The Freebie Condundrum

One of the long-running and most frustrating aspects of being a writer is that everyone expects you to work for free. I’d argue that it happens more in this industry than in any other.

The freebie conundrum is something that I’ve noticed more and more writers discussing in recent times—either it’s because a) I and my peers are at the points in our careers where we’ve got a bit of work under our belt and we’re getting a bit older and sick of two-minute noodles, or because b) we’re finally realising that this slave-labour thing is quite pants.

You can do unpaid writing work when you’re a skint, starting-out uni student, but there comes a time when you get sick of being poor. Your mates, who studied safe, linear degrees like medicine or law are seeing their earnings rocket up, while yours, despite you now having plenty of experience and publications to show, are piddling along.

I used to really resent having to do freebies—and in a lot of ways I still do—but I resigned myself to the fact that they were really the only way to get a foot in the writing door. I would be the first to admit that the freebies I’ve done have been integral to my skills development and increased profile, and have led to paid work. What I want to know, though, is if or when having to do the freebies will stop? After all, even big-name authors still get asked to do them.

Some writers are starting to fire up about this. They’re arguing that we’re undervalued, but also that until we start valuing ourselves (read: refusing to do freebies), no one else will. It’s that double-edged sword, of course. You might say no to a freebie, but 20 other writers will say yes. Clients and publishers know that, and the flow-on effects on the industry are huge.

The average freelance writer in Australia earns something as measly as $6000 per year. That doesn’t cover mortgages or the expenses of laptops or professional development courses that writers incur in order to do their jobs well. Book advances too reflect that paltry sum.

Clearly I’m not the only one grappling with the freebie issues: someone’s elucidated it more cleverly graphically on the perfectly named site www.shouldiworkforfree.com (and I must credit talented writer and fellow freelancer Benjamin Law for bringing it to my attention).

It’s answered some of my questions and at the very least reminded me that I’m not facing this issue alone (and before you ask: yes, I’m ordering the print. I will be hanging it on my wall and following its advice when the next freebie request arrives).

Are you by chance a freelancer? Any gripes about, ideas or suggestions for, or comments on the freebie conundrum?

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.