Exposing Yourself: Do You Write For Free?

Time to jump all the way toward the other end of the spectrum — yesterday, I yammered on about what to eat before you write, and today I’ll blather on about the payment (or non-payment) that comes after you write. It’s not inappropriate, since a lot of a writer’s work is work that circumnavigates the actual writing but is not the actual writing.

Let’s talk ch-ching. The bling. The cash. The money.

So, over at Do Some Damage, the inimitable Steve Weddle talked up flash fiction and pondered why it was so bloody awesome. In there, however, was some discussion about publishing in places that don’t pay you. They pay you in exposure, that pay you in attention. But you don’t get pennies on the word. Hell, you don’t get pennies at all.

Is that reasonable?

Should you write without getting paid?

Writing Is Work

It’s like this: writing is work. It’s a job. A career. Abstractly, it’s no different than swinging a hammer or replacing an alternator under the hood of a car. Now, in practical terms, writing is a whole big bag of different, but I don’t want to stray too far from the idea that writing is work, and work is something that ideally pays you. There exists a dirty connotation between “art” and “payday,” which is why I continually assert that writing ain’t art. It’s a craft. I build a chair, I want to sell the chair. I write material, I want to sell that material. Nothing dirty about this particular act of capitalism: I need to feed my kids (thatdontexist), I need to pay my mortgage, I need to pay off my bookies, I need to afford my habit of rectally-inserted powdered rhino gall. I need money, motherfucker.

If you don’t care to write professionally or be paid for your writing work, more power to you. Are you really a writer, then? Well, that’s an argument for an earlier time.

Further Comparison

An easy and dumb comparison would be, would you work a week at a company without pay just to show them that you can do the job? Unless you were desperate, you probably wouldn’t. (Er, unless you’re one of those creatures known as “interns,” though then that’s part of your “education.”) Would you work a week at McDonald’s for free? Would you slaughter cows for free? Would you work at a call center? A help desk? A brothel? A meth lab? For free? Really? Probably not.

A less dumb comparison might be: let’s say you’re starting your own business. Costs go in, but they don’t necessarily come out right away. On paper, this is worse than free: you’re actually paying into something without the promise of reward. Is there a parallel here? Maybe. You could argue that writing for free is an investment in the same way that paying the costs to open your own… I dunno, Ye Olde Dildo Shoppe.

Difference there is, you’re paying into your own business. If I allow a site or journal to post my work for free, I’m largely paying into someone else’s business. Right? Assuming my work is any good at all, I’m putting shiny goods in their storefront, not my own.

Is it fair then to go back to the “intern” comparison? Is getting work up for free with a third party comparable to interning? Maybe. The deviation here is that interning is meant to teach you the ways of a business. It’s a modern version of the apprenticeship. Getting published for free teaches you very little. It doesn’t teach you process. The process is the same submitting material to a paying site or journal as it is to submit to a non-paying one.

Attention And Exposure As Currency

Let’s tackle the notion that paying attention is useful — meaning, they’re offering you a place to showcase your work, to give you a credit and to earn you readers. Does it work?

For new writers, maybe it’s not the worst path. I guess the worst path would be “I published this on my mother’s fridge!” But is it the best path? The wisest?

Let’s say you’re a new writer. Let’s say you’ve written a story that doesn’t suck, and that in fact people have told you it’s “pretty dang special.”

Assuming they’re right, do you really want to just give it away?

Dirty secret time: sites and journals that do not pay the writers are clogged with shit. Sorry. It’s true. Just to confirm, I went through a half-dozen or so (I won’t name names), and you know what I found? A tide pool of aggregate garbage floating on scum-topped waters with the occasional gem glittering beneath the murky surface. The unspoken shhh here is that people who are willing to get published without payment either have a low estimation of their work or instead have a perfectly adequate estimation of their work and in fact realize that the only people who will publish their material are the ones who pay in imaginary chits and ducats.

Yes, you can really find some gems in there. Not all the material is junk.

But my question is: why wasn’t that material in a paying journal? Why did I have to wade through sewage to find a delicious sandwich? Is that really the exposure that Quality Writer hoped for? To be King Fuck of Sucktown? To be the edible peanut in the turd? To be the flower in the Frankenstein Monster’s hand?

That writer probably could’ve gotten some coin for that story.

And therein lies the truth: if your story is any good, you’ll probably find both exposure and some pennies-per-word for it. No, it won’t happen overnight. You have to have persistence in this industry and not go for the easy path (the free path) every time. I wrote a story when I was 18, and I submitted it and workshopped it and in fact did quite a lot of work on it. I did so much work that I decided I didn’t want to submit it to any of the “for the love” zines or journals, and instead went for Not One of Us. The editor saw some potential, we workshopped the story, and then — holy crap! They paid me.

Your first publication should also be called something else:

Your first sale.

Hop The Fence

Okay, no, I’m not giving much lip service to the people who actually run these sites. I don’t believe that these people are selfish jackholes trying to milk talent from writers in return for not paying them. Well, I’m sure some are (you occasionally come across a for-the-love we-don’t-pay-shit website that’s truly gorgeous and looks professionally crafted, which tells me they can afford to pay the goddamn writers), but you can tell that a lot of these people are doing it because they love it, not because it’s a business. No advertising. A crappy web-host. And so on and so forth.

