23 April 2019

Writer in a Raincoat

As Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character Rod Tidwell repeatedly shouted in Jerry Maguire, “Show me the exposure!”
Too warm for a raincoat.
But is “exposure” enough? There is an on-going discussion among writers—and, perhaps, among creatives of all artistic genres—about whether one should ever create art without compensation.

Staunch proponents at either end of the spectrum—from those who advocate that we never write for free to those who advocate that publication is itself sufficient reward—hold firm to their beliefs, but the reality for most of us falls somewhere in the middle.


Many of us saw our first publications in high school literary magazines, student newspapers, church bulletins, company newsletters, and small-town newspapers. We wrote whatever we could and saw it published wherever we could.

I know I did, working my way along a trajectory that included junior high school literary magazine, high school literary magazine, high school newspaper, underground newspaper, college newspaper, and science fiction fanzines. I wrote fiction for semi-prozines (publications that paid fractions of a cent per word) and fillers for well-known consumer publications.

Over time, I sold longer work to better-paying publications, yet I never stopped writing for non-paying publications. The more I earned from sales at the upper end of the pay scale, the more I could afford to place work at the lower end of the pay scale. One, in a sense, subsidized the other.


I am amused by the number of writers who claim to only write for paying publications and who make the claim in blog posts for which they were not paid.

Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. Perhaps fiction is an art form and blog posting isn’t.

Or maybe it’s a knowledge of what is and is not marketable. Regularly placing short stories with top markets might make one less inclined to consider non-paying short story markets. Similarly, other than copy intended to promote myself or my work, I do not write advertising and public relations material for free.

But a short story?

If I wrote fiction only for paying publications, my office would be ass deep in unpublished manuscripts.


Any editor who offers to publish my work “for exposure” and hopes to “someday” offer payment to contributors is clearly delusional, and I want no part of their unrealistic business model. But an editor who admits to producing a small-press publication as a hobby, financed with pocket change and no real hope of ever turning a buck, has my respect.

In one form or another, I’ve been them.

As a teenager, and continuing into my twenties, I published a science fiction fanzine, printed initially on a spirit duplicator, then for many issues on a mimeograph, and the last few issues on an offset press. The quality—the writing, the art, the production values—all improved as I learned about printing and publishing, and my experience with the fanzine helped me land my first real employment.

Along the way, I published the work of many great science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers who provided articles and columns without pay (among them: Robert Bloch, Algis Budrys, Grant Carrington, Don D’Ammassa, David Gerrold, Charles L. Grant, Thomas F. Monteleone, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle) or wrote letters published in my fanzine’s letter column (including Richard A. Lupoff, Barry N. Malzberg, Christopher Priest, William Rotsler, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Robert Silverberg, Bob Tucker, Ted White, and Gene Wolf).

It seems as if I’m humble-bragging, but the point is that these writers, and many others like them, wrote without pay when they could have blown me off when I asked.

These writers were my role models, and if they were willing to occasionally write without pay, who am I to behave otherwise?


So, I do sometimes contribute to non-paying publications—if I like the editor, or the theme appeals to me, or, in the case of non-fiction (such as SleuthSayer posts), I feel I have something to say or can use the forum to pay it forward.

But asking me to write something for “exposure” is an insult.

Don’t insult me. Don’t insult other writers.

If I really want exposure, I’ll wear a raincoat and stand on a street corner, whipping it open every so often to show passersby my short . . . stories.

Coming in May: The Book of Extraordinary Historical Mystery Stories (Mango), edited by Maxim Jakubowski, which contains my collaboration with Sandra Murphy, “Gracie Saves the World.”


  1. Some venues are better than others, irrespective of pay, and it's up to each of us to make our own decisions about that. I've contributed gratis and I've occasionally been paid very handsomely. Both have been satisfying.

  2. Interesting perspectives from a master in the field with decades of experience. I hope beginning writers read SleuthSayers.

