There’s a strange conflict we writers face. On one hand, creatives are told not to sell ourselves short by producing content for free. On the other hand, it’s common practise for authors, especially debuts, to be expected to write free stuff as part of their ‘PR’ plan.
So no wonder it can be quite the dilemma when authors are asked to write for free, whether it be via their publicist or direct from a publication. I remember when I first started out, I didn’t think twice about saying yes to everything. I worked in PR for many years so know the way it works. You do stuff for free to get publicity. Any exposure is good exposure, right? I was also keen to please my publicist and publisher.
But with some experience, I'm now a lot more choosy. As a rule, I don't write free articles for book blogs or more obscure websites unless a friend is asking. But if an opportunity to write for a national publication or high traffic website comes up, I'll more than likely say yes. It's interesting that some of the more innovative digital publishers don't even bother with PR campaigns any more, believing even articles in larger publications don't ultimately sell books.
But I believe it's more nuanced than that. How do you decide whether to say yes or no? Here are some steps to take:
First, find out how many people read the publication
It’s pretty easy to get circulation figures for larger publications via a web search. For example, the Press Gazette runs articles about circulation figures of many publications. Or check a publication’s website for the area aimed at selling ads for stats. Similar Web is great for websites in particular, just do a search.
It’s not so easy to get these figures for smaller publications though, the very ones where you might be in two minds about contributing.
A way around this is to simply ask your publicist to find out, or the publication itself. You’re being asked to write for free after all, you have every right to ask (as long as you’re polite and charming when you do!). Even small bloggers should have access to stats via the platform or Google Analytics.
But how do you know if the figures are any good?
This is a difficult one to answer, especially when it comes to websites. But as a rule, over 10k unique visitors a month isn’t bad, 100k plus really good.
For comparison, here’s the traffic from the past 28 days of three of the most common websites where authors' ‘free’ articles appear:
Femalefirst.co.uk - 917.43K
Writing.ie – 50k
As for the printed press, the UK’s most popular newspaper, the Daily Mail, had a circulation of 984,043 in March 2021, and The Sunday Express was at 212,025. For what is referred to as ‘Women’s Lifestyle’, after the supermarket magazines, it’s Good Housekeeping at 410,241k.
Personally, I think 100k+ is the kind of figure I'm looking at if a publication is to perk my interest.
But you also need to ask what kind of people read the publication?
What kind of readers are you trying to attract? If you’re not sure, ask your publisher or check out your author dashboard for stats if your publisher has one.
I know, from my own author dashboard stats, for example, that my average reader is mainly female, aged 56+. There are no niche interests I need to cater for (more on that later). So while writing an article for a high circ publication like Top Gear magazine would impress my husband, it isn’t going to be a good bet for me. Whereas an article in a high circ lifestyle magazine or national newspaper could be useful.
If you’re not sure of a publication’s demographic, you can usually find out in the advertising section of the publication’s website, or just read some of the articles to get a sense. Are these people likely to be potential readers?
(As an aside, you might not always be aiming to target readers. Sometimes, you might want to raise your profile in the writing community. You might even find readers there. Are your readers the type of people who might be writers? All something to consider.)
So you know the publication's circulation figures and target readership. What now? The way I approach it is as follows:
100k+ circulation + target readership = yes
If you learn that the publication is one of the The Big Ones then it’s probably worth writing a free article. As you can see from these figures for the nationals, you can get a decent wedge of exposure for that free article you might write for them, not to mention the kudos and the fact advertising in these publications are often worth their weight in gold. Plus there’s content marketing to consider: high profile media brands are more likely to be read and shared online.
BUT... no harm asking
Seeing as they are so big, there’s no harm asking for some kind of payment anyway and certainly pushing for as decent a book plug as possible (eg. a thumbnail cover image to go with that title mention). I mean, some deem it as being unethical to ask people to work for free, so you really shouldn’t be frowned upon for simply asking the question as long as you're polite and charming when you do.
What about the smaller publications?
Should it be a default no? Now this is where it gets a little more complicated as there are caveats:
Are you trying to target a niche audience?
For example, does your main character have a particular hobby / job which features heavily in the narrative? In which case, it may well be worth writing an article for a niche low circulation publication because their target market are almost guaranteed to be a captive audience.
Does it sound like fun?
We authors love writing and sometimes, the joy of writing something for a publication is worth the effort anyway. If you have the time and enthusiasm, and maybe you want to see it as a chance to hone your writing skills even more then why not?
Take an article I did for Dog’s Monthly about writers and their canine companions. To be fair to the magazine, it does attract an average monthly readership of 80,000 so not to be sniffed at. But as an example, they were asking for 1500 words sharing the importance of canine companions for authors. Though it took a while to write and research (not to mention the at-home photoshoot I arranged for me and my dog with my husband as photographer!) I loved the fact I’d got an article into a dog magazine! Plus the book I had out at the time featured a vet as a main character.
However, I was also once asked by a website with less than 10k monthly visitors to write 2,000 words about my average writing day. Look, I love talking about writing but the day itself… in 2k words? It just felt like too much. If, say, Good Housekeeping asked me to write it then sure! But this was a request from a small website. So yeah, I turned it down.
Is it for a charity?
I know many authors who are happy to contribute their time for free to publications like the Big Issue. I have contributed articles for cancer charities. I’ve also written an article or two for friends. If you feel comfortable doing it and have the time without stressing yourself, then go ahead. Speaking of time...
How much time is it likely to take?
This is a big question and one that is a little more complicated then it first seems. You see, some articles with a long word count may not actually take so long to work on and vice versa. It also depends on your own preferences. So for me, I find Q&As super easy so they usually only take about 30 minutes. General advice which is at the tip of my tongue is similar too. But when it comes to more researched items where I need to talk to other people then that can take a few hours. Or emotional first person accounts. So it’s worth thinking about that.
They key thing is, don’t overstretch yourself. If you have a busy life and / or a looming deadline, or you’re going through something challenging. Is it really worth adding a burdensome task on top of it all if there is no monetary return and even worse, book-selling return?
So how do you say no?
Saying no can be uber difficult for authors. You feel like you're letting people down, especially if it's your publisher. But saying no in a polite, sensible and reasoned way can sometimes be what turns you from being a slave to publishing (sorry to put it bluntly) to being their equal. I often talk about the harm that comes with being a 'grateful sap'. It's important your publisher sees you as an equal. In fact, it ups your negotiating power and standing in the industry.
An example: as I said before, I said yes to everything as a debut. But I published my second book while on maternity leave. Life was crazy! During a conference call with my lovely editor and publicist at the time, I was brutally honest with them: I would only write for free for high circulation nationals, and even then, I’d take it on a case-by-case basis.
They were totally cool with it. I think if I’d said the same with my debut, that may have been a little harder. But still, I think they would have understood and in fact, respected me even more for my savviness.
And I guess this is what it always comes down to here: your savviness. As I always say, know your worth and stop being guilted into doing stuff... you’ll be respected even more for it.
And finally, many writers report being asked to take on copy-writing gigs for free. Not just for the press but for companies. ‘It’ll help raise your profile’ or ‘the exposure will help sell books’. If you find yourself in this awkward position then here are some handy responses.