The True Cost of Free

This week I am going to look at something that has been on my radar for a very long time. This topic is something I have heard about with regards to companies like Huffington Post that pay their writers in ‘exposure’ as opposed to actual money. However, in recent months I have been thinking of this topic in regards to other companies that make their living off writers whilst giving nothing back to those who are actually attracting traffic to their sites. After all, without content creators, there would be nothing to bring in the readers. Only makes sense to actually compensate these writers for their content, right? Well, if only things were that simple and logical.

The companies that I am going to look at (whilst naming no names) are the free publishing platforms. This is quite a tricky area, for writers are not hired to put content up – they do so of their own volition – and often their content is a first draft. So, why should they be paid for what is not a finished product? I must say, I do somewhat agree with this premise. But then there are those companies that do allow writers to make a living – quite a hefty one at that, for those at the top – whilst their work is unfinished, unedited, and unpublished. I believe that there should be certain standards when it comes to craft, and those standards should be reflected in the pay – after all, most work environments operate this way, so why not in the publishing industry too? I do not believe there should be the capacity for an unpublished author with an unpolished, unpublished book to make more money that a published writer who has had a whole team of people work on their book to ensure it shines. That’s just bonkers to me, but maybe that’s just my opinion.

With the increase in the capacity to put our work out there (and make a quick buck off it if we’re ‘lucky’), I fear the impact this may have on our writing. I know from experience how putting our work out there, directly into the hands of our readers, can impact writing style and even where you want to go with the story. The readers being directly in front of you sets a whole other level of expectations, a level where they feel they own some part of your work and can directly impact the story – and boy will they try to do so! This is not to say that having our audience so close to us is entirely a bad thing. I think there are many positives to being able to directly contact your favourite writers. But, when the expectations for a polished, perfect first draft start rolling in. And when there is little room to grow your own story in the rewrites without others impacting your thought process – even if you know for sure that you’re going in the right direction, there will many little voices of doubt to accompany your own, telling you to stick to your first draft (which is always a bad idea). This is when what seemed like a great idea to get feedback, to get your work out there, starts to turn sour.

One must write for their audience – true. But genuine creative freedom can only be achieved when you write for yourself above all else. This is not to say that you are writing for your own end – as in not taking into account that you must cater to your target audience and be mindful of genre and the expectations that come with these things. But, when you begin writing to reach people, to gain exposure and readers, you begin to discount yourself. You are the most important person in this writing process – YOU as the writer. Always write for yourself. Always write the story you want to tell, the way you want to tell it.

Exposure is the biggest blocker here – when one begins writing for exposure alone, not only do they sell themselves short (after all, our content should be worth more than free – so long as it is polished and finished) but they then begin to cater to those who read it. I have found that on these free publishing sites, readers only want more. The whole set up of the sites are to give readers books in instalments. However, most stories are not intended to be told in such a way. Of course the readers want to keep reading, to find out what happens next – that is the sign of a good book, after all. So, we are only setting ourselves up for a fall, as well as our readers, if we are only giving them these chunks at a time. Readers are accustomed to being able to read a book in their own time, at their own pace, simply because they have the whole product in their hands to read as they wish to. Even when it comes to a series, they know they have to wait for the next one because there is a procedure in place, a one they know well. Of course this published writer can’t give us the sequel right away! And yet, the attitude on these free publishing sites is just more, more, more! And I get it, I do. But when expectations for writers who are not putting out their finished, polished material become higher than those of published writers? That’s a bit of a problem in my eyes. Especially when all the writer is getting in return is ‘exposure’.

Back to my earlier point – I do not believe that these writers should be paid for what is not high-quality work that has been edited etc. But I feel that these free publishing sites are a) setting up the expectation that such work can result in income, b) using such content to push their own agendas and generate their own income without thought for those who are putting out the content that is bringing in the traffic to their sites, and c) are creating toxic environments for writers and readers alike. At least, that is my experience of it.

Perhaps these sites have their place, and each to their own. But my own personal experiences of such sites have been so negative that perhaps I am jaded towards this topic. The more this free agenda is pushed, the worse off writers will be – for this goes beyond just free publishing sites, as I said at the beginning with Huffington Post being a prime culprit of this. But, likewise, the agenda of getting paid for any old work is just as toxic and damaging to the image of writers.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Happy writing!

10 thoughts on “The True Cost of Free

  1. You know how I feel, but I don’t think anything will be done about it. Very few people speak about this issue, and until more writers acknowledge the problem, these websites will get away with it. Sadly, there are so many writers now trying to get exposure, they are blinded to how these websites use them. Instead of branching out taking their writing to the next level, they think they are the best because these free sites said so. …I wonder when it will all end sometimes.

