Monday, September 7, 2009

GUEST POST: What Do You Do When A Prospective Client Requests a Free Sample?

I've just discovered Laura Cross's blog True Story Ink. It focuses on ghostwriting and writing nonfiction books, but Laura's got some great advice that's applicable to magazine writers and copywriters, drawing on over sixteen years of experience as a pro--including how to find and approach subject matter experts for a piece you're writing. It's a new blog, but definitely one to watch.

What Do You Do When A Prospective Client Requests a Free Sample?
By Laura Cross

I’ve noticed an increase in the number of clients asking me to provide free samples for their projects. Why is this? Are they afraid I can’t craft good content? Haven’t they reviewed my portfolio, read my testimonials, or perused my blog? Did they not notice my bio page, which clearly states I have been a professional freelance writer and editor for more than 16 years and actually have an education in this stuff? Maybe they just enjoy comparison-shopping or collecting samples?

I’d like to be able to do this. The next time I remodel my kitchen, I think I’ll ask the contractor if he can do a free remodel of my bathroom first so I can get an idea of his expertise before I invest. I wonder if my phone company would offer me a free sample of their services? Or my hair-stylist? Or the fancy four-star French restaurant downtown?

No one would consider actually asking for any of those services or products for free. As writers, we make our living writing. Yet, writers are continually asked to provide free copy.

I admit there was a time when I would dutifully crank out free samples whenever a prospective client asked. I figured editing a few pages of a manuscript or ghostwriting a short piece for their project was worth the effort to secure a profitable job. And it always worked. Until one day.

A few years ago I was approached by a well-known, reputable publication that produced an annual travel guide. To be considered for their assignment, they asked me to write a sample chapter for their upcoming issue. They also asked several other writers to do the same.

Even though I knew the spec would require a week to research and produce (during which time I would not be able to work on other paying projects) and I had some heavy competition, I was confident in my ability to create the winning chapter and secure the job – which was substantial and paid well. Alas, I was not selected for the job. Nor were any of the other writers.

The publication must have liked my work though, as several months later I picked up their latest travel guide and found it included the chapter I wrote – word for word. Only sans credit and payment. I quickly established a new policy regarding free samples.

Writers are valuable. Writing is a REAL job. We must remember our worth. Sometimes all it takes is reminding a client that you are running a business, not a non-profit charitable foundation. Other times a client may require a little more education. I’ve found my portfolio, collected testimonials, and web presence help establish my skill and credibility with most potential clients. For those clients who feel they “must” have a sample based on their specific project prior to hiring me, I accommodate their request - for a fee.

Your turn: How do you handle requests for free samples? Are there certain circumstances where you would write on spec?

Laura Cross is a freelance writer and editor. She has ghostwritten numerous nonfiction books on various topics and adapted books to screenplays as a “hidden” writer. Check out her nonfiction writing blog at True Story Ink and her screenwriting blog at About A Screenplay.


Lori said...

I had the same thing happen, but while I was under contract. They had worded the contract so that they'd by a "minimum 500 words." I totally missed it. They got 2K words for free and wouldn't respond when I called and wrote asking why they told me they were using just a piece of it when it was clearly all there. Bastards.

I don't give free samples unless they're already published clips, the company will pay for the sample, or they understand that any use of it constitutes copyright infringement and requires immediate payment.

Lori said...

Sorry - that's "they'd buy."

Myric said...

Free samples, to me, mean something I provide to show my writing talent, not a free page of copy for a client to exploit. I have a handful of diverse articles and copy that I happily provide as samples of my work, all of which have been published, and all of which I have some (if not all) continuing rights over. They come with a footnote stating their copyright and my intent to enforce it.
If said client wants an example that would be specific to their needs, I do the same - a fee which is usually 60% of my normal rate, plus a copyright notice that the sample cannot be used in publication without paying in full for services. It's a pain, and it's driven a few clients away, but it's kept me from getting screwed over in several cases.

On that topic, there is a funny video about the "vendor & client relationship" that shows exactly what Laura uses as her examples:

Laura Cross said...

Lori - thanks for sharing your story. It seems so many of us learn the 'hard way'. It's good to receive validation that other writers don't provide free samples either.

Myric - thanks for the link to the You Tube video. That's hysterical! Sad, but so true.