Think Before Giving Away Your Original Content for Free

If you create original content for a living—or if you aspire to create original content for a living—you should refrain from giving it away for free. Essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider makes that point pretty strongly in a recent New York Times opinion piece. It’s a great essay, so take some time to read it in full. Here’s a distillation of some of Kreider’s key points:

  • Creators of content can spend many years and much money to learn their craft. Their time and skills have value—monetary value—in much the same way that the time and skills of physicians and barbers have value.
  • It’s insulting, not flattering, when a “stranger”—whether an organization or an individual—asks you to provide your work for free while budgeting for other business products and services.
  • There’s sadly an assumption these days that the distribution system for content matters more than the content itself—that content is essentially filler. (Read some older blog posts on this site and you’ll understand why a “content-as-filler” mentality is a rotten mentality—and why creating high-quality original content will always matter.)
  • The “exposure” you get from happily giving your work away for free can pale compared with the damage it does to the broader pursuit of high-quality original content, to your fellow creators, and to the future of your career field. In Kreider’s words, it’s “a matter of principle.”
Image source:

Image source:

And “exposure” certainly can be a trap—a nearly pointless trap—these days. The promise of exposure is especially alluring in the early days of a career. But we live in a time when nearly any rookie with an ounce of Internet smarts and savvy can self-publish professional-looking original content (on blogs, in e-books, on dynamic personal sites), publicize that content via social networks and other online avenues, and generate exposure for themselves and their content—all without having to give away their original content for free. In fact, by doing it themselves, they might receive more meaningful exposure than they would get by giving away their content to an obscure “literary journal” or “entertainment website.” (Yes, the do-it-yourself method isn’t for everyone, and it might lack some of the “validation” that content creators crave when they’re trying to build their business. But for many, it’s a real and viable option for showcasing their skills.)

Regardless of their ability to self-promote online, content creators (poets, video producers, writers, photographers, illustrators, etc.) still should work hard to avoid the trap of “free” exposure. And it’s not always easy. Kreider’s New York Times piece shows that it sometimes can be tough to pass up a free-exposure opportunity, and he admits that great happiness and real follow-up business can result from doing free work. (But Kreider makes rejecting free-work proposals easy by including in his article an excellent template for turning down those something-for-nothing requests that creators of original content often get.)

Charging for work should be the default setting of the content creator—which means knowing how much you should charge for your content and services. The answer to that question is “it depends.” Doing an Internet search to see what others in your content field or geographic area charge will give you an idea of where to begin payment negotiations. For writers and editors, the Editorial Freelancers Association provides a list of editorial rates on its website. Salary-information sites like and also might offer you some insight on what you and your content are worth. Asking for market rates for your content lets your would-be clients know that you and your work have value and that market forces apply to the creation of original content, too—not just to the distribution system that disseminates content.

Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, All rights reserved.

One response to “Think Before Giving Away Your Original Content for Free

  1. Great post. Advising clients to engage professionals in graphics, photography and video to support our writing is increasingly a uphill struggle but always worthwhile.

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