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?
Nathalie Lussier says
That’s a really smart look at the intersection of paid and free, Ali. I love how you gave such concrete examples with your ebook vs. the commissioned one.
You are absolutely right on the relationship thing as well. As soon as money gets introduced it can start to change the nature of a relationship… the whole biz & friendship don’t mix thing comes to mind. At the same time I think there are some places where it can work, though like you mentioned it’s never going to be quite the same.
Ali Hale says
Thanks! I certainly think money can be a healthy part of a great relationship, in the right way. Charlie and I are affiliates for one another’s products, for instance — but somehow, that doesn’t seem weird or problematic.
Well put. I think an exception might be someone who wants to make x per year or per hour. For them, they need to be quite clinical whether commissioned or working on their own stuff – i.e. if they want to make x per hour, they can’t put an infinite amount of hours in, even if it is their own work. On balance, I really like your approach. I wonder if you have any thoughts how it might work for other types of work, e.g. website design, where perhaps the ‘blocks’ are bigger (a website might take longer than a blog post). How could you make a living/get paid in this scenario?
Ali Hale says
Yep, fair point! And with the next ebook, I am going to keep track of my hours (on writing, marketing etc) and have some idea about my hourly rate as the months go by.
Larger blocks: there’s always sites like ThemeForest and other marketplaces for designs, Istockphoto for photography, etc. I’ve certainly got no objection to paid-by-the-hour type work in general — it’s what keeps me in the black! — but I’m wary of it intruding into relationships.
I do the occasional bit of website work (which does indeed take longer than a guest post) and nowadays, I try to do it for free or as some sort of exchange. I’m meeting with the lady who co-runs our church’s cafe next week to help with a website for the pub she also runs: she wanted to offer compensation for my time, so I suggested that vouchers for the cafe or pub would be very welcome. I try to avoid bringing money into it when I’m helping a friend or someone at church.
Tara Mohr says
Really interesting post.
Now that I’m doing a lot more blogging, I’ve been thinking a lot about how bloggers sit somewhere on a spectrum between artists and business people. At the artist end of the spectrum, our work is highly creative. We want to take risks. We write from inspiration. We don’t do well with shaping our voices to fit a specific site or target market. We want the work to have a sense of intrinsic beauty and flow. We want to love and feel a sense of integrity about what we’ve made. The beauty of the writing process matters.
In business-person mode, we are comfortable shaping our work based on what we know about a target market. We care more about a title that can be found via search than one that has a sense of poetry and mystery to it. We want clarity, tips, headings, etc. Risks are riskier. We write on schedule, not necessarily in moments of inspiration.
Different bloggers locate themselves different places on the continuum, and even move between different spots on the continuum in different writing venues, as you’ve eluded to here.
I relate to your feeling that its difficult to stay true to the artist mode when $ is involved (if I’m reading you correctly), but your post makes me wonder–is that a skill that can be learned? How do other artists do it? I want a world in which creative people can sustain themselves financially doing their art – and that seems to entail finding a way to sustain the creative process when it is also deeply enmeshed with commerce.
Thanks for being you, Ali! Tara
Ali Hale says
Thanks Tara! I suppose I’m saying that $$ is going to *change* the way we do our artistic, creative stuff.
You ask if it’s a skill that can be learned. I think it’s about finding a personal comfort zone at the intersection of money, art and relationships. I guess there are some common lessons and tips, but ultimately it’s about figuring out what works for *you*.
On the bright side, I find that sometimes constraints (like needing to write for a specific audience) actually encourage me to get more creative. And inspiration isn’t just something which appears in random flashes: there’s a lot of artistic value in heading into your study/studio/forge every day and getting your head down.
Archan Mehta says
Your friendship with Charlie is like the icing on the cake: don’t let anything spoil it.
I am hoping that friendship will blossom one day to the point when you folks can be engaged in more collaborative activities.
That seems to be the wave of the future anyway: collaboration is the name of the game, creating a win-win partnership.
And it’s not always about the money.
Guest blogging is a great opportunity to showcase your work: you earn credits for publications to your name.
The blogosphere registers it.
And pretty soon, once your name gets out there, guess what? Brand-new customers for your products/services.
I am not sure if you are a “brand name” yet, but you are well on your way.
