Picasso's napkin; or, why freelancers must value their own work

Oct 1, 2018

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

Have you ever walked into a barber shop or hair salon and asked if they'd cut and style your hair for free? Ever gone into a restaurant and asked for a meal for free?

I didn't think so, nor have I.

I ask this question because some assume that while professional services like those of barbers, hair stylists, lawyers, accountants, and candlestick makers must be paid for, the services of a writer need not be. Indeed, some multi-billionaires have started websites (named after themselves) asking writers to contribute for free ("you'll get a lot of great exposure and can build a large following/platform/blah, blah, blah") and never get around to paying their writers, even after they've sold their websites for billions of dollars to some Fortune 500 media company.

There’s a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, that artist Pablo Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer approached the painter and asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin for the admirer. Picasso politely agreed, quickly drew something at the table, and handed the napkin to the admirer—but not before asking him for $10,000. The admirer was shocked: “How can you ask for so much? It took you a minute to draw this!” “No,” said Picasso, “It took me more than 40 years.”

People can die from exposure

Can I pay my rent or my car loan in "exposure and an online following"? I've never tried it—who knows, maybe it'll work. What I'm saying is that writers are like every other professional and every other person in this world: we got bills to pay and need to work to generate income in order to pay our bills. I can't write for free because it simply isn't a sustainable business model, no more than a barber shop giving away free haircuts has a sustainable business model.

More than almost any other profession, writers constantly get asked to work for free. I literally get a couple emails every week "inviting" me to write free content for people and websites I've never even heard of.

The emails are polite and might even praise my work, but they also go on to express how lucky I am to receive such a great opportunity to write for free. Really?! Mostly, I just respond saying that I don't write for free because I have to do things like eat, keep a roof over my head, pay my taxes, etc., and writing for free doesn't help me do those things. I then ask them to pay my normal rate for the written work. I haven't heard back yet.

I'm not telling you not to write for free. That's a personal decision, and I can’t stop you from doing what you deem best. You may actually need exposure—although exposure can kill you in the wintertime here in Boston—and a platform (although they hang people from platforms, don't they?).

In the end, it's your choice. If you are independently wealthy and writing is just a hobby, then write your heart out for free. If you're starting out and need to build clips in order to move up the ranks to paying work, we get it. Go ahead and write for free a few times. It's tough out there, as every freelancer knows.

If YOU don't value your work, who will?

Writers have an obligation to value their work and demand that others value it enough to pay for it. Paying clients help you live your life and build your career by (get ready for it) paying for your skills and your time. That way, you don't need to go out and collect cans in the street in order to pay your rent.

I don’t intend to get socialist here, but I do believe writers have the same right to make a living by selling their services as barbers or bakers or car dealers. It takes years to develop skills and hours to produce content that's worth reading. That time should be compensated so writers can keep practicing their profession.

And yes, you are right, I AM writing this blog post for free. But I'm doing it for the love of it, in hopes that these words may somehow offer help to other freelancers, and (I suppose) am simply exploiting myself, nobody else.

Every writer needs to make their own choices, but making a living is important and so is getting paid.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is a freelance B2B Brand Storyteller who connects brands and customers through engaging stories. His clients include Sojourn Solutions, The Boston Globe's BG Brand Lab, MITx, abas USA, and The National Center for the Middle Market. His website is www.ChuckLeddy.com.