By April Snellings
The practice of working for exposure is a contentious one, for good reason. If you’re at a certain point in your career, it could give you a bump in visibility or experience. But there are many times when asking writers or artists to work for free is just gross and exploitative, and your best response is to knock over a Doritos rack and run. How do you know which is which?
Before we go any further, let’s define working for exposure: it’s when you agree to work for no compensation other than getting your material and your name out into the world. It’s not the same thing as volunteer work—I’m a member of a professional writers’ organization that produces a free online magazine, and I donate a few hours a month to interview fellow members about their latest releases. I don’t do it for exposure; I do it to be a part of a community I value, and because it gives me a chance to ring up brilliant, successful authors and pick their brains until they get twitchy and suddenly realize they left the tea kettle on, even though we’ve been on the phone for like 45 minutes at this point and I think the tea-kettle thing is a total ruse.
I should also note that small literary journals and themed anthologies don’t live on the shady end of the work-for-exposure street. Those are often labors of love that barely recoup their printing cost, and the things you’ll submit to them might be things you’ve already written. Today we’re talking about publishers who ask you to produce work for them but can’t—or simply choose not to—pay you for it.
Anyway, here’s a breakdown of the good vs. the bad of working for exposure.
Exposure does not pay the bills. You probably like having luxurious things like food and electricity, and working for exposure isn’t how you get them. You probably have sources of income other than writing. Your sloth-grooming business is thriving because the world is really into sloths right now, or your fabulously successful spouse pulls out a stack of hundreds and makes it rain when you announce you’re having Swedish meatballs for dinner. That’s cool. But every hour you devote to working for exposure is an hour you’re not spending on your novel, or on a paid freelancing gig, or rolling meatballs for Benjamins. Writing is hard work, and you deserve to be paid fairly for doing it.
Crazy, right? Let me repeat: Writing is hard work, and you deserve to be paid fairly for doing it.
If the publisher intends to profit from the work, they need to pay their contributors. Which leads us to…
It might devalue the work of other writers. It’s not just your own work that could be getting the short shrift. When publishers can find writers who’ll work without compensation, it might make them less inclined to hire writers who expect to be paid for their time and effort. This is bad. Like, angry-bat-stuck-in-your-hair bad.
The result might not be the best version of your work. Back when there were magical things called alternative weekly newspapers, I urged new writers to pitch them, even if they didn’t pay well. It was a good way to break into publication, and it gave you access to a great resource: experienced editors who could help you hone your craft, and who’d (usually) make sure your rookie mistakes didn’t wind up in print. I don’t mean typos or grammatical errors—those are easy fixes—but the more troublesome urges that can overtake even the best of us; those times when we succumb to a penchant for unchecked simile or weird adverbs or wandering off into the weeds of purple prose and off-topic rambling like an insidious bucket of hagfish writhingly writhing before the cinnamon-saddled pony of—
Wait, what were we talking about? Oh, right. Sorry. Anyway, my point is, experienced editors make you look good, and sometimes they save you from yourself. A lot of the we-can’t-pay-you-BUT offers floating around do not have a strong editorial team at the helm.
Those are some pretty persuasive arguments against working for exposure, right? Hey, this is easy! Only it’s not, because there are also some benefits that might make it an attractive prospect at a certain point in your career, as long as you know what you’re getting into. So let’s move on to…
Well, exposure. “Breaking into publication is easy!” said no likeable human ever. Plenty of successful writers have gotten a career boost from an unpaid contribution to a magazine, anthology, or website. If you don’t have any bylines under your belt, it might be worth considering.
Community. One of the best aspects of working in publishing is the opportunity to collaborate with exceptional people. If it’s the right project, working for exposure could give you a chance to meet like-minded folks who’ll become part of your support network. Pay attention to who else is involved. Is it the cool chick who’ll nerd out with you for hours about why Nancy Downs from The Craft is a freaking perfect character? Or is it the angry, sweaty guy who retweets Scott Baio? This matters to you.
Experience makes you better. The more you write, the better you’ll get. As long as it doesn’t distract you from your goals, taking the occasional for-exposure gig might be a good way to build your writing muscles. (Writing muscles are like sax-playing muscles, only they’re less shiny and they smell like cheap whiskey and existential dread. Let us pause now to appreciate the shiny sax-playing muscles that writers don’t have.)
Whether or not to work for exposure is a tough decision, and you’re the only one who can make it. (I did it for my first few bylines and it worked out well, but I probably wouldn’t even consider doing it today.) If it makes sense for you personally, consider these factors before you jump in:
– Is it a reputable outlet—one you’ll want to be associated with always and forever? Publishers fold and websites go under, but in these days of archive.org and the Wayback Machine, a byline is forever.
– Know what you stand to gain, and be sure it’s proportional to the time and effort required. A 700-word blog post is a quick and fun task that could pay dividends in building your platform. A 7,000-word short story is a considerably larger investment of your time and effort, and possibly a valuable intellectual property.
– Make sure it’s something you’ll enjoy. If you’re gonna work for peanuts, at least have fun with it. (And make them show you the peanuts first.)
Whatever you decide, be cool about it. However small you think the world of publishing is, know this: it’s even smaller. Today’s micro-press anthology editor might be tomorrow’s big-five acquisitions editor. Also, “don’t be a jerk” is just good human-ing. If you take the gig, treat it like a paying one. Do your best work, meet your deadlines, and always be professional. If you turn it down, be polite and thank them for the opportunity.
But do keep this in mind: if there are people who want to publish your work, there are people who will want to pay you for it. Find those people.
April Snellings has somehow built a career out of her passion for spooky pop culture. (Her obsession with The Facts of Life has thus far been less productive, but April remains hopeful.) She is a staff writer for Rue Morgue Magazine, a project editor for the popular Rue Morgue Library, and a contributing editor for the International Thriller Writers’ The Big Thrill. In 2015, April joined the lineup of creators for the audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. April’s Season Three episode was an iTunes Top 25 Fiction Audiobooks bestseller; her work in newspapers, magazines, and copywriting has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Advertising Federation, and the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards.
April lives in East Tennessee with her long-suffering wife and a quartet of recalcitrant dogs and cats. Chickens and bees are forthcoming and will likely be jerks as well.