Coffee Rhetoric: Taking the FREE out of Freelance

April 19, 2013

Taking the FREE out of Freelance


I've wanted to write this post for a while. I didn't know quite how to go about broaching it, and anyone who follows me on my personal Facebook account or Twitter, knows that I've made my feelings clear about how freelancers—writers, artists, musicians, or  whichever other discipline—are treated by those seeking their services.
Since I’m navigating life as a struggling writer, I’m only offering the perspective of one.  

Despite what you've seen on Sex and The City, life as a freelance writer isn't replete with luxury shoe shopping, cosmopolitan cocktails (hate those, but there is copious red wine swilling though), or afternoons spent typing away in a spacious NYC apartment, clothed in boho chic designer duds. I'm sad to report that Carrie Bradshaw has led some of you hopefuls astray

Unless a writer pens the type of controversial work that guarantees site hits and causes popular digital (or print) magazine editors to produce créme de la leche in their undies, and (thanks to a trust fund) has the luxury of writing about fumbling through a well orchestrated hot-mess life of privilege, sex, drugs, narcissism, rock & roll, and manages to reap the rewards of a lucrative book deal advance from a well-known publisher, it’s not easy.  


Trying to eke out the meager living freelance writing provides, is a constant hustle that’s heavily involved. Waking up every day writing pitches hoping someone will bite; constantly challenging yourself to create even when work is slow or non-existent, distressing over a check that's long overdue, keeping your website updated and up-to-par, indulging creative side-projects, and thankless day-jobs (if you can find one in this market) are the norm until you've truly arrived. And even when you've managed to build a respectable reputation, getting respect from people champing at the bit for your time, work, and energy seems like an exercise in futility. Here’s my petition …

I've been writing for years and blogging since 2004. It’s not something that’s a newly discovered hobby of mine and I've never taken it lightly. It’s a passion I've been honing for a long while. I've been published along the way, have gotten my feet wet within various writing genres, and have developed a ‘writing voice’ that’s unique to me and has become recognizable. At this juncture, I’m finally confident enough to say that I produce quality work and am a pretty damned decent writer. I've done a great deal of it to much acclaim and recognition … and without compensation. But my days of agreeing to give away freebies, have been over for some time. I've earned my stripes, as the saying goes, so it really grinds my gears when people or for-profit publications (print or digital) think they’re entitled to my hard work free of charge, with no reciprocity whatsoever-- (I’m lucky if I can get my hands on a free hard or digital copy of any of the publications I've written for ).  

Some folks believe that writers and artists should be happy to share their work with the masses, and readily accept any opportunity for "the exposure"; which is a grave insult to my intelligence as a writer, particularly since I already have platform(s) on which I showcase my work.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to legitimate projects and to gauge promising opportunities as they’re offered to me, but I no longer do it for free. Messaging me, outlining what you need me to do for your blog or publication, or pitching some collaborative creative idea you’d like me to consider, comes at a cost if I decide to. 

Alas, finally putting my foot down and setting  boundaries has presented some challenges for me, but it’s a non-negotiable issue I refuse to budge on, nevertheless. The cost of my time and work is open for negotiation, however. Particularly since I know, without question, those of you who harbor this sense of entitlement to my work, would scoff at the thought of being asked to work any job for free.

When you contact me for a project, professing to enjoy my work and ask about utilizing my services, and I make an inquiry about deadline, details, and fee and I don’t get a follow-up response from you when you see or hear the word 'fee'; or when you stiff me on services rendered (despite having made a payment agreement with me), or tell me you aren't willing or don't have the budget to pay me, but have every intention of profiting off of what I've provided you, you’re telling me that you have no genuine or vested interest in my time and that you truly don’t value what I do. You're telling me that you think writers are lesser-than. It’s insulting, you’re encroaching on my livelihood.

When journalist Nate Thayer, wrote a blog post about the indignity of being asked to contribute work for free, and shared an email exchange he had with an editor from The Atlantic magazine who wanted him to re-configure a previously written article, so they could republish it. It went viral among writers across the blogosphere. And it prompted the myriad of reactions. Some people felt that Thayer was out of line for putting the editor on-blast and suggested that writing for free isn't such a horrible idea. Others were glad he took a public stand. Personally, it resonated with me and I think it needed to be said. In one of Thayer’s responses, he wrote…
"I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.  (…) I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts.  (…) Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed by how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them.”
Writer Ta-nehisi Coates weighed in on Nate Thayer’s post and seemed to suggest that there was no Golden Age of freelancing for black writers in particular. And while the system between freelance writers and editors isn't perfect, he found value (earlier in his career) in agreeing to write for free because it led to exposure, a platform for him to express his ideas, and other opportunities he presumably wouldn't have had as a black writer trying to make a lucrative living and compete for gigs, until someone (white) in a position of power vouched for him. He essentially thinks freelancers should be paid some nominal fee for their work, but made it clear that he did what he needed to do, free of charge, to get the work and didn't feel put-upon …
“I think journalists should be paid for their work (…) I think it would be a good idea to provide a nominal amount, if only as a token of respect for the work. But more than that, I want more jobs at more publications wherein journalists have the basics of their lives (salary, health care, benefits) taken care of.”
Coates delves further into the matter in a follow-up post.  

Needless to say, being a black woman opinion writer I, more than likely, won’t ever get offered thousands of dollars to write about drug addled exploits and stints in rehab interspersed throughout reviews or opinion pieces. I share perspectives that aren't highly sought after or even popular with the mainstream media platforms, but any work that I openly publish here or wherever else, will probably be ripped off anyway, so I now expect compensation for requested work; especially since it’s hard to come by and because I bust my ass and will often forgo sleep to produce it.

Once upon a time, like Ta-nehisi, I also found some value in giving my intellectual property away for free … until I realized there was and is no longer any value in letting others profit off of it, and that opportunities are (still) sporadic for me. I don't have any media heavyweights to vouch for me, despite having paid my dues, because most people have grown comfortable with getting my work, without any inclination to offer me incentive to continue obliging their requests. 

I've cultivated relationships that have merit, where I have no qualms about contributing work for free because I genuinely enjoy collaborating with these folks, have had a great, mutually beneficial professional relationship with them in the past, and usually because the respect cuts both ways; so I'll gladly contribute to their platforms or projects gratis, especially if I believe in what they're doing. Each writer must essentially chart the path that works best for them. I've finally reached the point in my writing life and have earned the right to deserve to be compensated for my work.


When you think you're automatically due free content from experienced writers, and are offering us some sort of favor by employing the "but it's exposure" argument, you’re contributing to a growing culture that doesn't respect us or that doesn't encourage diversity or opportunities for those of us trying to make a living. I've provided more than enough freebies, so giving away my work to for-profit media or any other money-making entity that thinks they’re going to benefit from my hard work, is no longer an option.  

Besides, coffee and red wine doesn't pay for itself.