No More Missus Nice Gal

Is this “the free market at work”? Mike Hyatt—whom I admire—has always been an early adopter of technology and a keen observer of the publishing marketplace. I look to him regularly for ideas and inspiration. However, in one of his blog posts he touted crowd-sourcing the design of book covers: designers submit comps (samples) on spec; the one whose design gets selected gets paid, but generally below market value.* He also noted that traditional (that is, old school) designers don’t like this system.**

And they shouldn’t. I find it very disturbing that creatives—who have a lot invested in equipment, software, training, creative and critical thinking, time—are so willing to give away their work. Often they’re young, trying to build a portfolio and a business. The argument is they don’t have to take the bait, but with the economy the way it’s been, one finds even established creatives running this race to the bottom of the financial barrel.

To me it feels like a wild-goose chase.*** Yes, it’s a voluntary goose chase. But I think it sends the wrong message.

So does Tim Kreider, a freelance columnist writing for the New York Times:

Not long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.

Right. Because “No way, Jose” is so dated.

And Kreider’s not the only one. When TV giant Showtime recently solicited designers to submit ad comps on the off-chance the winner would be displayed to a bunch of folks attending a boxing match, Dan Cassaro’s response went viral. He was asked why it struck such a chord with his fellow designers.

Because they all get these emails. And it’s not just designers. I received a ton of responses from writers, cartoonists, architects and people in other professions who get asked to work for free. … But I also wanted to let people know that while it’s good to say no to this kind of work, it’s even better to explain to everyone why this business model is unacceptable.

When I posted the Hyatt article on Facebook, many of my self-employed friends came unglued, and I don’t blame them. The point I wanted to make was this sort of thing is happening in the arts across the board. You’ve heard the restaurant joke, right?**** My musician friends have heard it. They don’t think it’s funny. Not least because there’s inevitably some poor schlub who takes the gig for the exposure. But, the saying goes, you can die from exposure.

Kreider notes,

My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy—doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great—because it’ll help get her name out there.

And that’s the thing. You don’t ask your dentist for a sample filling, do you? You know, just to see how you will work together. But that’s the sort of requests I get, y’all. Just last week:

I’m looking for an editor for my 96k+ fantasy novel. It is book 1 of 4. I’d love to get a quote and sample edit. Thanks!!

Last month I got this one:

Could you do a free developmental or copy editing sample of the extract below? Whichever you think is needed—and as much as you like. Just start on p. 1.

Before that, this:

Would you consider editing a few pages gratis, so I can see if we are a fit?

Um. What does one say to this type of naïveté (or disingenuousness)?*****

Sure, you can read all over the Internet that you should get a free sample from an editor you’re thinking of hiring to find out if you can work together. But that’s just wrong. I object to free. (I used to do it, years ago. I used to give a free sample. And it never once led to a paying gig. Never. Once.) When a prospective client uses the word sample and doesn’t overtly offer to pay for it, it reads (to me, at least) as if he or she is asking for something free. For me to do something on spec.

I wonder, then, if the person asking me for a freebie is experienced enough to recognize whether an editing sample is “good”? Most seem to have a manuscript burning a hole in their pockets and they’re anxious to get started. They want a sample and a quote, stat. When I have to qualify the request—How many words? What type of edit?—I can tell they haven’t even looked at my website. And I can’t show them someone else’s edit. (I’d love to; some of them make me look pretty good.) But that’s proprietary. However, you can see the results—just check my portfolio.

How will we work together, though? That seems to be a huge question for some folks. Here’s one thought: many of my blogging topics are chosen to expose my editing philosophy, if you will, and my blogging voice—which really is me—was chosen to expose who I am as a person. I believe it does.

So this is the last time I’m going to whine about this. (Maybe.) I’m done chasing the geese. If you’d like to sample my product, check out the blog. Here’s a list of posts specifically about the writing and editing process. If you want a sample done on your specific manuscript, drop me a line and I’ll give you a quote for my time.

Thank you, and God bless America.

* It shouldn’t always be about price. Hyatt talks about the expense of traditionally designed covers, and notes he was able to get a cover designed for $400 to $500. But there was quite a bit of commentary on the post about how often that image of the life preserver has appeared in ads and on other book covers. The life preserver image was probably from free or nearly free stock; there’s no way a designer could meet the $400–500 budget otherwise. When you pay the going rate for an image, you are also paying to guarantee it isn’t sold to anyone else.


