WHEN Should Writers Give Their Work Away for Free? - Dundurn
Feb 16, 2023

WHEN Should Writers Give Their Work Away for Free?

Should writers expect to be paid for their work, or is publication its own reward?

Many emerging writers see exposure to an audience as adequate compensation for the time and effort they’ve put into writing. At the same time, established writers in Canada report that the income they make from publication has gone down drastically, and it’s harder than ever to make a living as a Canadian author.

Writers are not the only artists facing this dilemma. In a viral Craigslist story from about a decade ago, a Vancouver restaurant advertised for musicians, promising them no payment but a venue to promote their work. A musician replied to the ad by inviting the restauranteur to come to his house to cook for him and all his friends for free in order to promote the restaurant. This exchange gets at the heart of the problem. When you give away your creative work without getting anything in return, you’re undervaluing your work and perpetuating the problem, encouraging people to think that creative work doesn’t require or, in fact, merit compensation.

So, when, if ever, should you give away your writing for free? 

1. When You Need to Establish a Record of Publication

If you are just starting out, and you’re pursuing traditional publishing (as opposed to self-publishing), the editors and agents to whom you’re going to pitch a book-length manuscript will take you more seriously if your query letters mention previous publications. Getting short pieces into high-quality literary magazines lets editors and agents know your writing is interesting and polished enough to have gotten published. Due to their small audiences, these periodicals typically struggle to survive, and, while some of them pay authors, many of them give the writers whose work they feature a subscription to the magazine in lieu of money. That subscription can be its own form of payment since it exposes you to the latest published writing, providing beneficial professional development. Be sure to choose magazines that have high production standards and carefully curate the work they print. 

2. When You Have a Platform and Are Growing Your Audience

If you already have a platform and followers, publishing some of your work on social media or your website makes sense, especially if doing so leads to paid speaking or writing opportunities. Be aware that, if you publish complete pieces online, you may lose the right to sell those works in the future or submit them to a contest because many literary magazines and organizations will consider them “previously published.” Magazines and contests almost always require writing that hasn’t appeared in print elsewhere, and many of them count social media sites as places of publication. 

3. When the Opportunity Leads to Feedback or Networking that Will Advance Your Career

Some writing opportunities, such as some contests connected to writing festivals, offer non-monetary incentives for writers who submit their work, incentives such as editorial feedback or a meeting with an agent or editor. Such opportunities provide writers more than the nebulous gift of exposure since they can open doors for traditional publishing. 

4. To Help A Charity or an Organization You Want to Support

Not all your writing needs to benefit your career. You can use your skills to benefit a cause you believe in by writing newsletters, articles, blogs, appeals for donations, website copy, or whatever else an organization needs. 

In conclusion, publication should not be its own reward. Writers SHOULD get paid for their work, but not all payment is monetary. If you’re not contributing to a cause you believe in, ask yourself, what am I getting from this publication deal? It should be more than exposure. 

Patricia Westerhof is the author of Catch Me When I FallThe Dove in Bathurst Station, and The Canadian Guide to Creative Writing & Publishing, as well as co-author of The Writer’s Craft. She has taught writing for more than thirty years, working with writers of all ages, from teens to seniors. She lives in Toronto.