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When a Job Ad Isn’t a Job Ad

Magnifying glass over word career

Q: What do you call a job that doesn’t pay you?

A: Volunteerism.

On an editing job board this week, an author announced that she and some fellow authors were starting their own publishing company and were “hiring” (her word) for all positions. Editors who were interested could contact her directly for more information.

But they weren’t hiring for pay. The poster stated that she knew it was hard to work for free, but, golly, these nice authors want to help other authors publish their books.

Poor planning on your part, dear author, does not equal volunteer work for me.

I think what bothered me most about the “job” ad was that the author knew that asking people to work without pay wasn’t right, but she neither proved why this situation should be an exception nor offered something of equal value in exchange. Just a weak promise that someday everyone would get paid for future work.

These authors, like so many people (including editors), are passionate about their dreams and are energetic about making them a reality. Good for them! But they have a huge blind spot:

While they recognize their own need to earn money, they are blind to anyone else’s need to do so.

Editors don’t work out of the goodness of their hearts. Few people in this world do. We work to earn money—money that allows us to put a roof over our heads, food on our tables, and clothes on our backs. Asking someone to work for free in order to put money in your pocket recognizes your needs but no one else’s.

Calling the “job” an unpaid internship isn’t any better. In the United States and Canada at least, there are laws about internships. Unpaid interns get something immediately valuable in return. In all cases, they get training. That means the hiring author has to teach them and review their work. Are you prepared to do that? Are you qualified to do it? Although the two overlap, writing and editing are not the same.

Often the intern also gets course credit at their college or university. This means working with the institution to meet their criteria, which can be demanding. The institution ensures that students gain useful experience in their fields and receive fair treatment. The hiring author will in effect be representing the institution to the interns, and that institution will protect its reputation accordingly.

The Freelancers Union reminds people that “freelance isn’t free.” It’s discouraging to realize that people—clients and freelancers—need to be reminded of this. It’s really a basic concept: we work because we need money to pay for our needs.

If your business model won’t allow you to pay for other people’s work, you shouldn’t be asking them to work for free. What can you offer them instead?

Working for future sales is done in some industries, not usually in book publishing. That’s because selling books is hard and can take years to be profitable, if it ever does. No editor or designer wants to wait that long.

Working for exposure is also done in some industries, but again not usually in book publishing. Editors are often anonymous and the reach an author has with other authors is limited.

Working in kind might be beneficial if you do the type of writing an editor might need. Are you a skilled copywriter? Maybe you can write website and promotional copy for your copyeditor in exchange for them copyediting your book. Or maybe you have another skill you can swap for, such as coaching or training. These are all items that can actually be delivered on and be delivered on now, not years from now.

If you can’t pay in cash and you’re not offering anything else the editor values, you shouldn’t expect freelancers to work for free.

Nor should you ask them to.

Originally published on May 5th, 2017 on Copyediting.


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