Kill the Giggler
27Feb/120

Getting used to feeling worthless – freelance writing for free

I’m going to share a little bit about myself with you now, if I may. I want to be a writer. That much should be obvious. I want to write, and write about films. That should also be kind of obvious. However, if you want to write about films, you really need to live in London, and if you live in London, you need to have some sort of income.

Writing about films does not provide a steady income. Here’s my archive of stuff I’ve written for Den of Geek. I don’t know how many thousand words it is in total. A fair amount, I would wager. A number of articles, I’ve been told, have received a huge number of hits, with the TV reviews in particular proving extremely popular. Presumably this has brought in some more ad revenue, or, at the very least , made the stats look more appealing for potential advertisers.

I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school when I say I wasn’t paid for any of that work. For all of  the journalism I’ve done over the years, I reckon the amount that I’ve received payment for stands at roughly 0.5%.  In terms of writing about film (which, as I've said, is what I’m really passionate about) it’s 0%. Not one solitary cent.

In the case of Den of Geek, I don’t really mind – the editorial staff are great, it was clear all along that I’d be working on a volunteer basis (as, I should point out, every other writer on the site does – and there are some fantastic writers there) and I was happy to do so, as I had a relatively free reign on what I could write and a good, engaged audience to write it for. The DOG team are always teeming with gratitude, quick to praise and very generous with social get-togethers and the like. The lack of payment seemed understandable and never really bothered me.

As a result, though, I have to find an income from elsewhere. Here’s yet another fact about me: I really don’t like my job. I can think of about ten thousand things I’d rather be doing than what I am doing currently. That’s why I’m constantly applying for other jobs, both kind of relevant to journalism and others that are completely unrelated. But it’s hard. It’s very hard to get a career in the field I want to work in, and so far it hasn’t happened.

Now let me be clear – I don’t feel any sense of entitlement. I know that being a film journalist isn’t exactly a position that it’s easy to attain. Neither is it a position that’s particularly important, in the grand scheme of things. I don’t expect the world to owe me a living, particularly one as cushy as that.

But if you’re in my position (and I know for a fact hundreds of people are) it’s hard to shake the feeling you’re being taken advantage of. There are so many websites now, so many publications, all with a voracious need for a constant stream of content. And, as I found out to my cost when the first magazine I got a permanent job on folded in 2009, publishing businesses are utterly fucked, finance-wise, and will be for the foreseeable future.

So how do they get all of their content? By commissioning ‘volunteer’ writers, a steady stream of fresh-faced idealists who will happily work for free DVDs or a chance to get a byline on a website.

But there’s so many websites now, and so many PR departments, and so many free DVDs flying around, what does this even mean any more? Just about anyone can claim they’re a writer and get a screener of ANUVAHOOD from an eager PR department now if they’re persistent enough.

But like I said, working for free never really bothered me until today. I applied for a job as a regular film blogger at What Culture, a pop culture website that claims to have a million readers a month. On the job advert (you can see it here) it clearly states at the bottom “All positions meet minimum hourly pay rates and are permanent positions."

The prospect of actually getting paid (even the bare minimum) to write about films was pretty exciting, so I spent a fair chunk of time putting together a covering letter and rewriting my CV in application. I do this roughly three or four times a week and every single time a part of me dies. Anyone who has spent a significant portion of time recently applying for jobs I’m sure will back me up on this.

Anyway, I sent my application off and IMMEDIATELY got a response from the editor. Now, we all know what an immediate response means – it’s a cut and paste job. Whatever has just been sent had been sent to many others before. Here’s what it said:

Hi

Thank you for your email and interest in WhatCulture!. I need to point out at this point that all positions are on a voluntary basis and we don't have the budget to pay anyone. If you have found us via Mandy or another online blogger advertisement site then apologies for this but they won't allow us to look for volunteers. 

If you are still interested in working with us, shoot me a mail back and we can talk some more and I can detail all the incentives that can come your way for working with us (such as regular free film screenings, interviews with the stars, help for your CV, free blu-ray/dvds, etc).

Cheers

But… it clearly said I’d be paid? Minimum wage, but still…

I thought I’d misread this at first. Surely he didn’t just admit to me in an email that he lied on the advert in order to lure in potential candidates? I mean, I guess that isn’t illegal (or maybe it is?), but that is prime shit-heel behaviour whichever way you look at it, right? It must have been a mistake, one I was sure could be easily rectified so that we'd all feel better about ourselves.

I sent back this response:

Hi ****,

I was responding to this advertisement on IdeasTap

http://www.ideastap.com/Opportunities/Jobs/90554

Please note the line at the bottom: "All positions meet minimum hourly pay rates and are permanent positions."

I'd advise you get that advert amended or taken down immediately as it is, at best, misleading.

By all means you can get back to me with a more detailed outline of the role, particular what sort of hours I'd be expected to work, and how much copy would be expected to be delivered each week.

Thanks

Fairly reasonable request, I thought.

Here’s the response, with the best sections highlighted in bold:

Hi,

I didn't post the job on IdeasTap... but I presume they found it from Mandy.

The reason it said the job meets minimum wage is because if I didn't write that statement, Mandy would remove our ad as they have done many times in the past. In fact if I say the job is voluntary I never get past the approval stage.

Because we run ads on our website and aren't a non-profit based organisation they won't let us seek volunteers so I have to lie.

But I do this because Mandy.com has proved to be a great and useful place for finding contributors.

Hope that clears things up!

 

Yeah, that does clear things up. Not only are you openly exploiting writers, and making a mockery of otherwise honest websites, you’re also MASSIVELY PLEASED WITH YOURSELF. He’s made a point in two separate emails to draw attention to the fact that they are not a non-profit organisation and will be actively making money off content he wants me to provide, and then the fact that he is deliberately luring in writers under false pretences. He's actually defensive about it. Could this possibly be any more insulting and patronising? And for fuck’s sake, am I supposed to be enticed in by the prospect of  ‘interviews with the stars’? It's funny, I would have thought it should have been pretty clear from my CV that I’m not a dying 13-year-old girl.

Am I over-reacting? I don't even know any more.  Like I said, I have done a huge (HUGE) amount of writing and other work for various people over the last two years for no money, partly in exchange for the odd favour (read: DVDs) here and there, but mainly because I just love doing it and I like having to opportunity to entertain people in some way. I still hold out hope, though, that one day I can do this as a living, so I can actually have some free time that isn’t spent feverishly writing stuff or applying for jobs. When an opportunity to do this and get paid does come up, I invariably get excited: this could be it.

So when this guy sunnily tells me in detail how he’s planning to have me over a barrel while he makes snow angels in his glorious ad profits you’ll forgive me if I want to punch my computer right through the fucking wall.

I guess the moral of the story here is that for every Den of Geek there’s a What Culture, and as a freelance writer or contributor you have to be vigilant. It’s easy to set into the groove of writing for free, but there comes a point where you have to recognise the value in your own work, even if nobody else does, and refuse to be taken advantage of any longer. I’m grateful for this blog and for the people who read it. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to write for a larger audience. I'm somewhat resigned to the fact I may never get the opportunity to do this full time. And I’m grateful to WhatCulture for making me realise that whatever happens, I’m probably better off doing this on my own.

UPDATE: IdeasTap have now removed the offending advert. Hooray!