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Industry news: Writing for Nothing

November 2, 2013

I want all that, including the butler and the dogs.

If some of us are honest, we write because some day we’d like to be paid for it. We’d like to make a fraction of what famous fictional writers make. I don’t need Robin’s Nest on Hawaii. I’d settle for a book signing with a few dozen people and enough money and fame to be the guest of honor at a conference or two.

And it would be nice if someone bought me a beer. (That’s just a general observation, not necessarily related to the fame part.)

Depending on who you listen to, the fame, money, and Robin’s Nest will be harder to come by these days. It’s not because of the supposed meltdown of big publishing, but because of the proliferation of free written content. According to this recent New York Times op-ed piece by essayist Tim Kreider, writers and artists are being besieged by requests for free work and he doesn’t like it one bit.

To his credit, Kreider says at least some of the requests come from journals, websites, or periodicals that don’t have the budgets to offer the money they’d like to–or in some cases, they used to. But Kreider’s bigger point is that we’ve grown accustomed to written material being available for free. (Or, if you’re a writers, getting paid with exposure–something you can’t use to pay the mortgage.)

Think about it. It used to cost a quarter a day to find the news, sports, and weather. And, if you were a baseball fan, you paid your quarter to wait an extra day when your team played out west and the score came in after press time. Now, you can go for free to any of hundreds of websites and find all that out for free. And because of their proliferation, the ad revenue for these sites continues to shrink.

If you make your living writing content–or made your living or wish to in the future–that’s not good news. If you want to make a living writing books, the level of competition will make it harder. If your readers can download a 99 cent backlist title from Amazon, why pay $7.99 for yours, much less $25 for the hardcover.

Then again, this is the same environment in which EL James became far richer than she had any right to expect writing fan fiction based on the work of Stephenie Meyer, who some consider far richer than she had any right to expect. It’s the environment in which Matt Drudge got rich providing no original content. It’s the same environment in which a guy makes a living in New York City by writing a blog about sports uniforms every day.

The business is changing. But it still takes talent, hard work, and luck to win.

What this means to you: Free content can give you exposure if you’re just starting. This blog has survived on free content for almost five years now. Some of the people writing the free content have been paid for their work. Then again, I read a lot of work without paying for it even before the Internet revolution, from the library. And on many occasions, I tried an author out in the library then went back and bought books by the same people. So while the sheer volume of free material is greater than it’s ever been, the concept isn’t new.

More to the point, it’s my hope that some day, some of you–our valued readers–might some day remember me, see my eventual book, and say, hey, I might try buying something from that guy.

I’d also point out that Mr. Kreider is an essayist and cartoonist, which have never been fast-track careers to fame and riches. Instead, being an essayist and cartoonist is something for which you always have to find that next paying gig–something that’s been increasingly difficult for Mr. Kreider. But if Paul Lukas can make money writing about uniforms, it’s entirely possible Mr. Kreider needs to stop fighting against the current business conditions and figure out a way for them to help him.

  1. Jen permalink
    November 2, 2013 9:28 am

    There is irony in someone who apparently has no publishing credits and who has been toiling for five years writing free content on an obscure blog for “exposure,” advising Tim Kreider—who has several books and writes regularly for pay in the New York Times among other publications—to “stop fighting against the current business conditions and figure out a way for them to help him.”

    Yes, there’s a lot of “content” written for free. There’s also a lot of crappy content and crappy content mill venues. (Present company excluded.) It helps to be selective about what one gives away for free. Not all “exposure” is created equal. Not all unpaid venues will be considered as a real credential by a venue that pays for writing.

    In the world of fiction, the EL James story is the exception, not the rule. Anyone who writes fiction thinking that they can make a living at it—or even make significant regular income—is headed for heartbreak. Very few writers are able to to that. Very, very, very, very, very, very few. And you can bet that the ones who make it, haven’t spent much of their time creating “content” for “exposure” for free.

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      November 2, 2013 7:48 pm

      I’m just commenting in general, not advising Tim Kreider. I doubt he knows who I am or about this blog. And yes, EL James is an anomaly. But most writers learn the craft somehow, and there are worse ways than writing a blog.

      I’m all about getting paid, and there are a lot of ways to do it. I don’t pay Paul Lukas to read his work about uniforms–ESPN and his advertisers do. And I will never begrudge anyone getting money for their effort. Ever. But the industry *is* changing and a lot of the people asking for Mr. Kreider’s work for very little, or free, just don’t have the budget they used to have–by his own admission. I wish it were different, but it isn’t. And maybe guys like me are reducing value for everyone by putting stuff out for free–even crappy stuff.

      I don’t know….

  2. Elizabeth Ressler permalink
    November 2, 2013 12:08 pm


    I’m willing to pay to get a BLOG AS GOOD AS THIS! I can only imagine how much writing help I’ve missed not reading the four years prior.

    May I suggest you compare your writing blog to pay TV which wins or loses during it’s play among all the other channels–being cancelled or making even better $Deals to continue. The internet is much like antena TV before cable took over–FREE (and we still have it at our house PLUS pay to have Comcast). And, like Comcast and it’s buddies, the internet has a vast amount of content to sort through hoping to find WELL-WRITTEN STUFF.

    On and off I buy a newspaper; however, it’s hard to justify paying $ to read advertising when I can also get those FREE on the internet. When I surfed the web looking to see what news to buy, I found something I LIKED and WANTED TO READ and bought a subscription to “The New Republic” to feed my desire to for good journalism writing with the added benefit of becoming a better writer by reading it. I haven’t been disappointed with my choice.

    While I enjoy having your BLOG as a benefit to FWA membership, I would think making the BLOG an add-on $expense choice would elevate the BLOG WRITER to a paying gig with happiness for all. My business mind thinks, “If a writer is good enough to get paid, I gotta read and judge for myself.”

    Chris, I will miss reading your content but you certainly have my attention to subscribe should you continue as an Independent Blogger. I was dumbfounded when I read “Last Summer”– your FIRST PUBLISHED PIECE in FWA’s Volume Five, “It’s A Crime!” Well, I think it’s a crime you don’t get paid to write such excellent advice. Do I need to send my concern to “DEAR ABBY?”

    And, to borrow your ending to a recent BLOG, I quote, “Think about it.”

    Thank you for autographing my copy of your first published piece at the 2013 conference in Lake Mary. I’m pleased to say my money was well spent on Mary Burton’s “How to Write a Book” all-day workshop. I look forward to attending the whole event next year–IT HAS TOP VALUE FOR THE MONEY!

  3. Chris Hamilton permalink
    November 2, 2013 7:42 pm

    Wow, thanks for all the love! I’ll still blog four times a month, though!

  4. November 3, 2013 11:17 am

    I’d just like to make enough money to support myself. You know, pay the meager bills that I have (which is very little, since I paid off all debt). BTW, you’re doing a great job here, Chris. I don’t get notifications for a whole ton of wordpress blogs, but I make sure I get yours. It’s nice to read a fellow Floridian author as well. Keep up the good work.

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