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We all have to stop working for free… don’t we?

Last month, Francisco* and I narrowly averted an argument. As is the case with most couples’ arguments, our near-miss fight was about money.

Francisco and I are not an argument-prone pair; though we’re both hard-headed and opinionated, we don’t like conflict and we’re very careful about protecting one another.

Which is why we were almost fighting.

Should this guy work for free?

Should this guy work for free?

While photographing an event on assignment, Francisco met a producer from a local radio station. They exchanged pleasantries and business cards, and the next day she contacted him about a gig. Would he be interested in photographing some VIP station supporters before and after a Broadway show? He said that he would and discussions began about the particulars of the gig.

He was flattered to have been asked and he was visibly excited about the assignment when he told me about it. He shared some of the details and it all sounded great. And then I asked, “So what are they paying you?”

“Well, um, the producer said they don’t have a budget for this because they’re a public radio station and they don’t have a lot of money, but, you know, it’s great exposure and they’ll definitely keep me in mind for future paying work, and they’ll credit me and I can use it in my publication history.”

“What a bunch of bullshit,” I said, before padding off to the kitchen for some seltzer. I returned, glass in hand. Imagine a full, bright balloon floating in a child’s hand and then being popped by a cynical older kid on the playground. Then imagine what the balloon-holding kid’s face looks like, and you’ll have a decent approximation of Francisco’s expression.

In short, he was defeated.

I knew I’d fouled, though that hadn’t been my intention at all. He felt that my “Bullshit!” declaration was a value judgment about his decision-making skills. “I feel like you think I’m an idiot for accepting a gig that doesn’t pay anything,” he said. And though I scrambled to explain that it was actually a statement of how much value I place on his photography, there weren’t any words–at least not at that moment–that were going to salve the wounded ego.

**
When the initial bruise of my words had faded, I raised the issue again. I wanted to explain what I had meant. I have more experience than he does with the dilemmas surrounding “work for exposure” schemes, and I felt like my own grapplings– some successful, most not, but all having led me to a clearer personal and professional stance on being asked to work for free– could shorten his own learning curve in what has turned from his hobby to a career.

“Look,” I started, “the radio station would never call a web developer and ask them to build a website for free. They’d never call ConEd and say, ‘You know, we’re a public radio station and we don’t have much cash, so we’re just not going to pay our light bill. But hey, we’ll give you a shout-out on the station– sound good?’ But for some reason, they’re completely okay with asking a photographer to provide his services for free in exchange for the promise of a 3-second mention on air. See what I mean?”

I’ve done enough of the “work for exposure” gigs to know that the “exposure” is usually nominal at best, meaningless at worst, and almost never leads to anything bigger, better, or paying.

**
Though our exchange was a sore spot and though his enthusiasm for the gig had vanished completely, Francisco had committed to doing the job, and he did it. When the photos were published, his name didn’t appear on them as promised… not until he contacted the station and requested that they make good on their deal. Francisco conceded (and no, I didn’t crow a triumphant “I told you so!”) that he probably could have spent the time he invested in the gig better– either by hustling up some paying work, processing the massive backlog of photos sitting on his hard drive, or moving some images over to a stock site.

“Live and learn,” I said. “It’s all good.”

**
I’m not against creative people sharing their gifts for free. My friend, Lola Akinmade Akerstrom, is a wonderful example of someone who makes a living as a professional photographer and offers a percentage of her time and talent to pro-bono causes that are important to her.

But…

I now make decisions about how I apportion my own “will work for free” time according to two caveats:

1. Is the person or organization asking for my time and skills really in need or are they simply not prioritizing their desires in a way that includes those desires as a line-item in a budget? Having worked in non-profits, I know the realities of creative financing and the importance of streamlining the cost of contracted services.^ But as a provider of goods and services–writing and photography are products, after all–I’m not willing to participate in a financial system that operates any differently from the office supply store. The radio station producer doesn’t walk into Staples and say she needs office supplies but won’t pay for them because she doesn’t have the budget for them. Why should creative services be any different?

2. What percentage of my time and work am I willing and able to give away freely, without expectation of compensation AND credit? As a person who doesn’t have enough time to realize all of her own projects, that percentage is quite low.
**
But back to our near-fight.

