Imagine that you are an up and coming music writer. Music writing is your dream, and you've had a little success. You're writing music reviews for a few websites and a regional magazine, perhaps, making anywhere from $10 to $100/review, depending on the market.
One day, without ever really entertaining the thought that it might be accepted, you pop off a query to Rolling Stone. Much to your surprise, you get a call almost immediately--the magazine loves your proposal, and they're willing to run it as a cover story. But for whatever reason (this being wildly hypothetical), they can't pay you for the story. Do you write it?
It seems to me that there are only two possible answers to this question:
1. Yes, of course, because once I've written a Rolling Stone cover story I'll have hundreds of markets available to me at good rates that might have been out of reach only yesterday.
2. No, I never really wanted to make it in the music writing business anyway. Better $10 from Ralph's Obscure Newsletter of Indy CDs than nothing from Rolling Stone!
For as long as I can remember, a debate has raged in the writing community about "writing for free". Many writers say, "Never write for free!" while others (myself included) can point to lucrative opportunities that came about as the direct result of something written for "free". It suddenly occurred to me today that we've been asking the wrong question and debating the wrong issue all along. The question isn't whether or not we should write for free. Of course we shouldn't. The question is what "free" means in the context of writing and publishing.
The world is full of publications proclaiming that the only "payment" they offer is the opportunity to "see your work in print" or offer a link to your website. If all you want is to see your work in "print", start a blog. Publications with low quality work and low readership don't provide clips that are going to be of much use to you in advancing your writing career. But what about that link to your website? Is that payment?
The answer is that it depends entirely on where that link will be placed. If the link is on a site with no page rank and 50 visitors a day, it's not likely to benefit you in any meaningful way. If you're a music writer and the link is on Billboard's official site, it's worth a heck of a lot more than the $10 or $100 you might have gotten for a paid article on a lesser site. For one thing, it's likely to bring a lot of relevant traffic to your website. Just as important, it's a link that screams "important music resource this way!" to Google and the other search engines.
People and businesses shell out hundreds of dollars per month to have a single link on a relevant, highly-ranked, high traffic website. So you might not be getting a paycheck, but you may be getting something of much greater value in return.
Sometimes, the "payment" for your work can be even further removed from an editor cutting a check; sometimes, the value truly is in the clip. In the Rolling Stone example above, they "payment" for your "free" story might well be skipping over another two or three years of writing for indy newspapers and regional magazines and moving into the big leagues. It might be commanding much more respect and higher rates that the publications you're already working with. For some, it might simply be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to write a Rolling Stone cover story.
The right question, it seems to me, is the same one I was suggesting back when we were all asking the wrong one: What's in it for me? There are many, many, many opportunities for "free" writing that not only won't help you or your writing career, but might do it some harm. But the question to ask in making that determination isn't, "Are they going to cut me a check?" but "Is there a tangible benefit in this for me.?" Very often, I think, the answer is yes.