply don’t pay for it. If that’s the case, I say don’t sweat it. God will provide.

    • Michael Snyder October 10, 2012, 9:08 AM

      Pressfield and others will claim that creative work, writing in particular, is THE most difficult work in the world to do. Sometimes it feels like it. But my guess is that it’s no more (or less) difficult than pursuing a career as a surgeon or football player or an app developer or CFO or customer service manager for a cell phone company.

      Writing is hard work because it’s worth doing…for me, but not for everybody.

      As for the higher calling, I always have to relate these things to my children. I’d rather one of my kids become a noble toll booth operator than a selfish writer any day, no matter what it pays.

      And I certainly esteem great writers, maybe to a fault. But I like Francis Chan’s take…the question isn’t really “What is the Lord’s will for my life?” But rather, “What’s His will for the next five minutes?” I’d much rather God deem me a “writer” so I can set about the “important” work of getting all my thoughts on paper. However, His less comfortable instruction may be, “write today, fish tomorrow, collect coins on Friday…”

  • Patrick Todoroff October 10, 2012, 2:27 PM

    “Cast your stories upon the water…” ?

    I’ve sent copies of my books to the UK, South Africa, Canada, various Contiguous States, and a couple countries in Eastern Europe. And I suspect I’ll be doing it again and again. It’s part of the long-term investment.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write full-time, but my books keep selling so I figure Earn as you Learn is a heck of a lot better than Pay as you Go.

  • Iola October 10, 2012, 2:49 PM

    Mike – would it have been cheaper to buy the book on Amazon.co.uk and deliver it to the winner as a gift? Then post a signed bookplate or similar, so they still got the effect of an author-signed copy.

    Or offer ebooks as prizes to non-US/Canada residents. As long as you make it clear in the competition that this is what you’re doing, no one is going to mind. We’re all just grateful to get a free book!

  • Lyn Perry October 10, 2012, 3:57 PM

    I charge 1 cent a word. Can you send me 12 cents?

  • sally apokedak October 10, 2012, 6:53 PM

    Hey…why am I on moderated status? I wasn’t even offensive in this thread. 🙂

    • Mike Duran October 10, 2012, 7:01 PM

      I’m screening Calvinists from now on. 😉

      • Marc Schooley October 10, 2012, 9:44 PM

        Screened again, and I purposely did *not* comment on the Fatherhood of God thread. 🙂

        Good stuff you got goin’ here, Mike, free or not…

  • Tim George October 11, 2012, 12:26 PM

    Good thoughts on a tough topic for serious writers. Getting paid for one’s work is, after all, the way, one can eat enough to maintain the strength to write some more.

    Suspect that I might be on that screening list as well but that’s fine with me. I have serious reservations about the value of cyber doctrinal discussions.

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