As I’ve reflected on our exchange, I realized that my problem was this: I wanted Francisco to decline the gig based on my principles, not his. And though I truly do want him to value his own work and not give it away, I shouldn’t try to mandate whether he works for free or how he sets his fees.

Among the community of writers and photographers I know, I often hear us trying to influence one another about this issue. “You CAN’T work for free,” a writer friend once counseled me, “because then we’ll ALL be expected to work for free. Writing won’t have any value.”

Though I agree with her in theory, we each have to make our own decisions, and often, these are made on a case-by-case basis. Do we all have to stop working for free? When do you choose to give your work and skills away and what’s the line you absolutely won’t cross when it comes to establishing and defending the value of your work? When do you push an editor or a client who’s asking you to work below-market rate to adjust their fees?

Francisco and I would love to hear from you in the comments.


*If you’re new to the blog, Francisco is the most important member of CuadernoInedito’s cast of characters. He’s my husband and business partner, and most of his professional work involves photography.

^I also know how CEOs are compensated, and let’s just say that non-profits typically aren’t quite as cash-strapped as they appear; they just don’t allocate money as effectively as they could or should.

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205 responses »

  1. My stance is to say no to working for free between 95-100% of the time. That said, no one really asks me to work for free anymore. If anything, I might figure out after sending a two-sentence pitch that an up-and-coming website isn’t paying contributors (“yet!” they always add, as if that matters) and then either decide to either go ahead and bang out the short piece I had in mind, something that couldn’t be placed elsewhere, or I politely wish them luck and go about my day. Speaking of web developers as a point of comparison, my developer partner/husband would *never* be asked to work for free and never would unless explicitly offering to help someone (which, I think it’s even fair to say, he’d probably be wary of doing anytime in the near future based on some previous negative experiences doing so).

    My real concern is similar to your friend’s — that when some writers don’t demand to be treated as professionals, those of us who *are* professionals may suffer. I know a writer who will take assignments without knowing what if anything she’ll be paid. This is a woman who has written/edited several books. From my POV, she never needs to work for exposure again. Yet for whatever reason, she seems to keep doing it. I’m baffled and as a fellow writer/journo, I’m sort of offended on behalf of all of us. I know that may not be entirely fair, nor have I ever had an editor express outrage or shock that I demand to be paid and use an unpaid writer as an example for comparison. “Well Samantha didn’t invoice me or bother me about payment!” Obvs, that would never happen. But I do wonder if we don’t all do ourselves a disservice when those of us in certain professions act as though it’s OK to work for free when other types of workers, perhaps those already overvalued in society in terms of prestige or payment, would never think twice about something like this. (They might even be embarrassed for us to be having this discussion at all.)

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks for your comment, Brittany. Clearly, we share the same position, and like you, I don’t get asked to work for free anymore, and I *definitely* don’t seek out “work for exposure” gigs. I often get paid less than what I consider to be fair market rate– and I think most writers do. Beyond standing our ground and articulating what we’re worth, one of the many facets of this issue that interests me is how everything is monetized (or not, as the case may be), and, as I alluded to in the post, how we (a general “we,” not a group-of-writers “we”) assign value to “products” and “services.”

      Reply
  2. Yes, this is an ongoing issue for creatives, isn’t it? As much as I love the WWW (I work in online media) it’s also been a real driver the value of the written word. A website I run has no budget, but I don’t expect professional writers to work for free – contributors are generally business professionals writing posts to show expertise/thought leadership and get exposure for their company, which I think is different from asking a professional writer to write for exposure.

    Reply
    • You’ve raised a whole other issue here, and one that’s equally interesting, relevant, and important to me, and that is: How do we editors who work in the online space contribute to the devaluation of writing? The answers are fodder for a whole other post!

      Reply
      • Would love to read that post! Please do.

      • I second that! Would be very interested to hear both your thoughts!

      • Actually, I have to disagree with eemusings regarding the value of her website. I’ve hit this peculiar trend among professionals in the web design industry, which can easily be confirmed by crowdsourcing websites now popping everywhere, that payment is relative to the resulting work given. Getting paid for the logo you liked the best but not getting paid for the time and energy I’ve spent on the other four you didn’t like.

