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Why I Write For Free

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Back in October, essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote an entertaining opinion piece for the New York Times, "Slaves of the Internet, Unite!," that admonished young writers to do the rest of us a favor and not write for free.

Since I've spent years in the trenches writing comic and personal essays (sometimes paid, sometimes not), his words really hit home. In fact, I shared the essay with many of my colleagues and friends.

Of course writers should be paid for their work. Why, as he pointed out, do people think nothing of asking a writer to work for free yet would never dream of doing the same to their surgeon, their gardener, or even their dog walker?

Though Kreider's plea stoked the fires of my inner Norma Rae, after a few weeks of enthusiasm, reality set in. Sure it would be great if we could pick a day where each town crier would climb to the top of a mountain and yell, "Henceforth, no more free words!" But in the real world where your number of blog followers is more important than the content or quality of your writing, it's just not going to work.

Last year, when I first tried to sell my collection of essays, a respected literary agent told me that even if I had the funniest, most well written book on the planet, I had little chance of selling it. She was not trying to be cruel. She was simply conveying the facts: that publishers are only willing to look at non-fiction from celebrities, bloggers who already have a huge following, or experts in some field like, say, attachment parenting, rare Asian fish, or the history of coffee.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not become Tina Fey. I was an expert only on the contents of my closet, and I had fewer blog followers then members of my family.

But I would not be dissuaded. I kept submitting until I found an assistant to an agent who agreed to read my book and even liked it! Then, the bad news: They could not represent me until I gained some fame.

So began my one-woman campaign to become an Internet sensation. I did anything I could to gain followers. I Stumbled Upon, I Tweeted, I Tumbled, I Facebooked, I Pinned -- all in the hopes that one of my posts might attract the kind of attention Mr. Kreider did with his opinion piece. I considered buying followers on Ebay, but that seemed both dishonest and icky.

I even entered a blogging contest, though I don't consider myself a blogger. In fact, I don't even like the word, "blogger." But for six weeks I begged my friends, colleagues, and few internet "fans" to vote for my entries. For someone who's too timid to send her food back when it's undercooked, it was humiliating to say the least.

When I finally hit the big time and got a parenting essay published (for pay!) in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, I quickly updated that assistant with my big news. "That's great," she replied. "Now try for Slate, Salon, or Huffington Post."

So I continue to slog on, submitting my words, hoping to get published anyway I can. At times I've felt like I've sold my soul and I have considered giving up, but then I remind myself that I must be persistent even in the face of rejection.

It could be that my manuscript is dreadful and no one should be tortured by my pathetic drivel, or perhaps I'm the next Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, or even Tim Kreider. Unfortunately, as it stands now, until I gain the required number of followers, no publisher will endeavor to find out.

So as much as I support Mr. Kreider's argument, I can't heed his request. Perhaps some day if I have a successful book or maybe if I exceed my highest annual writing income of $700 dollars, I'll join his crusade. But right now I have to work within the system that is already in place and look to writers like Raymond Chandler, Annie Proulx, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, who weren't successful until their later years, for inspiration to continue.

Of course I don't like writing for free, but I feel I have no other choice.

I don't want my manuscript to stay forever buried in my computer. I want people to read it.