No Body Writes for Free, or Do They?


Dear Amie,

Does allowing your work to be published for free result in wide spread exploitation or does it offer positive exposure? Should I always receive payment for my work? Is giving work away for free a good, bad, or ugly idea and why?

Confused in Chicago

Dear Confused,

As a rule: authors should not give their work away for free and should be paid a fair and agreed upon amount for the use of their work.

Of course, every rule has its exceptions. Before I get to them, we need to explore some of the terms you used in asking your question in order to put those exceptions in context. I’ve taken the liberty to mark the terms in bold above.

But, first, a note about validation. Every author wants to have their work validated, see their name in print, and have their stories read. It is often tempting, especially to new authors, to allow their work to be published without payment in order to get some validation, not to mention a publishing credit. But, please avoid the urge to do this. Payment for your work — even a token $25 payment — is just as important as the actual publication of the work towards validating yourself as an author. Likewise, not all publishing credits are equal. If your work is going to published without payment, validation should not be the reason.

Now, let’s examine the terms “payment” and “free” and what it means to be “paid for your writing.”

Traditionally, payment is viewed as an agreed upon amount i.e. cash (usually from $25 to $200) for a one time use of your story in a specific issue of a print journal, anthology, or web journal (henceforth referred to as the publication). In addition, you normally get 1 to 4 copies of the publication when it is in print or access to the web site (if it is a subscription site). Some journals also include a one year subscription to the journal, although this practice is becoming less popular. It is rare for short stories, but does happen, so I’ll also mention royalties. Sometimes you will be offered a % of the profits paid in quarterly royalties (i.e. cash) in addition to or in place of a one time payment.

Giving your work away for free normally means you don’t get any cash — one time payment or royalties — but do normally get at least one copy of the publication, unless it is a web journal and there are no printed copies. In rare cases, you may not get a copy of the publication.

If you have been reading my column from the start, you already know that I consider writing as part of the business of publishing and as such a job. Authors are little worker bees, subcontractors, of the publisher (be it large or tiny) and as such should be paid for their toil (no matter how much they love to toil). Like it or not, that is how capitalism works. Gardeners like to garden, but I wouldn’t expect them to weed my flower beds for free. Likewise, I know my doctor loves to practice medicine and my college professors love to teach, but they are expecting payment for serves rendered. I too love to write, but I expect some cash and copies of the publication for my labor. You should consider it a bonus that you enjoy doing your work, not “payment in full”.

Authors are for the most part underpaid or poorly paid. Sure there are Steven Kings and J.K. Rowling, who are making loads of cash on their works, but for the most part, authors are struggling. Most have other part or full time jobs. Few survive on writing alone. Publishing as an industry is struggling, too. Book sales and profits are down. Distributors are going bankrupt and not paying profits to publishers. As a result, publishers are less likely to take a chance on a smaller selling title or an unknown author. They are more careful because they need (not just want) to make as much as they can on each title. This is especially true of the smaller queer presses and has a greater impact on queer authors. So don’t expect big (or even medium) bucks for your work. But do expect something.

Now let’s look at “exposure” as a concept in relationship to “payment.” Exposure is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “The act or an instance of exposing, [as in an] appearance in public or in the mass media.” Exposure, I think we can all agree, is critical to an author’s success. Not only do we, the authors, need to make sure our potential readers know who we are and have access to our works, but we also need to make sure the often fickle public doesn’t forget who we are or that our work exists. Simultaneously we want potential publishers and editors to be exposed to us and our work so they will contact us about future projects or at least know vaguely who we are when our manuscript hits their desk; other authors to know our work so they will potentially want to collaborate with us or include us in an upcoming project they are doing; and the press, such as it is, to know who we are so they will review our books, feature us in an interview, and help us to let other authors, editors, and, most importantly, readers know about our work. You get the picture, right? Exposure is critical.

Unlike cash, the value of exposure is a bit harder to nail down and evaluate. Every publication does not carry with it the same amount, type, and quality of exposure. Not all exposure is equal and it isn’t always immediately clear what value any given opportunity for exposure offers you, the writer.

So consider these elements of exposure when evaluating it as payment:

Amount of exposure in this case means the literal number of folks who will look at the publication. More people look at a single issue of Vogue (For those of you living in caves, Vogue is a high-end women’s fashion magazine. They have Men’s Vogue too.) than say Curve (a cutting edge lesbian-culture magazine). It’s just a fact that more folks are interested in women’s fashion than lesbian culture. The target audience is larger for women’s fashion so they sell more copies. It doesn’t speak at all to the quality of the publication or type of exposure you will get; it is simply a literal number based on circulation. Web sites usually have counters for hits they have received — this is the online version of circulation numbers. If I am considering only amount of exposure, then Vogue wins hands down. While amount is important, it isn’t everything.

Type of exposure in this context refers to the potential interest of the viewers in you, the author, and your work. Despite the fact the Vogue has a larger audience than Curve; I’d argue having a short story published in Curve would help me sell more books than having a short story published in Vogue. The folks who look at Vogue aren’t my target audience. Of course, I wouldn’t turn Vogue down as some of their readers (me for example) could be interested in lesbian erotica and, likewise, it is also true that not all of the dykes who read Curve are interested in lesbian erotica. But if I could only have one short story published, I’d pick Curve over Vogue based on Type of exposure being more important in this case then Amount.