And I’m not saying these are universally bad. Some sites are challenge driven or offer social networks of writers. Some offer peer review above attention and exposure. Those can be valuable, as it gets you in with other writers more than it does readers, and it helps you hone your craft. Good. Great. Like that.

If the site’s doing it for the love, isn’t that good enough?

Maybe. That’s a call you have to make.

For me, I dunno. See, I’m not doing this for the love. Love is one part of it, yes. I do love it. I love it dearly. But to be able to do it and do it well, I set the bar pretty high. That bar includes dollar signs. Not a lot of dollar signs, mind — I’m realistic enough to know that selling a short story isn’t going to pay my (notactuallyreal) kid’s way through college.

Further, let’s break my own rule and say you’re an artist. Let’s say I love art, and I set up a gallery — for the love — in my garage. I can’t afford much space or decor or even heat, but fuck it, I love love love me some art art art. So I open up “The Wendighaus Gallery Of Velvet Beauty” and I select artists to showcase their work, even though I can’t pay them.

Are they really getting a lot of traffic in my driveway? Is my garage earning them a look? In fact, aren’t the truly-talented artists finding real galleries to display their work? I’m probably getting a quality of art to hang that’s on par with “4-year-old draws giraffe with wings on top of what might be a house or might be a spaceship oh who the fuck really knows.”

Yes, I’m being harsh. Yes, I’m painting with a broad brush. No, not every “for the love” site is on equal footing.

It does mean you need to scrutinize. You need to measure things honestly and take an unpolluted look.

Because really, you’re in this for you. You have to be.

Do You Control The Source?

If you’re going to be exposed, then expose yourself.

I’ll wait for you kids in the back row to stop sniggering.

Yes, ha ha ha, MY PENIS. Get over it. It’s not that impressive. Just because it has a face and looks like Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin (and yet sings like Lady GaGa!) doesn’t mean I’m some kind of freakshow.

See, I hear what you’re saying. And you’re right. “But Chuck! Magic Talking Beardhead! Herr Doktor Wendig! Don’t you post things free to the web! What about Jet Pack? What about Shadowstories? What about this dumb-ass blog of yours?”

Touche, I say.

Except — psych! No touche! Suck it! *motions toward crotch*

Oof. Sorry. Got a little childish there.

See, outside of working with peer review or sites that challenge you or connect you with other writers, another way of “putting work out there for free” is by controlling it yourself. What that means for me is, I’m genuinely trying to build attention and exposure by directing it back toward me. Not someone else. Me. (Or, in the case of something like Jet Pack, me and two awesome-ass cohorts. In fact, may I refer you to The Distant Hindmarch’s “Dirty Model?” And no, the dirty model is not Kate Moss.)

Might I note that Do Some Damage is just the sort of author collective that I think has value? I like what I read there. I pay attention. I note names and ideas. They’re in it as peers, not as a “subject to submission” process.

If I put work elsewhere for free, I’m mostly directing work to someone else. Yes, it might come back to me, but it also might not. Remember how I said I read a few gems mixed in with the waves of trash? I don’t remember who wrote that stuff. I wish I did. But I don’t. I have a brain like a sieve. The Internet only makes that worse. The more clicks I have to make, the less likely I am to make those clicks or remember why I wanted to click in the first damn place. Internet-born ADHD takes over.

To go back to our “opening your own business” metaphor, that’s what this is — it’s investment in your own space, your own place. If I invest in someone else’s place, I’m basically cooking up awesome burgers or making awesome products that end up in someone else’s storefront. My name might be on them, but they may never get back to my place. And worse, I didn’t get paid dick in that situation.

You want to build your audience, not someone else’s.

Then Again…

Hey, the floor is long gone from the short story market. You won’t make what Hemingway made. Rates pay less now than what the pulps paid in the 1930s. Stephen King now probably doesn’t make what Stephen King 15 years ago made. You won’t get paid much from short story sales — a pittance, really. You might say, “Well, fuck it, I’ll just throw some shit at the wall and see if it sticks,” and that’s viable and I wouldn’t fault you for it. A “for the love” journal is a credit on your CV, though an astute editor or agent might note that “Jim Bob’s Unicorn Hut” is not really an esteemed journal. Further, I’d point out that the process of submitting to a Paying Journal and submitting to Jim Bob’s is likely the same effort, work-wise.

As such, do me a favor —

Aim high at first.

Try it. Go top down. Start with the pro markets. Try five of ’em.

They come back rejections, go semi-pro. Try another five.

That doesn’t work — well, fine. Try five “for the love” markets. Make sure first though that the reason you’re being rejected isn’t because the story needs work. It damn well might, which means that, if the “for the love” market accepts it, you might have a sub par story posted publicly.

But it is possible that the paying markets just didn’t have a taste for your work.

Do what you need to do and are most comfortable doing.

The Broad Brush Is Unmerciful And Also A Jerk

I get it. I’m being a bit of a jerk here.

But I’m trying to help you.

I’m trying to help you realize that You’re Awesome, and you should aim for Awesome.

I’m trying to tell you that you should be in control of your work.

I’m trying to say, “Don’t sell yourself short.”

No, not every site applies here. And who knows? An editor or agent might tell you differently. I’m not working off of fact, just opinion, and that opinion is: “What you do has value, so claim value for what you do.”

Of course, Harlan Ellison says it more directly:

“Pay the writer.”