Every week I get emails from people who are organising commercial events, charging people to attend, and asking me whether I will speak for free. Here is a wonderful clip from Harlan Ellison about his take on working for free ….

Is he right? What do you think?


  1. Change the word Writer to: Teacher or Social Worker or Advocate . . . and I’ve been there. There are great causes in the world but I mostly stopped volunteering because I learned if you volunteer your value isn’t truly appreciated. People respect what is given value, and give value to what they respect. In other words when they pay, they justify their paying for value. If they don’t pay, they justify that you have less value. (There are Interesting statistics on this. Sorry I can’t reference them in detail.)

    There may be times when it’s okay to still volunteer. But I have moved on. At this point I would only give my time if I saw some specific benifit to me and it was very specific and time limited.

    And if anyone want to call me uncaring, I have volunteered 100s of hours. And in my work volunteer and paid, I’ve changed lives,

    If anyone wants to call me self-serving, keep in mind that most human beings want respect. And in volunteering that respect isn’t always present. With work, no matter how your treated, you get the respect of a paycheck.

    1. To back up your point, here’s an interesting post on a very similar effect: The Benjamin Franklin Effect. Basically, people have been proven to retroactively decide they like people they’ve done nice things for. It’s not surprising that they’d also justify paying for something this way.

    2. So you’re only charitable if you get something out of it?

      The purpose of charity is to help someone in need, not to feed your ego. Volunteer, fine. Don’t volunteer, fine. Just don’t volunteer then bitch about it later because someone didn’t stroke your ego.

    3. Thanks Infophile for the great for the great link. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s a great resource.

      One-eyed Jack. It wasn’t about getting my “ego stroked” it was about being discriminated against after I had volunteered 100s of hours to fight discrimination for another group. My boss upon hearing my discriimination said “sorry for your experience” but didn’t correct the situation.
      It would have been cool to see a willingness to have my discrimination also addressed. I had been so willing to fight to work against systemic discrimination for another group.

      So after this last experience volunteering, I don’t view the idea of me volunteering in quite the same rosy light.

    4. One Eyed jack: “So youโ€™re only charitable if you get something out of it?”

      Yes. Of course. That is true for anyone who volunteers, donates, etc. No one is charitable (at least a second time) if they don’t get something out of it. It may not be public social prestige or an ego boost, as if those things are somehow bad, but they do get something out of being charitable, even if it is a sense of making a difference in the world, or feeling good about themselves. They might get out of the house if they are retired, or look at a particular charitable activity as a way to network, or meet new people, or any of many other reasons. No sensible person returns to a charitable project if they were made to feel bad for being charitable, or if they don’t feel that it’s “worth” doing it. Sure, there are martyrs who give so much that it hurts them socially or financially or affects their mental health, but these people get something out of it – they get to be a martyr. And to them, that’s laudable. Thatโ€™s why they call it a martyr complex.

  2. Think it depends on one’s personal interest. If I want to save a patient, I’ll focus myself more in the treatment. Else the guy is right. However, if we want to keep money coming out of every act in our profession, then somewhere I feel that we lose the passion in our work. And the guy, however famous he may be, is very proud and arrogant, which I don’t like personally. Wise people barely shout.

    1. “If I want to save a patent” does that make you a doctor? You’re right, it defiantly depends on the situation. A Doctor is already paid more than a living wage, and your volunteering, or putting in extra hours, comes with a high level of skills which is respected. There are not a large number of untrained Doctors wanting to do do your job for free. In the writers case he has a lot of unskilled competition (everyone thinks they have a book/play in them), and not getting paid for things from the past, for an old writer, is like missing a pension payment.

      I’m very conflicted on the issue myself. I have been trained as a volunteer to take over a role previously done by police, because this role has been proved to be more effective if carried out by a member of the public. But some sections of the Police might feel I’m a threat to their workload/jobs and I wonder if I’m heavily underutilized as a result. At the same time, due to two long term illnesses, my family of four are trying to live on a pension worth less than half the wage a foundation year trainee doctor receives. Maybe I’m a fool for volunteering, but when I get a chance to do it it does make me feel I’m contributing again. Like I say – I’m very conflicted,

  3. Doing things for free that you also do for money is a terrible idea. The people getting the free stuff still expect you to have the same standards of professionalism and dedication, and to devote the same time and energy as if you were being paid. And if you eventually turn around and say “enough” they get all huffy and bad mouth you.

