Disclaimer: I’m writing this from the perspective of a professional author.
Disclaimer #2: I’m still not entirely sure what “professional” means in this context, but oh well.
As a general rule, I believe anyone asking you to write “for the exposure” should be shunned and shunned hard. Roughly half of my annual income comes from writing. I love being an author, but this is a job, and a significant part of how I make my living.
This came up several times in conversations at WindyCon. Mike Resnick talked about the importance of showing that you won’t be taken advantage of. Mike Williamson and I were chatting about some of his consultant jobs for TV, and he stressed how difficult it could be to get paid fairly for your work.
Writing is work, and I strongly believe that writers deserve to be paid for that work. And yet…
I can’t help thinking that if the Discovery Channel asked me to come in and write or consult for Mythbusters, I’d do it regardless of whether or not I got paid. Because it would be FREAKING AWESOME! Same thing about doing a guest episode of Phineas & Ferb, or doing script work for The Muppets. (Not that any of these things are likely to happen, but still…)
I don’t believe writers have to be paid for every single word they write. Heck, I wrote Baby Got Books for free, and that took several nights of poring through rhyming dictionaries and tweaking various lines. I did that for two reasons: 1) Because it was too much fun not to write, and 2) For the exposure.
Yeah, that’s right. I wrote for exposure. “Come and see the contradictions inherent in the blog post!” The thing is, I can expose myself effectively here, whereas the exposure I’d get from most “for the love” publications is pretty much zero. And by publishing it here, I retain all rights, meaning when someone contacted me about doing T-shirts, I was able to sign a contract for that.
I’ve written free (or very low-paying) pieces for friends, too. Not often, but there are people who, if they ask me for a story or an article, I’ll happily put something together for them. The majority of editors do not fall into this category, however.
So it’s not that I think you should never write for exposure, or that you always have to earn at least SFWA pro rates (5 cents/word) or better. But it’s important to value your work, and to recognize that you deserve to be paid. It’s important to not let others take advantage of you, no matter how eager you might be to get published.
I walked away from a novel deal a year or so back. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a writer. I wanted to write that book, and it would have been awesome. But the advance would have been about 1/4 of what I’m making for my other books, with a much more intense schedule for turning the thing in.
What about you? What terms are you willing to accept for your work? What projects would be so awesome you’d be willing to do it for no compensation? At what point does valuing your own work go too far and become arrogant or damaging?
November 17, 2011 @ 9:57 am
This is something that I’ve thought about a lot – as someone who makes the vast majority of her income from writing, but who is constantly breaking into new areas. I will write for exposure if:
1. It is for a cause I believe in.
2. It is for something really, really cool.
3. It’s a new genre/style for me, and I’m trying to build up credits – but they have to be good credits in a place where no one will scorn me for writing for free.
That said, number two, comes with caveats. Specifically, I won’t allow the really cool, unpaid, work to take away from the writing that makes me money, and I will do my best to maintain enough rights to sell anything I write this way someplace else. Short deadline, unpaid, work that takes me away from things that Need To Get Done? Nut uh. (Particularly if it’s being requested by an organization that can afford to pay me. And yes, I’m staring at you, second site to the right and straight on ’til morning.)
Mind you, I also tailor my freelance writing rates by the type of client and how interesting the work will be, so I can’t exactly hold myself up as a model of pricing efficiency.
November 17, 2011 @ 9:58 am
Argh. Please ignore the excess commas in that last comment. My allergies are terrible, and I have a bad case of teary-eyed comma blindness.
November 17, 2011 @ 10:09 am
Well, I don’t get paid to write (not yet!), but I think of myself as a writer and I’d like to make, if not a living, then at least a little bit of money off it some day.
I think that if I were writing for a cause (like for a charity I supported), I’d write for free. I don’t know otherwise. Everyone has things they dream of writing – for me, those things are an episode of Doctor Who or helping out on the screenplay for a Discworld adaptation – no matter how far-fetched those dreams might be (for example, I am most likely never going to write either of those things). I guess if I were doing my dream gig I might do it for free – but even then, maybe not, because isn’t part of a dream gig getting paid to do something you really, really love?
So I guess my answer is that I’d write for free if it were for a good cause, and everything else would be on a case-by-case basis.
