Dear LDS Publisher, Your request for book reviewers started a huge debate in my writers group. I mentioned it in our last meeting because I thought it was a fun idea and a way to maybe get some exposure because I'm not yet published. But when I told them I'd be writing for free, one of the group members got really mad. She said we should never, ever, ever write for free. That writing for free is not only demeaning to ourselves, but also dilutes the earning capacity for writers everywhere. Another member then said that this might be a good way to earn writing creds. Then everyone else jumped in with opinions and suddenly we were all involved in a heated argument. How do you respond to that?
First off, everyone in your group needs take a deep breath and calm down.
Writing online book reviews is not a way to get legitimate publishing credits. Unless you're applying for a job as a professional book reviewer, you wouldn't mention this in a query. It would be a useless fact, akin to mentioning that you do underwater basket weaving as a hobby. Even if you are going into the reviewing profession (and I use the term "profession" loosely), it's not much to brag about since anyone can publish anything online. So forget the creds angle.
As to writing for free, yes, as a general idea I discourage it. If your writing is good, you deserve to be compensated. Look for paying markets.
However, IMHO, there are conditions under which you can (and should) write for free. (Notice that none of the ones listed below say, "Write for free because you're a new or inexperienced writer.")
- Do it for fun. Sometimes you come across a publishing opportunity that just looks fun, but they don't pay. If it floats your boat and you want to do it for love, not money, then go ahead. This could include many online magazines, contests, and articles or short stories that wouldn't sell in traditional markets (for example, an article on choosing the best dye for your underwater basket weaving designs).
- Do it to support a cause or an organization you believe in. Many writers do freebies for various charitable organizations—with or without a byline. You might choose to write for a church newsletter, your child's s school, or a political cause. This is not demeaning your writing—it's you, being a good citizen and a charitable person.
- Do it to help or inform others. This is what you do out of the goodness of your heart. For example, do you think I've gotten paid for the past three years of writing this blog?* Not one red cent, until I started running ads a few months ago (and I only did that because I'm in semi-retirement and I've become accustomed to some of the luxuries in life, like food and shelter). I do this blog for the warm fuzzies it gives me every time I read your comments. Many writers offer free mentoring in subjects they're familiar with, just for the sake of being a good and generous person.
- Do it to build your career. This type of free writing includes your personal blog, your website, guest blogging to generate interest and visits to your website, articles in professional journals and other places that highlight your career as a writer. This is part of a marketing plan, a conscious decision on your part, and should include references to your website, blog, book, or whatever it is you're promoting. This is not an attempt to see your name in print, no matter what, or to polish up your skills until you're "good enough" for a paying job.
Doing free book reviews for me would fall under the first three categories: it would be fun, you would be supporting a cause you believe in (namely, LDS fiction) (and me), and you would be helping to inform others.
*I just passed the three year anniversary for this blog on April 7th. I intended to make a huge deal of it, but I forgot. Maybe I'll do something tomorrow.