Podcast Episode 4: Hot Topic: Writing and Editing for free – is it ever OK?

Episode 4 of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast is now live! Listen below, or on our Podomatic page, where you can also find all the links you need to find myself and Lorrie all over the web.

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Edited to add, we now have a transcript!

Episode Four of A Little Bird Told Me: Writing and editing for free: is it ever OK?

Philippa: Welcome to episode four of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast, where two freelance writers talk about the highs, low and no-nos of successful self-employment. You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and from there you can find all the links, subscribe to us via RSS feed, at iTunes as well as at Stitcher Smart Radio, as well as the link to our Facebook page. We really want lots of new Facebook likes so we can start having some really interesting conversations on there.
So, I’m Philippa Willitts…
Lorrie:…and I’m Lorrie Hartshorn, and today we’re going to be tackling the first of the A Little Bird Told Me “Hot Topics”. These Hot Topics are going to cover things that affect freelance writers, copywriters and editors, and the topic we wanted to tackle this week is based on something I spotted on Twitter and immediately contacted Pip about, and had a bit of a rant about..
Philippa: She did indeed – and I agreed with her rant!
Lorrie: Which is good! It’s good when people agree with me – I like this! I mean, we don’t always agree but this is why this one is such a good Hot Topic – because we really do. The topic we’re going to be covering is writing and editing for free. Now, there’s a lot to say on the subject but, as an editor myself, I particularly wanted to cover something that I spotted on Twitter, as I say. Now, I was scooting around on Twitter, having a nosey in one of my Saved Searches – as I mentioned in Episode Three, I have a few Saved Searches on there – and I spotted a person on there who was putting out an advert for professional book editors…
Philippa: …which sounds like a great thing.
Lorrie: Yeah, it’s right up my street. So I thought, “Ooh, let’s go and have a look!” So, I went on his website – really professional looking website, really, really nice – and there’s an ad on the front page, entitled, “Calling all editors”. Now, it says, “Calling all editors – I’m looking for an editor for my next book. The qualifications are simple: you need to be an experienced editor, have excellent grammar and writing skills, preferably be a science-fiction fan with a deep background in the genre…” – whatever ‘deep background’ means – and, then, here’s the crunch, “…As an indie author, this is not a paid position.” Now, putting aside the dodgy grammar on that sentence – and we’re not really putting it aside: I hate it! I hate dodgy grammar – it says, “As an indie author, this is not a paid position but I will lavish praise and chocolate on the lucky person – lucky person!! – as well as a very nice mention in the foreword, as well as a personalised first edition of the book.”
Philippa: Wow…!
Lorrie: I know, can you believe it? “Please respond via email to blah-blah – I’ll be contacting all applicants via telephone, so please include your complete contact info.” And he’s actually put this ad repeatedly on Twitter, and on his website, and he’s looking for a professional editor to edit a full-length manuscript for chocolate!
Philippa: And it starts off quite well – “Looking for an editor for a book…qualifications…experienced editor…” I think, yes, Lorrie ticks that box, “…excellent grammar and writing skills…” Yes, she ticks that box. I’m not sure how much of a science-fiction fan she is, but I have enough faith in her other qualifications that she’d be perfect for this job. And then it goes on, “…and praise and chocolate.” This is a whole book – presumably a whole novel?
Lorrie: Yes.
Philippa: …and a key point is that, once the book’s ready, this guy will be selling them for money. He’ll be getting paid for his work.
Lorrie: Not in chocolate. Not in praise. It’s just ridiculous – if the book’s going to make money, why is there nothing for the editor? Because editing a book, you sometimes change it significantly – that’s why you’re there. This guy describes himself as a ‘best-selling author’. His books are costing anywhere from 99 cents to sixteen dollars for a copy, each. And if he’s making any money at all – absolutely any – then, I mean what does he think editors pay the bills in? Chocolate? It’s ridiculous. “Oh sorry, I can’t pay my electricity bill this month, but I can praise you.”
Philippa: Hahahaha! I should totally try that for my next bill: “I’ve decided to pay you in praise – you are lovely!”
Lorrie: “Yeah, and there’s a Dairy Milk in the post.”
