I haven’t been doing this whole writer thing for very long. While I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a small degree of success (including my first major sale last year), I have also unfortunately learned a few things the hard way.
In a sort of round about way, this post is a tale solidifying my stance on working for free/working for “exposure.”
Let’s start at the beginning. A few years ago, not long after the whole Tony G debacle I linked to at the start of this blog post, I was contacted by an editor. This editor, who shall remain nameless, treated me well and asked me to write a story for an anthology of hers, a pet project that she was hoping desperately to fill, but struggling. She’d read and liked my work and approached me about submitting. Payment for participation in the anthology would be… well, there would be no payment. Not even a contributor’s copy. But at that point in time, I was OK with that. After all, I reasoned, her anthos did well and got noticed. If I were to contribute to one, I’d be noticed, too. Getting my name out there and having another book to add to my bibliography would be a good thing, even if I didn’t make any money off the story. So I wrote.
Or, better put, I tried to write. You see, the topic of the anthology wasn’t something I was used to writing about. In fact, it would be my first ever published work that had nothing at all to do with zombies. But the editor had approached me. She believed I could do this, so I took some strength from her faith in me and my abilities (though I was probably giving that faith a bit more credit than what was truly due) and I resolved that I WOULD WRITE SOMETHING to contribute to this anthology.
At first, it was slow going. I kept wanting to write about the undead, and in fact, I took several breaks to complete zombie stories while working on the antho project. Eventually, inspiration struck and I finally managed to come up with an angle, and from there, the story evolved. Like happens so rarely to us writers, it just flowed out of me, a near perfect first draft in a single sitting.
Now, let me just say that I absolutely love the story that resulted. While I do love the fact that I stretched myself beyond my previous limits and got out of my comfort zone to write something entirely new, I do really love the story itself. It might even be my favorite short story I’ve written (although I have received a lot of criticism, including that it’s too “quiet” or too confusing) and I’ve read it at a few conventions I’ve attended.
I sent off the completed story to the editor and was pleased (though not surprised) when it was accepted. But the anthology was still struggling. Too few stories. It might not happen became it probably won’t happen. This made me very sad, as I dearly loved that story and wanted it to see the light of day. With the editor’s permission, I shopped it around to any and every market that it might fit. That story earned me more rejections (in large part because it was submitted more) than anything else I’ve written… But I didn’t want to give up on it, so I kept my chin up and kept submitting.
During this arduous process, my mentality began to shift on the whole subject of payment and “exposure”.
Kelli Owen (who you should most definitely be reading) penned a fabulous blog post on the topic of what aspiring writers need to know. I’ve linked the post in its entirety above, but this is the piece most relevant to the situation:
“1. RULE NUMBER ONE. This one is NOT a guideline. This is, without a doubt, and with Sister Hank’s ruler to back it up, a rule: Money flows to the writer. aka, Get Paid. aka, Real Money. I don’t care if you want to forgo guideline #3 and only get $5.00, get something. Anything. Seriously. Because if they have to pay you, they tend to give a crap about where their money is going. I have tried to beat this into the thick skulls of several newer writers who refuse to listen in the light of the vile word “exposure” and in the miasma of excitement that comes with the idea of being published. After the recent whirlwind, a couple are suddenly listening. Mandy took an “ouch” to learn and another received a very nasty phone call where Bob and I channeled everyone above us on the ladder who had yelled at us about the exact same thing once upon a time. Get Paid. Non-negotiable.
If you’re not willing to go to your dayjob and tell them at the end of the day, “no no, don’t pay me. knowing you appreciate me (read as “exposure”) is enough” don’t do it with your writing. It took time and effort, skill, thought, sweat and, if you did it right, blood to do… why the HELL would you just hand that away for nothing? WHY?! So don’t. And here’s your one warning… If I know you saw this blog entry and I ever, and I do mean ever, hear you bitching about a publication or even excited about one that didn’t pay you, I will come down on your head like the wrath of gods that have been dead for so long their pent up anger makes Coop look like the Dalai Lama. Kapeesh? Paid. Period. The End.”
The contributors to this (and other) anthologies were giving their stories – completely free – to these editors and publishers, who were turning around and selling the books they produced for money. Suddenly that seemed, well, really unfair. Someone was profiting from my hard work and creativity. Someone, who was not me, was making money off of my words. For lack of a better term, that was bullshit. I stopped submitting to nonpaying markets. I have contributed to a few charity anthologies since then, but donating your work to a good cause is a LOT different than donating your work so someone else gets paid. At least in my opinion.
Somewhere around the 36th rejection, the original editor contacted me again. Surprise! The anthology was a go! Had I found a different home for my story yet? I replied that I had not and received a contract the next day, with the same (non payment) terms as the original. As I had previously agreed, and actually written the story for this very anthology, I signed it.
There was a lot of weirdness involved, both with the editor and the publisher, but eventually it went to print and I bought a few copies of the book (which now appears to be out of print and available as an ebook only). This was about 2 ½ years ago or so. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare around this particular anthology and I would be shocked if it has sold more than a dozen copies/downloads in all that time.
Yesterday, I happened upon a new market listing… Not only were the guidelines FAR more in line with my story than the original anthology it was published in, but this market actually paid. I was really excited until I got to the last sentence:
ABSOLUTELY NO REPRINTS!
My heart sunk. This market would have been SO perfect for the story I so dearly love, the story I wasn’t paid for that was probably not seen by more than a handful of people, and yet I could do nothing about it because I had given it away for free. Ouch.
There’s a lesson here somewhere, but rather than trying to wax poetic, I’ll just say this: Know your worth. Even if you’re just starting out, your time and effort are worth money. Exposure usually isn’t worth anything, with very rare exceptions. In other words, if you want to make money off of my writing, pay me for it.