This week I was approached by a publication that wanted to commission a piece of writing from me on the topic of education. I was interested, but when I asked what the pay rate was, the founder of the website replied: “We hope to be able to compensate our contributors at some point but unfortunately can’t for now. We’re still new, with very limited resources. I would understand if you want to pass until we’re able to compensate—just figured I’d reach out, since I think you have an important perspective to add to this conversation.”
I believe, for reasons previously laid out eloquently by my colleague Yasmin Nair in Vox several years ago, that soliciting writers to work for free is unconscionable, and that having “limited resources” is no excuse. I would like to share the reply I sent to this editor. I hope that all writers will remember that writing for free, even if financially possible for you, makes it easier for sites to get away with paying nothing to others who do depend on their writing income. When you negotiate payment, you are not just advocating for yourself. You make it harder for places to get away with exploiting other people. Demanding fair compensation is not just a selfish act but an act of solidarity with fellow writers.
I have removed the name of the publication and its identifying details. I have asked them to change their policy and tell me when they have done so. If they change it, I will keep them anonymous. If they do not, I will add in the name of the person who solicited me and the publication.
If you are a freelance writer, feel free to adapt and send this response to anyone who tries to get you to work for free (without the specific bits about Current Affairs, obviously).
If you are interested in writing for a publication that does pay its contributors (albeit still modestly), our pitch form is here.
I will in fact have to pass until then, I have a strong objection to being asked to write for free, and I want to explain what it is, because your model is unacceptable and needs to be changed.
First, it is a strange request. You would not, presumably, call up a house painter and ask them to paint your deck, and then tell them you hope to be able to pay your contractors soon but regrettably cannot at this time. You would realize that if you cannot pay the contractors, you cannot hire the contractors. You’re asking someone to do work for you. I’m not a friend, and you haven’t said that it’s for a charitable cause. It’s a request to do work, and when you request that work for free, you are taking advantage of the fact that there is no legal minimum wage for the kind of work you are asking for. You are an employer of labor who is trying to get away not just paying under minimum wage, but nothing.
Writers are presumed to be different from other workers. But that presumption is a major reason why writers cannot make a living. If a publication can get writers to write for free, why would it pay them? (In fact, if it is a profit-seeking corporation, it is arguably under an obligation not to pay for what it can get for free.) I could afford to take a few free gigs each month. But if I do so, I am giving a publication content for free that, if writers like me did not write for free, it would have to pay for. Meaning that I am hurting my fellow writers. Every writer like me who chooses to write for free is making it harder for the writers who depend on their writing income.
I do not accept that you cannot pay your writers. I do not accept this because I know it is false, and I know it is false because I have built a publication from scratch myself. We started with nothing, then solicited enough donations & subscriptions to fund our first issue. We raised the amount of money it would take to pay the writers and artists. In other words, we established it as a principle that because it was not acceptable not to pay writers, we could not publish until we could offer writers money. Of course, we could have published without the hard work of raising the money, if we had done what you are doing. But we did not. When you tell me you do not have the resources to pay writers, what you mean is that you have not put in the work, because you are insufficiently committed to the principle. Compensation does not have to be very much. God knows that even very prestigious outlets pay pittances a lot of the time. At Current Affairs, our rates are not nearly as high as they ought to be, because our resources are minimal. Nobody understands better than I do the agony of trying to put out a good publication with hardly any money.
And yet: you must pay the writers. It is nonnegotiable. Pay them whatever you can. But pay them, and when you can pay them more, pay them more. You and your friend went to [Fancy University]. I am sorry, but you have the connections to raise enough money for your project to provide compensation to the people who do the work. (If you can’t, then your project isn’t viable.) It is shameful that you chose instead to start publication without doing this, and I am not convinced you are trying very hard. Your website solicits donations by saying that even small donations will help you cover “server costs” without “ugly ads.” It does not mention donations going to pay writers, or an ambition to pay writers. It assumes that if you can cover server costs you can ethically publish.
Let’s be extremely clear about why this is harmful: every day on the internet, there are countless publications producing content, all vying for eyeballs. Some of these places have paywalls and advertising (like the New York Times), or rely on subscriptions and donations (like Current Affairs). They do this because they have to raise revenue, and they have to raise revenue because they pay their writers. Now, if there are websites putting out high-quality content that do not pay their writers, and thus do not have to raise the same amount in advertising, paywalls, subscriptions, or donations as the rest of us, it makes it harder for those publications that are committed to the principle of compensation. Ads may be “ugly,” but if they are necessary to pay writers, then ads you must have.
In other words, you are able to procure top quality writing talent and put the material out for free, but the editor of some other publication has to put writing behind a paywall because they are committed to paying for it. The audience for whose eyeballs we are competing will then feel less need to pay for content, because they can go to a free site rather than pay to go behind a paywall. Because you have exempted yourself from the basic principle “labor must be compensated” that some of us follow, you are able to compete more easily in the market, just as a builder who didn’t pay contractors could produce cheaper houses. You can provide a more visually pleasing alternative to the sites with the ugly ads in part because you need less revenue to operate, because you don’t pay people. You are only able to do this because the United States has allowed giant loopholes in minimum wage law. But a principled person does not take advantage of this. You should operate as if the kind of offer you have made is illegal, just as offering jobs for $2 an hour is illegal.
If I accepted offers like yours, I would not only not be able to make a living, but I would contribute to the devaluation of writing that is making it impossible for freelancers to survive. Every day, by putting out work you have not paid for, you are hurting the writing economy and making it harder for the people who have to put things behind paywalls because they paid for them. It is shameful. Fortunately, we writers are less and less inclined to accept offers like yours, and it is only because we “hold the line” that we are able to bargain for higher wages. Those who are truly desperate might accept being paid in “exposure” out of necessity, and I can’t blame them, but those like me who have the privilege to take whichever gigs we like need to make sure we do not betray fellow writers by giving out good stuff for free. (With limited exceptions, like charitable causes or antiwar petitions.) I cannot accept your offer because to do so would be this kind of betrayal.
Please do inform me when you have started compensating writers. (We writers have blacklists and I want to make sure you do not remain on one once your policy changes.) I will be glad to write for you then, and will produce something of the highest quality I can. Your project looks valuable and nothing I have said is meant to insult it. I would like you to succeed because we need the kind of rich intellectual exchanges you are trying to put together. But your unethical practice is very harmful and needs to be ended immediately.
Nathan J. Robinson
Editor in Chief