May the force be with you. Cheers!
Ali Hale says
My friendship with Charlie is the cake AND the icing. 😉 (Icing = frosting, to US folks.)
I don’t think I’ve quite made “brand name” status in the blogosphere yet, but I’m working on it! 😉
Looking from my own perspective, what you said totally applies to other areas too. I’m thinking about my photography, for example. Until early this year I was doing for free and I enjoyed everything in the process. I knew I could take as much time as I needed to on post-processing, for example, to try different things and perfect that photograph. But I didn’t generate any money – I spent thousands more on my equipment and training. Now that I am officially charging for my services, although I still enjoy it, introducing strict deadlines into the process and thinking about how much I’m making per hour and trying to limit the amount of time I spend with each photograph certainly changing the whole experience for me.
I’m not sure if “creating for free” model will work in case of working with photography clients. I still do some things for free – e.g. blog and give free advice – but I don’t see how not charging until I deliver the images is going to help me grow!
Ali Hale says
Thanks Antonina, that’s really useful to hear — almost all my creative experience is with words.
I may have been unintentionally too harsh on getting paid by the project in my post! I guess for me, the priorities are:
– Relationships don’t get screwy because of money
– You get time to PLAY at your art as well as doing paid work.
Asides from stock photography, I’m not sure how the “create for free” model would work for photographers. People buy ebooks full of words, but I’m not sure they’d buy ebooks full of pictures…
Well actually, Ali, now you got me thinking! And there are more options than what I originally thought. Blurb, for example, allows for self-publishing, so you can sell a physical book full of pictures without having been paid to do it in the first place.
Another example is Vincent Laforet’s famous video he shot with a new Canon 5D (http://vimeo.com/7151244). He spent thousands of dollars creating it, without expecting anything to come back to him. After the video went viral, he got callbacks from many multinationals – including Disney – with job offers!
Ali Hale says
Ah, didn’t think of self-publishing books of photos … but yes, I think Photobox do something similar.
And there’s always collaboration or something, partnering up with writers/designers to create a make-once-sell-many-times product.
Lucky Vincest Laforet! I had a friend who did some artwork for Disney after being contacted via DeviantArt. It can happen!
Willie Hewes says
Yes, money changes the relationship and the work.
One thing I’ve noticed that some work I did for a fixed fee (which was kind of low) took me much longer and felt like much more of a pain than similar work I’d done before as an experiment or because I wanted to. The problem with doing what you do for play for a living is that it stops being play. At least, it’s hard to hang on to that ‘for fun’ feeling.
A tricky paradox. Great post.
Ali Hale says
Exactly. On the times when I’ve underquoted and spent more time than expected on a piece, the work has felt like a real drag … even when I’d do virtually identical work for free (and enjoy it)
Raam Dev says
I really loved this post, Ali. You describe so clearly the often unseen effects money has on our work, whatever it may be.
In fact, money has a similar effect on our daily lives: When we’re in debt and spending more than we should be — when we get something we know we cannot afford — our relationship with the “stuff” we own changes. It doesn’t feel as valuable as it should.
That is one of the reasons I decided to sell everything and become a nomad. Now that I travel with all my stuff in a single backpack, my relationship to the things I do own has changed (they feel more valuable).
Even when I work, the money itself feels more valuable because I have fewer expenses to deal with; doing things for free no longer feels like “wasting money”, but rather feels like “providing value”.
And because it feels like I’m providing value, I find myself doing a better job and caring more about my work.
Money is a vacuum for emotion; if we do something for money, any emotion we would have put into it gets sucked away. While this subtle change in emotional commitment is noticeable in other forms of communication, I think it affects writing the greatest.
Ali Hale says
Raam, thanks for extending the discussion! Interesting point about our relationship with “stuff”, and I think you’re right. When I have a lot of some particular thing, it feels less valuable than when it’s scarce.
I definitely value my money more now that I have less of it, whereas in the old day job, it was easy to spend money thinking, “Oh, it’s only a few hours’ wages.”
Naomi Niles says
Hmm, interesting. Thanks for the post, Ali! Love these kinds of thoughtful discussions.
