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What No One’s Telling You About Paid vs Free
At South by Southwest, a bunch of us were chatting about blogging. Charlie said something like I don't know why Ali's writing for me for free. And, later on in the week, I had a great discussion with Jonathan Fields about why I feel awkward about pricing my work. I'm still thinking through some things. But this is where I'm at right now:
There's a crucial part of the paid-vs-free debate (rant? Holy war?) that's getting missed in the blogosphere and in the world of creative business.
As I see it, there are three broad approaches to creative work:
Do it for free, distribute it as best as you can
Do it on commission, getting paid per hour or per piece
Do it in the hope of money in the future – for promotion, on spec, in an entrepreneurial way
It's no secret that I'm a freelance blogger. I get write posts for several large blogs, at a frequency ranging from twice a week to once a month, and get paid per post. I really enjoy it. The feedback which I get from editors and readers suggests that I do it well.
But I'd be lying if I said that I'm always passionate about what I write. I'd be lying if I said I'm heartbroken when a gig ends. Sometimes blogs close down or go on hiatus or for whatever reason can't afford to pay a writer any more. It's always a sad moment – especially when I've seen the hard work behind the scenes, and when I'm friendly with an editor – but it's not my blog. My emotional investment is pretty small.
Because, like it or not, when you introduce money into an equation, things change.
Turning Friends Into Buyers and Sellers
If I told Charlie I wanted $60 per post, my relationship with Charlie would change. However well-intentioned we were, there'd be a shift for both of us: Charlie would be employing me to write for him, and I would be accepting Charlie's money.
If that doesn't sound at all problematic, try this. When I started out freelancing, I did some editing and proofreading, and I got paid per page. Nowadays, I still do some editing and proofreading – for my fiancé Paul, who's a student. I go over his essays and circle misplaced apostrophes, and suggest rephrasings for clunky sentences.
I don't hand him the finished essay and say, "Right, at $20/page, that's $100 please."
Now, of course Charlie and I could still be friends, with him paying me to post here. But we'd be dragging our friendship into the market place – and it would change, perhaps for good.
In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely writes clearly and usefully about "market norms" and "social norms" (if you have the book, it's "Chapter 4 – The Cost of Social Norms).
Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required.
When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for – that's just the way it is.
(Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, p68) It's not just my relationship with Charlie which would change if I was getting paid to post here. My attitude towards my writing itself would be not-so-subtly different.
Your Relationship With Your Work
At the moment, no more than 20% of my "working" time is spent on directly paid work – freelancing for various blogs. The rest of the time, I'm writing on my own blog, I'm involved with my church, I'm working on my part-time MA, or I'm writing my novel.
This means that whenever I sit down to write a paid-for post, there's a calculation going on in the back of my mind. If I want to be making $40/hour, that means completing each post in a given amount of time. If I'm going to have time for everything else I want to do, the bulk of my paid work needs to get done on Mondays, preferably before lunch.
And a slew of other new factors arise when I'm being paid for my work:
I'm committed to writing a certain amount each week or month
I don't want to take risks with my writing, or do anything too unusual
I'd feel frustrated if I spent three hours on a post which should take one
I can't usually promote my own blog or products in paid posts
I need to write in the right style for a particular blog
One way to look at it is that I'm more detached from my work when I'm getting paid for the finished piece. Yes, I enjoy the writing. Yes, I try to read and respond to the comments. Yes, I love it when readers email to say they enjoyed one of my posts. But at the end of the day, I would not have written that post if I wasn't getting paid for it.
Now, I'm not saying that creatives shouldn't get paid. I am saying that working on commission is inevitably going to alter the way you view your work.
Here's another example of how this works. I'm writing a novel – the fourth novel I've attempted. If I was in fiction writing for money, I'd have quit long ago. In eleven years, I've made less than $500 from fiction, and have spent way more on magazines, courses, workshops, etc.
I'm hoping the current novel will get published: I'm working to make it as good as I can get it. But when I sit down to redraft a scene yet again, I don't start thinking about my rates. I don't ask myself what I'm making per hour. I don't even think about the market. I just try to tell the story as powerfully as I can.
Create for Free, Charge on Distribution
While I was working on The Blogger's Guide to Effective Writing, an editor who I'd worked with in the past emailed me to ask if I'd like to write a short ebook. I'd get paid around $1000, which would have been a decent enough hourly rate.
I turned down the gig, and, instead, I finished my own ebook. I spent hours on it, sought and used feedback, made it as good as possible. I wanted to be proud of it. My name was going on the cover, and I'd be selling it and promoting it myself. I was able to put as much time into it as I wanted – some weeks, as little time as I wanted – because I wasn't working for an hourly rate.
With the ebook, I had a win/win situation. The better it was, the more I was going to make from it. I didn’t need to calculate whether each individual hour spent on the ebook was hitting my target rate. I just needed to get it to the point where I was proud of it, and where I couldn't make it any better.
I've made over $2,500 from The Blogger's Guide to Effective Writing so far, and it'll keep on selling. If I'd written a commissioned ebook for a flat fee, I'd still have enjoyed doing it, but it wouldn't have been mine in the same way – plus, over the long-term, it wouldn't have worked out to such a good hourly rate.
I'm sure there are some creatives who like the security of being commissioned, who just want to finish a piece of work, send it off, and forget about it. And there are folk who want their creativity to simply be a hobby, because introducing any financial considerations would spoil the play for them.
But for me, the best fit is creating for free, and bringing the money in a little further down the line. That way, I get to write here on Productive Flourishing not just because Charlie's my friend and because I want to give back some value in return for all that he's given me – but also because I want to get my name further into the blogosphere, and occasionally promote myself. (And on that note, have you popped on over to my blog Aliventures yet?)
The paid vs free debate is going to run a while longer yet. But when your work comes at the intersection of passion and business, know that money will change your relationship to what you do, and your relationship to the other people involved.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one. If you do a mix of paid and free work, what's the difference for you?