There is a particular type of literary journal, review, and online magazine in America that doesn’t pay its writers. It claims to offer its writer something else. Exposure. Publication credits. Connections. The attention of agents. Maybe something to brag about in an MFA cover letter or essay. That these reviews, magazines, and journals are glutted with mediocre work that few people read is not surprising, but what surprises me more is that good writers also are willing to submit their work to these venues.
Unless you’re trying to promote a book or get free PR for a book (think book excerpts, Q&As, and interviews), you should never write for free. Writing for free, or for pennies, kills the soul, drives down the value of (your) good writing, and hurts not only you, but writers in general.
The literary journals that offer actual exposure, prestige, and the kind of publication credits that will get you noticed, all pay.
New England Review pays its writers. The New Yorker pays its writers. The Atlantic pays its writers. Ploughshares pays its writers. Subtropics pays its writers. Any literary journal and review worth your time will pay you. The ones that matter most for your writing career, for building your audience, and for gaining you exposure, all pay.
The rest really don’t matter.
The problem with writers is that they don’t value their work nearly enough. And they submit to places that don’t really value their work, either. It makes me dizzy how writers will give their work away for free to websites, reviews, journals, and online magazines, which may themselves make steady revenues from advertisements. Other upstart magazines use the free content writers give them to build the very audience they claim to offer their writers as a perk, eventually gaining the momentum they need to command ad dollars, subscribers, paying customers, donors, and the like. Some journals and reviews have the audacity to not pay, and also to demand reading fees from submitters.
Good writing creates value for someone. You should always value your work, and you might as well create value for yourself. Launch your own platform. Let your writing work for you. Command your own audience. Bring in your own advertisement dollars. Start a Patreon. Anything. But don’t give your work away for free.
Look, I get it. When you’re starting out, you’re a little desperate. I was there.
I spent years submitting my work to places that didn’t pay. But then I stopped. I stopped because I found myself homeless and no longer able to afford to do work for free. I started writing for the private sector. Good writing has real value. It makes people money.
Don’t think your writing is good enough? If you’re trying to be a serious writer, you shouldn’t be putting out bad or mediocre work. Hone your craft. Get feedback. Take a workshop or two. And then look for paying magazines, online venues, or companies that are willing to pay you for your writing. Yes, companies. Writing for a company doesn’t automatically cause your fiction or poetic abilities to wither away. Writing talent isn’t the Wizard of Oz. Taking off the ruby slippers, putting on some boots, and writing in the trenches won’t take away your magic, I promise. It might actually make you a better writer because you’ll be able to work on your craft on a daily basis.
Take the example of Luvvie Ajayi Jones, who spent ten years working on her own online platform. Today, she claims she makes $35,000 from one hour of work, has a New York Times bestselling book, and has built a strong following. Not everyone can do this, I get it. I know I’m not there.
But she didn’t get to where she got by writing for free for some literary journal that wouldn’t pay her. Spending hundreds of dollars in submission fees a year sending work to literary journals that wouldn’t pay her was not something she listed as being important in her roadmap to success. No. She built her own platform. And now she hangs with Oprah.
In Professional Troublemaker, she writes: “People LOVE offering us exposure for payment. But exposure is not currency I can use to pay my mortgage or support my shoe habit. I be wanting to say, ‘Expose deez nuts’ sometimes. I know I don’t have nuts, but the sentiment stands. As someone who started my entrepreneur life as a blogger, I know what it’s like to be offered exposure as a serious form of payment from people who didn’t know they were being useless.”
By letting people use our work for free, we allow the systems of capital to continue to abuse us. Your writing is your capital. Don’t give it away. Don’t give your words away so someone else can build a bigger audience and attract advertisers, while you struggle to make your art.
Value your work so much that when you write for free it’s because you are donating your writing and time to a good cause (like the Sierra Club or to the homeless), or a not-for-profit you believe in, or because you want the PR because you’ve just launched a future bestseller, and want to promote your work. But don’t write for free because someone convinced you it would further your career or get you exposure.
Also, don’t write for pennies a word. People in India deserve more, and so do you. Value your work, because most writing on the internet is making someone money.
As Luvvie Ajayi Jones wrote, “People who want to pay us pickle juice for champagne work have to get used to hearing no.”
About the Writer
Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.