No Pay. No Inspiration.

by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

Recently the publisher of a neighborhood magazine asked me to be a contributor.

It was a full color piece that looked nice enough—good typeface, good photography. It seemed promising. The publisher, I learned, publishes more than a 1,000 of these magazines nationwide. They’re all specific to the neighborhoods they’re distributed in. The covers feature families from the locale and articles about restaurants, entertainment, and tidbits about the area.

It sounded pretty good to me, and inspiring—until he told me they didn’t pay. “Contributors like taking part and contributing to their community. And we’ll feature you in the magazine.”

Okay, no pay. They would feature me—but how? Did he trade ads for writing? I might be interested if I could promo my Pen on Fire Speaker Series in Corona del Mar or my radio show on KUCI-FM.

No ad, he told me. Ads in the publication ran $1000 for a quarter page.

Could I include the information and my website address in my bio on the contributors’ page? Would they even run a bio?

No, but I’d get a photo and my name under the photo.

Oh, whoa, yippie kai yay—not.

At this point I thanked him for considering me but said I was uninspired. I didn’t write for free for publications that charged for advertising and had a budget. A budget which obviously didn’t include paying me.

He said he hoped I’d reconsider.

I told him I tell my students not to write for free for such publications and how would it look if I wrote for free? It wouldn’t look good at all.

He said he hoped my students wouldn’t listen to me because all that talent going to waste is a shame.

I said doctors, lawyers, and accountants, etcetera, don’t work for free and neither should writers.

I thought he might want the last word, but he didn’t respond. I was sad, because I was steaming and felt like arguing with that ignorant, greedy publisher.

What is it with publishers who expect writers to write for free? Why do they think we’re yearning to share our talent for no return?

Full disclosure: I’m writing this article for free. But here’s the thing: you, the reader, aren’t required to pay to read it, nor is there advertising money going into somebody’s pocket. And, O.C. Writers is willing to share links to my website, books, and speaker series.

I will write for free on occasion for worthy groups. I’ve published stories in literary journals that are barely scraping by. But I draw the line when it comes to publications that charge for advertising and whose publisher lives in a gated Orange County neighborhood. And you should too.

Here’s why:

  • When you write for free, you make it harder for your fellow writers to write for pay. If the publisher can get you for free, why should he or she pay anyone?
  • Writing for free usually puts you in the company of amateurs. I looked over the list of contributors for this neighborhood publication and none were professional writers. If my color headshot was included in their company, readers might assume I also was not a professional.
  • The clips you garner from writing for free in these sorts of publications will not impress editors from paying publications.
  • Writing for free devalues your work. If you’re willing to spend time writing for free, you must not value the writing you do.

Let’s talk about speaking or appearing on panels

Because as a writer, you’re often asked to sit on a panel and not offered payment. Here’s how I decide whether to say yes or no.

  • Are there perks? For instance, if the organization is going to sell your book (not you having to bring it to sell yourself, unless you like that sort of thing) that would be a reason to say yes. If they say you can bring your books to sell yourself (unless you like that sort of thing, which I don’t) say no.
  • Is it an inspiring group that works for the good of a segment of the population? If your writing will help fundraise for a group you like, do it. We all have to volunteer or donate in some way, so if this is your way, go for it.
  • If you’re getting another benefit that speaks to you, do it. I’ve been moderating panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books for the last 12 years. I have no idea whether I sell books, but I do get passes for myself and a couple of my writer friends to the Green Room and to panels, and that’s fine with me.

I do my radio show for free—next April of 2018 it will be 20 years! Time to party! I’ve met so many authors I never would have met otherwise, I’ve always looked at it as my own personal MFA program. And I receive gobs of books.

Your time is valuable. Ask yourself, whether it’s writing or speaking for free, if it’s something you really want to do. Does it inspire you? If not, just say no, no matter how much exposure the event organizer or publisher tells you you’ll get. As I told the publisher who wanted me to write for free—people have been known to die from exposure.


B. DeMarco-Barrett’s quirky inspirational writing book, Pen on Fire (Harcourt) is in its 12th printing. She hosts Writers on Writing on KUCI-FM 88.9 Wednesday mornings at 9:00. Subscribe to the podcast at iTunes and if you’re feeling particularly magnanimous, leave a review to help the show rise in the standings. She also hosts the Pen on Fire Speaker Series and Salon. Two events coming up in May and July, right here.


12 thoughts on “No Pay. No Inspiration.

  1. As one of Barbara’s students and a published author, I must concur. If I want to volunteer my time and expertise it will be for a worthy organization and not for someone who wants to make money off of my work. It is all about value. And I value my skills without apology.

  2. That was a brilliant rant! You are correct, “…doctors, lawyers, and accountants, etcetera, don’t work for free and neither should writers.” Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it that way. The industry is the way it is, so not getting paid to write is kind of an expected. There, I said it! I am always amazed that people every day will buy a hamburger and a coke for lunch, but won’t pay $9.99 for a book to read. They spend $12.50 on a movie….which is usually bad…and not spend the same on a book. There is a mindset of devaluing literature today, and therefore, devaluing those who write. Maybe it should be a marketing campaign by publishing and bookstores to re-establish the value of a book? (Can you tell I have a marketing background?) I had not thought about writing for free and how it makes more difficult for others. I will keep the points you made when I have future writing opportunities. You are correct, we have to evaluate, or monetize, our writing. We have to value what we do! Thank you for this poignant article.

  3. At one point I told an editor from a large magazine publishing company I would no longer take pieces under a certain length, or a certain pay. This amount was VERY REASONABLE on my part. By the time I did research, interviewed people across the country, wrote, edited, wrote captions for pictures, etc… etc… I was making about minimum wage. That was it. Only one of the editors (a very fair woman) ever contacted me again. I was thankful for the work while building my portfolio, but after a while it became a distraction.

  4. Thank you Barbara! Grateful you are making it clear that writers are professionals! Thank you for being a great teacher and advocate!

  5. Do you ever get a sense that people feel there is a one-to-one ratio, reading to writing? Or just as words slip out of our mouths at the rate of 120 per minute, so too do sentences effortlessly appear on the screen. As if it is a matter of how fast one types. Our solitary process suggests we should be grateful for whatever exposure we might get. Like we’ve been let out for the evening. And we are grateful, to a point. Nothing shows genuine appreciation like a bit of money.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Barbara, and I appreciate this essay and the time you spent trying to educate that publisher. I wish more writers would stand firm and demand to be valued.

  7. Yes, I wish writers would demand to be valued, too. Maybe it comes down to self-confidence? Confident that your work is good and that you need to be paid for it. I know when your bank account is scraping, you tend to make irrational decisions, like thinking if you do this one piece for free, that will bring paying work, but it won’t. Thanks for responding, JB, Pam, Isa, and Nancy.

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