Why I Write For Free

Featured in the Huffington Post Media Section Dec 9, 2013

Back in October, essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote an entertaining opinion piece for the New York Times, Slaves of the Internet, Unite!  that admonished young writers to do the rest of us a favor and not write for free.

Since I’ve spent years in the trenches writing comic and personal essays (sometimes paid, sometimes not), his words really hit home. In fact, I shared the essay with many of my colleagues and friends.

Of course writers should be paid for their work. Why, as he pointed out, do people think nothing of asking a writer to work for free yet would never dream of doing the same to their surgeon, their gardener, or even their dog walker?

Though Kreider’s plea stoked the fires of my inner Norma Rae, after a few weeks of enthusiasm, reality set in. Sure it would be great if we could pick a day where each town crier would climb to the top of a mountain and yell, “Henceforth, no more free words!” But in the real world where your number of blog followers is more important than the content or quality of your writing, it’s just not going to work.

Last year, when I first tried to sell my collection of essays, a respected literary agent told me that even if I had the funniest, most well written book on the planet, I had little chance of selling it. She was not trying to be cruel. She was simply conveying the facts: that publishers are only willing to look at non-fiction from celebrities, bloggers who already have a huge following, or experts in some field like, say, attachment parenting, rare Asian fish, or the history of coffee.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not become Tina Fey. I was an expert only on the contents of my closet, and I had fewer blog followers then members of my family.

But I would not be dissuaded. I kept submitting until I found an assistant to an agent who agreed to read my book and even liked it! Then, the bad news: They could not represent me until I gained some fame.

So began my one-woman campaign to become an Internet sensation. I did anything I could to gain followers. I Stumbled Upon, I Tweeted, I Tumbled, I Facebooked, I Pinned — all in the hopes that one of my posts might attract the kind of attention Mr. Kreider did with his opinion piece. I considered buying followers on Ebay, but that seemed both dishonest and icky.

I even entered a blogging contest, though I don’t consider myself a blogger. In fact, I don’t even like the word, “blogger.” But for six weeks I begged my friends, colleagues, and few internet “fans” to vote for my entries. For someone who’s too timid to send her food back when it’s undercooked, it was humiliating to say the least.

When I finally hit the big time and got a parenting essay published (for pay!) in the <em>New York Times</em> Motherlode Blog, I quickly updated that assistant with my big news. “That’s great,” she replied. “Now try for Slate, Salon, or Huffington Post.”

So I continue to slog on, submitting my words, hoping to get published anyway I can. At times I’ve felt like I’ve sold my soul and I have considered giving up, but then I remind myself that I must be persistent even in the face of rejection.

It could be that my manuscript is dreadful and no one should be tortured by my pathetic drivel, or perhaps I’m the next Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, or even Tim Kreider. Unfortunately, as it stands now, until I gain the required number of followers, no publisher will endeavor to find out.

So as much as I support Mr. Kreider’s argument, I can’t heed his request. Perhaps some day if I have a successful book or maybe if I exceed my highest annual writing income of $700 dollars, I’ll join his crusade. But right now I have to work within the system that is already in place and look to writers like Raymond Chandler, Annie Proulx, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, who weren’t successful until their later years, for inspiration to continue.

Of course I don’t like writing for free, but I feel I have no other choice.

I don’t want my manuscript to stay forever buried in my computer. I want people to read it.

37 Comments

Filed under blogs, PUBLISHING, Uncategorized, Writing

37 responses to “Why I Write For Free

  1. I love your writing. Its amazing to me that you have to jump through so many hoops. Now your essays are appearing on Huffington Post. Maybe you will be the next Nora Ephron after all. I’m pulling for you.

  2. I love your blog and am looking forward to the day your book is published so that I can read it! I’m actually in my office. I should be grading final term papers with these few quiet moments before I go in and teach my last class. But alas, I have chosen instead to read your blog. And I must say, as always, it was time well spent.

  3. Oh God hear hear – you speak (write) for the many. And do it very well.

  4. I write for free and for money. But I enjoy the writing I do for free the most, because I can say exactly what I want to say without worrying whether it will sell. I do understand the need for writers to value their work and not provide it for free, but an assignment is very different than a blog post. I’m glad we have both options available to us. Keep on writing!

  5. Great article and congratulations on being featured in Huffington Post – you’re one step closer to getting that book published!

  6. I read this a while back and remember it to be a mixed bag as far as the agreement and disagreement on what he said. I remember thinking those who disagreed with some of what he said had good points. It’s sad, but the truth is, the arts, in general, are often this way. It’s a tough road and most of us start at the bottom unless we have fame and fortune first :(

  7. Every one of us have to choose, some of us choosing to do things not for monetary gain. We all have to nourish our self’s with something, is up to us which way we go. Left or right on the end everything is happening for a reason and if you believe you have chosen the right one, than you’re doing well, and I believe you are. Why otherwise we all would follow you on your website or consider buying your book if is published. There is never wasted time only time not well used. Your manuscripts will always be accessible in our computers forever for free just as your books will be there for us forever and whenever we like to read it because we paid for it. Either way it is a win for you or for us all your followers. Congrats on being featured in Huffington Post , every day is a step closer, believe and the day will come!!!

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  9. I am a great fan of your blog! It might be a bit too much comparing you to a classic muse, but at least you inspire many of us aspiring writers. Not to add any pressure, but I think many bloggers would like to see you succeed because it’s so hard. So lead the way!

    I am trying to pull my own Brakeman, but as I’m 6451 amazing followers behind you (and the amazing essayist Brakeman is one of them), I might be a bit farther from achieving my goal. Maybe soon bloggers will be saying: I wish I could be the next Kristen Brakeman.

