Free Does Not Compute

What’s on the iPod: Modern Leper by Frightened Rabbit

Yesterday was blissfully quiet – enough so that I managed to get the bulk of my article fleshed out. After a quick review today, the invoice goes out. I’m waiting for some quotes to be approved, and I’ve given him until noon today to get back with any changes. I’d rather not keep the editor waiting.

Kathy Kehrli, who for years has brought us some of the largest project wastes of time in her Ultimate Get-a-Clue Freelance Request posts, has found a gem. It’s so bad, it bears repeating.

In the ad, the “employer” sets out the rules – you as the writer will write the first five test questions for free. Only after this guy decides you’re worth your salt will you get any payment – for subsequent work (forget those first five freebies), and for the grand sum of 25 cents per question.

Why this ad disturbs me:

Free is all you get. Newbies, please don’t ever fall for this one. They ask for free work to “evaluate” your talent, then promise they’ll pay for ongoing work. Guess what? Those freebies are exactly what they’re after and they have no intention of paying anyone, nor is there ongoing work. If 100 writers answer the ad, all supplying five freebies…. do the math.

The pay – if it were ever to come – is insulting. Twenty five cents? Per question? That’s ridiculous and not worth considering.

The client is getting much, much more from this. I’m all for folks making a profit. However, I’m not into slaving like a dog so someone else can rake in huge sums of money (think content farms and you’ll see where I’m going with this).

So what’s fair?

Never give your work away. Free samples should be in the form of your already-published-and-paid-for clips. No one gets a freebie except your mother, and only if she’s got a good reason for needing it.

Don’t settle for less than the value of your skills. Be realistic, too. You might try reasoning that in order to earn say $50 an hour you could write 200 questions. No you can’t. Not good questions, and not without killing yourself. Keep an eye on the work required to meet your bottom-line price.

Don’t break your neck for a project you don’t believe in. You have no vested interest in projects like this other than the paycheck. Why? Because the client has framed the entire ad to shift the onus of copyright responsibility/blame onto you, as well as insulted you by offering you at least 30 times under what is market value for the product (and requiring someone with specialized knowledge), and expects your first relationship encounter to cost you, not him.

Writers, have you ever been burned by an ad like this or requirements that meant you had to sacrifice something? How did it turn out?

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  • Jenn Mattern March 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    So true about people trying to reason it out. You can convince yourself of anything if you phrase it in the right way. If you feel like you even have to do that, run.

  • Cathy March 1, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    An ongoing gig I had in the past was writing insurance courses for Continuing Education (CE)credits. One ad I saw along those lines stated that the applicants were required to write a chapter to see if they cut the mustard.

    At its best, it's giving your work away. At it's worst, they get multiple writers and voila-the course is written for free.

  • Irreverent Freelancer March 1, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Thanks for the link love, Lori! Occasionally I will write sample test questions, although I've been doing this for so long that I usually just recycle ones I've written for someone else. Regardless, when I send them to the prospective client, it's with the clear stipulation that they are to be used for evaluative purposes only and that they are to be treated as confidential and not used in any way without compensation.

  • linda March 1, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Yes, I did fall for it. I saw a Craigslist ad for questions for CPA test prep through the About Freelance Writing website, and wrote up 3 sample questions, as asked. Mometrix Media was the company, and they have a web page, so I thought they were legitimate, and maybe they are. I wrote up the 3 sample questions, and it took me about 4 hours to write up the questions and then do an explanation of the reason the one answer was correct. They "accepted" them, and offered me $3.50 per question going forward. I had decided I wouldn't do it for less than $25 per question, so I just dropped it. After 25+ years of accounting experience and two professional certifications, I think I need a little more than that. It really makes me question the quality of the test review manuals they write if they only pay $3.50 per question.
    I'm going to try writing a non-fiction book of my own. I might end up only getting $2/hour or less in the end with that, but at least it's something I believe in, and I'll be proud of when I'm done.

  • Paula March 1, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    First, I think calling the person placing that ad a "client" (or even potential client) is far too kind. Scammer. Con artist. Duper. Nervy little bugger. But client denotes a degree of professionalism that doesn't come through in that example.

    I will quibble a little and say there is one time it's OK to send "free" work – when it's on spec for a reputable company, magazine, or publisher. When breaking in, or when transitioning to a different specialty, you might not have the clips to prove you can work within that niche. With reputable companies, on spec means if they use it you will be paid. Of course, you may now quibble with how I equated "on spec" with "free."

    That said, I can't remember the last time I agreed to do anything on spec.

  • L.C. Gant March 1, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I must admit I recently fell for this as well. About a month ago, I found a listing from some obscure magazine in Canada that offered between $1,500 and $2,000 for something like 10 articles per month.

    About a week after I applied, I received an email stating that "due to the number of applicants," they needed a sample article—on the subject of tea. I know, I know… Red flag, right?

    Unfortunately, desperation can do funny things to a writer, so I took the bait and submitted a brand-new, unpublished piece a few days later. That was weeks ago, and naturally, I haven't heard anything since.

    Oh well. Live and learn, I suppose. Thanks for all of your wonderful advice, Lori! You're the best at what you do πŸ™‚

  • Lori March 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Jenn, I see far too many people making excuses for why they can do the worst jobs on the planet. If it doesn't make sense or if it takes complicated math to figure out how to profit, it's not the right job. You're so right – run!

    Cathy, worse is when the company has no idea how big the job is and the writer ends up killing herself to complete a project ten times the original size (don't ask how I know this!). Insurance courses should be paid at a higher rate because they do require much more knowledge in the industry and tons of time to complete.

    Good point, Kathy. I'm with you on the first point especially – here are my samples. If you want to see more, either pay me for them or sign an agreement stating you won't use the samples without paying me.

    Linda, good for you! You're right – you're worth more than $2.50 a question. And I'm all for you investing that time into your book project. It's an investment in YOU, not in a stranger.

    Paula, I always hesitate to use the term "client" and I'm never sure what else to call them (since I supress a lot of knee-jerk responses).

    You're right with the on spec stuff to some degree. If you're just starting out and the pub wants assurance, fine. But once you get some clips to show your skills, they should amend that to be a kill fee should they not like it.

    LC, I fell for it once. I provided editing for a sample chapter. Never heard another word. Nothing. And then some other writers on a forum were complaining because they too had supplied editing for some chapters. We compared notes – different chapters. Aha. Light bulb moment. We all realized we'd been taken.

    You're right – live and learn! It's the learning part some have troubles with. πŸ™‚

  • Cathy March 1, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Lori-did you do my courses? Funny, I had that same experience. πŸ™‚

  • Wendy March 2, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Warms my heart. The time, effort and knowledge/expertise is apparently worth nothing to them.

    The elephant at the circus gets peanuts chucked at him as rewards. We get a quarter. If they pay you at all, of course.

    Hmm, I need to know that you're going to pay, so the I'll need to test you out. Pay me $500 to see if you're trustworthy when it comes to payment. Then you can get your free questions.

  • Lori March 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Wendy, I LOVE that idea!

    Cathy, I bet we did do the same course. There was one that nearly buried me.