        Computers cost money, so does the education that comes with designing websites. I cannot for the life of me understand why our work is vauled up front. As if someone right off the street with zero education in the industry can walk in your office and build you a website just as good as a professional. That does NOT make sense at all.

        Whenever someone ask me to do photography for free (I do stock photography on the side), I immediately inform them that I would not be using my car to get to and from the sites, I would be using my point and shoot camera that I’m willing to drive a car over (not my fancy SLR equipment), and everything possible to minimize the cost it takes me to do this project for them at no charge.

        They usually shoot back with, “But, think of all the exposure you can get!”

        I’d respond back with, “How funny! It didn’t sound that major to you, since you’re not really budgeting for its photography and marketing it must be small, forgettable stuff. So, explain to me again why I should take this as a major project on my expense?”

        I think a lot of people forget that it takes time, energy, money, education, and a bit more for us to be where we are careerwise and for anyone, who truly does support what we do, to ask us to do it pro bono without our offering it is simply insulting you and not good for you in the long run.

        Sorry for the rant, lol.

  3. Julie – your account is a classic tale of the creative life that unfortunately needs to be kept being told. Not just because writers, photographers or actually anyone doing anything in a new situation needs to be warned not to devalue their work and worth, but also because “we” are perennially the target of choice for every sort of producer/publisher/fly-by-night entrepreneur who thinks the creator of a product he wants to use can be easily finagled out of accounting for in his budget. Like you, I’ve seen the same dance of deceit played out throughout my own writing career on so many people at every level of accomplishment in their own career. For some reason, experience or prominence doesn’t deter the exploiter from wanting to exploit. That being the case, maybe Francisco’s recent encounter is one of those learning moments that will keep serving him well, but I hope he won’t be deterred from seeking opportunity where he has a talent and sees or is offered an opening. I think that’s the other factor we all have to balance – learning from those types of gigs that turn out sour, without losing our enthusiasm or connection to who we still are. I only just discovered your blog, so I hope you’ll do more in future on those other issues more specific to how creators can keep deriving value or new value from their work.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Hi, Hal-

      Thanks for your comment (and apologies that it took so long to moderate- I initially read your comment from my phone and thought I’d approved it). Value and how it is assigned/applied to creative work is one of my favorite topics, so you’ll definitely be reading more about it. I look forward to continuing to hear your thoughts about the issue.

      Reply
  4. As an initial response, my rule of thumb is usually to draw a line between things that are deeply personally/politically important to me and I feel need to be done, and the things that draw of my time to further others’ agendas. I am often happy to work for free on projects that have a particular artistic/political/activist resonance, because they are bodies of work that I feel the world is better for having done, and ones that – for me – there is an important non-financial benefit to having participated in (in the sense of being an artist or an activist, rather than ‘exposure’ or stuff like that).

    For other assignments, it often comes down to deciding (when asked to work pro-bono) whether the non-financial benefit to me (in terms of ‘exposure’, relationship building, etc) is something I can reliably count on, and whether it has (either now or in the future) enough of a value to justify my time in executing it. Often the value promised has huge value (massive exposure, being held in mind for future work, etc), but the reliability of the person offering it will devalue it to the point that the offer is not credible. In the case where the client clearly has the resources to pay, but is trying to get out of doing so for photography, I feel like that relationship is fundamentally manipulative – and on that basis would be distrustful of the promises made by the other party.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Rich-

      Thanks for adding your perspective. Like Lola, I think of you as a great example of someone who has managed to develop a fine sense of when it’s appropriate and admirable to work for free and when it’s not.

      Reply
  5. Good perspective here as always Julie. I’ve been pretty firm on this for a long time and that’s to not work for free, or rather “exposure”. I was just looking last night at a job board and saw a couple different new “publications” that were looking for contributions and columnists, but that couldn’t pay. Many of these outlets say they’ll pay in “exposure” or pay on down the line, but it’s statements that are rarely delivered on. If you don’t have the money to pay now, why should I think you’ll have the money to pay on down the line?! RARELY, have I talked to someone who saw any benefits from the “exposure” line.

