Actually, no, I don’t work “for exposure” (or lunch)

By Caitlin Kelly

If there is a current cri de coeur of the creative crowd, this is it.

Much as we might fervently wish for it, there’s no separate gas pump with a 35% discount just for painters or a 25% off aisle at the grocery store reserved for musicians or a 50% off sticker affixed to our phone, electricity or insurance bills.

English: Grocery store in Callicoon, NY, USA
English: Grocery store in Callicoon, NY, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Free food for artists! NOT.

Our costs are the same as everyone else’s.

So this piece in The New York Times, although hardly a new thought, hit a nerve:

NOT long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.

They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

I like to see how many comments Times pieces elicit; as I write this, so far, 493 people have weighed in. That might be a record.

This hit a chord with me, again, when yesterday a local attorney — who drives a lovely Mercedes — asked me to have lunch with her daughter so her daughter could ask my career advice.

Shell Petrol Pump
Shell Petrol Pump (Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom) Free gas for writers! Just kidding!

I met the attorney because I interviewed her, (a paid gig, of course). We have no social or other relationship, but it’s a very normal expectation I want to share my 30 years’ expertise and insight without payment because….?

I don’t want lunch.

I want to be paid.

I grew up in a family of freelancers. No one had a paycheck, pension or paid vacations. Our earnings relied on our talent, skills and ability to negotiate a payment that made sense to us. It did, providing us with nice clothes, decent used cars, international travel, a home with a mortgage, i.e. a middle-class to upper-middle-class life.

This fantasy that creative people are eager to slurp ramen into our 60s or beyond is just weird.

Like that Times op-ed writer, Tim Kreider, I’ve also turned down many “offers” to go and speak unpaid — from the Retail Council of Canada (!), with no offer to pay my travel costs from New York to Toronto — to a local alumni group of a prestigious university who recently “invited” me to spend four hours of my time on that event, so I could sell copies of my latest book — at a discount.

None of which earns me a dime.

People wouldn’t ask their physician, dentist, accountant or attorney to come hang out, without compensation, for the afternoon.

Don’t ask me either!

How often are you asked to work without pay?

56 thoughts on “Actually, no, I don’t work “for exposure” (or lunch)

  1. As a violinist in a professional string quartet I’ve lost count if the amount of times we’ve been asked to play ‘as a favour’ or have had to argue with someone who assumed that my services would be free because ‘it’s music.’ I now don’t even bother to explain myself, I just say no…

    1. Annoying isn’t it?

      At least people understand they can’t play the violin…while everyone with a smartphone and computer thinks they’re now a photographer and writer equal to any pro out there.

      1. Haha! Absolutely! I was having a conversation with somebody the other day about when is the appropriate time to refer to yourself as a ‘writer’ or ‘blogger.’ I’ve only been doing this for six months and even though I consider my blog to be a small success in my little world I certainly don’t feel qualified to call myself a writer. I can call myself a teacher – I gained my qualified teacher status seven years ago and I can call myself a violinist as I have a BMus(Hons) performance degree.

        What do you think on this? When can people refer to themselves as a writer?

      2. Now that’s a can of worms!

        It’s a real sore spot for me, as everyone now says they’re a “writer” because they blog or because they can self-publish anything they produce, with no critical input or comment from an agent or editor(s) along the way. So I’m not sure what the answer to that one is — in your world, training, certificates, degrees…I don’t have any form of journalism training, but have taught it in colleges and have published internationally for 30 years. So, for me, someone who is soi-disant “a writer” is someone I would need to show me their commercially accepted and published work — and a consistent sales record in the thousands — to qualify.

  2. mylifeinfocusblog

    I wrote a blog for a local newspaper here, for free, in order to get ‘exposure’. I had to post every day, the editor explained. Well, after a year, I never did get that ‘exposure’ AND they wanted me to renew my contract BUT now they wanted me to sign over all my rights to my articles PLUS photographs in perpetuity. I declined. Before I pat myself on the back, that was almost 2 years ago and I only got one writing gig since. They all said my blog gave me the ‘exposure’ and ‘respect’ I needed in order to get another paying job.
    Go figure.
    Either way, I lost.
    The knife cuts both ways.

