On the whole, I am against the idea of writing in return for no money. We all of us have to eat, and find the money to pay the rent or mortgage. Moreover, the more people who are willing to write for nothing, the less likely it is for editors to pay for work. Unfortunately, the usual law of supply and demand prevails, which is to say that the greater the supply relative to demand, the lower the price in the marketplace. Even though the products being offered are not likely to be the same, if an editor needs an article, or is on a tight budget, price may well be the deciding factor.
However, I’m not one of those people who think that writing for free is always wrong. Individuals have to decide for themselves what to do in each specific case. Here are a few suggestions for questions to ask yourself if somebody asks you to write for nothing.
Who is the audience?
If the audience is not one you are likely to be able to address usually, it might be worth doing. That’s why guest blogging works: you have a readership, and I have a readership. Some of the people who read your blog will likely be readers of mine as well — but not all of them. If you want to expand your readership, reach other people, promote yourself or your forthcoming book, etc etc, then guest blogging, or writing for a free newsletter, may be a good option.
How large is the audience?
Size isn’t everything, of course. If, to take an extreme example, someone’s blog had only one reader — but that reader happened to be the Managing Director of a major publishing company — it would probably be worth your while writing an article for their blog for nothing!
Generally, though, size is an important consideration, especially because of the existence of the 1% rule. This name derives from the general observation that in any undertaking, only around 1% of people take action. For example, if a blog or newslletr has a readership of 100 people, only one of them is likely to follow up your suggestion to check out your new book on Amazon.
Intellectual Property Rights
It’s bad enough to not be offered payment in return for an article, but it’s adding insult to injury to then claim ownership of it or an open-ended licence to use it. Giving away your copyright in the article is nuts, frankly, unless they are paying you a truck-load of money. Even then I would have to give it some really serious thought.
But an open-ended licence to use it, and possibly monetise it without paying you, is even worse. And even worse than that is the sort of licence that sates that they do not even have to acknowledge you as the author. So not only do you not get paid, you don’t even have the chance of earning money from commissions based on other people seeing and liking the work that you have effectively given away. Moreover, these sorts of licences usually contain a clause that says that if anyone sues them because of something in the article, you’re the one who has to deal with it!
Money from advertising?
Content mills, as they are called, entice people to write for them by the prospect of a share in the advertising revenue from Google ads placed on the same page as their article. I can’t say I have made an extensive study of this, but I do know, from experience, that an advert would have to be clicked on hundreds of times, possibly even thousands, to give anyone a decent revenue stream. I imagine that the people who do make money from this sort of arrangement are having to churn out an avalanche of articles to make it pay.
If I am wrong, do let me know. But if I am right, this raises two other issues. One is the effective pay rate, the other is reputation.
What’s the effective pay rate?
Let’s say you have to write 10 articles a day in order to earn $100, then the effective rate per article is $10. And that’s before income tax is deducted.
If you are able to write 10 articles a day, day in and day out, that is pretty impressive. But is the quality any good? Even if it is, what about the quality of the other articles on the same site? If the quality is low, that may not do your reputation a lot of good.
How much work is involved?
I once agreed to write some blog posts for free because it was a different audience to my usual one, though in the same niche, and a larger one (I imagined). However, after I’d sent off the first draft I was asked to make a few amendments. I did so, for the sake of goodwill, and was then asked to make a few more. I emailed back to say that it wasn’t a good use of my time to be constantly having to rewrite the article, and to second guess what they wanted, especially as I wasn’t even being paid for it!
One consideration is whether you are able to write an article quickly on a subject you know, and have a reputation of being an expert on, without painting yourself into a corner as far as copyright issues are concerned. For example, I could write an article about educational technology, and it would be ridiculous for a company or an editor to ask me to not write the same sort of thing for anyone else. Ridiculous, though it can happen. One book contract I was offered had such a restrictive non-compete clause in it that it could, in theory, have prevented me from writing for my own website or even training materials ever again!
But if you can write an article that would take relatively little effort, not take long to write, and which might even enhance your reputation, then it may be worth considering.
What about article databases?
I have sometimes submitted articles to online databases. There is no payment involved, but what you gain is a link back to your website (or whatever) if you want it. It’s a way of potentially getting noticed. You still own the rights in the articles if you do this, and you never know where they will end up.
I, for example, have used other people’s articles on my blog and in my newsletter, both of which brought the writers to the attention of a wider circle of people.
However, you do need to be careful, I think. If you submit the same article to dozens of article databases, Google may decide that they are spam, and stop them being indexed. I imagine there could be a worst-case scenario in which an article you have published on your own website or blog and then submitted to online article databases results in your own blog or website being flagged up as spam, and deleted from Google’s search results. That would be like marketing suicide. There’s information on how Google treats duplicate content in this article: Duplicate content.
On balance, I think unless there is a very compelling reason not to, it is much better to enter into an agreement in which you will write an article in return for a fair sum of money. After all, by definition, a professional is someone who gets paid.