November 17, 2011 @ 11:23 am
I started writing “for free”, mainly posting stuff on forums of topics that interested me. And, since I loved writing, it was pretty easy to create a short (5-10k word story) and post it every few weeks. A number of years ago, people started contacting me to ask if I would write a story for them. I tried to do it gratis for a while, then I got overwhelmed. So, I started to charge for custom stories. And, to my surprise, people were willing to pay for it. That came purely from the gratis stories I wrote, and when I post a series of them, I get a fresh round of commissions. So, I consider a lot of my gratis stories to be advertising for my commission writing.
Occasionally, I’ve gotten “published” gratis in various places I do like (like White Wolf’s quarterly magazine or Twisted Ink). I still consider them exposure and a chance to write and improve myself.
Sadly, I haven’t been able to make the transition to a “professional” writer. Commissions are a very different beast. You aren’t writing for general acceptance, but for a single person with very specific needs. It also doesn’t scale well. 🙂 I can’t write a personalized story for everyone in the world.
I want to be a more general writer, but the only way I know how is to throw myself out there. I’m slowly getting my name in commercial locations (not quite SWFA rates yet). Even more sadly, is that it is hard to find out what doesn’t work when I get the rejections. Just hard to figure out the steps, beyond just keep on writing and sticking it out there.
As for projects that I would do for free? Game worlds. 🙂 Friend’s world building. Web comics would be right up there.
November 17, 2011 @ 11:41 am
I agree with you on the “4 the Luv” markets, or submission calls where they specifically say that your payment is “exposure. I see a lot of anthos like that when I’m doing my monthly compilation, and I don’t list those. If I’ve never heard of an editor, or of a zine or anthology, in a genre I’ve been reading since I was a kid, exactly how much exposure is my story going to get, besides the editor and the other writers, and their various mothers and best friends? I’d rather get money and exposure, in a market that some significant number of people will read.
If a project looks like a lot of fun, then I’ll consider something low- or non-paying. (There was a call a while back for a horror anthology where the theme was “bacon” that looked like a blast, frex., and I listed it even though it was below my usual payment threshold.) Generally, though, I want either ongoing royalties per-sale, in a venue where I’m known and have fans, or I want pro payment in a lump sum. Pure exposure I can get for myself.
Jim C. Hines
November 17, 2011 @ 1:45 pm
Your comma allergies are forgiven 🙂
November 17, 2011 @ 1:46 pm
In Germany almost all anthologies and quiet a lot of other short-story markets are non-paying. There are a few exceptions but when it comes to Fantasy and SF it’s mostly non-paying, or rather a complementary copy is the ‘payment’. Some of these publishers also try to get novels for free, or the writers only get paid once a certain amount of copies have sold, but no advances or such.
Most of the time I don’t bother with those and instead focus my energy on working on the novel in the hope of one day selling it to a bigger publisher. I might publish some things on my blog for free, for exposure, but also as a treat for my readers. With some projects I would say it depends on the project (charity, fun, unusual topic, etc.) and the people behind it. Maybe I will consider it, maybe I won’t, but most often my pragmatic side wins out. Exposure alone is not enough, especially not if that ‘exposure’ isn’t really exposure.
Jim C. Hines
November 17, 2011 @ 1:54 pm
Clarifying what market we’re talking about is a very good point, thank you. The expectations in the U.S. market might not be the same as in other markets. I honestly don’t know enough to say what’s standard outside of the U.S.
November 17, 2011 @ 5:13 pm
I wish we had more of the standards of the U.S. in Germany. I think the market is there even though publishers claim it isn’t. I on occasion love reading anthologies or magazines with short stories in them. When it comes to F/SF Germany is decades behind the US despite numerous US-writers saying that Germany in their biggest non-English market.
What I wouldn’t give for something like the SFWA *sigh*. And proper paying markets.
December 7, 2011 @ 11:40 pm
Thanks for this post. It clarifies something I’d long wondered about. The old wisdom, “Don’t write for exposure” is something I’ve seen a lot. But when I’ve talked about my motivations for writing and posting a serial story for free on my blog (with professionals and semi-professionals) it’s generally been seen as a positive thing– even though I’m essentially writing for ‘exposure’. This post has made it clear that there’s a difference between /trading/ your writing– and your rights– for ‘exposure’ and writing for exposure completely on your own terms. I will now be able to discuss Nightlights without a vague sense of wrongdoing!