    HOWEVER, I will sometimes work for free. Typically it’s for a friend or someone who has done a favor for me, and it’s often a one-time thing. I find that the quality of work, whether mine or someone else’s, is quite a bit lower when there is no pay involved. I’m not motivated. It’s the last piece of work that will be done during the day, therefore, getting the least amount of attention and without my best foot forward. That’s reason enough for me not to do it and what I think should be reason enough for companies not to pull that kind of stunt. At the end of the day, this is more then a 9-5 for me. This is my life and link juice doesn’t keep my electricity turned on :).

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Spencer-

      Thanks for your comment. I think that these “publications” you’re talking about should spend time developing a viable business model before they jump into the deep end of publishing and seeking the contributions of writers and photographers. Were this the case, we’d see fewer publications shutter and more writers and photographers get paid fairly for their work.

      Reply
  6. So Julie. I’m glad you wrote this post.

    If we work for free, we are setting the rates for our own work. As much as I like to think that no one should work for free because it’s bad for all of us, I can’t control that. But I can control how much MY work goes for and it’s not free.

    I’ve made some rookie mistakes around this, and I write them off to exactly that. But it grinds my gear when corporate entities ask me to work for free. Anyone who offers “exposure” gets a pretty snarky response that includes remarks about how my bank won’t let me deposit that or use it to pay my bills.

    I mostly walk away from below market rate work. If you’re willing to do it, yeah, go ahead, and you’ve set your rate. I’ll hold out for work that pays me real money.

    I have written for very cheap, but only when it absolutely feeds my soul or I have some personal loyalty to the organization asking and really understand their financial situation. Typically, there’s a real connection there, it’s more than a work for cheap situation.

    I ran into a writer recently who was kind of upset that her publisher wouldn’t switch her to a paid position after she’d agreed to write a few pieces for free. “Don’t do that again,” i said. I wanted to be sympathetic, I honestly did, but she’d set her pay scale up front and it was zero dollars. Oops.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks for your comment, Pam. Like you, my own policy is “No” to corporate entities; they’ve got money and they’re choosing to allocate it according to priorities that don’t align with mine. I think we all evolve into our own policies over the course of our careers, but if newer folks can learn from our rookie mistakes, so much the better.

      Reply
      • Very good points! What are both of your thoughts on writing for startups? Since most of the time, they don’t have much money, what should one ask for in return if shares are not an option?

    • This was my exact experience. I wrote for a national blog for free. My work drove a lot of traffic to the site and a third of my posts were re-posted as “hot” posts. The carrot of moving up to a paid position had been dangled in my face but never materialized. It was a classic case of “Why but the milk..” I guess “free” writers are a dime a dozen.

      Reply
  7. I believe in working for free/cheap at a certain stage in your career; if you’re not ‘made’ yet and you insist on working for decent compensation, you might never get your feet off the ground. However, after a certain point, you need to make sure the effort you put in equals what you get out. Write for exposure? Sure, when you have no clips – we all have to pay our dues. Sure, if it’s Huff Po where you really ARE getting exposure. But once you have a decent portfolio and a good bead on the business, it’s time to start putting your foot down and treating your work like a product.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks for your comment, Eve. I have to say that, from the outsider’s perspective (as in, “This is a comment being made without direct knowledge of their business model”), I think Huffington Post is particularly problematic. You have Arianna Huffington, who says she’s a champion of the middle class, and yet she can’t pay her writers? Regardless of where you, as a writer, are in your career, from the perspective of a fair business model, it’s troubling to me. I can’t think of any other industry off the top of my head where the head honcho’s building a business off of people laboring for free.

      Reply
      • Then writers should set up an union like Screen Actors Guild and Screen Writers Guild where the creative spigot can be turned off when the industry starts undermining the value of the collective works of journalists, writers, and bloggers (yep, gotta add them in at this point).

        This way, an union like this would allow better mentorship among the older writers with the younger ones. There’s a big disconnect there.

        The same goes for photography..

    • I agree with the pigeoneater ;-) In the beginning, while you’re cutting your teeth, that’s just how it is. I wrote lots of stuff for free. I don’t anymore. Everybody has their own learning curve on this one.

      And this doesn’t just apply to the creative industries. Many years ago, I tried to set up as a self-employed Nutritional Therapist, and I encountered the same problem – having to do lots of work for free to publicise yourself, and offering “low cost” treatments to people who cannot afford to pay full rates. I have friends and acquaintances who are shrinks, and it’s just the same for them.

