The secret to getting paid as a writer - Jon Acuff
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The secret to getting paid as a writer

This is a guest post from my friend Jeff Goins, who has a new book out called Real Artists Don’t Starve. If you order it this week, you’ll get $200 in bonuses. Find out more at dontstarve.com.

The secret to getting paid as a writer

When the science ­fiction writer Harlan Ellison was asked to contribute an interview for a film project on the making of Babylon 5, he said, “Absolutely!”

There was just one catch: “All you’ve got to do is pay me.”

“What?” the young woman on the other end of the call asked.

“You’ve got to pay me!” he shouted.

“Well,” she said, “everyone else is just doing it for nothing.”

This was when Ellison lost it.

“By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing?” he said. “Do you get a paycheck? Does your boss get a paycheck?”

“Well, yes,” she admitted. But, “it would be good publicity.”

“Lady,” he said calmly, “tell that to someone a little older than you who just fell off the turnip truck.”

As a long­-time screenwriter, Ellison has seen many people come and go in Hollywood. He understands how the business works, what the economics are, and how to survive in a very competitive market that is unkind to creatives.

He’s also seen new writers come to town not understanding they ought to be paid for their work.

“It’s the amateurs,” he said, “who make it hard for the professionals.”

Ellison knows a secret many beginning writers don’t know. It’s one I certainly didn’t understand when I began my career: If you want to get paid, you have to charge for your work.

Obvious? Sure. But it’s still something many writers, creatives, and artists struggle with. Harlan Ellison, on the other hand, sticks to one simple standard: he never works for free. Today, he is one of the most successful writers in Hollywood.

Over the past several years, I’ve seen many writers launch their careers by giving away just about everything they do. I made this same mistake. We do this because, we are told, it’s a great “opportunity.”

The problem, though, is what we call “opportunity” is really just a gamble. Opportunity doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t put food on the table. You can’t invest and watch it multiply. Opportunity is a bet, and like most bets, you rarely win.

If you want to be generous, by all means give your work away as much as you want without expectation of payment. Personally, I love doing this, but I do it because I choose to, not because I believe it is my only option. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being generous. It’s just hard to build a career on the currency of chance.

So, please, believe you’re worth more than an “opportunity.” Charge something, anything. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Some is better than none. Just be careful giving away your best work, because it can become a hard habit to break later.

This doesn’t make you greedy, by the way. When someone accused Walt Disney of making movies for the money, he replied, “We don’t make films to make money. We make money to make more films.”

Money is the means to making more art. Without it, our work is over before it begins. When we charge for our art, we are making a statement about how we value our work. The world won’t take us seriously until we do.

4 Comments
  • Austin Bonds
    Posted at 11:41h, 05 June Reply

    Hi Jon – thanks for this article. You may have touched on this before, but would you consider a follow up article to this one that addresses how to seek compensation for current writing gigs? Like others, writing articles for free is good exposure and publicity, but it can be hard to break. What’s the best way to approach this without losing the gig? That’s a tough question. Many writers certainly do additional work to pay the bills, but would love to move further towards full-time creativity by way of a pen or keyboard. Thanks for any thoughts!

    • Jeff Goins
      Posted at 16:55h, 07 June Reply

      Hey Austin. Thanks for the comment. I think you should write for free on your blog and on places where you get to maintain ownership of the content. I think when someone asks you to write for them, you should very rarely do it for free. Exceptions to this are writing for a very large publication where you can get something out of it. Email subscribers. Traffic to your blog. Not exposure. That’s too vague. You need to know exactly what you’re working for. Otherwise, you’re probably working for nothing. Good luck!

      • Austin Bonds
        Posted at 20:45h, 08 June Reply

        Hi Jeff –

        Thanks for the thoughts – they are greatly appreciated. I like what you said about maintaining ownership and writing for subscribers or site traffic. Exposure, as you made clear, shouldn’t be a valid reason for foregoing compensation. All the best in your writing as well!

  • Cara
    Posted at 12:10h, 23 June Reply

    This is a really important piece, but I don’t know that I have any hopes of it changing enough people. When I graduated from ($100K) journalism school, I was considered uppity for wanting an entry-level ($23K) job instead of an unpaid internship. I was astonished that I got no support–not from my school, my fellow graduates, or the former entry-level journalists who were now in a position to give us jobs. If you don’t need the help, then give an unpaid intern the “experience” and “exposure.” If the unpaid intern is doing something a paid staffer would have to do … then you are operating on slave labor. In the same way, I have considered joining the freelance marketplace over and over again–but every time I check out the websites designed to bring writers and employers together, I see writers offering 500-word articles for $5. Really? I pay 12-year-olds more than that to babysit. But how can I compete with that? It might be that I am a better writer than many of them and that some employers are willing to pay for quality. But I would not be surprised if most couldn’t tell the difference. And some of those writers actually are good–just under-pricing themselves … and as a result, everyone else.

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