Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


writing & creativity 6 min read

I’ve been writing here at for more than eleven years.

My publishing frequency varies (though I’m getting back into a more regimented schedule now), but I periodically have high-traffic weeks with popular pieces. I’ve had a couple of those in the past month or so, each one getting a decent amount of linkage, sitting on the front page of Hacker News, and racking up a few dozen thousand reads on the day of publication. That’s great, and I’m absolutely delighted and grateful.

Whenever a piece “hits” like that, I start getting emails - and this has happened for years. The messages from readers are fantastic, no matter whether they’re positive or negative, but it’s the other kind of emails I want to talk about here: the requests for republication.

In a very small percentage of cases (maybe 2%?), a fee is offered, and everything becomes straightforward. I can make a decision based on the publication and the fee, on a rational basis. The decision is almost always “no”, but that’s neither here nor there. At least there’s a value proposition.

The other 98%+ seem to all share an understanding that I lack. In almost every case, the approach goes like this:

  1. Flattery, of content and self. You’re great! Loved the piece!

  2. Request for republication, often by positioning the publication itself as a desirable outlet. Our readers are seer-like, discerning and well-dressed!

  3. Enticement, of the form “it would get your content in front of more readers”, or “it would give your content a boost”.

It’s step (3) that just doesn’t scan for me. Excuse me; a boost?

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the fact that your publication makes money for you, either via your ad impressions (or driving subscriptions, or sell-through, or something else). You’ll be making money as a consequence of having my content, and you’re not giving me any of it. Let’s put even that HUGE THING aside for a moment.

A “boost”, you say. Or “get in front of more readers”, which is the same thing but expressed less ambiguously. The assumption here is that I crave exposure, and will sacrifice almost anything to get it: for example, recompense. Or exclusivity. Or search engine ranking for my own effing words. Or a sense of value for my own work.

How cynical, manipulative, and awful.

There’s exactly one situation where I routinely allow republication of my content in full, elsewhere on the web or in print: when it’s translated into another language. If someone offers to personally do a (manual, human) translation of my writing in order to share it with a whole new readership that I can’t reach, I see it as my duty to say yes. It’s good for me, and it’s good for readers of the target language.

I can’t do it myself, and I think it would be a little arrogant to refuse. So I say “Fantastic, go ahead - thanks so much”. I’ll even link to the translation from the original, and I’ll of course require that the translation has a reciprocal link and prominent attribution. That all just falls under common courtesy.

There’s also exactly one situation where I occasionally and exceptionally agree to republication of my content in full, elsewhere but still in English: when I’m paid a suitable fee.

You deserve to be paid for your work (and I mean you personally, dear reader), no matter what that work is. If someone wants to use it, then by definition it has value for that person. You created that value, and are entitled to appropriate recompense. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

And since you and I are the same - just people, making things and hoping that others will get half as much enjoyment from seeing them as we did from making them - I also deserve to be paid for my work.

If you’re new to a given field of endeavour, and/or haven’t been widely successful yet, and/or are young, and/or are naive, and are pretty good at it nonetheless, believe me: the sharks will start circling. People who want to take you for a ride - or rather, take your stuff for a ride, and for their own benefit.

Spec work falls into the taking-you-for-a-ride category, definitely. It’s where you produce and submit work without first agreeing on payment, and it’s often dressed up as a contest. “Submit your designs, and we’ll use the best one!”, which actually means “Everyone do the job, and we’ll maybe pay one of you.”

Why would you bother? Well, for a boost, of course! Who wouldn’t want a boost?

(The alternative word you’ll hear most often is “exposure”, which is an illness you get from being out in bad weather for too long.)

The bullshit is strong with this one. Here’s the promise:

  1. Your writing (say) will get in front of more readers, and they’ll probably click through to your blog and subscribe, or follow you, or buy your book.

  2. Your app (say) will be included in the discounted bundle and you’ll get more users, then you can charge for upgrades next time. It’ll also drive them to your site, and they’ll buy your other stuff.

  3. Your design (say) will be seen by more people, and it’ll help establish your brand. You can use it as a portfolio piece, and people will come to you for design work in future.

It’s a beautiful scenario, and it’s mostly fictional. It’s a lie designed to capitalise on your insecurities. Think about it for a moment. You only crave more readers if you have fewer than you’d like, right? Of course.

You only crave more users of your app if you really need some more sales, or more of a network effect, or whatever. You only want more people to see your designs if you haven’t booked enough work this month, or you’re looking to build the business a bit, or your ego needs some building up.

You want, or maybe even need. You are vulnerable. Blood is in the water (it’s yours, I’m afraid; don’t look if you’re squeamish like me). Then someone comes along, wearing fine, shiny, expensive shoes and brandishing a slick email signature. They promise a bright future, and all they ask in return is that you give them something that’s also yours. Sign here, they say, and when you meet their gaze, you can’t decide what colour their eyes are. It seems to change from moment to moment.

That’s the dynamic of the situation, and don’t you dare pretend otherwise. You can lie to me if you want, even though I sort of thought we were pals, but never to yourself.

I could also make a point about the wider ecosystem of creativity, and how a single capitulation on your part (or mine!) weakens everyone else’s position too. The big content-churn sites get used to indie writers just giving them words for free, so your own words are tougher to sell later. The app-buying public gets used to ten-app megapacks for $20 total, so your own app gets a screed of one-star reviews because it’s more than a dollar.

Every time you take the car to the supermarket just two blocks away, global warming gets worse - only by a little bit, but the problem is that there are a lot of little bits.

The proposition doesn’t make sense: the boost is a lie.

I’d advise you throw off the confusion. The actual underlying decision you need to make is much simpler than it appears, because you don’t have to try to assess what’ll happen in the nebulous future. In fact, that very nebulousness is the only clue you need.

Do you want a hundred maybe-laters? (I warn you, friend: the conversion rate is appalling. Take that number you’re imagining and divide it by a hundred.) Or do you want a few definitely-nows? (Take the nows, for crying out loud.)

Do you want a lot of completely indifferent customers, who associate and assess you with phrases like “free” or “value pack”? (Another warning: you’re heading for a nightmare.) Or do you want far fewer customers, who are at least invested if not committed? (Those are both wins: fewer people, and more involvement.)

I just checked my email: ping! Another repub request for ‘Working from home’, no fee. Hmm, let me think.

The sharks are circling even now. Maybe it’s calm waters over where you are, but have you looked down lately? They’re there - and you’re vulnerable.

Life is frighteningly short while you’re living it, and that thing you make has value. I’ve seen it, and it has a greatness and an honesty that’s uniquely yours. Trust me.

Don’t give it away. Not for ambivalent, should-be-free star-clickers. Not for a contest entry, for goodness’ sake. And definitely, monumentally, face-punchingly not for someone else’s page-views and ad impressions. You might as well never have created it at all.

If they want it, ask them to pay a fair price.

You’ll find out very quickly how much they really value your work.

If you’d like to discuss this further, you can find me on Twitter.

My writing is supported by readers like you.