Any professional should, indeed must, be paid for their work and at a fair rate. I have seen adverts from newbie authors expecting to get their book copy-edited ‘for a share of the royalties’ and moved quickly on. Do these people only intend to pay their supermarket bill or their rent if and when they can afford to? It’s not even barter.
On the other hand, there are times when working for nothing is actually a good idea. I have business clients that have been with me for years, and they sometimes do charity work – for nothing. I was once asked if I would proofread a press release about a charitable project for no fee, as the company was not going to charge the charity for the translation into English. It wasn’t a long piece. I decided it would be fair and the decent thing to do to accept this – after all, I was making thousands a year from the regular work from this company so I was happy to do the favour. Result? Continuing good relations (and more work) from my client, and a lovely message of thanks from the charity. Win-win, with a great feel-good factor.
Working for nothing as a test
Publishers quite often want a freelancer do perform a test before taking them on. I find this a little insulting given my professional affiliation, long track record and calibre of clients. Still, sometimes it’s the only way to get through the door as a freelancer and if your client list is confidential, it’s hard to produce references. The question arises, do you work this test free of charge or ask for a fee? For two or three pages I am not too bothered about it being free of charge and I weigh this up against possible future work. However, there is no guarantee of work at the outset and I have waited for over two years for some publishers to offer me any; one hasn’t even responded to my email recently asking if I am still on their books! The sample can also be considerably more than a couple of pages, taking up to a day to complete.
A trick I have seen attempted by self-publishing authors who advertise for a proofreader, is to ask you to do a whole chapter as a free sample. If they find enough proofreaders to take the challenge they can have their entire book proofread for nothing. Never mind the lack of consistency in style, the book has been ‘proofread’.
Working for nothing as a reward
My business attracts new clients through word of mouth. Sometimes it’s a referral from another editor who is too busy; sometimes it’s an existing client who passes my details to another branch or department, or to another delegate at a conference. While I don’t believe in enticing new clients with a low rate for the first job, I feel it fair to reward the (regular) client who has, in effect, done my selling for me. This may take the form of a discount on the next job. This is not ‘working for nothing’ unless the next job is small – and some are less than 1,000 words – in which case this one, at least, will be free of charge.
So – for ‘working for nothing’ perhaps you could substitute ‘doing something for charity’, ‘making an investment’ or ‘appreciating someone who has put work your way’. That sounds a whole lot better.
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