Philippa: Hahaha!
Lorrie: It’s ludicrous honestly – and he’s looking for an editor because he obviously realises that his book needs looking it. Everybody who writes needs an editor; I completely believe that. It’s just ludicrous.
Philippa: But not paying his editor – or not paying his editor – he’s really demeaning the work that editors are doing. I don’t know whether he perhaps doesn’t grasp what a big job it is – and what an important job it is, as Lorrie says. This isn’t just checking his punctuation – being a fiction editor can involve massive reworking. It does, it demeans the work that editors do.
Lorrie: Definitely. And I think I’ve got even less faith in him than you do. Because how can you not realise? As an author, if you’re putting out an advert for “experienced editors”, you know damn well those people do that for a living. You know that’s their day job, and I think this guy is exploiting the fact that so many people are competing for literary editing jobs – I think it’s absolutely disgraceful, and one point I would want to make is that – as Pip mentioned in Episode One of A Little Bird Told Me, this isn’t something you have to go through as a freelancer. You don’t have to work for free to prove your skills and to be taken seriously. You’re working, this is your day job, you’ve obviously spent time building up your skills and gaining qualifications – don’t work for free.
Philippa: Absolutely. And the context we talked about in Episode One was about low pay – we were talking about not working for insulting pay – so to suggest that someone should work for no pay is even worse than that. I mean, even if you’ve not got tonnes of experience, if you can do a good job, you deserve to be paid for it.
Lorrie: Absolutely. Another point is that he’s not even respecting his readership. He’s out there on Twitter saying he’s a best-selling author. A decent editor costs money. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys – or you should! It seems like if you pay peanuts, you get editors at the moment! If you want a freebie editor, where’s the incentive for them to do a good job? And then, he’s going selling a book that’s been edited by someone for free to his readers for $16!
Philippa: Yeah, and there’s a parallel issue as well – because self-publishing on Amazon is really easy now, it means that independent publishing has got a bit of a bad reputation because there are lots of books full of typos, bad punctuation and stories that don’t flow or just don’t work. And because of that reputation, a lot of indie authors are working really hard, genuinely, to overcome that bad reputation. And they’re doing that by making sure they employ editors and several proof-readers. But if you want someone to edit for free, that doesn’t help the reputation that indie authors have – it reinforces the idea that quality isn’t the top priority for independent or self-published authors.
Lorrie: Exactly – there are really, really differing views on indie authorship and self-publishing. There are plenty of traditionally published authors out there who say it’s basically a disgrace, and that people shouldn’t be publishing like this because look at the resources that publishing houses have to put into a book. Graphic designers are getting annoyed because people are designing their own covers, authors who’ve been published down the traditional route are getting annoyed because everybody’s calling themselves an author, and it’s people like this who are the issue. There are genuinely some talented people out there who self-publish and use that as a legitimate way to get their really decent work out there. For someone like me (I do creative writing and I do editing) to see someone like this cutting corners and thinking that the work that comes out at the end will be of the same quality.
Philippa: Definitely. As well as writers wanting editors to work for free, there are an awful lot of business owners and websites that want writers to work for free. The excuse is often “it’s really good for exposure; it’ll get your name out there.” And I think there’s an element of that with the editing as well. I think this guy thinks that somebody being in his foreword, thanked for editing his book, could launch their career. But in fact will his book launch your career? Will a website getting its content for free launch your career? It won’t.
Lorrie: No, it just won’t. If this book is going to be so magnificent, he should be paying you to edit it. If it’s not going to be that good, then why is your name being in the foreword going to make a blind bit of difference to anyone? It’s just not. But as Pip’s just said, a lot of companies actually want writers to produce content for free, as well as edit it. And this is actually a business plan for some start-up companies: they just don’t factor in the content costs at all, or they’ll make it into an ‘internship opportunity’ or a ‘volunteer opportunity’ that’s ‘great for your CV’ and it’s really, really not.
Philippa: Definitely – and some are even more sly than that, actually. They’ll go to lots of writers websites and say, “Can you send me a sample? I’m building a site on this subject. If you could write me an article on subject X, I’ll make a judgment on whether I want to hire you.” But they’ll go round lots of different writers websites asking for cleverly chosen samples and end up with a website full of content having paid nobody and having never intended to pay anybody.