    Work on the principle that no good deed will ever go unpunished and factor that in before you say yes.

  4. Volunteering and working for free are two different things entirely. Volunteering is just that. Good for the soul. It sounds like Kathy’s had a bad time volunteering. The small bit that I do every week is appreciated and I get a fair bit out of it too. I wouldn’t want to move on. I would like to do more and move on from paid work (but who wouldn’t). But sure, if you don’t feel respected then that’s a raw deal.

    Now, working for free does have it’s benefits over working for money. Say you’re a contractor and you’re in discussion with a brand new client. They’re short of cash (so they say) so they’re can’t agree to your usual fee.. if you take the work at the lesser fee you’ve still got to deliver your end of the bargain at your usual standard. There’ll be mission creep and the usual deadline and the money’s not going to change your life. Work for free and there’s far less chance of mission creep and they get what they’re given. Plus you look like a decent chap to work with in the future.

    1. Coastal, If you are volunteering and it feel positive and good to you, I fully support that. But I have noticed that in certain professions, other people feel very comfortable asking, even expecting that you will volunteer. Since I have worked in those professions it has changed my view. As a politician once said “We ask child care workers to make less than the minimum wage, but don’t ask the same of police etc.” Though neither are my field, this dispartiy of which professions pay less etc. is part of the reason for my view.
      The second reason for my view is I gave lots of time to a non-profit only to have them tell me I didn’t qualify for a leadership position because of my demographic.
      It’s great that volunteering is working for you and you don’t want to move on. There are others who’s experience has not been as rosy.


  5. I’m 100% with Ellison here (and with Kathy, Craig and the others). If you want to know the value of working for nothing, just look at the amount of respect and consideration the average intern (/”trainee”) gets.

    If you habitually work for nothing, you’re worth every penny you get.

    1. … of course, I’d also agree with curioushbar in that if you’re otherwise doing OK in your profession, going the extra mile or putting in a day or two for free in service of your principles is a good thing, but if you make a habit of it, you’re on the road to low self-esteem and exploitation.

      Coastal, I’d add a caveat to the first-job-for-a-new-client thing: if you feel you must do that, make damn sure you get it clear, in writing, that this a new client discount, it is the only job you will do for them for free and that subsequent jobs will be charged for at full rate. Any other way lies madness and penury. As a respected elder once said to me – and thirty years’ experience has borne out – “a client will never pay more for your second job than they did for your first, if they can help it.” He was right.

    2. Bad example. Nobody is a habitual intern. Interns work for reason. They get experience, references, and possible future jobs.

    3. @One Eyed Jack: “Bad example. Nobody is a habitual intern. Interns work for reason. They get experience, references, and possible future jobs.”

      Maybe, if they’re lucky. I know several people who’ve done serial internships for employers who never had any intention of giving them a paid job; they just wanted free labour.

      It’s very noticeable – in the UK, at least and I suspect in the US also – that the interns who subsequently get jobs (as opposed to the ones who just get “experience”) tend to be either people who knew the job-provider personally before their internship or (/and) children of wealthy, privileged parents.

    4. Peter, When my cousin was an intern, she fell. And someone walking by, just stepped over her, intstead of helping her up or asking if she was okay. Sometimes companies genuinely try to provide interns valuable experience. But as you mentioned, many others are looking for free labor.

  6. I love this interview for its magnificent grouchiness, but presumably Ellison did the interview on spec, because he didn’t get paid at the time, and now not only does he not get paid for his work, but nobody gets to see it either, which seems self-defeating. Perhaps he should have been clearer about the terms before he stood in front of the camera.

    From Warner’s perspective, if he was being very well paid to write (which I bet he was), then putting your shoulder behind the project by lending your name to the promotion of it can be seen as part of the deal. It’s like an actor saying “I won’t do any press until you give me more money.” It’s part of the contract.

