"What do you mean you don't want to write for free?" he snarled, stubbing his cigar out on the corner of his battered wooden desk.
"I write for free every day, watch." With a flourish he peeled back a page in his ledger and penned out another payroll check.
"See? Free. No one's paying me to write these checks."
"Phil, you own the newspaper. Trust me, you get paid for writing," I sighed.
He glared at me.
"Exactly. And so do you. No one writes for free if they know what they're doing. No one is paying me to write these checks, or to write the letters I write, or the talks I give. Writing for free is part of what I do to get paid for all that I do. Free just primes the pump. If writers are stupid enough to keep priming the pump without working the pump they deserve to starve." He leaned over and spit in the trashcan before coughing and hacking and reaching for a cup of cold coffee.
"What do you mean?"
"People don't pay for words. They pay for ideas, solutions, insights, wisdom, facts, information, entertainment. People who buy this newspaper every week aren't paying for writing. They're paying to get something they want, need or like. If we aren't providing that they don't buy the paper. If they can get all that somewhere else, like the internet, they won't buy the paper. They can't find what we offer online or anywhere else. That's why they keep buying the paper."
"But what about writers who write for free?"
"They're idiots if they're not using that writing to work the pump."
"What do you mean, 'work the pump'?"
"You ever use a pump?"
"Well then you know that when that pump is dry you have to prime it. You can't keep working the handle and get anything out of it. A dry pump is a business opportunity okay? You have to put water in to get water out. You have to put writing in to get money out. You have to give to get. But you have to know where to put the water or words or effort. If you're pouring the water in the wrong place, or you stop working the pump after you prime it you don't get any water. If you're a writer you put some effort, this 'free writing' into the pump and then work it until the payoff. Writers don't know how to work the pump. They don't know where to put their writing, or their effort, or how to work the pump to get paid or get some sort of currency they can trade for money - like fame or expertise. Then they bitch about going hungry or thirsty or not getting paid."
"So writers should write for free and turn it into a job?"
"That's one way," he sighed. "What I'm saying is words are words. Good writers do more than string words together. They use words to communicate ideas, give information, insights or whatever. People don't pay for the words. They pay for the information. Words are just the vehicle. It's the passenger people want. If you, or any other writer, has something to say worth saying and no one else can say it quite like you, people will pay you for that. Writers don't need to work on their writing. They need to work on their business sense. Writers tend to want to sit on their velvet thrones or office chair having tea with their muse and watch the unwashed masses swarm under their window and throw money at them. Doesn't work that way. Do you know why people pay money to hear motivational speakers? Because they stir up hope and the belief that the audience member can make money, sell whatever, or be as successful as they are. They don't pay to hear words or someone talking. They pay for ideas, emotion, facts."
"So what about all these publications that pay $1 an article or nothing at all?"
"Find out who's reading them. Are the readers people who would recognize a good idea if it didn't bite them on the ass? Or are they just lazy readers, content with anything someone hands them? If a writer is going to make money with their writing they HAVE to learn to think like a businessman. Would a businessman give away samples of his product to people who couldn't pay for it? Hell no. He'd shop around and find a zip code where people make the kind of money where they can afford his product and then he'd give it away. But he doesn't give away the store. He gives away a sample. He says, 'Here, taste this fresh squeezed orange juice. You can have this orange juice every morning if you buy my oranges. If he's selling a juicer, he says, 'You can have this orange juice every morning if you buy my juicer.' He's a businessman. He gets that. If you're writer it doesn't matter if you know where all the commas go. You have to have something to offer that people are willing to pay for. Otherwise you're just a cog in the wheel. Writers are poor not because they can't write. Writers are poor because they aren't businessmen. A businessman knows what he has to sell and where to sell it. He primes the pump and then he works the pump and he gets what he needs. If he doesn't, he knows when to work harder and when to move on."
"So just because someone knows the mechanics of writing doesn't mean they'll be successful writers?"
"Right. They might have attended 10 universities and have 10 degrees, but if they don't have any information, insight, wisdom, facts or entertaining stories to sell, it won't matter. Business gets a hard rap from writers, but it's how the world works. If they want to sell their writing they have to have something to sell. That's why a plumber with a fourth grade reading and writing level can sell a book on home plumbing repairs and a Phd can't sell a book on economic theory. Lots of people need information on plumbing, the folks studying economic theory aren't exactly crawling out of the woodwork with new ideas and there aren't a lot of them."
"It is, but writers don't want to hear it. They'd rather debate their personal worth, or how people OUGHT to treat them. Prima donnas. The ones who are making money recognize it's a business, not a popularity contest. When they get their ego out of the question and start seeing words as a product or currency and what they do as a job instead of a holy calling, they'll make money. But don't try telling them that."
"Thanks Phil," I smiled.
"Hummmph. Now get out of here. I've got some writing to do," he said, flipping to the next page in his check ledger.
PHIL'S ADVICE FOR WRITERS
- Don't write for free for anyone in hopes of just "getting recognized" - Have a plan for that recognition.
- Prime the pump, then work the pump. Find a market that wants what you have to offer, do some "free writing" as samples, then sell the product - ie. your insights, wisdom, entertainment, value, facts, commentary etc. Don't just keep writing for free. There has to be a plan and you have to know how long to work the market (6 months to a year depending on the volume)
- Find a publication(s) that has readers who will buy your skills. Don't write for free because someone has a word mill and needs to grind out crap every day.
- Huffington Post gets writers to "write for free" because they have a different kind of currency - eyeballs, readers, industry leaders and an audience willing to buy MORE of what their writers offer. Their writers trade visibility for writing - something they then leverage into pay. HP doesn't just take any writer - they take writers who have insights, information or something to offer with their writing that readers can't easily get anywhere else.
- Understand business and realize that writing is a business, not just a spiritual or emotional or intellectual calling. Be ready to understand how words sell when they convey more than just words. What do you know, understand or have to offer that is, or could be, in great demand?
- Writing is only part of what you have to offer. Writing is the hub, but customer service, marketing, and solutions are the spokes of the wheel and the things that allow that hub to rotate and move.
- Stop thinking of money as the only currency. Fame, access, popularity, networks, opportunities and titles are currency too. Learn to save, buy, spend and invest in currency other than cash. Leverage everything. Many publications realize the alternative currency value and offer you the tired old, "We offer no pay, but great exposure." Do they? Make them prove their readership and explain their demographics before you write for them. If they can't, then move on. It's not worth your time to FIND their niche. Find your own.