  10. You said it. I also started my blog recently after realizing that I need to finally heed the advice of non-fiction agents who insist their authors have well developed platforms. Self promotion really feels icky to me, but I try to get over the embarrassment and think of this as a practical, necessary step towards my goal of being a writer. It’s also more fun to work on my own blog than just sift through agent websites and feel like my goal is drifting into fantasyland. Your very straightforward approach– I am trying to get a book published!– is an interesting one and I wish you the best of luck.

    • Thanks Kristen (nice name by the way). I guess it is a necessary evil. I think my straightforward approach is born from realizing nothing else works! Years ago I started out writing screenplays and tv scripts and was too timid to ask the producers and agents I met to look at them – I kick myself now because I had total access. Meanwhile I met a lot of young men who had no fear and got writing jobs from being assertive.

      • Self-promotion feels icky to most of us, I think :( It’s become necessary, though, so we have to embrace it in our OWN way. I know that, for me, once I allow myself to get involved with blogs, Twitter, etc., the draw for me is like everyone else’s—I like connecting with people, having interesting conversations about topics I enjoy, and learning—constantly learning. That’s what’s bad about it, is simply the time it takes. Relationships, conversation, education—it all takes time. I have YET to get back into writing, which is THE reason I allowed myself to get involved with all of it in the first place! lol

        I, too, am prepping to launch blogs, I’m thinking officially after New Year’s once people aren’t so busy, and it’s difficult finding time to get them ready because social media and SOME necessities in life keep it from happening.

        For me, it is the whole “building a platform” thing that was the catalyst that PUSHED me back into Social Media, but the truth of the matter is, I’m doing it and enjoying it for all the reasons I just stated. Anyway, we must all find our way and go about it in the way we feel comfortable.

        With that said, here’s some “self-promotion” for you! lol I hope people follow pre-launch so everyone’s aware of the giveaways when I launch. I plan on posting pics of them soon!

        http://writersideup.com/ and http://2creativitycookbook.com/

        Thanks, Kristen! :) And good luck to ALL of us!

      • You are so write about the TIME issue. With kids at home it’s such a small window of time that the house is quiet enough to write in, so I tend to focus on that while they’re gone. Then I do the self-promotion while they’re ignoring me on their own devices next to me. Seriously, some times I look around and all five of us are glued to some screen. A sorry lot!

      • Kristen, the whole “electronics leads to seclusion” issue is a HUGE peeve of mine, and such a concern :( I truly hate how over-full our lives have become due to electronics. I’m grateful for the expanded connections and having so much of the world at my fingertips, but we only have 24 hours each day and not enough of it is spent with the people and things that surround us OFF the screens — or even sleeping, for that matter :( Yet, because of the way the world now runs, we are hopelessly tethered to it all. I keep wondering how I’ll figure out how to compartmentalize and actually still do things effectively—with less stress! lol Still—compare it to those who don’t have the BASIC necessities in life and where do we stand? It’s all so simple, yet so complex—and so relative *sigh*

  11. I love your blog Kristen. I just started a blog because as an aspiring writer and motivational speaker, I must market my talent, gain a hearing and have some fame before I can think of getting paid for my work some day.
    Keep writing and keep hoping, some day you will make a big catch.

  12. Life and Other Turbulence

    Spot on! I always enjoy your posts.

  13. Pingback: Why I write for free | DailyAttitude

  14. and you got one more follower! i enjoy reading your posts!

  15. I used to think the term “starving artist” pertained to only the artists who painted. I now realize writers are lumped in with that “artist” group. Publishing is a business, and as much as agents and editors may enjoy a manuscript, they need to represent one that will sell to the masses. Sadly, the masses (generally) want 50 Shades of Grey types and Vampires and Zombies.

    So we keep up writing, and hoping that our genres become a sensation. Don’t give up. Your writing is clean and professional and extremely enjoyable! If you wrote a book I would absolutely buy it!

    • Yep, it’s very unfortunate what the masses tend to enjoy, but there’s still room for all kinds of GOOD literature :) They’re are just so few that are going to make the bestseller list, or ever cover costs, for that matter. That’s the reality. Still, it makes it much more difficult to get traditionally published : / There are publishing houses for all kinds of stuff. It’s a matter of finding the right fit. Easier said than done!

      Unfortunately, it seems most often the judgement calls of what will sell, made by the people in acquistions, are often wrong, ultimately shooting themselves in the foot (sorry for the cliche). They become very myopic when what they THINK they’re doing is seeing the “big picture.” But yes, any of the arts—and writing is an art—often requires “starving” for a long time, or possibly always *sigh*

      • Yes! Years ago I attended a writing workshop hosted by a senior editor at Viking Press. (I THINK that was the publishing house. It was at least 10 years ago.) She shared how she chose a manuscript from a recent reality TV star. She was absolutely certain the book would sell like mad. It didn’t. In fact, they lost money printing the book because the reality TV show had moved on and, really, no one cared about that particular ‘actress’ anymore.

        I remember thinking, “Okay, so you clearly chose her manuscript because she was a hot item and NOT because of the content of the book. I wonder whose manuscript you rejected, and took hers instead.”

        You are right – it is about finding the right publishing house for your work. And, of course, the right agent. (Excuse me as I have a panic attack over the dreaded query letter. Writing a novel is nothing compared to a query letter.)

    • Thanks! – Sometimes I wish I could write something pulp like, but I bet that too requires a special talent!

  16. Pingback: On the Reading and Writing of Essays | VILLA SOPHIA

  17. Very well written, very honest, and very enlightening. The ones who deserve fame and money are not always the one who get it. Unsurprisingly, the only thing the publisher cares about is “Will it sell”. If you’re already famous, no matter how bad you write, you will sell.

    Like you, I write to be read. Oh, and because I enjoy it.

    The rest is accessory.

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