Writing for Free Can Pay Off. But Only For a Select Few

By Gary M. Stern August 27th, 2014

Anyone who has read Carlos Baker’s definitive biography of Ernest Hemingway knows Papa Hemingway was obsessed with making money. He wanted to wring as much income as possible from every short story and novel. Hemingway expected to be compensated for his work since that was the only thing he did to make a living.

However, in this brave new digital world of ours, all the rules about payment have changed.

Now, writers, scholars, and consultants contribute to several websites, such as the Huffington Post and Forbes, where they have the privilege to write… for free. That’s nada, zilch, nothing—but they can, as some cunning marketers suggest, build personal brands.

Actress and activist Marlo Thomas contributes to HuffPo. So does American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner, Hollywood Life editor Bonnie Fuller, and Columbia University scholar Lincoln Mitchell. Some HuffPo writers are gainfully employed elsewhere, but they also write books, give speeches, and run consulting companies.

One important difference between the HuffPo contributors and the freelancers of the world is these consultants are not full-time scribes. Those who rely solely on income from writing deserve a fair wage that the Huffington Post won’t give them. For those who can afford it, a timely column can theoretically turn into cheap advertising for a business, service, or cause.

So what exactly do writers reap when contributing gratis to the Huffington Post or the other sites that don’t pay? Does it generate revenue? Boost book sales? Trigger speaking engagements? Is it a sham? Somewhere in between?

After meeting Arianna Huffington in 2007 at a conference, Lisa Earle McLeod, author of Selling with Noble Purpose and founder of the sales consulting firm McLeod & More, agreed to write for the new website. Despite the lack of payment, she had two goals: to build her brand and establish herself as a thought leader. “I wanted to write articles that would cause buyers, CEOs, and chief commercial officers to call me,” she said.

McLeod also contributes to, which has more of a business readership than the general consumer audience of the Huffington Post. “Nearly every major sale [McLeod & More has] can be traced back to writing,” she said. And that encompasses consulting clients, speaking engagements, and book sales.

To track the reach of her columns, McLeod asks new clients how they discovered her. Invariably, they reply, “I read an article you wrote and then clicked over to your site.” Often, a reader will send her HuffPo column to a friend or republish it on a Facebook account.

In seven years of writing columns, McLeod has learned that to be effective at this type of grassroots marketing, she needed to cut out any self-serving comments. Instead she concentrates on engaging the reader, offering specific tips, and establishing her expertise. She spends one to three hours drafting each column and runs them by a copyeditor.

McLeod recognized lawyers and physicians don’t give their work away for free. But she said her business model isn’t based on writing. Writing is a means to an end, a strategy for generating more work in other areas.

“My business model is speaking and consulting. Why wouldn’t I write for free?” she said. “Now when people call me, I don’t have to establish credibility.”

That viewpoint is logical, but it also brings up a contentious point in the freelance community. Those who write for free bring down prices for those who write full-time. Are there any cases in which the sentimental value of writing for a popular publication coupled with the chance to build a personal brand can legitimately outweigh a lack of payment?

Robin Korth, author of Soul on the Run, started contributing weekly columns to the Huffington Post in January, and she believes her writing raises her credibility and provides “a badge of honor.”

One of Korth’s columns about a beau not wanting to sleep with her because of her wrinkles went viral and led to an appearance on the The Today Show. Though she’s not paid, she thinks her work has boosted her revenue, even if it’s difficult to quantify the exact effects. Her book launched in May, and she said the visibility on HuffPo has contributed to steady sales. Her columns have also led to opportunities at writer’s workshops, seminars and salons, and the news site Al-Rasub.

“Being on Huff provides me with a platform,” she explained. “People see what you write on Huff, then it gets shared and goes flying out sideways.”

For entrepreneur Beth Shaw, who runs 15 Yoga Fit centers and has her second yoga book coming out this fall, the justification for writing for free was simpler: “I want to get my name out there, and let’s face it, everyone reads the Huffington Post. What are you going to do?”

Shaw looks at herself as an entrepreneur first and a writer second. “I consider it the cost of doing business and see it as free PR.”

Image by Paul White
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