Should You Ever Write for No Pay?

Not long ago, the online review site New York Journal of Books posted a LinkedIn discussion soliciting reviewers of science fiction books. The post described the NYJoB’s prestige in glowing terms:

“Our reviews for some time now have been quoted in large and small publisher promo, on book covers, etc., typically alongside, and often more prominently, than long-established reviews… Our standards for reviewers are high. …we care about books a great deal. The art of the book review has been withering and it is our aim to keep it alive and flourishing.”

But then there’s this:

“This enterprise is a “labor of love.” Reviewers all set their own pace for submitting reviews. This is not a paid gig [italics mine].”

Sure enough, the site has a lot of content that appears to be of good quality. It also has a lot of high-end advertising, which means income. The three principals appear to be highly successful business professionals in marketing, finance and publishing. Not the kind of people who work only ‘for love.’

So why do they think it’s all right to ask people to contribute unpaid content, when they are clearly earning advertising revenue from that content?

They think so, because they already know that far too many writers are so eager to see their names in print, that they’ll accept almost any terms to get themselves a byline. They already have dozens of writers, presumably writing on those terms.

Here’s how NYJoB hopes to persuade writers that not getting paid is a really good deal:

“…we do hope to one day pay writers far more than is customary. Links to purchase both the book reviewed and a reviewer’s own books appear alongside reviews. Visibility on our site has led, for example, to an inaugural traditionally published work of fiction for one reviewer. Another just landed her dream job in the publishing.”

Real world translation: “We know that paying is the right thing to do, so we say that we’re going to, even though we have no plans right now to share with you all the money your reviews earn for us. Maybe appearing on our site will get you a publishing ‘dream job’ or a book contract.You can hope, right?”

And this puts the lie to their “we care about books” boast. People who actually do care about books also care about writers. I know of many small presses and startup ezines, (including Cliffhanger Books, where I am an editor) who offer writers royalty contracts, and pay them something, even if it’s only coffee money. Most of them probably have small to non-existent revenue streams (a lot less than NYJoB is earning from all those Amazon ads!) But they come up with the money, because they really do care about writers and believe that writers deserve to get paid for their work, the same as plumbers, architects, waiters, office managers, or anyone else whose work provides value.

The most important reason that writers should get paid goes beyond simple fairness, beyond, “my efforts have value to you, so I deserve compensation.” It’s this: writers who don’t get paid are stuck forever in the amateur ghetto of writing in spare time.  Successful writers become prolific by getting paid for writing, which allows them to do more writing and get paid for it. NYJoB’s owners know this perfectly well. One of their principals is author Lisa Buccieri who claims “over 100 children’s books” to her credit. Do you think she produced a hundred books in her free time, for no pay?

If you’re a new writer just starting your portfolio, or you want to contribute to a startup or charity venture that you feel is worthwhile, then you might occasionally choose to write for free . Otherwise, if you want to be a successful professional writer, don’t give your work away, and don’t let anyone talk you out of being paid for it.


Should You Ever Write for No Pay? — 2 Comments

  1. Well said. Those of us in creative fields such as writing, art and music are always being taken advantage off as if we are all untalented shlubs and they are doing us a favor by letting us work for free. If people are unskilled, don’t pay them, but don’t use their work either.

  2. I’ve concluded that this isn’t even about whether they think we’re untalented. Its the same mentality as the big content aggregators, and the media conglomerates and anyone who controls large media distribution systems. It’s, “We control the distribution system, and we need lots and lots of content to keep our audience coming back and seeing all our ads or paying for tickets. So the more content we own, and the less we pay for it, the more $$$ we make.”

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