Lorrie: I actually think I’ve been the victim – and I say ‘victim’ because I feel pretty cheesed off! – of someone like this recently. I can’t ascertain for sure whether this has happened, but I was asked to edit a number of academic articles, which I did – as you say, ‘for a sample’. Now, this is something you do have to expect – you have to give someone a sample, it’s not something you can avoid unfortunately. However, I sent these samples off – carefully edited – and I’ve not heard anything back. And I’ve contacted this person again, and again, I’ve not heard anything back. The project start date was supposed to be the start of September and it’s now the seventh, and I’m starting to get a little bit annoyed and to sniff out that there might have been some sneaky business going on. Time will tell.
Philippa: I think one good tip for writers is to have your own samples ready rather than writing their choice of sample. With editing though, it’s harder.
Lorrie: You can’t avoid it.
Philippa: You can’t send a good piece of work and say, “This was rubbish but now it’s good because of me!” That is trickier, I hadn’t thought of that. I know, for myself, if I’m asked for writing samples, I do have a few things in a zip file, and obviously lots of links on my website so people can see. I haven’t ever been asked for proof-reading and editing samples, so I’d never really considered it from that point of view.
Lorrie: Yeah, from the writing perspective, it’s great to have a portfolio ready so that no one can rip you off. But as you say, with editing, it’s pretty unavoidable because the subjects can vary so widely – as of course they can with writing – and people will generally just send you a sample of text and say, ‘Show me what you’d do with that.’
Philippa: Getting work for free isn’t even a great business plan from their point of view. The writer isn’t going to put their all into the task, your whole website will be written in different styles, you’re certainly not going to build a good relationship with anyone, writers aren’t going to talk highly of you to colleagues – it’s not a good plan even from the business point of view. You might get some free content in the short-term, but in the long-term it doesn’t work at all.
Lorrie: I think, a lot of the time, it’s the hallmark of a business that really just doesn’t care. Again, it’s the same as certain dodgy indie authors giving everyone a bad name – I’ve noticed a lot of start-up companies based online that basically work this in as part of the business plan. They don’t care about their suppliers – in this case, writers – they don’t care about their clients, they don’t care about the content on the website. All they want is a site that will shoot up the Google rankings because it’s got a lot of new content on it. As a writer, you have to wonder if a business like this is going to succeed and if it’s really something you want to be involved with. It seems more like a money-making scheme rather than a business that’s going to succeed long-term – and do you really want to put your name to something like that?
Philippa: Absolutely, absolutely. We understand that, quite a lot of the time, start-ups aren’t exactly rich. But the point is, if you have a business plan – especially if it’s around something like a niche website where the majority of the work is the content – and that includes money for a WordPress theme and money for SEO, then money has to also be allocated for that content.
Lorrie: Yeah. I mean, if you’ve got friends or family members who’ll write you some content for free, fine – absolutely great. Or, if you can offer someone you know something in return, say, if you write something for me, you can have this. And if they’re happy with that, again, fine. But really, if you’re looking for a professional writer or editor, paying them isn’t optional.
Philippa: Yes. Another thing I’ve seen quite a lot of is…I’ll get an email saying, ‘If you do this job for free, I’ll pay you loads for the next lot of work that we give you.’
Lorrie: Oh, “…and there’ll be loads more work coming down the tube as well!”
Philippa: Absolutely, and it never ever happens. Don’t believe it – this is a tactic to get work from you for free. If they get that work from you for free, they’ll find someone else to get the next work for free. You’ll never see them again, and certainly not to be paid.
Lorrie: No, you’re damaging your reputation. They’ll never come back to you, you’ll never be able to ask them for money and you’re damaging the market for other people – they’ll go and find someone else to trick, and ask them to work for free, and it just goes on.
