Free for all: why selling yourself cheap is ultimately self defeating

AvEsbfiCAAIWFCW.jpg-largeIt’s a dilemma facing every wannabe journalist or writer looking for a foothold in what is a notoriously tough and fickle industry: do you offer your work for free?

As a journalist I’ve only ever really been asked to work for free once professionally (more about that later) but as a blogger it’s a regular occurance. The typical scenario goes something like this: I get approached by someone who’s discovered my blog or stumbled across me on Twitter and they have something they’d like me to help them with. Some say they’d like to “collaborate” with me but I’ll vent my spleen about that term on another day. Anyway, we talk and they’re all over me like randy pup. I’m just the person they need! Then, when they twig I actually make my living from writing (and therefore require remuneration) they’re off my quivering leg like lightening.

But it gets worse. A couple of years ago I was contacted by the online editor of a publication asking me if I’d be interested in writing for their website as they were looking for good male grooming content. He knew I was a journalist and since I’d never written for this particular publication I was keen to contribute, so my answer was an enthusiastic yes. After sussing out what kind of thing he was after and agreeing that I could provide it I then asked what the payment would be.

The reply, although meant to be funny, actually took me aback. “Oh, you’re one of those old-fashioned journalists who likes to get paid!” he said. Given that I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years and have managed to earn a decent living out it (no mean feat given what a poorly paid profession it can be) I was pretty gobsmacked.

Of course, the moment I said yes to his question, I never heard from him ever again. He got his copy, though, and presumably for free, from elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, not every single piece of work I’ve ever written has been paid for. I’ve done work for friends as favours or as part of contra deals and I wrote for free very briefly when I was doing work experience, back in 1990. I started out at 19 Magazine (ironically, a title I eventually ended up editing) and though I wrote a couple of small pieces without payment on a two-week work placement the features editor at the time – one of the best I’ve ever come across – eventually decided she should pay me for the words because she rated what I was doing.

There are, of course, many great commissioning editors and content managers out there but there are also also plenty of predatory ones essentially looking for writers to groom. Bloggers, in particular, are easy prey. I’m a curious breed of blogger known as a jogger. Half journalist and half blogger I’m the writing word’s equivalent of the bisexual – and treated with just as much suspicion. Since I was a journalist first, though, I’m pretty savvy about how things work when it comes the industry but I don’t suppose everyone is.

These days, many aspiring writers see blogging as the perfect launchpad for a journalistic career. And why not? Self-publishing has never been easier nor more respectable. The problem is, if you’re starting out and someone comes a long and asks you whether you’d like to write for them you’re naturally flattered. You see an opportunity to get your work out there. They won’t pay you? Fine, it may lead to something where you do get paid. Trust me, I get it. Like seeing a tray of doghnuts in a baker’s window, it’s a proposition that’s hard to resist. And the people offering you the opportunities know this.

Please understand that I am not having a go at all the aspiring writers out there – I was one myself once – it’s the unscrupulous people who expect them to write for free. Often these people work for websites or retail sites who are clearly making money. They’re businesses so they understand that everything comes with a cost attached. Except you of course.

What irks me about the website I mentioned earlier is that though they wanted copy for free the person that contacted me is quite clearly salaried. That website pays its staff so what makes its staff think they don’t have to pay its contributors? Wanting writers to write for free is shameful, disrespectful and frankly, turns commissioning editors into little more than petty thieves.

The problem is we live in a world where skill and creativity are have been undermined and devalued. It’s easy to blame the internet for this. Most of us expect content for free these days after all. But at the end of the day, businesses have a choice and they should choose to allocate budgets for ‘talent’. I totally understand that many start-ups don’t have huge amounts of cash to splash but I do believe that even if they can’t pay their writers the going rate they should, at the very least, offer them something for their work. And I think that all the writers out there have a duty to at least ask for something, otherwise they are doing themselves, future writers and indeed, established ones like me, a real disservice.

