James is a carpenter. He earns $150 for a day’s work, making furniture for restaurants. He makes beautiful chairs but rarely makes much money. Sometimes the restaurant owner says they want a chair but change their mind, and he has to make a table instead.

Lately, two other carpenters have set up shop nearby and are happy to supply chairs for free. The restaurateurs like James but they frequently ask him to work unpaid. He loves his work so he does it but he is having trouble paying his bills.

It’s a fanciful story but change James’ occupation to writer and you will see the plight of the freelance journalist, who write some of our best stories but are increasingly being asked to work for free.

The issue of unpaid editorial content is as old as newspapers themselves but in recent years it has become a major issue for journalists and writers, especially as big media struggles to find an online revenue stream.

And new evidence indicates it is not just hurting individual writers but destroying the industry.

Canadian freelance organizer Nicole Cohen says the rising trend of big media refusing to pay bloggers was pushing down the rates freelancers could charge for their work.

And the bad news doesn’t end there: freelancers have for the most part lost the copyright war, with corporations now routinely demanding all rights to their work, including the right to translate, digitize, adapt, reprint, re-license and store in formats not yet invented.

But it’s not just editors who undervalue our work. We are starting to do it ourselves!

Indie author David Biddle warned writers against writers desperate to get a digital audience, who “priced their books to sell like canned tomatoes“.

He points to a study by Smashwords founder Mark Coker, which found the “sweet spot” for ebooks was about $2.99-5.99; and that cheaper books were a turn-off for discerning readers.

“That’s because books are not commodities. They aren’t even really consumer items in the conventional sense. Each book is a unique world that readers step into and keep safe on a shelf or in their Kindles when they’re done,” Mr Biddle wrote for TalkingWriting.com

“Customers may love discounts on bestsellers, but they don’t buy any old book just because it’s cheap.”

Huffington Post blogger scandal

Last year, authors’ advocate Jonathan Tasini spearheaded a class action against the Huffington Post after it was sold for $315 million to AOL. Mr Tasini argued the sale was based on the work of 9000 unpaid bloggers and they deserved a cut.

A New York district court swiftly told the petitioners they was dreaming. It found the bloggers signed away rights to ever be paid for their work so legally, they had not a leg to stand on.

Which is true. But that doesn’t necessarily make it right.

“The Huffington Post was, is and will never be, anything without the thousands of people who create the content,” Mr Tasini writes on his new blog Working Life.

“Ms Huffington is acting like every robber baron CEO … who believes that they, and only they, should pocket huge riches, while the rest of the peons struggle to survive. Ms Huffington’s stance has been clear: only she deserves the fruits of the labor of the people who work for her.”

Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington returned fire on her blog.

“The key point that the lawsuit completely ignores (or perhaps fails to understand) is how new media, new technologies, and the linked economy have changed the game, enabling millions of people to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation – from couch potato to self-expression,” she wrote.

“People blog on HuffPost for free for the same reason they go on cable TV shows every night for free: either because they are passionate about their ideas or because they have something to promote and want exposure to large and multiple audiences.”

Exposure is payment enough

When Mamamia founder Mia Freedman came under fire late last year for not paying contributors, her argument was similar.

“The reality is that the vast amount of the written work you read on the internet is unpaid,” she wrote on the Mamamia blog.

“We are not going to apologize for offering literally hundreds of previously unpublished writers the chance to share their work with our large and influential audience.”

“As a direct result, many of those contributors have gone on to land new opportunities – paid gigs, book deals, columns, big jobs, different careers based on the exposure they have received on Mamamia.”

Essentially, that’s the crux of the argument for editors who don’t pay their writers: that the exposure is payment enough.

Disclosure time: technically that’s what I’m doing right now.

I am writing for free because I want a forum for my ideas. The difference is that I’m the only blogger here and if I were to sell LyndalCairns.com to the other Lyndal Cairns, I would not be exploiting anyone but myself.

Freelance writer and Australia’s literary l’enfant terrible Helen Razer says writers need to become part of the business, and that means sometimes working for free.

“I think we writers need to have a bit of a look beyond the Capitalist and Worker model if we’re to maintain a working life lived chiefly in elasticized pants,” Ms Razer wrote for writers resource The Wheeler Centre.

“One of the ways in which we maintain buoyancy in an already stormy market flooded with free content is by sometimes giving stuff away for free. I offer my stuff for free sometimes and I do so not because I am a ‘scab’ but because this gifting helps me stay afloat.”

