In an ideal world, all artists would be paid for all their work.
We do not live in an ideal world.
Any writer can tell you how hard it is to get fairly compensated for the work you do. Even a short story can take a long time to do well: maybe a week or two, maybe several months. Once you calculate the hours it takes to get a short story ready to sell (for up to $200-300—if you’re lucky!), that mimimim wage job starts to look pretty solid.
So, many writers contemplate whether to write for exposure, i.e. write for free (like this very blog post…ooh, meta!). Many folks have a zero-tolerance policy on writing for exposure, and that’s fine. But I’d like to advance the theory that writing for exposure may in some cases be the right design. The key is knowing when to say yes or no.
When is writing for exposure bad?
When it’s exploitative. This is what most people are talking about when they discuss the evils of writing for exposure. “People die of exposure! You can’t pay the rent with exposure!” Both are technically true. There are plenty of folks out there who will always try to get something for nothing. They prey on writers’ desire for recognition, for that sense of validation. This is what you have to watch out for. Be very careful when you’re asked to work for free, especially if the end product is still something people pay for, or if others involved are getting compensated. Do your research and make an informed decision. If you don’t see a good reason to say yes, say no.
When it gets in the way of paid work. This scenario is simpler. If you have a choice to do work for free or do work for pay, pick the paying gig! Easy, right? This method of prioritizing works well in general, actually. For example, in my own writing, I tend to work hard on my romances and get them ready to ship ASAP, because the romances sell. I work on my spec fiction and other projects after I hit my daily romance goals, because even if/when I sell those stories, it will likely be for less money per hour of work. Remember, art is still a business.
When is writing for exposure good?
When there is mutual benefit. Exploitation is like a bad parasite in your gut, but symbiotic relationships are good. A free gig might help you hone your craft, say with a piece of flash fiction that won’t take very long to write. It might help you explore a new genre without stressing too hard. Maybe you’ll get to work with a stellar editor, or an artist whose work complements your own. Maybe the project is for a charity (if you’re passionate about that cause, let your craft be your donation to it). You’ll have to decide if you can get something out of any particular gig, and the benefits will obviously differ depending on the writer.
When it results in “real intangibles”. What’s a real intangible? A publishing credit. A contact. A reference. None of these things are cash money, yet all of them have a real value. The path to paying gigs is paved with experience, and it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be compensated for everything you do (especially when you’re starting out). Think of real intangibles as investments. They start small but can grow over time. And yes, there is a risk that some won’t ever pay out. (But if you think writing is ever a risk-free business, you’re in for some sad times, pal.)
Be smart about building up these intangibles, and you can leverage them later on. Maybe one of your contacts is going to put together an anthology and pay the contributors. Maybe an agent will read your published story and contact you about representation. Maybe a few readers will like your stuff and follow you on social media…and they may buy your book when it’s published.
Bottom line: If it doesn’t feel like the right decision, then don’t do it. Never let yourself get pressured into something.
If you choose to take an exposure gig, do treat it as a professional job. Even with no money involved, get a contract or an agreement in writing that preserves your rights to the work. For example, if you write a piece of flash for a webzine, they may have exclusive rights to publish it on their site for 6 months, after which they have only non-exclusive rights to archive it. That way you can use the story elsewhere (such as for a reprint or an anthology). Don’t just hand off your stuff without a plan. As a writer, your writing is a business asset. Treat it like one!
Like everything else in the universe, the concept of “writing for exposure” is neither pure evil nor pure unicorn rainbows. Decide what you value, what outcomes you want, and what you can live with.
Bonus: How NOT to write for exposure
Here’s a quick tip. If someone asks you to work for free and you don’t want to, here’s a professional-sounding way to frame your refusal. Simply say “I’m flattered by your respect for my insights/previous work/awesomeness, but at this time, I have to focus on paying projects. I wish you luck in finding another contributor who can work for free, and I hope your publication/market/business/website will soon reach the level of success where you can afford to compensate your contributors.”
Take that and tweak it however you like.
Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.