Ask Alex: Free Trial and Error

DEAR ALEX,
My column runs in 24 newspapers across eight states; eleven are weekly and the others run periodically. Of those, only eight are paying. In my desire to grow my base, I offered my column to other papers at no cost. Without thinking, I did not put a time limit on that period of “free” time. How do I, or can I, ask for payment now? Do I keep the readership but not the money? Or lose the readership and the money? Speak up or just go on with this and never again offer my “stuff” for free?
Is there a reasonable answer? A tactful way to approach these editors? A painless way out of this maze?
Sincerely,
FREE TRIAL AND ERROR

 

DEAR FREE TRIAL AND ERROR,
Alex has rounded up three columnists who have been there to help guide you:

Congratulations on the eight paying publications! That is an accomplishment and shows there are plenty of editors who think your work is worth paying for. I’d tell the others what you told us: You neglected to mention a time limit. Say you’re sorry about that and give them a date in the very near future when you will begin invoicing them. Then see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised to find out that some of them step up and start paying. Some may cancel, but, in that case, you’ll still have plenty of tear sheets for your portfolio from those who do pay, plus you’ll still have your dignity – which admittedly, pays exactly as much as a freeloading publication, but without the resentment.

Syndicated humor columnist
Your conundrum has been the story of my writing life! I started my self-syndication journey by pitching to my hometown paper. The editor told me, “We don’t have money in the budget right now,” but offered to publish my column anyway. I agreed, believing that they would eventually pay. Instead, he took my column for over two years without paying a dime. Going forward, I offered a free trial, and made it clear that I would expect  payment after that. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. Military-base newspapers, whose readers are my target audience, are not permitted to pay freelancers. I decided I would insist on payment from all civilian newspapers. I offered my column for free to all military-base newspapers, so that I could gain name recognition in the military community.
My strategy paid off when I was able to pitch my column successfully to Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for the US Armed Forces around the world, for a paid contract. My advice to you is to look long and hard at those papers that are not paying you. If they are not taking advantage, and you are gaining name recognition, use the publication to help you grow your column to paid markets. Otherwise, cut them loose and hold your head up high.
Columnist for Stars and Stripes
Is there any way of tracking your column’s readership with that paper?  Those would be good facts in your favor.  If you don’t have that, approach the editor and have a conversation that covers “I’ve been featured in your paper for a while now, and I want to discuss the possibility of being paid.”  No shame to that! HAVE THE CONVERSATION.
Only you can decide if a paper’s readership is valuable enough or large enough for you to stay on for free.  That is truly a personal choice, and you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone.  I do write for free, but those sites are low on my totem pole, as I concentrate on paid endeavors.
Remember you write for free mainly to open doors. Once you have credentials (publications that have run your work), you have what it takes to allay the fears of “gatekeepers.”  And it’s time to move upward in your professional evolution.  Good luck!
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