Philippa: A big offender in this is Huffington Post, which is a very big website that I’m sure most people have heard of. They don’t pay their bloggers – I believe they pay their staff writers – but most of their content comes from bloggers. And recently, the site was sold for $315million, so some bloggers took them to court, and they estimated that $105million was the value of their unpaid work. One of them said, “Huffington Post is nothing without the bloggers who created the content” and I tend to agree with them, to be honest. If I click on a Huffington Post link on Twitter or something, it’s nearly always to a blog post. I try to avoid it actually, as they have really obnoxious pop-ups, but that’s irrelevant!
But yes, 9,000 writers took them to court – that’s how many people they had working for them for free. And they actually lost their case because they’d agreed in advance that they were going to write for free for a for-profit company. But I think it was still a good case to take because a lot of people weren’t aware at that point that a lot of the content they were reading from there was free. I know a number of people who blog for the UK Huffington Post now, and I’m deliberately not on principle. There’s no justification in my opinion for a website making that amount of money to not pay the people who are getting people to click.
Lorrie: No. Sometimes it’s very difficult to stick to your principles because, for example, Huffington Post is huge now – you’d love to be able to say, ‘Oh, I wrote for Huffington Post’. That being said – and it’s not really to put the blame on the bloggers – but if everyone had stood back and said, ‘No, you’re a for-profit company and I want to be paid for my work’, they wouldn’t have been able to do it. And we’re saying, we don’t know how they can justify it, well, of course they can justify it because everyone seems to be willing to work for free! The whole business plan behind Huffington Post is that people will give you free content and you make loads of money out of it – great business plan!
Philippa: Yeah, and as Lorrie said, we’re not blaming individual writers who do it. We understand that it might be good exposure to be on Huffington Post – a couple of bloggers have made it big as a result of being on there, although it’s a couple out of thousands, really, and a lot of people have probably been tricked by being sent one of those emails we talked about earlier. We’re not blaming individuals who do it; what we’re angry about is that people are asking it of us, really.
Lorrie: I think one thing I would say is that the acclaim that comes from saying you’ve written for Huffington Post is now going to have a shelf-life because now that Huffington Post has been exposed a for-profit company that resolutely does not pay its bloggers, really, where’s the struggle in getting your work on there? I wouldn’t think of someone who writes for Huffington Post, “Ooh, that person must be a really good writer” – I’d think, “Oh, Huffington Post got them too.” I’d think that they don’t really discriminate because, with free content, you can’t really sniff at it. I really would wonder now how much of a benefit there is for bloggers writing for Huffington Post. I guess that’s just my take on it.
Philippa: I think the very first bloggers probably did get very good exposure when the site got big but now, there are so many – and we’re not saying they’re not good quality, there are some great quality ones although I have seen some questionable quality ones and you do get associated with that.
Lorrie: I deliberately don’t read it because I question its ethics, to be honest.
Philippa: Yep. One option that’s sometimes offered to freelancers instead of – or as part of – being paid is revenue sharing or profit sharing, where the client might say ‘We’ll pay you 50% of your set fee but you can then share 50% of the profits’. Some say, ‘We can’t pay you anything but you can have 50% of the profits.’ And, this can be tricky for freelancers to negotiate. I was offered a revenue-sharing deal a few days ago and turned it down, for various reasons. But mainly because if a product or site or business doesn’t work, then you might be promised 50% of the profits, but if there are no profits, you’ll receive 50% of nothing, which is nothing. So, if you are looking at revenue-sharing, it’s really important to make sure that they’ve got a marketing plan in place and a decent platform to launch the product from.
There are some copywriters who will only work for a percentage of the revenue because they’ve got such faith in their sales copy, so certainly not everyone objects to this method – some people it works very well for.
Lorrie: Yeah, I think there are a lot of things to be considered. As Pip said, 50% of nothing is nothing. So, if this person or business isn’t going to make a penny, then neither are you. And what’s worse is, depending on the copyright deal you might have signed, they could walk away with the rights to the content you’ve produced, so if they come up with another business in future, they can take all your copy and you don’t necessarily get any money from that if it’s attached to a different venture and you’ve signed over the rights to it.
The profit-sharing niches that I find to be the most popular tend to be the really, really hard-sells, so things like Forex – foreign exchange trading – internet marketing products, health and fitness products. It tends to be online products for sale on marketplaces like Plimus and ClickBank, and it’s whatever suits really, in my opinion. It’s usually very, very hard-sell copy – I’ve written some before, it’s not my cup of tea but, you know, it works for some people…
Philippa: You do it very well, though!