** To be fair, Hyatt notes that he uses traditional designers for most projects, “but when I am stuck or need something fast, I am increasingly turning to crowd-sourced design.”


*** Hyatt isn’t the only one who crowd-sources design, of course. Those online stationery companies (wedding invitations, Christmas cards, and so on) use contests to select the work of designers they will display. I have no idea if it’s lucrative for the designers. But you should think about this when you’re buying Christmas cards next year.


**** Q: We are a small and casual restaurant in downtown Vancouver looking for musicians to play special events that might become nightly if the response is good. No pay but you can sell your CD and get exposure. Interested?
A: I am a musician looking for a restaurateur to come to my house to make dinner for my friends and I. Might become nightly if the response is good. No pay, of course, but you get to promote your restaurant. Interested?


***** This is what I say:

Thanks for getting in touch. I no longer offer free samples. Editing is my business; I am a professional, and it’s how I earn my living. My time and what’s in my head (and heart) are the only things I have to sell. So I can’t really give my time away. I will be happy to do a one-chapter sample at my hourly rate; it takes an average of three hours. I hope you understand. I do, however, give a lot of free advice on my blog. You should check out this page on my website; it might be helpful to you. If you would like personal recommendations, most of the authors and industry professionals you see on my website are easily reached. All the best, J.

Tweet: Should you take the job for the exposure? But you can die from exposure.
Tweet: You don’t ask your dentist for a sample filling, do you? Just to see how you will work together?
Tweet: When a prospective client uses the word sample & doesn’t offer to pay, it feels like an insult.
Tweet: Is this “the free market at work”? Crowd-sourcing professional creatives.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Michelle Ule says:

    Lots of great lines in your Tweetables.

    I come down to this: a workman is worthy of his hire. Mr. H. should be ashamed of himself.

  2. Sally Vince says:

    Oh, well said, Jamie. I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve written. I read so often these days the advice that “a good editor will provide a free sample; don’t choose one that doesn’t”. I’ve never supported this point of view – for all the reasons you’ve given. I particularly like ‘I wonder, then, if the person asking me for a freebie is experienced enough to recognize whether an editing sample is “good”?’ I’ve not thought of that argument – but it is so true. Thank you for this post.

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      Thank you, Sally. :) To keep myself from getting angry/insulted, I assume that the folks asking me to spend hours of my time on them for free are just … inexperienced, ignorant of the process, and so on. But since they are inexperienced and ignorant, there’s no way they could possibly discern the difference between a good, insightful edit and one of lesser quality. It’s a no-win situation for me.

      What makes me angry, though, are the people who are out there advocating free samples. They should know better.

      Thank you so much for these words of support!

  3. Oh. Jamie. Jamie. Jamie.

    So much I’d like to say here, but I won’t.

    Except for this: This may be your best post. EVERRRRRR.

    And this.

    The value I’ve gained from your blog alone? Priceless.

  4. Amy Parker says:

    What less experienced creatives don’t realize is that by taking underpaid or unethical jobs (two examples of late that spring to mind), they are setting standards for their work that will likely hamper their career more than benefit it. The clients you want to work for are the ones who know that quality is rarely free.

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      I so agree! When I tell a potential client I don’t “do” free samples, I never hear back from them. But it doesn’t break my heart — I’ll be working on the manuscript of someone who wanted to work with me!

  5. Oh! Don’t get me started. As a speaker, an ordained pastor, an author, and a musician as well, I’ve gotten hit on all fronts. How many times have I heard something like, “We would like to have you come speak to our club/conference/retreat/church, but, of course, we can’t pay you. We’ll take you to lunch, but we don’t have enough in our budget to pay your fee.”

    I used to accept the gigs anyway, but I don’t anymore. If an organization is not willing to pay for my services for which I’ve trained and have 30 plus years of experience, I’m not interested in going. I am willing to negotiate, and if I have a connection with a church such as a relative or very close friend on staff or on the committee, I will go for expenses and a love offering, but I do let them know what my minimum is.

    Recently I had an invitation to go across state lines to do the keynote, a workshop and critique manuscripts, and they were unwilling or unable to meet my minimum plus expenses. A large church in a metroplex area cancelled me because the fee was too high when the travel expenses were figured in.

