On Selling Out

7 October, 2019

The one time I was accused of selling out as a writer happened in the early 1990s. My career as a professional freelancer was starting to pick up, and I sold an article to a major Canadian newspaper. Aside from the welcome $200 fee, that article boosted my credibility a bit and gave my more confidence in my work.

My accuser, a (now former) friend, thought I should have sold that article to a smaller, more worthy (his words, not mine) publication where I’d make a few cents a word. He figured that I should have kept writing for the small publications where I’d been cutting my teeth as a working writer.

That former friend (in case you’re wondering, this incident wasn’t what put him in the former category) wasn’t a writer. He definitely didn’t understand the reality of the life of a working writer. He didn’t seem to realize that the ideas in that article, and the other articles I wrote for larger publications, found a wider audience than they would have in a smaller magazine.

That, in my eyes, wasn’t and isn’t selling out.

To this day, I still wonder what selling out actually means.

Sometimes, accusing someone of selling out is a misguided attempt to shame them. To make them feel guilty about doing work that’s commercial. In some writing (and other) circles, even today, there’s a stigma attached to writing for mass-market publications or undertaking corporate writing work. As if you’re abandoning art for money.

That’s a silly idea. Most of us who toil behind a keyboard aren’t artists. Many of us don’t aspire to be artists. We write for a living. To pay our bills, to feed ourselves and our families, to pay the rent or the mortgage. That means taking work that pays.

Is crafting a well-written article, essay, report, script, or whitepaper (and making decent money doing it) selling out? I don’t think so. If you’re doing any of that, chances are you’re using your skills to come up with the best work that you can.

Writing for money isn’t selling out. You don’t have to be paid a pittance writing for a small journal when you can earn more for the same piece from a larger-circulation publication. There’s nothing wrong with being paid what you’re worth — whether by a print magazine, an online publication, or a company.

I don’t believe it’s selling out if you write to the best of your ability, if you explore markets and clients of all types. No matter what kind of writing you do, remember that you’re making your living at your keyboard. Sure, it might not be the kind of work you expected to do when you started your career, but as long as you’re doing the work to the best of your ability there’s no reason to be ashamed of what you write.

Anyway, as someone once told me: Unless you buy in, you can’t sell out.

Scott Nesbitt