I agree that exchanging money can change the dynamics of a relationship, but I don’t think it has to. I mean, it’s just a way to exchange one type of value for another. I think we tend to overthink these things sometimes. I “pay” my husband when he does work for our biz. It’s only because I handle the finances though. Ha!
Regarding the free vs paid debate, I’m probably more cynical than most. Perhaps from my own past experience.
My first journey into the online biz world was in 2001. I worked for a few years with my then bf, now hubby, to build a very large community for music fans. It actually had around 20,000 members and a lot more visitors than that.
We worked like dogs to try to get it off the ground. Posting news every day, writing articles, doing photo reports, doing interviews, etc. etc. We made very little money. Like when I say little, I mean we made less money in a whole year than I make in a month now if that gives you any idea.
So, that experience left me a little jaded. I don’t know. The whole free thing seems so “pie in the sky” to me. I feel like there’s this idea that one has to do more and more to “provide value” and up the ante it all seems unsustainable to me because in the end, we all have to eat and care for ourselves and loved ones. And if everyone is doing stuff for free, what’s exciting about that anymore?
Perhaps it just wasn’t the right time for us, but I learned my lesson don’t give away my time so freely now. It’s valuable to me. I love helping other people and love doing design, but I’ve worked my butt off to get where I am and I deserve to get paid like anyone else who provides a service of value.
It may also that I view my work as a business service and not an art. It’s creative, but personally, I excel when I have concrete business objectives on my plate rather than at totally creative endeavors. I personally get a lot of motivation from this because it makes me feel like my work produces tangible results. So, that could perhaps be another reason why I don’t feel quite the same way about the free vs paid debate in regards to doing creative work.
If I do something for free, it’s gonna be on my own stuff or it’d have to be something I feel really passionate about that I think will make the world a bette place. Or perhaps for someone I think is totally awesome and I see I can help them out quickly. Or, if I have a client I really like, I may do something extra for them just because.
But, that’s the extension of my freeness. I save the rest of my free time for my own stuff and my loved ones.
Ali Hale says
Thanks for the thoughts there, I think you’re offering the balancing side of my rather one-sided post!
I don’t think anyone should feel obliged to “provide value” for free. I do think that it’s good for us to all find enough time and space to do the things we love for their own sake rather than for money.
Some niches and fields seem much harder to monetise than others: there’s some content people just won’t pay for — and some audiences who aren’t willing to pay.
I think your point that “I save the rest of my free time for my own stuff” pretty much sums up how I like to do things too. To me, guest posts and some of my other unpaid work *are* my own stuff (they feel that way, at least).
Naomi Niles says
That’s cool if doing guest posting and some of your other unpaid work that you enjoy fulfills you. I’m no one to question how anyone spends their time, for sure.
I guess my main point is, and probably how I could have condensed it if I didn’t go off on a tangent, is that I don’t feel like we all need to provide something for free in order to get promotion or get our foot in the door. I think there are other ways to do that. Free doesn’t really mean that much anymore anyway because everyone is doing it.
It does probably depend on what you’re offering, how your offering it, and to what market. However, if you have something that doesn’t sell at all, but you love to do it in your free time, I’d call it a hobby. Not talking about writing, specifically. Just activities in general.
But yeah, spending your time how you choose on what you love. Awesome! 🙂
So, perhaps we’re somewhat in agreement after all. Thanks, Ali.
Ali Hale says
Thanks for the clarification! I think we are in the same ballpark at least 🙂
And I agree with you that “Free doesn’t really mean that much anymore anyway because everyone is doing it.” — I think free has been cheapened (if you see what I mean) in recent years, when it comes to promotion or starting off a sales funnel, and I also think free can give an unwanted message about value.
Rachel @ Musings of An Inappropriate Woman says
Great post, Ali, and something I’ve been thinking a lot about too.
As a freelance magazine and newspaper writer, I find it easy to stay as passionate about my paid writing (assuming it’s on a subject I’m passionate about) as I do about my blogging and book-work.
I do find that I’m a lot more enthusiastic about “unpaid” (or entrepreneurial) project work than I am about similar work I’m paid to do as an employee though. It feels like there’s more room/incentive to innovate when you’re doing something off your own bat.