      Reply
      • Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure that “that’s just how it is.” I think it A way it is, but it doesn’t have to be THE way. And as a former therapist, I can affirm that you’re right- many people in the field approach their career development by starting out low cost. But I also know therapists who came straight out of the gate with fees that matched more seasoned colleagues, and they’re the one who are still rocking with a full, well-paid practice.

      • After posting my reply, I read your profile, and it’s clear that you’ve observed this ‘working-for-next-to-nothing game’ from many angles, not just in the artistic field.
        Essentially, I’m with you on this. The line, where you’re still getting your skill up and where other people are exploiting you, is a blurry one… but I think there comes a point at which you feel that you’re being taken advantage of. And that’s the time to put a stop to it ;-)
        But it’s a very personal thing… nobody’s going to refuse to work for free solely on the grounds that it depresses the pay rates of one’s industry.
        And it is definitely something that should be discussed among friends/colleagues and blogs like yours. Sharing one’s experiences helps others to form a better opinion on whether or not they are running the risk of being exploited and of undervaluing their work.

    • And that is where most of us are. Waiting for the gatekeepers to bless us with validation.

      Reply
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  9. This happens all too often in the theatre industry, people are asked to donate their time and effort with no pay. I have stopped saying yes to non-paying gigs unless it is a project or group that I really want to work with.

    Reply
  10. It’s the problem with amateurism. When people are willing to work for free it makes it that much more difficult for people to make a living with their work.

    Reply
  11. I considered making a comment. A revolutionary and succinct comment, but, that would cost you!

    GReat post!

    Reply
  12. I’m impressed by your self-analysis of your reaction and how you fed that back to Francisco.

    I write and take pictures, but I make software for a living. So far, nobody’s asked me to write for them, but from time to time I do get asked if someone can use one of my photos for something. Heck, sometimes I don’t get asked; just today, one of my photos showed up on the Web site of a local business publication as it related to a story they wrote about. If I intended to make money off my writing and photography I might have sent them a nastygram. But I expect writing and photography will remain sidelines for me, done primarily for my own enjoyment. So I generally freely let anyone who asks use anything I’ve created. But I’d draw the line if my favorite radio station wanted me to shoot an event for them for nothing, as frankly I’m plenty busy and already give some of my time to a couple charitable/non-profit orgs I believe in. The radio station would have to make the time expenditure worth my while.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment. There’s temptation in sending the nastygrams, but I know people who ARE making a living off photography and writing who have simply decided it’s not worth their time to chase down people who are scraping their photos and words and appropriating them as their own. I know a renowned Cuban photographer whose work is often reproduced without his permission by gallerists in the States. When I asked him what he thought about that and whether he wanted to pursue cease and desists or some similar action, he just sighed and said something like, “Look. I already don’t have enough time to do all the creating I want to do. Chasing these people down would steal time.”

      Reply
  13. Found this post by accident…nice, because this is a subject I deal with regularly as a sound designer and composer for films and video games. Filmmakers tend to be the worst, particularly in the indie universe. That whole, “It will look great on your resume when we get to Sundance!” vibe never flies, especially considering the challenging odds in getting to Sundance in the first place. Game developers (again, indie folks) tend to be a bit better in payment because they understand most of the coders required to actually build a game won’t work for free and if THEY’RE getting paid it would be hard to justify why I SHOULDN’T get paid!

    Still, some try while others go for the lowball price in hopes of getting the gig. I was once asked to fix all the audio on a 20 minute zombie short along with music for something like $500…almost worth it for the resume, but borderline. I asked to see a rough cut of the film…a few days later told that someone came in with a bid of $300 for the same work and they couldn’t get the film compressed in a way to send it to me. Bah! :)

    Reply
  14. Very interesting post. It’s given me a lot of food for thought. Something I realized early on is to always charge full price or to do it pro-bono. There was a client who couldn’t afford my usual rate, so I discounted for her, knowing that she really didn’t have the money. In the end, I resented the time I was spending at half price, and we both ended up losing. Looking back, I should have just done it as a volunteer because both of us would have valued the time more. Live and learn!

