A Millennial Editor Responds

Hello, fellow normal bloggers, average writers and rookie journalists under 30. So I suspect most of you have read the piece in the NYT about not writing for free.

If not, read that first and come back.

OK, now that you’re back, let me explain why this article does not apply to you.

First off, the writer here has been published in some of our nation’s most prestigious publications. Chances are, you have not. He’s being invited to write and speak. We have to desperately hope for someone with a lot of followers to retweet our blog if anyone is going to read it.

No one knows us (yet) to invite us anywhere. We’re young. We’re just starting out on this journey of professional wordsmithing. (Which excuses that verbification, you see.) We can’t expect to be paid for every blog post we write.

Listen, I get it. I understand the need to make money in our craft, the need to end this “being paid in bylines” myth and the need to pay bills/rent/loans/for food. I, too, turned up my nose at putting forth my best reporting, writing and editing skills for nothing. I used to sniff at ridiculous editors who expect quality writers to come begging for the opportunity to pretty please be allowed to write for such an outstanding publication.

Then I became that editor.

As the managing editor of a free digital ministry magazine, I probably can’t pay you. If I do put your work in my magazine, I can’t pay you much. More likely, you have written a wonderful book and your publisher sent it to me for free, so I publish 600-1,500 words of it in either my free e-newsletter or free magazine in hopes that my readers will buy your book and you will make lots of at least a little money on it that way. Or, you send your writing to me because you are in ministry and would be ecstatic to have your blog published for a few thousand people to read and thus, you have no problem with our “volunteer-written” policy. Because you are in ministry, you already know this system of “donations” and are aware you will likely never be paid for the most valuable things you do.

Such is ministry. And now, such is the magazine industry.

It’s terrible.

But it’s reality.

One thing I will promise you: help us grow and we will pay you what we can afford. The bigger our publication gets, the more we can charge for ads and the more print copies we will sell (currently sold in a bundle of 12 for $20, you know, if you are interested in supporting the preservation of the print medium).

After two and a half years, I have a new perspective on free work. A theory of method, if you like. It’s one of the gifts that came with starting a brand-new-from-the-ground-up publication in the give-it-to-me-free digital world.

Ignore the NYT-published columnist. Write for free. Let me publish it for free. Prove that you are a reliable and top quality writer. That’s who I ask to write in exchange for real, take-it-to-the-bank money.

(Quick disclaimer: I know not all publications work this way. Some never pay you no matter how great you are. Shame on them. That’s not how this system works and is why this industry is falling apart. See the NYT article.)

But when you are first starting out, when you are not a blogger with a million readers and have no bestseller to promote your name for you, give it away.

But not all of it. Just a little.

It’s similar to NoiseTrade.

Anyone in this world can produce art (music, design, writing, videos, photography) and have it published on the Internet in an instant. It can go viral and be seen by millions. And they won’t earn a penny.

But give me a little something for free and I will become a fan. Just a taste, an appetizer of “content” to make me want more. Then provide me with a way to get more… but at a price.

BOOM.

Money made. (Or horse saddled. This process of getting paid for your art is the same for breaking a colt. Fun fact for your day.)

Ahem. Back to NoiseTrade: the unknown newbie artist giving away three or four songs gets my email address (and possibly a donation. But we’re cheap and heartless Millennials here so likely not.) I then listen and (if all goes as planned) love these few songs. But it’s not enough. I know they have more (and if they’re smart, it’s not on Spotify) so they email me a link to buy their full album or to attend a concert nearby and… there goes my money.

The key (that some of my favorite publications with paywalls don’t get) is that you can’t give away too much. If a publication has multiple great posts going live for free every day written by big-name people (for whom the NYT piece is relevant), I see their subscription service as superfluous. Why buy more when I can get plenty of good free content from them already?

My magazine is a bit different in that we give everything away for free because we are part of a Christian events organization and ministries do that sort of thing when they already have teens paying to go to camp. It’s a free resource (and, of course, a marketing tool for camp), not an independent business model.

Same for the writers who blog for us for free. They have a financial backing through their day job. They just have a resource (their blog posts) to give away to expand their influence and ministry reach.

But it still works. They give us a little, a few well-written blogs we really like that our readers share and retweet and such. Then one that really knocks it out of the park that is too good for just a blog post.

We have to put this in the magazine. For that, we give you a paycheck.

BOOM.

Money made.

It takes a lot of time, true. But it beats being rejected (or laughed at) when you, as an unknown rookie, tell editors you don’t work for free.

Work for free. Build a portfolio. Get editors to trust you and want more from you.

But it’s up to them (*cough* editors! Talking to you!) to not mooch off you forever. Use your blog “donations” to expand your audience, attract followers, promote your books (or whatever you get paid to do in real life) and then when the opportunity for a paid article comes along, I (your editor) will have you at the top of my list.

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