Publishing for free – is it worth it?


I was speaking to an author who has recently won an online writing competition (one of these ‘get published’ initiatives) and, out of curiosity, asked if they’d sent her a contract. When she said no, I asked her if she knew what the terms and conditions were. What she told me shocked me. Without going into particulars, these were the terms:

1. The author gives the publisher copyright for x years

2. The author receives no monetary benefit

3. If the author sells the story to some other party before the time lapses, she’s liable to pay compensation to the publisher

I am not sure if this kind of deal is common to online writing competitions of this sort, but regardless of whether it is or it isn’t, if you’re an author and if a publisher has the gall to offer you these ‘terms’, you should throw it back in his face. The only time you’d accept conditions like these is when the proceeds all go to charity and no one is making any money out of the whole enterprise. But if it’s a commercial venture, if your publisher and your editor expect to get paid for their work on the book, you better ask for a contract yourself which gives you a share of the revenue.

I know what it is like to be unpublished. I really do. I also know the itch to be published, to see your name in print. I know some of you will come out and say money isn’t everything and the pleasure you get from seeing your story in a book is greater than all the money in the world. And I agree with all of that. It’s not about the money, I know. There’s not enough money in writing anyway. But I repeat, do not agree to terms that specify right at the outset that there’s no money in it for you.

Because here’s the thing that you must understand and believe: the most valuable part of a book is what’s present between its covers; i.e. what you, the writer, put into it. The editor has nothing to edit if you don’t write it. The publisher has nothing to publish if you don’t write it. The literary agent has nothing to sell if you don’t write it. The designer has nothing to design. The marketing team has nothing to market. The distributors have nothing to distribute. The bookstores have nothing to sell.

This whole industry – the houses, the editors, the agents, the PR people, the book reviewers, the critics, the book clubs, the bookstores – all of this exists because of you, the writer. Believe this because it’s true. If you and a few other people like you didn’t write stories that won in the competition, the publishers who organized the event would have nothing to publish.

Now I want you to ask yourself this. Is it acceptable for this guy to take your intellectual property and make money out of it (and he is going to, you just watch) without so much as a rupee thrown in your direction? Is it in any way ethical that he should demand compensation from you if you were to sell your story to someone else who, oh, I don’t know, may want to pay you for it? Is it not fishy that he is taking the right to print your story wherever he wants for the next so many years and make as much money as he wants from it without paying anything to you?

This is not about the money, folks. This is about ethics. An ethical publisher would buy the story’s rights off you, and he would give you a legal contract which would define the terms of how your royalty would be paid. You want to steer well clear of anyone who offers to publish you ‘for free’ or ‘for a fee’. I don’t care who that ‘anyone’ is, just ask them to get lost and shove their terms and conditions up their backside.

If you’re worried that your work may not be good enough for someone to pay money for, that’s perfectly normal. Know that every writer, published or unpublished, lives in that constant fear. That is part and parcel of being in the business. Ultimately, if it’s good enough, it’s good enough. If it’s not, it’s not. You either get paid for it or you don’t. This ass-on-the-fence business of selling your copyright for free so that someone else makes money out of you isn’t going to help anyone, least of all you or your self-respect.

You deserve better, dear writer. Your work deserves better.


  1. Angry post, I believe. But very, very important. Thanks for this one. I mean, now I can let people know what


  2. Oops. I did a few control Zs there. to add to that, Hadn’t thought of this ‘for free’ possibility, thanks for letting me know.


  3. R. L. Patnaik says:

    It is unethical to write free. The first lesson for any novice trying to be a pro is writing for money, however small it might be.



  1. […] Publishing for free – is it worth it?. […]


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