Every month or so, I get a request from a magazine asking if I want to write about GNU/Linux or free software. One or two are legitimate professonal offers that I am glad to consider, if only for variation and to length the list of markets to which I can sell – or, to be more exact, to which I might some day sell, since I don’t have many open slots on my monthly schedule. However, more often, the magazine either doesn’t pay or else pays a token like $30 per page, and I have to decline, despite their offers of additional payment in copies or free advertising, neither of which I have much use for. The exchange never fails to leave me feeling guilty, defensive, and unsatisfied.
Admittedly, many magazines and publishers prey on wannabe writers’ desire to be published. However, I’m sure that many are doing their best, paying what they can and hoping that they might one day generate enough income to pay their contributors better. In fact, I am sure that most of them are sincere; they’re generally too excited about what they are doing to be deliberate exploiters.
This sort of low-paying work might have acceptable in the days when I was writing articles in my spare time and trying to build a reputation. I could have helped the editors, and they could have helped me. But how can I explain to these well-meaning people that I’m not just dabbling in writing these days? That in the time I wrote them a 1500 word article, I could have made ten or fifteen times as much writing for my regular markets? That I literally cannot afford to contribute to their magazine or web site?
I can’t explain, of course. Not without being completely undiplomatic and crass. So, I usually hedge until my correspondents’ persistence forces me to be blunter, or they come up with another argument.
Usually, the next argument is the idea – either openly stated or hinted – that, since all of us are interested in free software, then I am somehow obligated to give my labor for free.
Consciously or otherwise, this argument conflates the meanings of free software. Free software, as everyone constantly points out, isn’t free because it doesn’t cost. It’s free in a political or philosophical sense – and, on that score, I have a good conscience. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that, in return for the money I need to live, the markets where I publish should have exclusive rights to my articles for thirty days. After that, I am perfectly happy to have the articles reprinted or translated under a Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives license, In fact, I almost never refuse such requests.
Besides, are the people who trying to guilt-trip me donating their labor for free? In many cases, I doubt it.
Anyway, I maintain that, in keeping people informed about free software, I am already contributing to the greater cause. I happen to be one of those lucky enough or persistent enough to be able to earn my living through doing so, but I don’t see why the one should invalidate the other.
True, I do make some gratis contributions to free software in my own time – but that’s beside the point. What matters is that I don’t feel the need to prove my credentials, particularly to strangers I don’t know. So, at this point, they usually break off the correspondence, often with parting comments about my selfishness or lack of generosity.
And of course I do feel hard-hearted at times. But, when it comes to the way I make my livelihood, I have to ration my time. Otherwise, I could easily lose a large chunk of my income for the month. So, I break off, too, muttering my excuses after an exchange that has satisfied nobody.