    Reply
    • Jacqueline-

      Great point. I’ve also done sliding scale fees, mainly in my work as an editor, and like you, I’ve almost always felt resentment and, as a result, a little less motivated to do a great job. When you’re not asking for what you’re worth, you’re often not putting your full effort into a project. The thing is: the people who are asking for sliding scale actually usually CAN afford to pay full rate. They would just rather not because what they’re asking for isn’t a priority. If it were, they’d pay full freight.

      Reply
  15. There’s always some new form of exploitation in the making. Internships for college credits, debt pay down schemes ect. We’ve already been commodified enough. These practices will continue in proportion to our lack of resistance.

    Reply
  16. You make a great point. In creative industries it is somehow expected that you work for free- weather it is projects or internships… what I found, that somehow it is very easy to be stuck in that rut… thought provoking post…

    Reply
    • It IS easy to get stuck because the refrain of “This will be great exposure for you! This will lead to other great things!” sounds so promising. It’s only through repeat exposure to the fact that the exposure usually doesn’t lead to much at all, if anything, that we begin to question exposure and draw our own lines between what we’ll give for free and what we attach a cost to.

      Reply
  17. Freshly Pressed has been great today. This is the second wonderful post I’ve read! Thank you very much for sharing. It addressed some great issues for me. I love the way you related this personal story with your husband and still gave excellent professional advice.

    I’m an aspiring screenwriter/director in Philadelphia and in order to get my career started I’m working from the ground up…and the “ground” in the movie industry, especially outside of Hollywood, is volunteer Production Assistant gigs. I’ve been doing that stuff for years and have now graduated to jobs that are more in my line of work (camera operating, director of photography, etc)…but they’re still volunteer based!

    I’m ok with donating my time if I feel it’s an opportunity to test my skills, network with talented people, and build contacts for my own future projects. It’s great when you meet people willing to return the favor for you if you help them. It’s like a trade. And that’s great.

    But I have noticed, now that I’m more experienced, that some people are better at managing your work and effort better than others. So I’ve become much more selective with what projects I take. Nowadays, I’d much rather run my own shoot and gain experience with my time that way then work on someone’s half-assed shoot. At least I know I’ll give myself and everyone on set a good experience.

    Thank you again for sharing and giving some excellent tips. I really loved the post.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your kind comment. I really liked what you said here: “Nowadays, I’d much rather run my own shoot and gain experience with my time that way then work on someone’s half-assed shoot.” I think it’s important to become selective with collaborators– collaborations can be incredible, but they can also be a drain on energy, effort, and even one’s reputation, so you’re right- sometimes being fully independent can be a much better option.

      Reply
  18. icittadiniprimaditutto

    Reblogged this on i cittadini prima di tutto and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

    Reply
  19. As a professional freelance grant writer for many years with a proven record of success, I cannot count how many times I was asked or expected to work for free… while working to obtain tens of thousands of dollars for the client! I even had people call me selfish and greedy for requesting modest, non-profit level fees. Eventually I burned out and quit that line of work, but not before learning that if I don’t value my time and work, neither will the company for whom I am working.

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry to hear that you had to quit work that you were good at because you felt judged by others for requesting fair fees. Having spent my fair share of time working in the non-profit world, I can empathize. Often, non-profits have an incredibly unhealthy conceptualization of and relationship with money. Hope what you’re doing now is more satisfying and rewarding, financially and otherwise!

      Reply
  20. This is one of the biggest complaints that I hear from my professional photographer friends.
    I have a dear friend that lives in the UK and he said, that it had become such an issue that he had deemed it necessary to send a formatted e-mail out to all of his accounts.
    I translate on the side and I am asked all the time if I can translate, only to hear the same resounding, “Can you do it for free?”
    As the managers of our own non-profit outreach, my husband and I do not go around asking people for free labor.
    I said all of that to say this, you are correct, it is unacceptable to expect free labor, be it from an author, photographer, translator or any other working professional trying to wade through the effects of our present economy.

    Reply
    • Oh yes… I’ve been asked to translate for free, too. Google will do that for free. And there’s a reason why it’s free: it’s typically a terrible translation.

