As ‘tis the season of goodwill and generosity of spirit I thought I would write about an issue that seems of late to have been hotly debated within the writing community. That is, whether writers should ever work for free. Personally, I’ve always accepted that working ‘pro bono’ was all part of the rites of passage of a writer. However, I have read some very passionate arguments from (mostly younger generation) writers who feel that this process devalues their talents and takes advantage of them.
The main arguments tend to be that working for free is unreasonable because it is unique to the creative industries and not applied to other equally skilled professions. Or, as I heard it put in a recent debate, ‘try advertising for a plumber to come to your house and fix your toilet for no money but ‘great exposure’ and see how far you get’.
There are two issues with that statement. Firstly, the idea that only the creative industries require people to work for free is simply not true. Ask anyone working in the corporate world about work experience and internships. Secondly, the ‘plumber’ argument speaks for itself. Such an advert for a plumber would probably not get many (any?) responses. And therein is the problem with writing. It is a hugely over-subscribed industry. That is, thousands more people want to do it than the industry can absorb. There simply are not enough jobs in writing for everyone who wants one. Therefore, simple market forces dictate that where there is a supply surplus, prices for the service decrease. The reason the same thing would not work with plumbers is that such an advert would not lead to a queue of hundreds of eager plumbers needing the experience.
Of course, one argument is that if all writers simply refused to work for free then employers would be forced to pay. Perhaps, but that is not going to happen. Why? Because doing some free work does have advantages and there will always be someone willing to take the financial hit in the short term for longer term career gain.
To be clear, I am not saying you should always work for free. If you feel undervalued and wish to only provide a service for those who pay, that’s fair enough and good luck to you. Personally, I have only begun to get paid to write over the last year and a half or so. I am positive that would not have happened without a portfolio of work, produced for no payment, to demonstrate a track record at a certain level.
My advice, for what little it is worth, would be to choose your unpaid work carefully. Accept only those projects which you will either get pleasure from, or because you think it will be of benefit to you later down the line. These benefits could be by way of building a portfolio to show to perspective employers, or working with someone whose work you admire and who you feel can open doors for you. Always ask yourself, in the nicest possible way, ‘what’s in this for me?’ If the answer is ‘nothing’ it is perfectly reasonable to turn down the work. But in this industry, experience is everything. No-one is interested in qualifications, it is all about showing what you can do. Sometimes, the only way to do that is to do it for free.