by Gar Anthony Haywood

Trolling about on Facebook yesterday, I stumbled upon this terrific Gawker article by Cord Jefferson on writers who write for free and the far-reaching, unintended consequences of this ever-growing practice.  The emphasis of Cord’s piece is on journalists who work gratis for online publications, as opposed to authors of fiction, but many of the questions he raises are universal in scope as they relate to anyone trying to live on what he writes these days.  Boiled down to its bare essence, I think Cord’s main point could be stated thusly: If you don’t have a moneyed benefactor of some kind (mother, father, uncle, sibling, etc.) out there somewhere both willing and able to throw you a few dollars as the demands of mere survival arise, good luck kicking off that writing career by giving your stuff away for free.

In those ancient times before the Internet came along, when the market for fiction and non-fiction was dominated by publications you could actually hold in your hands, the editor who asked, let alone demanded, that a writer write something for free was the exception, not the rule.  This was because a writer offended by such a request could just take his piece elsewhere and get paid.  He had options.

This isn’t the case anymore.  The vast majority of non-fiction work now resides with online publications, where money is generally — if not always — scarce, and editors in the online world have become perfectly comfortable using the start-up’s classic refrain of “we can’t pay you now, but later on down the road . . .” to offer writers nothing but exposure and a byline for their work.  And who can eat on that?

As new as this cruel form of indentured servitude is to journalism, however, it’s been a staple of doing business in Hollywood for ages.

Much to the chagrin of the Writers Guild of America, the screenwriter who’s never written a word for free is either a film school grad fresh off the bus from Cleveland or a raging narcissist without a single credit to his name.  Writing on spec (that is, “speculation”) is what a screenwriter does to prove his mettle; it keeps his skills sharp and fills out his portfolio.  But it’s also the entry fee many producers expect a screenwriter to pay for the “privilege” of landing a real, honest-to-God writing assignment.  Even producers with deep pockets ask for a free draft before offering a fee, reduced or otherwise.

If you’ve got a writing credit or two in your pocket, you can afford to be principled and pass.  Maybe another, paying screenwriting opportunity will soon come along.  But when you’re just starting out, wondering if the dream is ever going to happen for you — how do you say no?

The truth is, you shouldn’t.  In some cases, anyway.

The key to knowing when you should or should not write a script for free is making an accurate assessment of who’s doing the asking.  Is this “producer” a real pro or a poseur?  Will he keep his word to adequately reward you for all your hard work at the back end or are all his promises likely to be a lie?  Can he get a deal for his project made so that everyone involved gets paid, or is he just as likely to go nowhere with it as you would be on your own?

These are tough calls to make, and it’s all too easy to screw them up.  I know, because I’ve done it.  And oddly enough, it’s not the times I agreed to work for free that I regret most, but the times I didn’t.  I have a considerable ego, in case you hadn’t noticed, so being asked to do something for free that others get paid to do has never sat well with me.  Looking back at some of the chances I had to write on assignment sans fee, I can count one or two that, in retrospect, were probably golden.  But I turned them down.

Moi, write for free?  You must be joking.

The lesson I think I’ve learned — as late as I am in getting around to it — is that not every person (editor, producer, agent, etc.) asking you to write something for little or no compensation is a crook looking to exploit you.  Sometimes, the risk of writing for free is one well worth taking.

When faced with the choice of writing on spec or not, let your head decide the matter for you, not your pride.

9 thoughts on “NOBODY WRITES FOR FREE *

  1. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I've certainly written my share of spec scripts for free, and I've had options on my scripts that gave me a little money to rewrite my specs for producers. When I first started, I wrote screenplays for people who weren't even in the biz – people who "wanted their story told" – and I always got paid a fair amount for a beginner. At this point, I don't write a screenplay for free. If I did, it would be an entirely original script which I would try to sell in the market place.

    I do know a young, professional screenwriter (used to get around $150,000 for each writing assignment – now he's having a hard time finding work) who recently worked for nothing for a major, major producer – for a whole year, writing draft after draft – on the assurance that this producer would take the script out to the studios and stars – and then the producer basically dumped the project. My friend did not get paid. The producer didn't understand why my friend was upset – hey, that's the biz, right? This is a producer who could have at least used some development money to pay my friend something.