      Reply
  21. This is a great blog — thank you for writing. As a young writer, this is a question I have grappled with constantly. The only time I have agreed to publish something without pay has been when the publisher offered something else in return, such as free advertizing of my previous or upcoming publications on their website. However, even those instances have given me pause. If I ever want to be able to make a living of any kind on my craft, how can I allow people to believe that its something I give away? However, I’ve actually found that my work as an editor has been even tougher to get paid for — no one wants to hire an editor anymore; its all left to unpaid interns (code for unpaid editors).

    On the other hand, my father who is a photographer (bluelionphotos.com) does a great deal of pro-bono work for causes he believes in such as local wildlife refuges. I think there is certainly an important balance to be struck between paid and pro-bono work but I know, at least for me, that I haven’t found the write mix yet.

    Reply
    • Hi, K.C.-

      Thanks for your honest comment. I think we’re constantly redefining what the balance is… I know I am, anyway. At least we can all talk about it openly and try to figure it out together.

      Reply
  22. I am a fine artist and graphic designer. I have a full-time job doing graphic design during the day and take occasional freelance jobs to supplement my income as well as sell the occasional painting. I will only work for free for very specific purposes: as a donation to a nonprofit, or as a gift for a close friend of family member. That’s it. Nobody else gets anything for free. Too many artists get used and abused by people who just want something for free. They don’t seem to realize or respect the fact that our time is valuable.

    Reply
  23. I found this really interesting. I am a translator and, although I don’t receive many requests to work for free, I receive proposals to work for offensive rates (and I mean really offensive) so I can relate.
    I have worked at very low rates for people who really needed it (for an adoption) and for a student friend, but I am not willing to waste my time and give away my skills for translation agencies or other clients that do have the money and are just not willing to spend it. I find that asking a specialised legal translation offering to pay it a lot less than you would pay the cleaners who take care of your flat is offensive. Not because cleaning is an unworthy job, but because I invested time and money (and I still do) to acquire the skills I need to do a good job, and I would like to receive a wage I can live with. You would never dream of going to a doctor’s and asking to pay a lot less than half price, so why should you with someone else?

    Reply
    • Your last question is one that I often ask when the issue of free vs. paid comes up. You don’t go to the store and buy milk and ask for a discount. You don’t tell your doctor to just give you a check-up for free or at a discount. You’re right: Why is it any different for a writer, photographer, or translator?

      Reply
  24. Thank you so much for writing this article.

    I blogged once about this very subject. As an artist I am often (far too often) asked to sell my art at a price so low that it is below the cost of production. I do have a problem with other artists who sell their work at low prices. My art is not my hobby, it is how I make my living. Artists, writers, singers, photographers…..anyone at all who creates something should be paid a fair price in the market place. If we all stood firm when someone attempts to pay us at or below the cost of production, it would help us all. Here is the link to my post on the same subject http://judymorrisart.com/2012/10/30/pay-yourself-what-you-are-worth/
    I am so pleased that other artists are talking about this.

    Thank you again.

    Judy xxx

    Reply
    • Hi, Judy-

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing the link to your own post on this subject. I think visual artists may have an even tougher time than writers when it comes to the subject of valuation because, generally speaking, the public doesn’t have a shared understanding of how the values of art work are assigned. The “product” (ie: art work) that’s hanging on the wall or placed on a pedestal in front of the viewer isn’t simply the object itself– if it was, the value might be easier to assign and to understand. But because it’s the confluence of a number of variables, and because those variables aren’t easily visible, if at all, to the end viewer, the $20,000 painting hanging on the wall may be inconceivable. Thanks again for sharing your experiences; like you, I’m glad we’re talking about this topic.

      Reply
  25. I wonder if the distinction between volunteering your services, as distinct from “working for free” should be made clearer here. It seems to me that one of the issues here is the blurred line between pro bono work, volunteering, and services rendered for (probably dubious) promotion and/or exposure instead of cash.

    Volunteering to assist organisations early in one’s career (and indeed, throughout it) is a great way to expand both your experience, your CV and (loathe saying this but here it is anyway) your professional network.

    But I think this should be distinguished from cases where organisations capable of paying instead take advantage of a pool of young people to avoid having to pay professionals. (See: interns).

    Tough subject to squeeze into a comment-sized response!

