Freelancers don’t want to be “paid” in exposure!

If you’re a freelancer in any field, chances are that you’re being asked, more and more, to work without pay for the “exposure” to millions of potential buyers for your work.
Just say no.
Nate Thayer discussing Pol Pot's trial, July 1997
Nate Thayer discussing Pol Pot’s trial, July 1997 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here’s a link to his site, and some of his email with The

After a brief phone call where no specifics were really discussed, and she requested I email her:

Hi Olga: What did you have in mind for length, storyline, deadline, and fees for the basketball  diplomacy piece. Or any other specifics. I think we can work something out, but I want to make sure I have the time to do it properly to meet your deadline, so give me a shout back when you have the earliest chance.


Nate Thayer

From the Atlantic:

Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!

From me:

Thanks Olga:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free.

If there is a phrase that causes apoplexy among veteran freelancers, it’s the increasing fantasy that “exposure” — i.e. having millions of people see our stuff, without pay — is worthwhile. Editors now routinely offer freelancers in many fields exposure to their audiences, none of whom are guaranteed to offer us paid work.
I can’t buy groceries or gas with “exposure”, nor get my hair cut or see a dentist. None of them work for “exposure.”
Very few freelancers have the cojones to tell editors offering us this insult to just piss off. Nor do they ever make public that they actually took a stand — what if no one else has? In a crappy economy, everyone’s afraid to lose a client or get a rep for being a diva.
Thayer is right.
Enough already!

60 thoughts on “Freelancers don’t want to be “paid” in exposure!

    1. It’s turned into such a shell game. If someone is able to pay their light/heating/rent and/or staff, why exactly can they not pay you? Are they really so under-capitalized or making so little profit? Not a healthy business model, is it? I’d turn it back to them as a question.

      Alternately, (much tougher), you might have to really figure our your USP (ugh) — unique selling proposition and be clearer about articulating it to clients. So much of what we do is now seen as a commodity, i.e. we are all interchangeable and therefore why pay us a thing?

      1. The jargon is stupid as hell….but the underlying principle — that we MUST somehow be able to communicate our value — is really important. The hardest thing about any creative field is that it is virtually impossible to prove that the ROI (there’s another) for paying us well is worth it in $$$ terms to clients.

        “Value” is so often utterly subjective. I hate that.

  1. I’d like to tell editors to pay me, but unfortunately most horror/sci-fi mags couldn’t pay me much even if they had the funding to pay at all. Also, I don’t have any dependents that need me to pay for their food, and I have a part-time job. Hopefully someday I can have those cojones. Just need to have those circumstances that allow me to demand payment.

    1. Your situation is very different, but NOT because you have no dependents or a part-time job. It’s because you write fiction, and genre fiction and are not (yet) a Big Name that can command $$$. The cojones come with credentials — not dependents.

      I was writing for a living from my sophomore year of university; i.e. it WAS my part-time job and I needed every penny I could earn for food, rent, tuition and books. So I was negotiating, hard, even as a 19 or 20-year-old to be paid properly. In 1978, my weekly newspaper column was paying me $125. That is real money; then I found out that another columnist in the same section was earning $200/week. Nice.

      The single greatest mistake too many creative people make is to think they are not also running a business (not you; in general.) They are far too diffident when asking for $$$$ and protecting their work. It shocks me.

  2. It’s so disappointing that a publication of this caliber would ask a journalist of Nate’s caliber to work for exposure. Here I’d been under the naive impression that this sort of penny ante stuff didn’t happen at this level.

    Do you think it’s okay for unestablished writers to work for exposure or does that set a bad precedence for media outlets in general?

    1. I think it’s very tempting — and that many places will pressure you to do it. The real question is: exposure to WHAT? or to whom? In what numbers? If someone has a blog or website with millions of readers ***in your genre***, maybe it’s worth doing once. But this random notion that millions of eyeballs will somehow magically translate to income? I don’t buy it.

      My last NYT business story got 550,000 pageviews — one of the top of the entire paper that day. Did ONE of those people suddenly offer me a book deal or freelance gig or job? No. Eyeballs on copy, per se, means little to me.

      But that’s me. 🙂

    2. That is the crux of the problem. if you are writing to some one else’s specs, they need to pay you. if you want exposure for the sake of exposure, the internet offers plenty of that. What is a blog for?! Any writers who work for ‘exposure’- read for free- sabotage themselves and everyone else by giving away their hard work.

  3. Nemesis

    There is only one correct response to any editorial solicitation unaccompanied by recompense… Accordingly, I would encourage impecunious scribblers everywhere to just ‘go Māori’ the next time they are similarly affronted. Eventually, that should ‘put an end’ to this reprehensible practice.