Lorrie: Thank you!
Philippa: I’ve seen some of it, it’s very impressive!
Lorrie: It’s awful, isn’t it?
Philippa: Yes, horribly impressive! Hahaha!
Lorrie: I was really hoping you weren’t going to bring that up. But thank you! Hahaha!
Philippa: I think we have slightly differing views on how wise profit-sharing is, and I think that’s because we’ve had slightly different experiences with it. The times I’ve been approached, it’s not been by people I’ve had any good relationship with, and I think that’s where your experiences might be a bit different.
Lorrie: Yeah, I know we discussed the last deal you were offered – you have to assess every deal on its merits. If someone contacts you out of the blue, you’ve got no reputation to go off, you’ve got no relationship to base your judgment on, and their product and marketing plan doesn’t look very strong, then it’s obviously a no-no. I think my thoughts, in brief, are that profit-sharing deals aren’t usually ideal. It can work with certain niches – as I say, usually the hard-sells – and it’s better than nothing as long as it isn’t literally a percentage of nothing. In which case, it is just nothing!
Philippa: Yes. I think I’m slightly more cautious. You do have to be working with someone you’re 100% confident can make the product happen, and work, and sell. Otherwise, you might just end up doing tonnes of work for no return.
Lorrie: It is definitely a huge risk. I think the only time I’d really recommend is when you either have a long-term vested interest in the product or person, in which case the risk is that you’ll have a fall out and then what to do? Or, when the person has a good reputation for running successful product launches on online sales platforms like ClickBank. You know, you’ve heard of this person before, they’re number one in the market place. You know, a person like that can’t afford to rip you off and they generally don’t. They’re usually very, very generous as long as you can produce something that is absolutely top of that niche. And it has to be spot on. You have to be a very good, very experienced copywriter to get in with one of those people.
Philippa: Yes, and especially in the internet marketing niche, reputation is everything, so they’re not going to want to risk their reputation on one product launch.
Lorrie: No, and they’re not going to want to go with you unless you have a sturdy reputation as a hard-sell copywriter. You’re going to have to have a website set up specifically targeting someone like that, so usually it’s not the sort of thing I’d go for.
Philippa: In the past, I’ve actually seen marketers say to sales copywriters that not agreeing to profit-sharing means that they don’t have faith that they’ll write a persuasive sales letter, like, ‘If you’re going to do a great job, there’s no risk for you – so why wouldn’t you?’
Lorrie: of course, yeah!
Philippa: If nothing else, there are many more factors to a successful product launch than the sales letter itself.
Lorrie: You’re right – it’s a ludicrous assertion to make and shows no understanding of online marketing at all. If you’re launching a product on an online marketplace, there are so many things that can affect it – the mailing list, the list of people mailing out for you, the JV package – that’s your joint venture package, the incentives you’re offering other people to sell your product…
Philippa: In an affiliate…
Lorrie: Yeah, it’s affiliate marketing. Even the launch date – if it clashes with something important or there’s been something terrible on the news, it can all affect your launch.
Philippa: Yes. The design of the site, the SEO that they carry out, the product price – the list is endless really. Like Lorrie said, having a good relationship with the partner is vital because then you can have confidence that they’re going to do those things right. You can see the marketing plan before you agree to anything. And you can have faith that they’re not going to run away with the money as well.
Lorrie: Which is always nice!
Philippa: It is!
Lorrie: Although, in this field, it doesn’t seem that expecting to be paid for your work is very reasonable! Well, according to some people…
I think we’ve covered a lot of topics in a short space of time and, really, what Pip and I just wanted to drive home to all you writers, copywriters and editors is that you have to value yourself and put measures in place to make sure you get paid for the work you do, and that you’re not being taken advantage of.
