No sampling (Mistake #99)

A recent blog post by Simon Whaley put forward an interesting idea from journalist Nick Fletcher. I’ve edited lightly for clarity:

“If you want a regular column … offer to supply a column and give the editor the first three or six pieces on a free trial basis … Once the free trial is over, ask the editor if they’d like you to continue with your column, but now pay for each subsequent piece … “

As Simon goes on to explain, Nick has had success with his technique in the past, though he (Nick) did point out that the ‘freebies’ were reworkings of previous articles he could put together quickly.

I can’t pretend to be a fan of writing for free, but I am not rabidly against it without exception – although some writers are. I have done it in a few specific circumstances in the past, and understand that some writers may feel they need to do it in order to get started in this business, or for clippings.

When is writing for free unacceptable? I can think of a few instances:

* When the editor approaches you to write the article – rather than vice versa;
* When the publisher requires you to assign copyright in the work (which means they can then sell it on themselves);
* When the publication is clearly successful and paying its other writers well – and can afford it;
* When the publication has a policy of not paying any of its writers. This I find deeply objectionable. Any publisher whose business model is based on such disregard and disrespect for its content creators deserves to be given the finger, frankly.

So do I think Nick’s idea is worth a go? On the right market, potentially, yes I do. A local newspaper, for instance.

But before you rush to your keyboard to knock out three sample columns, I would advise the following:

* Don’t offer to write your column for free from the off. Pitch it, as you would any piece of work, first – they may say yes and offer to pay you from column No.1! If not, then perhaps make your offer when you’ve been turned down, or once you’ve got into a follow-up conversation with the editor and it becomes clear the answer is going to be no.

* If an editor is interested in your offer, be 100% clear on all terms and conditions. Be clear on length of the piece, the theme of the column, the rights you are assigning (again, never full copyright), any deadlines, how many sample pieces you will write, and so on.

* Don’t keep filing columns indefinitely. Should the editor say “I like it – but I’m not sure yet, so how about another freebie?” – then be firm. I have written about indefinitely writing for free before, so please don’t get sucked in, should the editor try it on. Stick to the number agreed.

* Consider negotiating a fee for the future paid-for columns, before you start. It would be frustrating to offer six freebies, and then learn the eventual offer on the table is £10 a month, which will not have been worth the bother.

* Don’t ‘trick’ the editor. If you agreed three sample freebies, with a review and decision at the end of that period, don’t insert a ‘cliff-hanger’ into the third column in an attempt to force a commission for a fourth and beyond. The freebies you offer must stand as completed works in their own right.

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