    1. Ouch!

      I seriously want someone — a press organization? — to fund proper, serious, national (or even international) research to quantify when, where and how often this “exposure” HAS (as it sometimes does) resulted in paid work as a result.

      My plumber would laugh if I simply offered to tell everyone about his skills but didn’t pay him. He bills me $125 hour. It’s pretty straightforward.

  3. I think writing like the arts, is considered a What-Else-Do-You-Do? job. I don’t know of any person who comes from a family of freelance writers. Also, writers usually have a day-job until they are taken seriously enough to go Pro with it. So your situation is unique. I think one of the reasons professional writers are besieged with pro-bono requests is that their talents are less tangible. To a non-writer, writing is usually just a clerical endeavor involving putting words on paper.

    1. My family worked in three fields: journalism, television and film, not just writing.

      With all due respect, no one dismisses other professional abilities, but somehow writing is seen as dead easy and having little financial value.

  4. Actually, when I was practicing law I was periodically asked to speak to community groups for free. This required preparation ahead of time as well as the time spent at the event. It was considered to be part of client development. Sometimes it turned into a paid opportunity, although often it didn’t. Of course, I had the luxury of a salary and benefits, but the same sort of speaking request applies to attorneys in solo practice as well.

    1. I’m fine speaking unpaid if someone is paying the bills (i.e. salary), but when people expect a freelancer — or solo practitioner — to donate their time, it’s rude, in my view.

      I already volunteer my time and money to other causes. Who dares to assume it’s their turn for handout?

  5. I don’t get asked. I usually asked to submit my work for exposure. But with my expenses, I only look for publications that pay. Otherwise how will I pay the rent? My job doesn’t make enough for me to survive alone and pay tuition and pay the bills.

  6. I have it happen somewhat regularly when folks are preparing scientific grants. Of course, since they need a statistician to get funded, I can say, “Sure, I’ll help with the grant for free, but, if you get it, I expect X% of my salary to be covered for Y years.” It helps that no one thinks statisticians are in it for the fame/attention – a misconception about creative types.

    1. That’s really interesting. I had no idea.

      Many creative people ARE in it for fame and attention because without it they have no sales, no royalties, no income! The whole “artist in a garret” thing is pretty much a historical artifact by now…if you’re not widely audible and visible (even if you’d prefer not to be), how will your work ever find a paying audience?

  7. Musicians are very often asked to work for free or at tremendous discounts for events that are labelled as charity functions, but are in fact also largely excuses for wealthy people to have nice parties and take the costs off their taxes. The author you quoted had it exactly right in commenting on the restraint required to compose a polite reply. One of our drummers once coined the gut response phrase that we all use privately: Expose THIS!

    I understand perfectly well that people who make these requests are assuming that we have plenty of money, as they do, and that since what we do looks like fun (and IS fun in many ways), we’ll surely share their desire for a fun night out!

    What we do is a labor of love, but it is always also LABOR and deserves to be paid for. If this is not recognized and appreciated more broadly, the next generation will be in big trouble since all they’ll have will be self-indulgent yuppie amateurs in the roles where there used to be professionals!

  8. Thanks for sharing—I read the same article today, and I was up in arms. The same problem applies to editorial internships: you’re asked to write for a publication, do the busy-work for a publication, and expect to be okay doing this until they’ll hire you. What is the incentive to for editors to hire entry-level assistants if their unpaid interns will do the same work for free? I’m glad these issues are finally being so widely discussed.

    1. Thanks! Good to hear from you…

      Did you follow the Conde Nast intern debacle? They were sued for paying so badly they have now stopped their internships entirely…

      There are many issues in this discussion — the exclusion of anyone unable to live on pennies (or nothing) to get a break into the job market (unfair); the complete rapacity of profit=earning corporations pleading “poverty” and the ongoing de-valuation of skills so that those with paychecks can tell those without — tough! Even though we are now 30% of the American labor force…

  9. i was on the committee to select presenters for a conference. I was shocked and amazed that all of these world class presenters weren’t compensated as part of the conference. I do not understand that.