    And there have been the weddings when my husband and I were not paid for either the music or the ceremony. Our church finally drew up policies to avoid that situation for future events.

    I don’t understand why people expect professionals to edit, speak, play, preach, officiate, create for free. Perhaps a sense of entitlement has pervaded our society more than we realize?

    I’m through venting now. Good post, Jamie!

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      Thank you, Golden! You are doing the right things—we all are—when we draw the line. I think some people are always going to try to get something for nothing, but many are just ignorant. By saying No, Thank you, we educate them. (Maybe.) I’m so sorry you’ve experienced this too.

      • I think we’ve all run into this. Perhaps I’ve encountered it on more fronts than most, but I feel most people are not mean-spirited. I think they are simply ignorant or naive.

        However, I love what I do, and I plan to continue!

        Blessings, dear one.

  6. […] know how I feel about that now, but it turns out this is an offer Palmer had been making for years, tour after tour. Her fans […]

  7. Great post.

    In my business, I’ve chosen to offer a free sample, though only around 500 words. I may decide to change this in the future, but I do find it helps gain work. However, whenever I’ve provided general advice on hiring an editor, I am one of those people who say ‘get a sample’ (to help assess compatibility) BUT always make sure to say that it’s up to the editor whether or not they charge for this, and free samples shouldn’t be expected.

  8. Ranee Tomlin says:

    Jamie, I apologize for being a bit late to the party with my comment, but I just found this particular blog while researching copyediting business practices. I smiled when I read “You don’t ask your dentist for a sample filling, do you?” Analogies to other professionals are telling. When I worked in education, we often wondered why the public feels qualified to critique teachers but never dreams of telling surgeons how to operate.

    Anyway, your analogy and your other points resonate. I’m curious, though, whether your position would change if you were giving advice to a new copyeditor who did not yet have the stellar portfolio, testimonials, and reputation you have earned at this point in your career?

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      Ranee, my son has a degree in education, and I know how hard he worked to get it. So your example really resonates with ME. :)

      Regarding providing samples of copyediting, everyone has to make the decision for herself. As noted above, I USED to do give free samples, but I ceased to as I got busier, particularly since my experience had been that a free sample never resulted in work for me. (I think people might even undervalue something they get for free, but that’s another conversation altogether.) My experience was that people sent out the same request to 20 different editors, and then they took the cheapest quote they got (which was never gonna be mine!). I’ll tell you, I don’t want to participate in a game like that.

      Also, copyediting is pretty straightforward: you’re “correcting” to a style guide (the Chicago Manual of Style). On occasion a sentence has to be recast, perhaps, to solve for clarity, but for the most part, the work of one copyeditor should look pretty much like the work of the next. So why is an author asking for a sample to see how we’ll work together?

      Again, you have to make the decision for yourself. If you are just starting out and have the time to give samples—and are inclined to—then by all means, go for it. It could be that it establishes a long-term relationship with a client who will love your work and hire you repeatedly. However, you might also consider requesting a nominal fee (maybe $25), so the client has some sort of skin in the game.

  9. Ranee Tomlin says:

    Jamie, thank you for a quick and helpful response. You’ve provided a very balanced perspective, and I still find your position persuasive. I also agree with your reasoning for charging at least a nominal fee; folks tend to invest themselves more in a process to which they’ve contributed something concrete.

    Food for thought! And I appreciate it.

  10. I will never again agree to do a free sample edit. Jamie, every point you make here is valid. I had someone ask for a free sample, as usual “to see if we can work together.” I threw away about $200 worth of my time editing her sample. Apparently, I was in a competition with other editors for her favours because she told me I’d caught things the others hadn’t. She asked for a quote on the whole job. I never heard back from her after that, so I assume she is bouncing from editor to editor, asking for free samples, and getting her entire manuscript edited for free piecemeal like that.

  11. […] that fit is essential, though it has its moments. And I sometimes get people who ask for a “free sample” to make that call. Since I have yet to get work from any sort of example I’ve provided, […]

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  1. […] know how I feel about that now, but it turns out this is an offer Palmer had been making for years, tour after tour. Her fans […]

  2. […] that fit is essential, though it has its moments. And I sometimes get people who ask for a “free sample” to make that call. Since I have yet to get work from any sort of example I’ve provided, […]