    Liked by 4 people

    • That’s exactly the problem – no one is willing to acknowledge this problem. The more it is ignored, the more it is enabled. Exposure does indeed blind writers to the pitfalls of putting their writing out there. Too many writers are so preoccupied with getting their work out there, getting noticed etc. that they are putting themselves at risk, and it’s such a shame, especially when sites are making money from it. And exactly! The competition on these sites give the illusion of being ‘the best’, resulting in writers being blind to how they could improve their skills further rather than being complacent because a site says you’re good. There has to be an end to it all some time. It’s only a matter of time before writers wise up to it. The worst part is a good portion on these sites are actually kids who don’t know any better…

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Wow. I’m glad I saw this on Twitter (tweeted by A.M. Bradley) and just finished reading. I understand how important and powerful exposure can be for writers. Especially when publishers and agents look for platforms and brands that authors have built. However, what I think these writers that are giving up their work for free while these Web sites pimp them out (oh yeah, I’m calling it what it is) fail to realize is that they need decent exposure in the form of genuine and organic followings from readers and fellow writers; work that has been published; an interactive blog. I don’t intend on giving my work away for free. I used to feel that way and was anxious to be noticed, but I reflected long and hard and chose the path that I think is best for me. Well-written post and you gained a new follower, Aimee! 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for coming to read my post! Exposure can be so powerful for building brands as writers – but it must be the right kind of exposure. Social media platforms and blogs are more of a true showing of our brand, I feel, than putting work out on a free publishing platform. Yes, the stats can be beneficial in proving you can draw in an audience, but it won’t guarantee success. The risks outweigh the benefits by a long shot.
      Exactly! Call it what it is! These sites give an illusion of a following, a fan base – when in reality, these readers are accustomed to ‘free’. The portion of readers/followers from those sites that will then follow you elsewhere simply to keep up to date on your work, follow your progress, and buy your work once it’s out there is significantly low. I had to learn that the hard way.
      I wish I hadn’t put my work out there for free, but I must say I met amazing people through the site and had many learning experiences – including the one of not putting one’s valued work out there for free on a site that would benefit from it. It could be said that I am doing the same via this blog – but at least it’s on my terms etc.
      I used to be so angled towards gaining attention via such sites, under the false belief it would get me published. But that’s not how that works – and I feel it’s such a shame that there are so many young writers on these sites, blinded by these false promises, who will learn too late that these sites do not have their best interests at heart.
      Thank you so much! I’m glad to have gained you as a follower! It’s always nice to find like-minded people 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Reblogged this on adaratrosclair and commented:
    #WriterMonday All writers should read this well-written post. Readers, too. And if you’re new to writing or even new to how an author’s work is “used” in this highly technological age — you need to read this at least once. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Here’s a different view from me. I don’t write novels or series. What I write are serials and I do them one chapter at a time with the clear intention that each chapter will build towards something and then an arc.

    It isn’t a novel, and even if I want to collect it to such I call them volumes or arcs. Because the story I want to tell is far longer. My volume one barely scratches the surface of what I want to cover. And the amount of character makes novels impossible for my stories. The one time I completed a novel, everything just changed. I changed the story from ground up and then that was how I figured that I really couldn’t write novels. Since it happened to me not once, but several times.

    And well, for me the free sites I use them for a solid base so that eventually I can use them to buy the finished edition of my works. I don’t post anything more than a first draft, and I don’t write so ahead, I just let my muse and the story take me somewhere. And then I simply roll with it, even as I make minor changes in the later edits to make things smoother. It is true that it is toxic but I happen to be writing something that not many are interested and attracted a ton of silent readers so I simply improve on it. And take a lot of time to continue reading, blogging and connecting with other writers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think free publishing sites have their place, and it certainly helped me to finish my first book having the pressure of an audience. But I feel that’s the limit of what they are good for. As I said in the post, such sites set up unrealistic expectations of writers to produce publishable content whilst getting nothing in return. Also, I do not believe that one should be paid by these sites for work that is not polished – and this is something I have seen on many of these kinds of sites. There are little to no restrictions on who can publish and get paid. I think realistic expectations need to be set up on both sides – that of the reader and the writer – and be upheld.
      Again, I think they have their place and I essentially wrote my novel as a serial of sorts by publishing in parts. But readers on these sites were accustomed to unrealistic amounts of work at their fingertips, and demanded more than was feasible. I think it could be a good way to build up a readership, but in my experience, readers will not follow anyone off the site and buy their books, or even read their work elsewhere, because they are a) accustomed to free and b) accustomed to their reading site of choice. This is the experience of many writers I know as well, and I hope your experience of such sites will be different 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • So true! I just encountered this issue again on another writing website. Readers online really just want free content, and they don’t seem to care about the writers posting the stories. Once the writer wants to cancel the story or move to another website, the readers most likely complain and make demands from the writer. And most of the time, the same readers that complain about the writer’s decision barely supported the writer in the first place. I agree that these websites create unrealistic expectations about writing for both writers and readers.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. A possible way is to establish sites that are from the get-go not free. I have been rather fascinated by the idea of something akin to a newsletter or magazine for serials. Collected from many writers for a period of time. Like how Serial Box works. Where the works have free chapters but it is clear that it is not free.

    Liked by 1 person

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