    1. Yuck. I’ve spoken at several conferences — and was well compensated each time. In some instances, their company (if they have a job) will consider the exposure worth it, I guess.

      Conferences can be extremely lucrative, so those not willing to pay speakers are raking it in, seems to me…

  10. This is a very sensitive point with visual artists as they are asked all the time and I mean all the time to donate work to a worthy cause. I have donated many works to raise money for the Humane Society or a village library. Now I set limits – if the cause is worthy and close to my heart, I, like many other citizens, will donate. Other than that, it is no. It does not raise your profile or garner the artist new collectors. Today I was asked by friends who have bought other’s artwork and proudly showed it to me, to donate for their cause. I will give a small piece because they are friends but I have to admit there is a tiny resentment there.

  11. As a licensed, MSW part of our “education” in both undergrad & grad school was one semester of free labor — and we staffed our cases with licensed grads. Well, the trend continues after graduation, similar to trends mentioned above. (Asked to talk to daughters, a class of current grad students, speak to a legislator blah, blah, blah)
    Often when asked “what I do for a living” I am very ambiguous and say, “non-profit social services” so I can avoid hearing over dinner the symptoms of the brother/neighbor/uncle who-is-surely-bipolar-and-could-I-tell-them-what-to-do?
    Sigh. And social workers DO have a Nat’l Assoc Sigh. The “soft sciences” are not alone, as I see…
    Interesting thread!

  12. I think it’s greed. There are a number of jobs/talents/skills that get exploited this way simply because some people are always on the lookout for something for free, and some groups always seem to fall in line. New writers DO want exposure. I believe writing is thought of as being so intangible, (especially to the non-writer) and so electronic, it’s digital, one could even say it’s in the cloud, that it’s up for grabs. I’m sure professional photographers talk about how everyone with a great big digital camera is suddenly a “photographer” and will do weddings for free. Interesting that this would not be so prevalent if they still had to load film, and develop it and print it on paper. It’s sad, though, that the pictures aren’t as nice, somehow, because we all know they’re not REALLY photographers. The pictures are good enough, or maybe we don’t even know the difference anymore.
    It’s not the writer herself, but the whole concept of writing, that is becoming undervalued. Right? In that case, I think we could safely blame the internet.
    Sorry. Rambling. But no one has figured this out. I see it all the time.

    1. It’s a combination of an industry imploding — 24,000 journalists were fired in 2008 — and everyone who hits “publish” conflating their efforts with those of professionals. The Internet editors generally pay a lot less than print, which is also driving experienced professionals further away.

  13. I hear “when are you going to paint me a painting?” on the regular– obviously with no offer of compensation. Every time someone comes in my office where I have some of my work (narcissistic or fear of bare walls, you be the judge) they ask this question. I also get asked to paint murals in people’s baby nurseries. Are you kidding me!!! *I* can’t even afford to pay myself for that amount of work.

  14. As a professional (by both demeanour, habit and training) singer and actress, I find myself working a day job full time to be able to eat, commute and pay my mortgage. The few auditions and repeat job offers that consistently find their own way to my inbox are still (you guessed it) all trying to get something for nothing. When I politely decline their generous offers on grounds of not being able to afford to live like that, the thing that irritates me more than the sheer gall of these people to be asking me to live on nothing but air, is the sneering accusation that I am somehow deficient, that I must not wish to practice my chosen craft, nor be willing to further my career if I am not willing to work for nothing. A polite refusal gets back an earful of abuse, or (on the rare occasions I have decided to donate my skills) an horrific working experience with a company that does not care about its performers or its product.

    People do not respect you if they can get your services for free. This is a lesson I learned the hard way. Now I think twice. How is the offer of half a cheese sandwich once a day during rehearsals going to buy my train ticket to get to the rehearsal venue, the church or the recording studio? How is it going to pay for shampoo, deodorant, shoes? How is it going to pay my electric and heating bills? Put food on the table? Pay taxes? This is not a sustainable model. Volunteering is one thing, but this is being volunteered for extreme poverty and unsecured debt! This is how an entire tourist-attracting, productive, wealth-generating, structured industry is reduced to an inefficient, hypocritical bunch of hobbyists. You get what you pay for. If you pay nothing, you assume you are receiving nothing in return, and nothing lacks feelings. It doesn’t have needs. It isn’t human.