What made the features editor at 19 who offered to pay me for the pieces I wrote at the very start of my career so special is that she put a value on my work. And by valuing my work she she put a value on me too. If you constantly give your stuff away for free you’ll, quite literally, end up feeling worthless. So my message to budding writers is never sell yourself too cheaply because, to adapt the tagline L’Oreal are so fond of using, you’re absolutely worth it.

PS. Thanks to Guy Clapperton for pointing out this brilliant video after I wrote this post. If I’d have seen it beforehand I would have just posted it on here instead!


Sex, blogging and why bad reviews aren’t the end of the world

round-rating-buttonsThe other week, over a tongue-slackening bottle of wine, I had a rather enlightening conversation with a PR regarding the nature of blogging. And in the process I had my wrists slapped a couple of times for, would you believe it, speaking my mind? Why, they wanted to know, would I bother to criticise a product if I didn’t I didn’t like it when I could simply not mention it at all?

That, I told them politely, is a little like turning a blind eye to an injustice and hoping someone else will speak out because you’re too afraid. I know, I know, the two aren’t entirely comparable but I had been drinking remember. The sad fact is, though, bloggers do have every reason to be afraid. I have, in the course of saying what I think, been blacklisted (after one critical post a company I’d been in regular contact with for over five years promptly removed me from their mailing list) and I’ve incurred the wrath of more than one overly-sensitive PR for a less-than-flattering product review. Worse still, on occasion I’ve simply had the silent treatment when I send emails to PRs, which is essentially the beauty industry equivalent of waterboarding.

As I explained to the PR I was discussing the subject with, though, to me a degree of objectivity is absolutely crucial for credibility. In print journalism (and I’m talking about beauty journalism specifically here) there is a convention that everything is wonderful. This lipstick’s gorgeous, that aftershave balm’s fantastic etc, etc. But then, when you have advertisers breathing down your neck how are you going to say something doesn’t work, smells rank or stripped a couple of layers of skin off your face?

The thing is, as readers become increasingly more sophisticated in how they consume information – and increasingly sceptical in the process – the ‘love all, hate nothing’ mentality so prevalent in the beauty industry simply won’t wash. Indeed, I strongly suspect it’s why so many people prefer to access product information via blogs rather than print media these days.

What I don’t understand is why some brands and some of their PRs freak out so much when they read a less than glowing review, why they can’t roll with the punches and why they can’t see the bigger picture. When a brand has a reality outage over a bad review I’ve written I often point them in the direction of a review of another of their products where I’ve been quite beside myself with adoration.

Don’t get me wrong, some do ‘get it’ (I often receive emails saying “we know you weren’t keen on X but are sure you’ll like Y” which is great – and perfectly reasonable – approach). These people understand that you’re bound to take a hit sometimes and that in actual fact, being critical of some things makes praise of others all the more powerful when it comes.

I’m sure lots of bloggers will disagree with me about being openly critical and there will be others, perhaps those just starting out, who are too nervous to upset big brands, especially since so many are now clamouring to “work with” us.  I  totally understand that, and that the beauty about blogging is that everyone can do their own thing. There are lots of bloggers out there whose aim is simply to alert their readers to the availability of a product and who leave any opinion at the coatcheck. And that’s totally fine. I read them and enjoy them, and as with news channels, there are times when not having an opinion is a good idea.

Personally, though, I like to hear what a blogger thinks about a product. One of the things I love about Amazon is the glorious array of conflicting reviews. Look up your favourite album and there’ll be people saying it’s the best thing ever recorded while others will say they hurled it out of their car window in utter disgust. What this array of opinions gives you is perspective. And you need that just as much if you’re thinking of buying a moisturiser or massively-hyped new fragrance as when you’re buying a new TV, car or home insurance.

So to all the brands and PRs out there who still flip out at anything less than a glowing product review I say this: reviews are like sex. Sometimes great, sometimes average, sometimes downright disappointing. But you should never write off a lover just because of one bad experience.