Ali Hale says
Thanks Rachel. For me, it’s about feeling a sense of freedom about the work: freedom to turn it down, to give up, to do something exciting. Whereas when I’ve taken on a commitment to a client, of course I’m bound by that (and happy to be!) — but the work is never going to have such a sense of freedom about it.
A friend posted a link to this article, which is how I ended up here. It’s definitely thought-provoking, though I suspect that my take on the matter is going to wind up with my head on the chopping block for the umpteenth time.
I’m a choral/voice teacher; have been for the last year and a half. Before that, I worked at a job or two that provided steady, if not fantastic, pay for the amount of work I put in. I went through three years of utter hell at my last one before I quit, and started teaching more or less full time.
And therein lies the rub. While I love what I do, I make barely any money out of it. School choirs in my part of the world don’t really have available funds to pay choir coaches like myself; the money comes from the choir fees the students pay either weekly or monthly. I do teach private lessons for voice students as well, but I’ve found that most students are rather erratic when it comes to being steady sources of income. There are cancelled lessons, and then there are those who stop lessons for valid reasons, and it makes it hard to keep a steady source of money coming in.
Then there are the qualifying exams. I’m studying for a further teaching certification, and a final level of vocal examination. These cost a lot of money, given they’re set by Australia and the UK (I live in Asia. The conversion rate gives me heart attacks.) As much as I love my students, teaching them for free is just out of the question. I keep getting asked all manner of questions about why I charge, how come my fees are a certain amount, and even more manner of complaints about cost and how it’s only just ‘singing after all, it’s nothing SKILLED.’
I hate to say it, but in the jobs I detested, I at least had a steady paycheck. Some years, like this, my choirs go for competitions that involve travel and money, and on what I make? I can barely make ends MEET. I have seriously considered giving it all up, as much as I love what I do, in order to just get back to earning something -steady-.
I do freelance jewellery work as well. Fat lot of use that’s turned out to be; I may be passionate about it, but in my experience, you can’t survive on passion. I’m cynical, I know, but I’m currently struggling between working at what I love and needing the security of steady pay, and barely keeping my head afloat. I’m not the only one either who has these sorts of issues; I have colleagues in the field here who are in the same boat too.
If I could do work I love for free? Believe me, I would, because I do enjoy being able to do so. But it just isn’t practical, not for right now. So many people here seem to take it as a given that artistic people have nothing but time to give, and that we shouldn’t charge what we’re worth. Or, better yet, we shouldn’t charge at all since artists can’t possibly need money.
Sorry for the cynicism; this is just how I see things though from where I am and where I’ve been at. I do appreciate what you’re trying to say, and I -do- agree that money does alter one’s perception of any given project, sometimes not for the better. However – I think sometimes, you can love something, work at it, and still be stressed out to high heaven because none of what you earn is ever enough to support basic needs at the most pared-down lifestyle. Which is roughly where I’m at.
Ali Hale says
Shuka, thanks for this, and thanks for giving a different perspective.
I completely agree that money is important. That’s the world we live in. I do my paid-by-the-piece work because it’s a good return on time spent (and I’m lucky enough to *enjoy* it).
Of *course* we don’t have unlimited time to give. At least, I certainly don’t! And of course we should get a fair return for what we do. I guess what I tried to question in this post is whether that return should always be money, and whether money’s always what’s most valuable.
(In some – many? – cases, of course, it *is* money which we need most. And while that’s a sad fact of life, it’s an important one to recognise.)
So thanks for adding your story here, and apologies if I came across as very anti-money!
Ali, you didn’t come across as anti-money at all! I honestly do wish sometimes it -were- possible to give as much time and effort to worthy causes as I would like – especially to some people who need it but can’t afford it. It still does rankle at times that one can make so much more at something one doesn’t enjoy, but on the whole – when I’m trying to be sane – I do realise that it’s much better to -enjoy- what I do, rather than get ulcers and severe nerve damage over what I don’t. You’ve put a very good perspective on the matter of paid vs. unpaid, which I appreciate very much! I just wish *money* were less of an issue sometimes…
Ali Hale says
I agree with you there – I’ve always thought I’d rather do something I liked, and have a bit less money. It’s a shame when there ends up being a conflict between enjoyment and getting paid, though; I know it IS possible to make good money doing something you enjoy, but the path to get there isn’t as straightforward as, say, becoming an accountant.