  3. Michael, my 1st published stories were for pay and went to Easyrider ($250 each) and Outlaw Biker ($50). Then it was 22 children's stories to the South Dakota Lung Association for free for 3rd Graders thru 6th Graders. Then it was no payment magazines like Black Lotus, Deadwood Magazine, Classic Pulp Fiction Stories, Detective Mystery Stories, etc. And a few low pay presses like Pulp: A Fiction Magazine ($12). The Who Died in Here? anthology ($25, a free copy & an air freshener). It's been all over the pay/no pay scale. Even got a t-shirt once for one of the Bouchercon anthologies. Mostly these days, my fiction is written for pay Alfred Hitchcock MM or Woman's World magazine. Blogs? That's written for friends and the hope that I have something of interest or entertaining value to say. It's been fun, but I'm lucky I have a pension to sustain me.

  4. Good one, Michael. I had a letter published in the Globe and Mail not long ago. They were talking about copyright laws, and how pirating wasn't so bad, because at least we were getting exposure. I pointed out that my one book had been downloaded illegally at least 41,000 times in one year alone. And that obviously, I didn't need 'exposure.' Like every other writer, what I needed was sales.

  5. This is one of the best pieces I’ve read about the worthiness of Writing for Free. It’s heartening that you present a list of superstar authors who’ve found it worthwhile to write sans pay. Thanks Michael for giving a complicated topic your experienced perspective.

  6. Payment in clothing, R.T.? That's not so bad, actually. Years ago I received a T-shirt for humor published in Genesis, but the shirt was so small my toddler son wore it as a nightshirt. And about a year ago I received a nice Polo shirt in addition to payment for a story in Down & Out: The Magazine.

    Melodie, apparently whoever believed pirating work "wasn't bad" never had to rely on writing for a significant portion of the family income.

    Eve and O'Neil, we all have different perspectives based on experience. New writers need to understand that no one approach is the absolute right way and, as Eve said, we must make "our own decisions."

  7. Lawrence, thanks for the kind comments.

  8. Great points on all sides, Michael. And isn't "exposure" a form of compensation?

    Melodie, wow, 41,000 pirated downloads? I'm jealous. Nobody thinks I'm worth ripping off.

    I remember when the conventional wisdom said that one way to get publishers and agents interested was to publish short stories. I sent work to several places that paid in author copies (or nothing) and never got anything accepted. Then I started selling for a little money now and then.

    A couple of years ago, I sent a story to a start-up for no pay because they hoped to be able to pay down the road and I figured I'd start a relationship. They offered to promote my book and asked if I could get two people to review their first issue.

    Well, the paper was pulp that made my now black-and-white book cover illegible. The formatting in the magazine was left-justified so the right margin resembled an EKG. It didn't do any of the stories any favors.
    Both people who reviewed for me pointed out the sloppy formatting that looked amateurish, and one felt several of the stories were less than stellar.
    I could live with that because I agreed. Nobody said the reviews had to be raves.

    Unfortunately, friends of other writers posted attacks on both my reviewers. I know the publication now pays a little, but after that drive-by BS I will no longer submit to them.

    I'll still write for exposure or little pay or free copies, especially if it's a story that seems to fit the guidelines or it's for a good cause. But don't bite the hand that's feeding you.

  9. Thanks, Deborah.

    Steve, with all the publishing tools available today, even a non-paying hobby publication can produce a nice-looking product, and it's a shame when the editors don't know enough or don't care enough to use the tools available.

  10. Michael, I like your take on the topic and no, it didn't come off the least like humble-bragging. Your influence and stature in the community lends more than average authority in (re)evaluating non-paying markets. We're certainly pleased to share your ideas with other writers and readers.

  11. One other writer who got his start in high school publishing was Ernest Hemingway. Rob focused his considerable library research powers to assist me with an article about a 'prequel' to Hemingway's story, The Killers.

    You were brave. Michael. The weird smell of those duplicators was bad enough, but the paper felt like a corpse– or what I imagined a corpse felt like. I suspect my long-suffering teachers huffed the mimeo spirits.

  12. I'm not certain the paper felt like a corpse, Leigh, but I took a lot of tests printed on spirit duplications and mimeographs, and I saw a lot of my grades die because of them...

  13. I agree with you completely, Michael. While I like to receive a few bucks here and there for my work, I write to be read more than to be paid.


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