Yesterday I read this very interesting article, When People Write for Free, Who Pays? on Gawker (I saw it on Twitter, tweeted by Rebecca from Becks and the City, a fellow writer and blogger) and then I read this blog post by a freelance writer. It made me angry, but it also made me think.
When I graduated, I won a writing contest that gave me the chance to be an editorial intern at Cosmopolitan Sweden. This was my first-ever magazine job and a dream come true, so I was beyond ecstatic. I was so utterly and completely psyched to come in there every day that payment was the last thing on my mind. It was the last thing on everybody else's minds, too: no one ever mentioned payment. But what did come up was that I was to be the magazine's last-ever intern, as their new publisher was against unpaid work. I was very impressed.
A month after my internship was over, I sold my very first freelance article (to Cosmo) and was paid the equivalent of £200 for it. It felt amazing to be paid for doing what I love and since then, I've gone on to write for other magazines and get paid...but I've also continued working for free.
Whenever I look for job ads and come across something that says "the collaboration is unpaid" or worse, "the collaboration is voluntary" (last time I checked, it was never mandatory to apply for a job. And if I want to volunteer, there are way more worthy causes out there than a fashion website) it never fails to anger me. Aside from the ridiculous assumption that writers can and should work for free - when's the last time you asked your plumber to work for free? Your hairdresser? The guy who fixes your car? - there's the fact that this charming offer is often to be found among job ads, where people tend to look for something that will help them pay their bills. Not cool, "exciting start-up magazine." Not cool.
I have always been fairly outspoken about this - and have been known to pen the odd email to said "recruiters" asking why on earth they consider it acceptable to advertise for free workforce. But then again...I do work for free, so does that make me a hypocrite?
The online magazines and websites where I write for free are often the ones that cover veganism and/or sustainable lifestyle, a cause I'm really passionate about. They don't pay me because they can't afford to - but these magazines exist only thanks to those of us who love the cause and the message enough to dedicate our time with no cash return. They don't have a huge publisher or big investors backing them. They are truly, and in every sense, a labour of love. So I consider this type of work almost like volunteering. The fact that I'm in a new country with little UK experience to my name does add to my desire to do some portfolio-building. But all the free work I do has come from initiative - I contacted the editors of these magazines and offered to write without asking to be paid, for the aforementioned reasons. If they had advertised for unpaid writers on job-seeking sites, I would probably not have replied.
You see, when magazines and online publications take to traditional job-seeking websites to advertise for unpaid writers and/or interns (and yes, "expenses" equals unpaid), what they're saying is that they're only open to those who are not in need of an income to survive - which says a lot about the kind of person they want to work for them (hint: it's not me). I have worked in the fashion and writing industry since 2009 and I have yet to understand how exactly an unpaid intern is supposed to pay his or her rent and food. I consider it offensive and frankly a bit sick for companies to expect that an adult be supported financially by his or her parents and/or partner. When companies advertise for unpaid full-time positions, they are closing their doors to everyone but those who do not (need to) support themselves financially, whereas I believe that a young person who goes to great lengths to make his or her own money should be applauded and rewarded. If anything, trying to make it on your own working with your passions should be encouraged! By only opening up to unpaid writers, publications are missing out on smart, talented people who just happen to need money to live. And I think that's a shame.
What's even more a shame is that unfortunately for the rest of us, there are people out there that do not actually need to get paid to survive. There are even people out there whose parents will buy them a magazine internship at an auction, thus contributing to the absurd notion that writing for a living is some kind of luxurious lottery win, not a normal job. If you're not one of these people and yet you still want to make it as a writer, beware: these people are your competition. And they're so blinded by a glossy The Devil Wears Prada-esque vision of magazine life that they don't even bother to notice that, by accepting these slave-like conditions, they are taking away normal people's chances. That's the answer to the (brilliant) Gawker writer's question: who pays? YOU DO. I do. All those struggling writers out there who moonlight as toilet-cleaning baristas and live off baked can beans: we're the ones who pay. You're welcome.
My point is that while most of us will probably still write for free every once in a while, we could all benefit from thinking twice before we reply to an unpaid internship or "voluntary collaboration" ad. Yes, it's competitive, and it should be. But once you get hired or sell an article, underselling yourself to some ridiculous vision of a "glamorous" life is almost criminal if you keep in mind what it's currently doing to the writer job market. Whatever you do, don't start believing that working for free, for "expenses" or for £1 (€1 or $1, whatever) per article forever is okay. IT ISN'T. Being a writer is a job - not a privilege.
Picture from Pinterest