The Value of Free: Writing For Non-Paying Markets

I’ve come to realize I’m in a unique position to provide perspective on one of the hottest hot-button writing issues of the internet age: namely, the edict that (cue echo effect) The Writer Must Be Paid.

It’s such an obvious rule-of-thumb, only a fool would argue against it. Turns out, I am just that fool. ‘Cause as far as I’m concerned, sometimes (like buskers, ice-cream shops, and Anthony Kiedis) you gotta give it away.

Now, I’m no expert, and I’m not one to prescribe, preach, or proselytize; at best, all I can say is what’s worked for me. Thing is, (judiciously) giving some (short) fiction away has for-seriously worked for me.

(11 Frequently Asked Questions About Book Royalties, Advances and Money.)


Guest column by Chris F. Holm, who was born in Syracuse,
New York, the grandson of a cop who passed along his passion for
crime fiction. His work has appeared in such publications as
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery
He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist,
and a Spinetingler Award winner. His first novel, DEAD HARVEST
(Angry Robot Books, February 2012), is a supernatural thriller that
recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp.
Its sequel, THE WRONG GOODBYE, comes out September 25.
You can visit him on the web at



Confession: I started writing short stories to pad my query letter (spoiler alert: it worked; agents love reputable short story credits). That meant I had to publish the darn things, or they’d be useless to me.

The first short story I ever gave away was called “Seven Days of Rain.” To Demolition Magazine, this was. Though I was delighted they’d accepted it, I was bummed at first they weren’t a paying market. Then “Seven Days of Rain” wound up winning a Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story on the Web, raising my profile considerably, and I didn’t feel so bummed anymore.

The second story I gave away was “The Toll Collectors,” to Beat to a Pulp. That one (he says bitterly, waving a clenched fist at the cruel, uncaring world) didn’t win a bloody thing. It did, however, kick off a rewarding relationship with editor David Cranmer, which has thus far yielded four additional publishing credits (three paid) and what I suspect will be a lasting friendship.

I’m not sure you can say I gave away my short story “Eight Pounds,” since Thuglit sent me a very cool T-shirt for my trouble, but I didn’t, strictly speaking, get paid a dime. Upon publication of that one, I got a letter from a fancy-pants agent, asking if I was in need of representation. I was not (having at that point already procured an agent of sufficiently fancy pants). But when Stuart Neville got a similar letter, he wasn’t agented, and as he’s written on his blog, the whole thing worked out pretty well for him.

At 11,000 words, “The Hitter” was perhaps my most egregious violation of the pay-the-writer edict. One-seventh of a novel just given away, and before I’d ever even seen an issue of the magazine I gave it to. But I knew the guy who’d asked for it from Twitter, and I believed in the vision he and his cohorts had for Needle. Plus, when he asked for it I’d recently been laid off, so I figured why not write something for them? I had the time.

(How long should you wait before following up with an agent?)

Not quite a year later, “The Hitter” was selected to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011 (the check for which was the most I’ve ever gotten paid for one short story) and nominated for an Anthony. Which (and again I’m no expert here) I’m guessing didn’t hurt my writing career.

I’m not saying you should give work away all willy nilly. In fact, careful readers will note I’m not saying you should do anything at all. What I am saying is I’ve had good luck giving stories away. Now, I wouldn’t give a story away to just anybody; in fact, I’m far more likely to submit to a paying market than a non-paying one. But the fact is, if I’d only published at the venues that paid, I would have missed out on some great career-building opportunities – opportunities that have led directly to agents, editors, and fans discovering my book-length work.

Believe me, if you want to stick to paying markets, that’s cool with me. In a perfect world, all markets would be paying markets. But we live in an era in which anybody with access to the internet and a passion for the written word can be a publisher of short fiction, and it’s important to note most of ’em lose money doing so even without paying for content. That doesn’t make their tastes any less refined, or the role they play as gatekeepers any less valuable. Long as you do your research beforehand to ensure they’re reputable, I say send away. I’m certainly better off for having done so.

(Do writers need an outside edit before querying agents?)



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9 thoughts on “The Value of Free: Writing For Non-Paying Markets

  1. suzyturner

    Giving something away for free can really make a huge difference to your overall sales. I made my first book, Raven, free last year and since then I have had thousands and thousands of downloads which have then led to huge sales as Raven is part of a series.
    I would highly recommend it!

  2. KarenLange

    Good post – I agree. In theory I prefer to get paid with real dollars, but it just doesn’t always happen. There there are perks, though, like when I write an article for a magazine and get an ad for my teen writing classes. I asked about it once, and now every time I submit, they give me a good sized ad.

  3. Swift slumber

    Good piece. The online magazine that publish some of my short stories and poems pay such peanuts that I’m practically doing it for free. But it gives me something to lure an agent.

  4. CFH

    Thanks, JR!

    And Sagana, there are plenty of folks whom I quite like and respect that preach “Pay the writer!” at every turn. I merely offer up my own counterpoint to that argument. It’s worth noting that literary markets are quite different in many respects from genre markets — most notably in the fact that even some of the finest among them charge a nominal “donation” fee upon submission. I confess, that practice rubs me the wrong way, for precisely the reason you’ve mentioned. Non-paying markets are one thing; paying to play is another entirely.

  5. Sagana

    I find your perspective interesting. But (you heard that coming, right?) I’ve not heard token or non-paying markets are a bad idea for short stories. The advice I hear a lot is to start by submitting to the top paying appropriate market and keep on submitting down the line until the story finds a home. And not to give up until you run out of markets. I have been cautioned that too many credits in the non-or-token homes can start hurting more than helping (giving the appearance that the author has reached their top level, lower than they want to be), but some ‘give-aways’ are common for short stories. And, especially for literary rather than genre writing, some of the most acclaimed markets are low-or-no-pay. The thing I really hear a lot is that money should flow *to* the author. Rather than ‘away from’ – that is, you shouldn’t pay to have your work published.


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