    And I do believe that appearing on the DVD would enhance his brand recognition, and be good for his book sales (more so than just having a writing credit at the end of the episode). But he is right about professionals being swallowed in the sea of amateurs.

  7. I think if our government expects the unemployed to work for big companies for free, and ‘talent’ works for free, perhaps it’s where an anarchist society begins. Maybe working for free will spread until no one has the money to buy DVDs, so we demand them for free too.

  8. I’ve always felt writers don’t get respect they deserve-people think sometimes director made it all up. On other hand I’ve read many books inspired by film versions, so perhaps late great Mr. Ellison was not entirely correct about that ‘tho I understand his point. When young I looked forward to his comments on early Scifi channel free to me thanks to parents. When in hospital, read all his magazine essays for free,supplied by charity among other things.Helped me hang on. Hope he didn’t think that a cheat as I liked him a lot.I do understand writers not getting proper control over their works being warped by some screenwriters and monetarily disrespected.(esp compare dto overpaid “actors” like Cruise). Sincerely former underpaid actress and lover of fine writing-BA in Lit.

  9. I don’t know if he intended to, but he just described the problem with “welfare rights”. They are a demand that other people work for free to provide housing, food, education, health care, etc. And in the end, the people who worked to provide those things are just as appreciated.

  10. Richard, I’m shocked! Can’t believe you’ve fallen into the ‘for free’ trap!! …… ‘Free’ is short for ‘free of charge’ – you would never do something ‘for free of charge’. Sorry – personal bug bear of mine, and I’m on a quest to stamp it out!!!

    1. You speak an odd dialect of English if you consider “for free” to be incorrect; in all the dialects I’ve encountered, it’s a perfectly acceptable idiomatic expression. I no longer have access to the OED to get their take on this, but Dictionary.com treats this as an acceptable idiom (see 44).

    2. Davis, the OED says it’s a colloquial usage and “Chiefly U.S.” but refrains from direct comment on its validity. I’m with them; I regard it as bemusingly American and a little unseemly for us grammar-school-educated Englishmen. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. That was the reason why i quit my job at the newspaper as a cartoonist. The amount of the money wasnt even an issue. But when they dont even pay you a penny for it, you feel like your work is unimportant or not even special.

  12. Harlan is correct in this situation. I do agree with him in this instance, but he is a divisive figure. He has procrastinated for years on his third Dangerous Visions anthology, threatening to burn the stories he has collected when he dies, and some of the writers have taken their work out of his hands and printed their stories elsewhere, which caused some litigation on his part. You do have to consider publicity value, but he is not a man who is just starting out. A Ayn Rand famously said “Just pay the man”. Maybe somebody else said that, who knows, sounds like something she would say. Loved seeing you in Columbus O, Dr. Wiseman!

  13. Sure, when you’re asked to do something that is your profession, that will be for the profit of someone else, you should be paid. But, let’s not forget there are plenty of situations where you might “work”, but should not expect to get paid. Obviously volunteering, if you’re the sort that does that, you don’t expect a dime. Helping friends, maybe they’re moving, or need some help around the house, maybe you’re just gonna watch their kids for an afternoon, you shouldn’t expect money.

  14. The part that echoes most true to me is where he describes the amateurs undercutting the professionals. When people ask for free/cheap labor, the acceptance of lower quality is usually pervasive in all parties involved. I have both volunteered and worked for “favorable” rates, and when I put in my same full professional effort, nobody knows how to handle it because it so exceeds not only their expectations of what I was tasked with doing, but it often shines a bright light into the broken workings of the organization that needed things done. Like Harlan says, *they’re* getting paid, so if I’m getting paid less (or nothing) and I’m doing a better job, they *should* be embarrassed by the inequity. If they’re not, then they shouldn’t be surprised if I spend my time on efforts that are more rewarding, by whatever measure I seek reward.

    1. Are you serious or are you just bad at making jokes? You never have to pay to embed a YouTube video. It’s under YouTube’s terms when you put it up.

    2. So, let me get this straight: Richard Wiseman uses Harlan Ellison’s words (presumably without paying for them) to illustrate the question whether one should get paid for one’s wordsmithing. Only the irony-impaired wouldn’t at least do a double-take.