      1. Nemesis


        Seriously, this has gotten way out of hand.

        Possibly the most egregious recent example that comes to mind is the one that compelled San Francisco graphic designer Mike Montiero to respond: “Fuck You. Pay Me.” [.. and how refreshing, I thought – upon reflecting on the sheer concision and impact of Mr. Montiero’s retort.]…

        Here are the backgrounders:

        [Rollingstone] – Politics: Obama Solicits Designers to Work – Unpaid – on … Jobs Poster!


        […and don’t get me started on ‘Internships’ and/or the Huffingtons, et al whose rapacious business models are predicated upon ‘free’ content…]

  4. Nemesis

    “Help!” The evil RoboRedaktor has seized a hostage comment… [undoubtedly the quotation featuring a popular expletive]

  5. Unfortunately, someone else will jump at the chance. I was taught in school to keep prices up, and not to be a bargain photographer. You ruin it for everyone that way. Apparently in some cases airplane pilots often offer a YEAR free work to get with large airlines…I can only imagine how that hurts their income. Internships are just as bad.

    1. It’s very difficult to keep having to proving your value. But that’s exactly what we have to do.

      I raised my hourly rate from $100 to $130 to $150 in the past few years. It’s still cheap for someone with my skill level. My costs of living are skyrocketing so why would I want to accept LESS?

    2. Yes, as a fellow professional photographer I agree that the “exposure” payment is utter nonsense. I still have to pay for my house payment, children’s clothes, etc.

  6. How unfair can you get? These are not little mom and pop operations that are trying to pull a stunt like that! Do you think that the exposure letter is merely a mandated tactic that they employ before serious negotiation?

  7. We encounter this sort of nonsense very often in the music business. People ask us to play a gig “for exposure” to which our old drummer used to respond behind their backs “expose this!” and point to relevant areas.

    The other line we often get is “but it’s for charity,” most frequently used by wealthy people who are hosting an elaborate party for which they will take a tax deduction. People are far less likely to ask a caterer, parking service, or venue to do an event “for exposure.”

    It is a constant battle to have people grasp the fact that even though what we do is “fun,” it is also labor and deserves to be paid for. We have spent our lives learning how to do what we do and developing the skills to perform consistently at a high level and make it look easy. I do truly love performing, but it’s actually also part of our job as professionals to make it seem easy and fun all the time regardless of how we may actually be feeling.

    1. Thanks for this….How depressing!

      You make a great point and I think it’s key — writing and playing music and creating art all look like “play”, certainly in comparison to medicine, law, corporate work — many of the ways other people earn their living. So I also think there’s an element of envy in this; why should they pay us well when we’re having such a good time?

      I have a line I want to use one day — which is to point out that there is no aisle in the grocery store or special gas pump for “creatives” that offers us goods free or at some enormous discount. So why exactly would we accept any less payment for excellent skills when faced with exactly the same costs as everyone else?!

  8. Pingback: Nate Thayer Bites the Hand That Doesn’t Feed | The Domino Theory by Jeff Winbush

  9. A seriously familiar story here in NZ – for-profit companies either demanding free content or paying desultory sums (months late). The attitude is that they’re doing their contributors a favour allowing them to be published in their prestigious magazine. Quite. I used to justify the low rates and cavalier conduct to which I was subjected by calling it advertising. Looking back, I am not sure why I persisted for so long. I won’t detail what finally killed it, last February – suffice to say, there is one books editor who I can’t trust again.

    I’m not surprised it’s in the music business too. All the arts get it, I suspect – a general attitude leveraging, I fear, from the attitude by the magazines, promoters that these publications offer status and it suffices to be published in them (or to play the gig for nothing, etc).

    1. I enjoy the visibility I get from my (paid) NYT stories — millions read that paper. Not one person has ever contacted me for work as a result of reading them. There’s my proof and it’s enough for me.

  10. Ugh, it’s insulting and ridiculous. The very sad part is thinking of how many young writers don’t understand this, and are too afraid to stand up for themselves–or worse, think this means they’ll get paid “next time.” Money flows TO the writer, not the other way around.

    1. You make a good point. The naievete and eagerness of newbies to get know or become visible is normal enough — but pay them! If you’re buying a skill, you pay for it. The graybeards need to make this clear(er), as Nate did so well.

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  13. He did the right thing. If anything just to wake people up a bit. I write because I want to and when someone finally starts giving me money for my work I figure I’ll want to keep that exchange going. But I can expose my-damn-self thank you very much. It’s cool that Thayer took one for the team to stir a necessary conversation.