So what happens to the industry when editors rely on free content and writers used to being paid are in competition with people willing to do it for free?

Ripping everyone off

Aussie freelancer Karen Pickering says it is unfair to other writers when you write for free. She, and many others, equated it to ‘scabbing’, or working when other reporters refused to work for industrial reasons.

“Every time you agree to work for free you empower that editor to ask the next writer to go without pay, or worse, you’re already their second choice because the writer they wanted asked for fair remuneration,” The Emerging Writer editor wrote.

“You agreeing to work for nothing contributes to the fantasy that writing just happens, that anyone can do it, and that it does not warrant proper payment. You’re doing yourself out of a job and you’re weakening the industry.”

Ms Pickering also put paid to the idea that writers should be nice to editors out of sympathy for their place in a failing market.

“The more writers bring this up with editors, the more those editors will feel on the wrong side of this issue and pressure their bosses for better budgets.”

‘It’s just a flesh wound’

The exposure-as-payment model has its champions.

Former WIRED magazine editor Chris Anderson, who wrote and released a free digital book, is a proponent of the idea that free content will help sell other content.

In a TED talk, he explained that technology goes through four stages: timing, critical mass, displacement and a fall in price that makes it effectively free.

His example is the DVD player, which was released in the mid-1990s but failed to gain traction until 1998 when the price hit a “psychological threshold” of $400, when everyone wanted one. Once more than 20 per cent of people had a player, the technology hit critical mass and took off, replacing the VCR in 2001. By now, they are approaching free to buy.

“As they get cheaper, the premium brands like Sony and such, are losing market share while the no names, the apexes, are gaining them. They’re being commodified and that’s what happens when things go to zero.”

Mr Anderson said rising internet speeds and cheap storage pushed intellectual property very quickly towards free.

“Free is really the gift of Silicon Valley to the world. It’s an economic force … abundance as opposed to scarcity.”

“The music industry is imploding and Hollywood is worried as well. they’re facing a force that they haven’t faced before and their response is draconian and not necessarily going to get them out of this.”

Faced with thousands of home-made YouTube videos that stole their work, comedy troupe Monty Python launched their own YouTube channel in 2008.

They posted a tongue-in-cheek video featuring interviews with the Python team, in which they explain that they wanted to give the fans what they wanted – high quality, complete videos of their beloved work.

“We wanted it to go out as we made it,” Terry Gilliam says in the video.

They decided to trust their fans rather than sue them, and ask them nicely to buy the videos they were sharing.

“Let’s stick at it. Maybe there is money to be made,” Michael Palin says.

It was a gamble that paid off for the very silly fellas, with sales of their back catalog increasing some 23,000 per cent within months.

What’s in a name?

There is another factor to consider here, and that is the long-term earning capacity of a writer’s name.

Most emerging writers are already giving away swathes of content for free – on social media. The brainpower and time they take to discuss and promote their work online is time they aren’t spending writing. But that doesn’t mean it’s a loss.

Having huge swathes of content attached to your name can:

  • Build a following for your work
  • Help you connect with your readers

That last point is crucial. It’s no longer the publisher’s job to sell your book for you nor your editor’s job to promote your story.

Every piece of content with your name on it – paid or otherwise – is building your online reputation. And that is only going to get more important when Google introduces its AuthorRank algorithm, which will rank authoritative writers by subject and is tipped to launch before the end of this year.

WeGrowMedia.com founder Dan Blank says he did not blame writers who wanted to hide themselves away in a room and just do what they do best; but warned they could no longer rely on a publishing house to sell their book for them.

“It sounds romantic to say that a writer should just write. The implication is that a writer should not become marketers,” Mr Blank wrote for the Writer Unboxed forum.

But with an estimated 2.5 million books expected to publish in 2013, he spent less time trying to get published and more time ensuring he was getting read and keeping readers happy. And for that, you have to engage them, he said.

“If you as a writer want your work to be read, then we have to shift the conversation. You can’t assume that the other half of the process is magical (and) that work of high quality naturally finds its way into readers’ hands.”

“They (successful writers) go on book tours, speak at events, comment in the media, they engage with others in book groups, libraries, and social media. This is not just publicity. This is their way of life.”

This post was inspired by my friends, the writers Jason Nahrung and Kirstyn McDermott, who both have books out, and yes, you can buy them. Thank you for your candor, time and endless cups of tea.