    I am not a hobbyist. I don’t do it ‘for fun’. I am a highly-skilled, experienced, third-generation, freelance performer. I am by nature shy, modest and self-effacing. This has never proven helpful in an industry of brash extroverts. I am also talented and extremely frustrated. At present I find myself in a cycle of inertia like a hamster on a wheel. I cannot work in my chosen industry unless I produce my own shows. I cannot afford to donate my own time to write, rehearse and produce my own shows and earn enough to pay my mortgage, bills and food.

    Once upon a time the Arts were subsidised. Producing theatres and touring houses could and did pay for touring shows to come to them. Financial risk was to some extent quantifiable. Performers were not solely reliant upon ticket sales to recoup their outgoings and might remain with a single company for a number of seasons, or even years. Young performers were trained alongside veterans in repertory theatre, or worked their way through the ranks of the chorus toward a solo spot. This model has not existed for some time. Now we seek instant fame, with the accompanying risk of a lifetime of ignominy. Young performers have to choose whether to risk everything on a televised talent show where they have no artistic control, nor even image rights, or they can work the unpaid fringe, fishing for plaudits from our friends and living on bar snacks. I tried the latter for eleven years, never expecting a big break, but hoping to make a living, like my parents and theirs. But times have changed.

    Now I get to give the performance of a lifetime every single day – playing the compelling role of someone’s Personal Assistant. This does not always sit well with me. Especially when I encounter the lack of understanding and respect on both sides of the fence for those performers who have crossed over. But what can one person do in the face of wilful ignorance? My parents have their own woes and are in no position to support me. I must bow my head, dress in sober black, and pay my own way. Like so many of my friends, if I prefer to remain solvent, I have little choice.

    1. Thanks for sharing this.

      Wish I had something helpful to say, but much of what you describe within your field is happening in mine — journalism and publishing — as well. I now work twice as hard in 2013 to make 2/3 of what I earned in 2013, and that was before I published two well-reviewed books. Whatev…

      The only people who seem to thrive in the creative fields today are heavily subsidized (partner, parents) or are Huge Stars or have staff jobs– often in which they offer pennies to people trying to produce creative work, aka “content.”

      It is deeply discouraging.

  15. Haha…I loved this. Entirely. I think, to put it in a nutshell, the people that were offended are the dreamers that subsist on (not only Ramen) but on the swelled words of their associates, comrades, and cohorts. As an artist (and children’s book author/photographer/musician, etc.) I’m used to people telling me “gorgeous things” about my work- 10 years ago I was flattered. As you know, people use praise to get their feet in the door, and once that door is only slightly ajar, they want a payback, and if you don’t “play the game”, they turn on you. Quickly. Well, they certainly wouldn’t want to read an article from me on the subject. I have 15 years experience critiquing others’ work in music and art, and I see a lot of smoke-blowing in the circles I run in. It’s all so deceiving, and for the newbie dreamers, they don’t want to hear it. They really do think they’re as “great” as people tell them. But it’s a system, and a very self-serving one, unfortunately.

    It’s good to see a person standing their ground in the face of the marshmallow-puffery that is passed off as communication these days. (Or maybe I’m just jaded.) But still, it’s good to see. I tell my art friends all of the time: know your value! Don’t compromise and take a cut. Jack up your price if you think you’re worth it and stand by it- make no apologies. I’d rather not sell- ever- than compromise my integrity in that area. I’m not fond of Ramen noodles, but when it comes down to “playing the game” or choosing between chicken or shrimp noodles- I’ll take the shrimp.

    Thanks for sharing this. Great piece.