      @Vince: it may well be under YouTube’s terms that there is never any charge to embed a YouTube video — I’m not saying it is, I’m not saying it isn’t (and I certainly won’t comment on whether that might change tomorrow). But YouTube’s terms are irrelevant here: we’re talking about the content, not the medium.

  15. In Russia we have a saying “Rivers don’t run uphill for a good reason”. In this is much truth, but of course ‘payment’ can be more than just money – there are other things that are worth more than money, like having children. This I would do for free, but they are expensive. Yours etc.

  16. Isn’t it unusual for someone to do an on camera interview and then retain residual rights to the film of that interview? I guess Cordwainer Bird learned his lessons about entertainment Industry contracts and accounting well.

  17. Near the start of my career as a freelance writer and graphic designer, I had a gig in-house at a large corporation and worked with a truly fantastic cartoonist and designer who was on staff. I asked him, “Owen, why aren’t you out there making three times as much working for yourself?” He replied, “I didn’t have the guts to ask for what I’m worth.”

  18. This is exactly the attitude that people have towards paying for musicians:
    A guy calls the musicians’ guild to get a quote on a 6 piece band for a wedding. The rep says “Off the top of my head, about $2000”. The guy says “WHAT? FOR MUSIC?.” The rep responds ” I’ll tell you what. Call the plumbers’ union & ask for six plumbers to work from 6 to midnight on a Saturday night. Whatever they charge you, we’ll work for half.

  19. We learnt this in acting school 101. So many actors trying to ‘make it’ that they will do ads, script readings and small parts for free. Instead of progressing to paid work, there is always new young actors in the wings willing to work for free.

  20. I do things for free all the time. Working for money is important, because we need money to live. Doing things for people is important too, because we ALL have to live. The point he raises about people doing things for free and spoiling it for him makes me despise him.

    If 1000 people will happily give me their old TV when it is broken, the man who identifies that I want old TVs for an art project and tries to charge is a tit, pure and simple – he can say no, of course he can, but he cannot get angry about it with dignity, as he shows in the video.

  21. One aspect I want insist on : people who do stuff for free actually take the work away from people who want to do the same kind of work for a living (and who are often highly qualified). I am thinking for instance of people who teach extra lessons for school kids with bad grades. If the kids come from poor families, then it’s an undeniable act of charity to do so, but it is also a real problem for real professionals who do quality work for money. On a related note, if society starts expecting that individual charity can kick in whenever necessary, that’s a great excuse for defunding state-funded social safety nets. It’s even more dangerous if it leads to a dependence on religous groups providing social security.

    I admit I’m extrapolating from Ellison comments. Ellison may be quite a character, but I think he has a real point here.

  22. Whether or not you work for free is a personal decision and your decision will mostly be respected. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to say no. You can be respectful of the person who asked for your time and decline politely. OR you can rant and rave in a brash American ME ME ME ME ME fashion like this guy just did. Your choice really.

  23. I totally agree with Harlan. Here in Canada, people who invest in themselves by attending and PAYING for post-secondary education are now expected to WORK FOR FREE after they graduate! It’s ridiculousness, and as Harlan iterated, maddening.

  24. If a man cannot express a point of view without using four-letter words, expletives and street slang, then he earns and deserves my contempt. If this is his best effort at expressing an opinion, then ‘no money’ is an appropriate pay scale. Maybe the people who get paid are the ones willing to make the effort to express a point of view without resporting to profanity. Being angry about something neither necessitates nor justifies using gutter language.

    1. This is an absurd position to take. If you could give one single substantiated and valid reason as to why swearing is a bad thing, then maybe I’ll change my mind, but I find it absolutely asinine that there are some people in the world who would allocate words in the English language and apply strong meaning to them, then go on to say “oh no but you can’t actually say this, you’ll have to find some other word instead”.
      If I said “Fuck you”, what makes that any worse than “You disgust me, you amoral sub-human piece of trash”? Surely the latter, despite not containing any oh-so-nasty “swear words”, is far worse to (non-jokingly) say to someone?

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