"Sorry, we don't pay contributors" is every writer's worst nightmare.
Putting yourself out there in any capacity makes you vulnerable, but I think this is especially true of writers. There are so many great writers who have gone before us and we stand in their shadows. And gone are the days of living in Cuba, spending hours half-drunk, free writing the day away without a care in the world beyond an impatient editor.
Writers today are worried they won't make a living from their work from the outset. After all, even award-winning authors have day jobs. So when we hear "Sorry, we don't pay contributors," we're actually hearing so much more than that. The career I love won't pay my bills. What I have to say isn't valuable enough to warrant payment. Writers are an expendable resource.
When I was younger, I would rail against this system. I would spit my criticisms at anyone who would listen. "Yeah, I'm sure they tell their plumber they can't pay him either. Oh, and I supposed they don't pay the doctors they visit. Or their hairstylists. Writing is a trade, a profession. You have to have a particular set of skills to be a writer, so writers deserve to be paid like anyone else!" And while I wasn't at all wrong, I should mention here that this was before I blogged regularly, before I had a solid portfolio of clips, and back when I thought I should either be graded or paid every time I lifted pen to paper.
You would think that as I got older (and had more bills to pay) that I would continue to rail against this system. While being asked to write for free is not ubiquitous in the writing world, it's common enough. But instead I came to the realization that money isn't everything and there are some merits to writing for free. Sometimes.
As you've noticed I have a book blog. Since it's a blog, you can assume I write it for free--I do. That's because I love writing about books and, by the nature of me continuing this blog, you can see I'd rather write about books than anything else. But I've only been paid to write about books a handful of times. The other times I was paid to write I was covering education, politics, business, lifestyle, fashion, events, or doing a profile of an interesting person. While I don't want to imply that I didn't enjoy writing these stories, my heart wasn't fully in them.
A little over a year ago, I was under-employed due to having been laid off during cuts at the company where I worked. I had moved out on my own into my first apartment after graduation literally the day before I was laid off. If it weren't for being able to freelance for a couple of publications, my finances would have been stressed and depleted. Instead I was able to live comfortably as a freelancer while doing other part-time work. I will forever be grateful to my writing, especially when I needed it most, but when I found my current full-time job and no longer needed the money from freelancing, I decided I would only write what I felt truly compelled to express. Even if that meant writing for free.
Thus I started this blog. And although no one's paying me to write about books, I'm more satisfied with my writing than ever before. I'll even toot my own horn for a second and say I'm proud of this blog. Damn proud. I enjoy writing about books and I hope everyone who reads my posts can tell.
I decided that I would write for other publications--for free, though payment is always nice--as long as I could write about things I wanted to write about. That means books. Though it can also mean a personal essay about my boobs.
Since then I've turned down assignments for publications that I previously would have jumped at the chance to see my byline in. And I've supported smaller publications that I really respect, like Belladonna Magazine and I Am the F-Bomb, that are currently unable to pay writers yet are doing incredible work.
Through these experiences, I've learned something about my values as a writer. I learned that I'm more willing to write for free to support new, small publications that I respect, but I'm ardently unwilling to write for free for a publication that's been around a few years and has a dedicated audience. If writing is a profession, then publications must be a business. While it's not easy monetizing content online with traditional models, it is possible. BuzzFeed does it, some blogs do it, and I have previously worked for a publication that did it. An online publication that makes money is not a pipe dream--it's a possibility. But far too often people assume it can't be done, so they don't really try. That's the impression I get anyway.
Whether I'm being paid to write or not, I want to be proud of the work I've created, so I want the publication to be proud to showcase it. If I get the sense the publication is stagnant, complacent, or generally lukewarm, I'm not their girl.
All in all, no matter where you stand as a writer, stand your ground. Write things that you're proud of. Make money doing it or don't. Keep your head held high and your values strong and, most importantly, love every-damn-thing you create, paid or not.