    And this is why I like writing novels.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Being a former member of the Board of Directors of the WGAw, this post made my blood pressure skyrocket.

    I don't have any problem with any writer writing on spec – that's a good way to sell a script or option it. You write it, you own it, you can sell it, or write a book if it doesn't sell.

    But writing FOR A PRODUCER for free is fraught with peril, and now there are more unscrupulous "producers" than ever, if that's even possible. Steve is right, even major producers think they can get away with much more than even before. If you write on spec, make sure you are the sole author and owner. Pay an entertainment lawyer to go over every word of anything anyone asks you to sign. Make sure you get it in WRITING that you are the sole owner, or someone can make claims in retrospect.

    And still, I don't know why anyone would be playing that kind of Hollywood roulette these days when you can make real money e publishing.

  3. Dana King

    I have a rule of thumb that makes this an easy question for me: is the person who is asking me to write, or wants a piece I have written, intending to make money from it? (Beyond overhead costs for their zine, etc.) If so, then they have to pay me something. It should be proportional to what they can afford, but if they're planning to profit, so should I.

    Perfect example: The original version of Thuglit published one of my stories online. I got a tee shirt. (A nice tee shirt. i still wear it regularly.) I was delighted with it.

    Several month later, Todd Robinson (one of my favorite people in the writing biz) let me know the story had been selected for the annual anthology. He paid me. Basically a toekn amount, but money was going to be charged for my work, and he volunteered payment. To me, a perfect solution.

    Almost everything I write is for free: my blog, short stories, novels. (I've never had a contract in advance.) I've given away stories and reviews to small web sites that were operated as labors of love and been happy to have been chosen. it was good practice and good exposure. Anyone who comes to me to write something for them (or allow thm to publish what i wrote on spec) and plans to make money from my work is going to have to pay me. Period.

  4. Allison Davis

    A friend making a living as a freelance journalist got an offer from an online newspaper to write articles at $25 a piece but she had to be EXCLUSIVE. I thought that was taking the boat out too far…it's one thing to underpay people or have them write for free (which she does often on Huffington) but to then say you have to be exclusive while I pay you this pittance shows the far boundaries of what some of this has become.

    Essentialyl I am writing for free now until someone buys this book. But in the day job, I write all the time for money. So I can't complain, it pays the mortgage.

    And Alex makes a point, if you are writing on spec, the work is yours. If you're being paid to write, it's a work for hire and may be long to the person who is paying you. Good to remember who owns what in case they try to claim it after all.

  5. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Boy, I KNEW I was gonna catch some Sokoloff hell for writing this post. I should have made it clear that those occasions I referred to in which I refused to write for free and now wonder if that wasn't mistake, all involved ADAPTING MY OWN MATERIAL. I'm not going to drop any names, but I said no because these people were not unknowns — they were name players who should have had a dollar or two to throw my way, just as a sign of respect. They expected me to work for free as a trade-off for the chance to get a pilot or feature film based upon my stuff made. Seems reasonable now, but the idea of doing that much work without a dime of upfront compensation struck me as an insult at the time.

    If I had it to do over again . . .

    But Alex is right. If the material isn't yours, you'd be crazy — or incredibly desperate — to write word one for free, for anybody.

  6. Reine

    This feels like Dante.

    Inferno. The Levels of Hell in the Life of a Writer: The Internet and its E-Progeny by Ariana

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, well, Gar, that's COMPLETELY different. I get that totally, and I know you can tell the people with juice from the people full of… not juice. But yes, you should have made that clear. Not everyone has the experience to be so discerning.

    I think I'm extra touchy this week because of the whole Hydra contract thing, and I'm seeing exploitation everywhere.

  8. PD Martin

    It's all a timing thing, too. Most novelists write for free at least at the start of their careers. For me it was book 4 that got published, so I was writing for free for a while. And then I'm currently writing for free, kind of…until I get it up on Amazon and then get some income in.

    Oh, to be one of the best sellers who gets an advance BEFORE putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

    But yes, Gar. I think I would have jumped at the opportunity to adapt something of mine for TV or film! But that's a timing thing, too…you may have needed to take sure-fire paid work at that time. Something I'm sure we can all relate to.

  9. David Corbett

    There are times we write for dimes.
    In a pickle, perhaps a nickel.
    But o, how low we dip
    When the offer offers zip.

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