Now, what I would say, to sum up, is that you should never edit a text for free if it’s a full-length manuscript. If you choose to edit a friend’s work as a favour – and I do that all the time, I have friends who do creative writing or they’ve got business websites – then that’s great. Or, as I said previously, if you have a mutual arrangement where you’re exchanging writing for something other than money – say, photography, graphic design, software design, whatever – that’s one thing. But to start giving your work away for free, that undermines what you’ve spent years learning to do and it creates an unstable marketplace for yourself and other editors. If indie authors are allowed to drive down costs to zero, then what are we going to do? You can’t suddenly start demanding money after that – you’re just going to end up with a really awkward situation where editors are expected 100% to work for free.
Philippa: Similarly with writing – you might decide to do some free or low-cost writing for a charity or a site that’s entirely staffed by volunteers, which I do, but if the person you’re writing for is making money, you should be paid. That’s all there is to it.
Lorrie: I completely agree. If you want to support a cause by volunteering time or skills, that’s no different if the skills you’re volunteering are copywriting or editing, especially if it’s a topic you feel passionately about. I’ve not been paid for my writing on feminism and, Pip, you’ve done a lot more than me. A lot of stuff on disabled activism, feminism, sexuality, for free – or not much money – but that’s your choice. No one’s expecting you to do it.
Philippa: Yes. The bottom line is that if you’re writing or editing for a living, you need to be paid for it. It’s what ‘for a living’ means, really!
Lorrie: Yes, we’re putting the ‘free’ in ‘freelance’ here.
Philippa: Because devaluing your skills does no one any favours, except perhaps the person getting the freebie, but as you said above, not necessarily. But working for free won’t pay your bills. Having your by-line on someone’s site or book also won’t pay your bills. As Lorrie pointed out, it devalues the work of all editors and writers, and creates an impossible market to work in.
Lorrie: You’re completely right. I think the last thing I would say is that – and this is for the people asking for freebies – if you’re asking someone to give you their time, effort and professional skills for nothing, you really need to take a look at yourself and your business plan. The guy I started this podcast talking about is all over Twitter, saying, ‘Support indie authors! Fill your Kindle with the work of those writing for you!’ What a bloody cheek! What a cheek!
Philippa: Absolutely. You get the best work from people you work with in equal and respectful partnerships.
Lorrie: It’s true. To openly admit on your website and on Twitter that you’re making money – $16 a book! – while offering absolutely bugger all to people who are editing your work, and whose work you actually need, it’s completely disgraceful. What’s worse, he’s tried to make out that it’s somehow cute – ‘Oh, I’ll give you chocolate and lots and lots of praise!’ – or that it’s somehow inevitable because he’s put, ‘As an indie author, I’m not paying.’ It just won’t wash. If you don’t want to get paid in chocolate, don’t offer it to your editors.
Philippa: The ‘as an indie author’ is such a weird thing to say. Does it exempt him from his rent? Or any other expense? No, it doesn’t – so he needs to pay for the editing that he wants, that he needs.
Lorrie: Exactly, it’s such a cop-out. I’m quite tempted to get in touch with him and then invoice him, saying ‘this is what I would have charged you.’ It’s ludicrous and I really don’t want other freelance writers and editors to fall for this sort of rubbish.
Philippa: I think we have two points, really, that come out of this, the first is that, if you’re a freelance writer or editor, value the work you do and charge accordingly. And the second point is that if you’re trying to get work done for free, like editing a whole novel or writing a whole website, just have a think about it. Would you do all that for free for someone else? It’s not acceptable, it’s not OK.
Lorrie: I think that pretty much sums it up – it’s not ok.
Philippa: Well, I think we’ve warned in the past that we have some strong opinions, and there go a few of them. Let us know what you think! Visit our Facebook page, which is linked to from alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. Go to our Facebook page, tell us what you think: do you agree? Do you disagree? Have you been ripped off in the past? We want to hear your views.
Lorrie: You can also let us know what you think on Twitter – we’re both on there and the details of our accounts are on the bottom of our Podomatic page. Again, get in touch, have a chat, let us know if you’ve been ripped off or had a good come-back for someone who’s expected you to work for free.
Philippa: Definitely, and if you’ve enjoyed this podcast, make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss the next one. You can do that on alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com as well, all the links are there that you need. So thank you so much for listening!
Lorrie: I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…
Philippa: …and I’ve been Philippa Willitts…
Lorrie:…and we’ll hopefully see you next time!