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Freelancing Is Not For Free

Why You Should Not Write For Free

by Lloyd Brown
Jul 07,2005


Why You Should Not Write For Free

Perhaps you have seen an open call on an online forum your spoke with a small-press publisher at a convention. Maybe you really enjoy a particular setting you saw a group running at your friendly local game store. For whatever reason, you feel a temptation to write a scenario, a 5,000-word setting description, or even a 40-page book for somebody for free.

Don't do it!

By free, I also mean "for PDF rates," which usually equates to a penny a word or less. If you write 3,000 sellable words per day (no mean feat to maintain), that's a $15-30 a day rate for PDF publishers. That rounds to zero in my book. Go volunteer at a homeless shelter instead.

Royalties is a publisher euphemism for "free" or "nothing." They should really come out and say "I can't afford a writer right now. Can you work pro bono?" If a publisher can't afford to pay a writer up front, how much money do you think he's going to spend marketing your book? Yes, marketing. It's that thing that publishers do that sells your book. How much do you think the publisher has budgeted for editing, graphic design, and all of the other elements of book publishing that also impact the book's sales?

(That said, I've had a very rewarding experience working for royalties with Kenzer & Company. They are the exception that does not disprove the rule).

Excuses, Excuses

I know the arguments. I hear them. I have made them myself. Allow me to address each of them point by point.

"It'll get me exposure."

A high-selling PDF currently sells 100 to 200 copies. Low-selling ones might sell a few dozen copies. Electronic products written by people with name recognition can sell higher, but that name recognition takes years to develop. Monte Cook has it. Chris Pramas has it. Ed Greenwood has a warehouse full of name recognition in the Yukon. You don't.

You do not receive any meaningful exposure from this work. If a few dozen people who do not represent the typical print market purchase a PDF that you wrote, those purchases have no impact on your overall marketability. A work like that does not find itself on the desks of paying publishers.

The same concept applies to print products and small-circulation magazines. If you write a supplement for a small-press publisher that sells 1,000 copies, maybe 75% of those will sell through hobby distribution (larger companies sell a higher percentage through distribution as opposed to direct). Those copies tend to cluster in stores that do well with them, as the retailers re-order copies that sell. Your exposure is limited to isolated stores across the country and to direct contact.

Also, name recognition is poor in this industry. Most RPG players don't recognize the names of some of the top writers in this industry. They know Ed Greenwood, but they might not know Greg Costikyan, David Pulver, Robin Laws, or Steve Long -- all amazing writers with excellent credibility among publishers.

Allow me to express the value of exposure another way. A publisher offers you two choices for payment. The first is a flat payment of $6,000. The second choice is $5,000 and your name on the cover. Which do you take?

In nearly all cases, the smart decision would be the extra cash. What if the margin of difference were smaller? Is your name on the cover worth $500? Probably not. Again, most of the readers don't care. If a publisher likes the book and wants to recruit the writer, he knows to turn to the credits page or tap your publisher on the shoulder at the next convention. He doesn't need the cover credit to identify you.

If you wouldn't take an increase in pay of $1,000 or even $500, then it certainly makes no sense for you to write an entire book for that amount in the first place.

"I'll get in on the ground floor."

Of what? More half-penny a word work? These companies need to increase their sales to the point where they can afford to pay writers 10 times their current rate in order for your early efforts to pay off later on. That's not a growth rate you can count on. That's growth that you can hope for, but don't rely on that growth for your business decisions, because 99% of the time, that effort is a waste of time.

"It's good practice."

This argument has some weak merit. The procedure of writing for the small-press companies shares some similarities to writing for people that pay you money. One key point is often missing or trimmed back so you wouldn't recognize it: the editing stage. Many of these people are hiring writers because they don't have writing skill. So, who do they have edit the work? You!

Without an editor's feedback, your skills will not sharpen. The editor can tell you if you need to shorten your work, tighten your focus, remove passive sentences, or otherwise improve your writing skills. Just as importantly, he can help you improve industry-related techniques, like making sure you follow industry or game conventions, help you focus on what elements players like or dislike, and point out inconsistencies or weakness in game design.

If you find yourself writing for small-press publishers in exchange for peanuts, you will find that the only practice you receive is practice at working for free. Working for free is not a skill you want to perfect! It is a skill to avoid. The goal of writing for pay is pay.

"I enjoy doing it."

I cannot bring myself to recommend that you do work you detest. I can only recommend that you do something you love and get paid for it at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. Earning money is not evil. It is not wrong or immoral. You can do both.

What to Do Instead

I have a much better proposal for you if you have the urge to write something and sell it for .01/word.

Re-write it five times, and then sell it for .05/word.

Do the same amount of work in terms of word count, but put five times the effort into it. You'll actually do less than five times the work, because you're only soliciting one piece instead of five. Write it, revise it, and keep revising it until you have a work that you can sell to a reputable source that can afford your skills. Clean up the passive sentences. Make sure the point of view is consistent. If you used the weak device of a fictional narrative (speaking through the voice of a character), try removing it to add punch. If you included game rules, play test them. Spend some time shopping the market to find out who wants it and how much they pay. Polish your query letter.

Not only will you earn the same amount of time for your work, you have accomplished all of your other goals as well. The company with the higher budget for writers almost certainly sells more copies of its books, so you receive that coveted exposure. You get your foot in the door with a reputable publisher, one that is more likely to be around next year than the people that can't afford to pay you. Furthermore, you might learn something from the process, which means that you become a more marketable writer.

Next month's column: When You Should Write for Free

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