    1. Thanks for this…it’s really helpful to hear from others who face these issues, and how you cope with it.

      I used to be susceptible to the flattery (like having lunch with the lawyer’s daughter) but not any more! The lawyer charges per hour and so do I. I raised my hourly rate twice in the past few years and it’s twice what some writers I know are charging. I’m fine with that…we all have different financial needs and goals and some of us are far less comfortable saying “I’m worth it.”

      I am and I know why. If people don’t feel like paying, that’s up to them.

      The only “value” anyone can derive from their creative products is what perceived value they have in others’ eyes…and some of of that we can manage and control and some of it we can’t.

      1. Good to see you standing your ground. I had an offer on one of my prints (buyer in Uruguay) who was willing to pay over $700 for one of my prints- $700! That’s crazy. (I wasn’t selling at a particular site and so decided to jack my markup to an outrageous amount. If I was going to go down, I was going to go down screaming, “I’m worth it, dammit!”) It attracted a buyer almost immediately, and it taught me a valuable lesson: if you think you’re worth it, and stand your ground, others will too. I’m planning on graduating this December with my degree in Behavioral Sciences- after that I’ll take a year off to explore my art and music, but you better believe I’m not going to budge (anywhere) without attractive offers. And good for you as well. :0)

      2. It’s not crazy at all — your “value” is whatever price each market or client will bear. I know there are writers getting 3 times what I am paid because they have done whatever it is to make their clients think “they’re worth it.” That’s my goal. 🙂

  16. Heh. I came looking for this because I *knew* you wouldn’t have let this piece slip by without calling attention to it. 🙂

    I’m, as yet, unpublished. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t, I like to think yes. But it isn’t going to happen without my being paid. It is work. Hours and hours of work. As such, any writer having a piece published, or spending time consulting/giving a speech, deserves to be paid. Same is true for any other art.

  17. This issue strikes a chord with me too! I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked to “help out” on set for free, or write/direct for free. Some of that is par for the course when you’re starting out, but after a while, it feels ridiculous. It’s one thing to build good will among peers. It’s another to be undervalued and wasting time on projects and people that most likely will yield no money down the line. Nowadays, when someone asks me to help them out, I’m very upfront about asking “if you’re unable to pay me, then what are you going to do for me in return?” The assumption being that our time is EQUAL in value. 9 times out of 10 I never hear back from the person.

    On a related note, have you ever heard of Time Banks? Where people exchange services based on time not money. Interesting concept.

    1. I’ve become much more assertive now in asking for a quid pro quo. I met someone new-to-me for lunch this week who asked me to read a chapter of her would-be book. During the lunch she mentioned she is related to a very big deal magazine editor — and I asked for an introduction. She did make it, so now I am happy to read over her chapter and send it back with notes. Either that or I just charge for my time at an hourly rate.

      Too many people assume we are eager to help them (because?) yet do little in return. It’s just rude.

      I haven’t heard of Time Banks. How do people insure that everyone is being honest about how much time they’ve spent?

      1. I’m not entirely sure, but there must be a way to track someone’s time. A friend mentioned it to me a while ago as an interesting way to use your own skills to receive services you need. If you google ‘time banks’ a bunch of information comes up. Apparently there are time banks all over the world.

  18. As a retried addictions/MH clinician it’s interesting that people think I ought to listen to their heart wrenching tales (which do wrench my heart) and provide astounding insights, interest and patience that never ends, a list of resources, a shortcut to treatment, sobriety mentoring, prescription advice, and hand holding even if I just met them at a gathering. Hmmm, used to get paid pretty well for that but now I write, not counsel. I might note that people generally do not pay me to write yet but I am up for that.

    1. I once asked the orthopedic surgeon I play softball with to take a quick look at an injury there — apologizing profusely for breaking protocol in that way. Turns out I did have a stress fracture.

      But generally I try not to get free advice from professionals and I loathe being told “I just want to pick your brain.”

      1. Good that he looked at it! I understand the temptation, also. Today my dentist realized I am an arts lover/writer and so she started to talk about her paintings and by the way, what did I do for a living? Ah, maybe she would see me for therapy sometime…? In the end, though, it’s all good. Just people being people. (And she is a fab dentist!)

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