Should writers write for free?

Something has come up in the last few days which has got Plot Bunnies riled, and once more we are thinking about the commercial and artistic value of what we write. The group received an email from a lady who was inviting us to submit writing to be displayed on a website. A news portal, of sorts, though it wasn’t one we’d heard of. She began the email with the generic (and rather annoying) greeting “Dear Writer”, and went on as follows. (I have left out the name of the website, as there is no need to name names here.)

Dear Writer

We are [blah.com] Blah has numerous functions one of which is a unique news delivery system, delivering unbiased local, national and International 24hr news and sport, along with engrossing, fascinating, riveting, interesting and fun featured articles.

Blah encourages and enables people like you, to report your local and national news or share your opinions, tell your story! have that grumble?
or simply just write for sheer pleasure on the things that annoy you, thrill you and interest you. You can enhance your article further by uploading your videos and images to accompany your articles and make them even more attractive.

Blah is seeking writers and bloggers to compose articles and blog about all of our blah divisions such as culture, food and drink, weird, lifestyle, tech, pets, home and garden, business and travel.

Blah writers and bloggers can cover an array of topics in their chosen field up to a maximum of 500 words.

It’s completely free and who knows could lead you on to literary greatness!

So why not connect and grow your audience even faster via our readers, currently reading ½ million blah pages per month. We can also help push
your articles out on all the major social media platforms.

If you are interested in writing and blogging with [blah.com] and share our passion for writing and guest blogging why not visit us online now and
set up a completely free writer’s profile or for and informal chat and more information on how to write on blah call us on [number deleted]
(Monday to Friday 10:00am – 17:00pm)

Regards

Team Blah

This all looks, to the layman, very interesting (if poorly written), but there was one thing Plot Bunnies wanted to know before passing the information on to our members:

Hi [Blah],

Before I pass this on to my members, can I ask how much you pay contributors?

Thank you

The reason I asked this was because nowhere in the original email was there any mention of payment for contributing writers, which immediately aroused my suspicions. After all, too many companies these days seem to believe it is fine to offer writers no more than ‘a platform’ for their writing and think they will be ‘grateful’ for the exposure that being published online (or in print) may bring. However, there is a problem. Once you have written something for no payment, it tends to set a precedent. Because if you write for nothing, you have immediately devalued your own work. And once you, the writer, have devalued your own work, the people running these websites and publications begin to find ways to avoid paying writers at all. After all, you’re grateful, right? You’ll do anything to get published, even if it means giving your work away for free.

A few times is fine. Plot Bunnies have no gripe with getting a few bylines under your belt, so that you can start making yourself a back catalogue. But a word of advice: if there is a clause in the terms and conditions which means that, by sending them your work, you relinquish all rights, now and in the future, to offer the same piece of work to another publication or website, do not send them anything. Such wording may look like this, which blah.com assure us is “industry standard”, without which clause, they say, they would not be able to publish your writing.

When you submit content to us, you agree and represent that you have created that content and/or images, or you have received permission from, or are authorised by, the owner of any part of the content to submit it to Blah.com

You or the owner of the content still own the copyright in the content sent to us, but by submitting content to us, you are permitting us an unconditional, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free, fully transferable, continuous, worldwide licence to use, publish and/or transmit, and to authorise third parties to use and/or transmit your content in any format and on any platform, either now known or hereafter developed.[Our emphasis]

The above means, simply, that should you submit to blah.com, your copyright wouldn’t be worth shit. This is because even though the copyright remains with you, the author, meaning you are free to publish it elsewhere, you've also granted blah the right to do anything with it - including editing, or offering that piece of writing to others. You may still hold the copyright, but that right no longer has any value - a publisher will not touch that article because they won't be willing to pay money to market it etc. only to have blah turn up and publish the exact same thing.

In a response to blah.com, which, we were assured, was the only ‘negative’ response of all the writers’ groups they contacted (not painting a very rosy picture of writers' circles in this country), we suggested that the website was asking for everything, while offering nothing in return:

As for offering nothing in return, I was offering a global demographic with maximum article exposure and extensive social media campaigns and at the same time driving traffic back to the writers very own websites, which is indeed offering 'something back'....I was also offering writers, who worked with us from the beginning an opportunity to earn money from their articles in just a few weeks time on a 'pay per click basis', which I mentioned would be very 'lucrative'.

To clarify, what this lady actually said was “could be very lucrative”, which does not carry anything like the same level of certainty. Anyway, this might be a good thing, what they’re offering - if people actually clicked on the adverts instead of muting them because they’re so irritating. These sites do not present good opportunities for writers, let alone great ones. Unbeknownst to this lady, we have a very knowledgeable webmaster, who naturally took offence at her assumption of our group’s technical ignorance.

Moving on.

The final line in the email was what really got Plot Bunnies’ back up:

I wish you all well in the 'Caxton' and am glad you are all accomplished 'published' and successful authors, with none of you in need of further coverage, promotion or exposure.

This was a quite unnecessary and, in my view, very bitchy parting shot. Of course all writers could use exposure. But, there’s something this lady appeared prepared to wilfully disregard: Writers also deserve to be paid for our work. To assume writing is merely a cute little hobby is belittling the craft. Yes, sure, we write for pleasure first. There’d be no point writing at all if we were only doing it for the money. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get some kind of financial reward for the hours and effort we put into it. Writing is hard work, and can be emotionally draining. It is why we started our writers’ circle in the first place, so that we could get together, not be so isolated, and also get honest feedback on our writing. Plot Bunnies have worked very hard to get where we are, now, as we’re sure other writers’ groups have, too. We do not charge our members. We do not do it for money. We do it purely for love. But that does not mean we are happy to be exploited by companies who think it’s fine to rip us off because they have such little regard for our work that they refuse to pay us for it.