Type of exposure is, for me, the critical element of the formula on determining if exposure is actually good exposure. It is more important to me that the exposure I get be targeted to the correct audience than be of a high amount. However, there does have to be balance.

The other side of the type/amount coin is that no matter how great an on-line publication is if only 10 people, all lesbian friends of the editor, read it; you aren’t really getting good exposure. However, if those 10 people happen to all be editors for queer presses, you are getting great exposure. Illustrating how type and amount work hand-in-hand.

Quality of the publication is also critical. If the anthology is edited by someone who doesn’t know periods from commas or is published poorly by a fly-by-night POD or the website publishes anything that anyone sends them without editing, having your work included in theses projects will not give you the type of exposure you are looking for. In fact, being associated with some of these projects may close doors instead of opening them or cost you potential readers. If your publishing credits read like a walk through who’s-who of bad publications, no matter how good your work is people will be skeptical. Likewise, there are lots of great, high-quality, refereed web journals and a number of wonderful tiny presses or individuals doing one shot anthology projects that are read by tons of folks, but do not pay you to use your work.

Just so you know, refereed is an academic term referring to publications in which someone reads all submitted works and selects works to be included based on their quality. In other words, you submit and are accepted or rejected. Not every submission received is accepted and published. Whether or not a publication is refereed affects its quality in the eyes of the publishing world and in some cases, the eyes of the readers.

Additionally, exposure may provide you with opportunity — which is even harder to measure then the value of exposure. Opportunity refers to the potential to open a new door or gain a new audience. The best way to explain opportunity is with an example. I primarily write lesbian erotica, but I was going to co-edit an anthology of personal essays titled Queer and Catholic. Publishing a story in an on-line Queer journal that focuses on queer spirituality was a potential opportunity to make contact with an audience that might not know me from my lesbian erotica writing, but would be potentially interested in the Queer and Catholic anthology. There is no way for me to know for sure if my story in that journal will help sell the anthology, but it seemed like a good bet, so I took it. And since the editor was excited to have my story, I can now ask him to review or feature in his journal Queer and Catholic when it is released.

Keep in mind when you are seeking out exposure that it is also defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “the condition of being exposed, especially to severe weather or other forces of nature.” In this case, the usage example is worth including: “[She] was hospitalized for the effects of exposure.”

Which leads us to exploitation which is defined in the dictionary as “utilization of another person or group for selfish purposes and an act that victimizes someone or treats them unfairly.” Every industry has problems with exploitation and publishing is no different. I don’t think there is a systemic problem with authors being exploited wholesale by publishing houses or web journals, but I do think every author should be diligent to ensure that she isn’t being exploited. And allowing your work to be published for free does not directly correspond to being exploited.

So here are a few things you can do to keep from being exploited:

(1) Be familiar with the industry standards. Know what publishers are paying for lesbian erotica. Talk to other authors who write the same kind of work as you do. Compare notes.

(2) Be aware of the state of publishing. Publisher X may have paid $100 in the past but with the market hopping the going rate is now $150 or with the market falling apart the rate is more like $25.

(3) Read and understand your contract and what rights you are selling before you sign it. Insist on a contract regardless of whether or not you are being paid for your work.

(4) Don’t agree to any deal that you are not comfortable with. If you agree to something you aren’t whole heartedly behind, you will eventually start to feel as if you have been taken advantage of and exploited when the reality is you agreed to the deal.

(5) Free publications should make up no more than 10 % of your total resume — less if you are just starting out — that’s 1 of every 10 stories you publish. Once something has been published, regardless of if you have been paid, it is a reprint. Many places do not publish reprints and, if they do, they will pay less for them.

(6) Don’t rush to publish your work. Every piece will find a home in its own time.

(7) Knowledge is power. What do you know about the place and the people you are going to/want to publish with?

This leads us back to my answer to your question:

You should always be paid for your work with cash in some agreed upon amount. And, of course, its exceptions:

You may allow your work to be published for free if:

(1) You will actually get good exposure by publishing your work for free. When you are considering exposure as payment you need to think about: (1) circulation — how many folks will actually see and read your work?; (2) demographics of the audience — what % of the readers would actually buy your book?; (3) credibility of the publication — does having my work published in this venue mean anything?; and (4) the potential opportunity — will my publication in this venue open any new doors or expose a change in focus in my writing to a new audience?

(2) You are doing a good turn for a friend or someone you want to establish or firm-up a contact. Allowing a friend to publish your story in their new publication, or in a publication you admire or think is important to the community, or for someone with whom you have a casual business relationship or want to have a relationship.

(3) You are donating your payment to a good cause. Donating your fee to a cause the book is supporting such as Katrina survivors, animal shelters, or the AIDS taskforce is always a good thing.

However, never:

  • Never publish your work on a website or in a publication that is not refereed.
  • Never pay to have your work published. Never.
  • Never sell all the rights to your work to anyone.
  • Never email your entire story to an easily accessed public elist. It is, however, fine to email your entire story to a closed elist for feedback from other authors if it isn’t open to the public and doesn’t archive past emails.

I hope that helps with the confusion.

NEXT TIME: Shameless Self Promotion

Amie M. Evans
September 2007

“Two Girls Kissing: Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica” © 2007 Amie M. Evans. All rights reserved.

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