Writers Worth: Bad Offer, Disguised

I was talking with a client prospect not long ago, and it became apparent that I was being railroaded. It was a simple conversation — we were to explore writing projects that I assumed (rightly) I was being considered for.

Only the offer that came back wasn’t one of a client/writer business relationship, but more of a “How can I get you to do the work for me and not pay you?” framed as a mutually beneficial arrangement. It wasn’t. It was “I tell you what I want, you do the work, and I get the benefits.”

I wish it had been the only instance of this in my career. However, in recent years (the last three), I’ve had that same “offer” extended to me not once, but eight to twelve times. I do the work — ALL of the work, including finding a place to get the client published — and they reap the rewards of being quoted.

There are so many reasons why this is a no-go for me — and hopefully for you if you’re working within journalistic ethical boundaries:

The conflict of interest. These offers aren’t asking me to write internal stuff, but magazine and journal stuff, which supposedly I’ll go on to sell. What bothers me — and probably should bother you — about this arrangement is that you’re being asked to pledge fealty to this non-client and include their comments in your article. Key words here: non-client, your article. No one who isn’t paying you should ever expect you to jump through hoops for them. Ever.

The risk of an overlord. Come on. You don’t think that non-client is going to let you use his or her quotes without reading the article first, do you? And you don’t think that once they do, they’re not going to make changes? And you don’t think this person isn’t going to use you as his or her personal writing lackey, calling you up every few weeks with another idea they’ll hound you to shop around?

The damage to your reputation. Imagine what’s going to happen when your editors realize you’re kissing corporate ass by letting them feed you ideas, provide commentary, and not allowing you to do your job objectively? While one might find a really thin argument for how it’s not necessarily unethical, it leaves a stain. Your integrity is now in question.

The precedent you set. Imagine you do this for one client. What happens when they refer you to another, then another, then another? You’re now writing not for the magazines that are paying you, but the non-clients who are wanting free publicity. You’ll end up wasting all your time chasing someone else’s tail as well as your own.

The message that you can be used. Be it an offer of royalties upon publication (not a chance — cash upfront) or one of a mutual benefit that isn’t, if you agree to help someone who isn’t investing anything into the project other than directives, congratulations. You’ve just framed yourself as someone who will work for free. And who will take orders from anyone without payment or question.

In any case where a client prospect is making you a “mutually beneficial” offer, step back. Don’t answer right away. Take a day to think about it from all angles. Is this really a good deal for you? What do you get out of it? What do they get out of it? Is the benefit equal on both sides of the equation? Are you being asked to do something that could sully your reputation, even if it’s technically ethical?

The answers you come to will tell you if you should move forward. When in doubt, trust your gut.

Writers, what kinds of strange offers are you getting these days?
How do you educate your client prospects when they offer you uneven project terms?

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  • Cathy Miller May 18, 2017 at 8:55 am

    Fortunately, I have not received this kind of “request” recently. I definitely have. But then my writing for the trade publications is ghostwriting on behalf of my client. Because it’s my client’s byline, there’s no slipping in a quote or two without them paying for it. ☺

    In the past, I’ve had “requests” for non-compensated work for a non-profit and even a chapter of an industry book where I would reap the grand benefit of visibility. Oh, and in the case of the book, I would get a FREE copy! Wow. 😉

    • lwidmer May 18, 2017 at 8:59 am

      Wow! A free copy! You can pay your utility bill with that, Cathy! 😉

      It’s unfortunate that these offers, at least in my area, are starting to become more common. In one conversation recently, I could tell the prospect was trying really hard to say they wanted some arrangement that wouldn’t require paying me.

      Then why contact me? Why insult me?

  • Paula Hendrickson May 18, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Since I deal with publicists all of the time, it’s common for them to ask if I have any markets that might be interested in a piece on one of their clients—usually accompanied with press materials. But no one has ever implied or asked for any special arrangement. Heaven help them if they do. It would make it highly unlikely for me to ever use one of their clients as a source.

    Sometimes I ask publicists if they have any leads, but that’s all part of the job.

    No matter the scenario, I never let sources read an article before I submit it. (Okay, in the past I wrote for one local pub that allows sources to review copy. Half the time they were sucking up to potential advertisers, the rest of the time they said it was to make people who aren’t used to being interviewed feel more comfortable with the process. It still made me cringe.)

    • lwidmer May 18, 2017 at 11:35 am


      Paula, to you and me (and Cathy), we know that sources don’t get to look at the copy. But to the new freelancer, it’s uncharted territory, and they may agree without realizing that the person asking isn’t the one who’s paying, so they have no right to ask…

      This issue here is one of companies or individuals wanting the work to be done for them for free. They want that “mutually beneficial” arrangement where they come out on top without any financial commitment.

      I’m of the opinion that if the article idea is a good one, it’s theirs to pay for. I don’t really want to compromise my integrity to make them happy — they’re not showing me any good faith at all.