  14. Reblogged this on Natalie Elizabeth Beech and commented:
    Something I have really found as a writer, I don’t mind being involved in non profit organizations for free or collaborative projects where I choose to give my time, but my day job? yeah don’t ask me to work as a slave.

  15. Hey there, just wanted to say, What an intriguing post! and what a dilemma! I’d like to make money off my writing some day, just haven’t gotten to that point yet, however, it’s appalling to think that a publication as large as the Atlantic would ask for free work.

    I think I’ve run across some “similar” situations (for others, not myself–yet) in creative writing…it seems like most aspiring authors going the self-published route have to offer their first book for free and then charge for the sequels since they don’t have the power and name of a big publisher behind them (Simon&Schuster, Tor, etc.). I suppose the industry has come down to publish for free and get “exposure” or become your own marketer… I’m definitely choosing the latter 🙂

    1. I like it. But you need to copy edit a bit more carefully — you used “breaks” when you meant “brakes.”

      I’d like to hear more about how someone can have (?!) two degrees and get offered minimum wage. WTF?

      1. Thank you! Editing is definitely one of my weaknesses (and hence not mentioned on any resume). I’m still not sure how it happened either, but maybe writing about it will help me figure out what’s going on

  16. The reason the Atlantic wants to pay in “exposure” is because they can. There are millions of people who write blogs on the internet for free, and 99.9% would gladly take same zero compensation but with more exposure. (I would, though I don’t consider myself a writer or a journalist). Of course, most bloggers have jobs to pay their bills, but for a magazine/newspaper it still makes perfect sense to ask a professional journalist to do the same. And if they say no, well, then let’s not care about the bills he/she has to pay and just ask the next one. I’m glad that Thayer refused the offer, because I’d hate for the profession to disappear, but I don’t see how this can possibly improve.

    1. The question remains…exposure to what? Millions of people — for no $? They are so utterly starved for attention? I just don’t get it. Not saying you’re wrong, just saying I find it bizarre.

      1. What I am saying is that for the people who don’t have to rely on writing for income, and write for free already, “more exposure and no compensation” sounds like a pretty good deal. If you look at most bloggers, attention is what we write for: if we didn’t want the attention, why do we post our writing out there in the open for the world to see? If we didn’t want the attention, why are we hoping to be Freshly Pressed? So yes, there are literally millions of people starved for attention for their blogs.
        Of course, Thayer, you, and any other professional journalist can beat most bloggers on quality and depth of research, but you can’t compete with “free” on price. The Atlantic knows that, and is only happy to use it against you.

      2. “If you look at most bloggers, attention is what we write for: if we didn’t want the attention, why do we post our writing out there in the open for the world to see? If we didn’t want the attention, why are we hoping to be Freshly Pressed? So yes, there are literally millions of people starved for attention for their blogs.”

        I really do mean the question sincerely:

        Why is this attention so important? Because bloggers have no “voice” in their own lives/family/workplace as it is? It’s a way to feel creatively validated by having others “like” it? Because it “proves” you’re a writer if you write and have strangers reading what you’ve written? Objectively, what value does this attention add to your life, or to anyone’s?

        And if someone is, truly, “starved for attention”, is shooting your words into a blogosphere with millions of competitors for the same VERY limited attention really the best choice for getting or sustaining it? I have 4,000+ followers now, but views remain low. I could freak out or weep or pay someone $$$$ to tweak my SEO. But, meh. There’s no financial upside to adding more eyeballs. I enjoy the conversation, (or else why bother?) But I don’t add some tremendous importance to being Freshly Pressed, (it does add viewers quickly) or to feeling influential because of these views…The attention I get in my off-line life sustains me more deeply and consistently than anything happening through blogging.

        So while I understand that people do it, I do not really understand its importance to them.

      3. The answer lies in the question “why people write, sing, draw, or perform on stage?”. Short answer – because we enjoy it. But unlike, say, building airplane models or collecting stamps, writing/singing/drawing/performing requires an audience, and seeing other people react to your work by reviews, comments, applause, laughter, or any other feedback is a validation that whatever you do isn’t complete garbage.
        For example, when you write a great article, you probably would love to know that you are not the only one to feel that way.
        For a better example, you write a blog, because you enjoy writing it or having conversations here (I hope my comments don’t make you change your mind), and as you’ve said, there is really not much financial upside to a blog.
        (I don’t want to make examples out of myself, but there are plenty of them if I had to.)
        So now we come to the issue of money… You have people who do what they love, and enjoy getting the feedback from the audience, and very often these people would continue doing their writing/performing whether or not they are paid for it. The only thing that money really affects is that it splits these people into those who try to make a living out of what they love to do – like you, probably, and to those who take other jobs but continue their writing/performing as more of a hobby.

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