A well-known editor slammed Entertainment Weekly recently for offering writers the chance to publish on a high-traffic website in exchange for “prestige” instead of money. Scott Meslow of The Week called the move “a deeply cynical decision that feeds off the dreams of inexperienced writers who are hoping to make a name for themselves in entertainment journalism.” In his view, only EW benefits from this arrangement. The writing community suffers economically, because “free” drives down the price (i.e. compensation) for writing, and creatively, because the site will be flooded with poorly written content that hurts quality all around.
Meslow is right, and he is wrong.
A company with the resources of Time-Warner, which owns Entertainment Weekly, ought to be ashamed of itself for such a blatant attempt to exploit the aspirations of (likely) young people who (probably) don’t know any better. New writers are eager to make their mark, and Time-Warner apparently sees this ambition as an easy way to cut its costs. Low or no-pay also encourages other publishers to follow suit. The practice could lead to lower pay rates for experienced writers, driving them out of the marketplace because they can’t pay their living expenses. In the long run, readers are presented slapdash work that drags all journalism down.
But the practice of paying writers with glory and nothing else is nothing new. In my own salad days, I gladly gave away my work in hopes of getting my first bylines and building a portfolio. It was exciting to show my family and friends my articles and essays in obscure magazines and newspapers, long before the advent of websites and blogs. I didn’t care nor think about the economic impact on other writers of writing for little or no pay. Even though all I got was copies of the publication, I felt I had accomplished something.
I used the portfolio to get paid gigs, whether it was a salaried job at a newspaper, or a single-article contract job at a magazine. Contributing something for free gave me valuable practice in working with an editor, meeting deadlines, and marketing myself to publishers who could actually send me a check. In the 21st century, writing for free on my own blog keeps my writing in fighting trim, and the practice appeases the modern requirement for a “platform” to support my “author brand.” New writers and experienced writers alike recognize that merit alone isn’t enough anymore, if it ever was. You have to shout from the rooftops to be noticed, and if that means giving away your work, then you do what you have to do.
Writing for free, in the best of worlds, creates value with potential for a later payoff. So stop worrying and keep writing. Having said that, you can’t pay the bills with talent or complimentary copies. At some point, you have to push yourself toward work that pays to keep the fire in your belly burning (and not just to suppress the hunger pangs). What you’re creating has value, and it’s up to you to convince an editor or a publisher of that truth.