    Reply
    • I agree completely- there is/should be a distinction between volunteering vs. working for free. As so many readers have commented here, I think most of us DO want to share our work “for good causes,” whatever we each deem those good causes to be, and both Francisco and I definitely fall into that category. Thanks for making sure the distinction was clearer.

      Reply
  26. Basically, I agree with you, but there is one exception. I would work for free now and then as a young creative just to get jobs on a resume and work in a portfolio. Once you’ve got those, no working for free.

    Reply
    • I’d love to see a survey of “success” rates of people who’ve interned/worked for free vs. those who never did… wonder if there’d be a difference. What do you think?

      Reply
      • My thought was more or less while you are a student and still learning. No one will hire you for money if you don’t have a portfolio of some kind. To keep this from being a source of free labor for parties who could pay, doing work for non-profit groups is best.

      • Julie Schwietert Collazo

        You’re absolutely right- whether you’re a writer, photographer, or graphic designer, or what have you, you need to develop a portfolio of work, and one of the best ways to do that is to work with non-profits. Not only will you benefit from developing a diverse portfolio, but you can also develop a network of people who have firsthand knowledge of your work and who will be able to recommend your services.

  27. As a freelance woodworker, the opportunities to work for dubious rewards often present as “just this once, could you do this (stupid, unimaginative) job for me at a discount because (next time,week,year…) we’re going to want you to do something really pull-out-all-the-stops extravagant”. Phase two never materializes.
    If you don’t insist on your worth, they’ll take you for granted.

    Reply
    • Oh man… a freelance woodworker- sounds like you might have even more challenges than a freelance writer! You’re right, though: phase 2 almost never materializes.

      Reply
  28. It’s a very interesting topic with many aspects. I was asked trough a “friend of a friend” to photograph a wedding for a “special price”. My colleague who had actually done a lot of wedding photography advised me against saying ‘yes’ because it is a lot of work that is worth the regulat price. Working ‘for free’ isn’t really a favor to anyone. Unless you’re working for a nice cause – L.A.A was a good example. Thanks for sharing the story.

    Reply
  29. So very good. Some industries are difficult to break into and there is a lot of pressure to find ways to get promoted or self promote. You offer some very wise words and much needed perspective.

    Reply
  30. As a comedian learning my art I will often perform for free because I want the stage time. I don’t know what the big deal is because I really want to be doing comedy. You can’t just go out there and demand money when you don’t know what you are doing. However, at some point after being at it for years I will expect to be paid but will continue doing shows that are meaningful for me. For example, there was a fundraiser to pay for a guide dog for a child with Aspergers, which I was more than willing to do for free. If there is alot of money being made at an event you expect to be paid. But the only way to keep improving is by doing shows even if they are only open mics. As a writer if there is no paying writing gigs shouldn’t you take whatever you can get to keep your skills up and build on them?

    Reply
    • To elaborate well-paid comedians still do open mics which are essentially free shows. This is because they enjoy doing it. Same with improvers, and sketch comedy troupes. Not because they can’t get paid gigs but because they enjoy themselves. If they were doing it for corporate groups of course they would charge but there has to be a middle ground. You weren’t paid to write this blog but you still did it which is sharing your writing gift for free.

      Reply
      • Thanks for your comments. I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with whatever choices we each make. In your case, though, I’m wondering if you’re pursuing comedy as a career or just as a hobby? And if the former, should a job not be compensated just because you’re passionate about it? In other words, is it ok for you if passion is the only reward?

  31. Definitely goes beyond writing and photography. Nice article, by the way. I think people new to creative work want to be known, want the attention for their work; heck, most everyone does, except, say, a covert ops assassin. But let’s keep things PG here.

    As a developer, some people say my work is great, and for what I’ve done, sure; but it’s nowhere near as good as the guys at Apple or Google. And as a writer, exposure in one place might turn off your writing career. Would you want your Young Adult novel to show up in a naughty magazine? I wouldn’t!

    I’ve done free work for family and friends with fixing computers. On the other hand, I had a friend’s mother refuse to let me do work for her for free.

    The writing field is more competitive than computer service, and I’m finding that out on my own now. This can also encourage people to opt for the free work in exchange for exposure. But even if you get exposure, that might have the opposite effect: if your work is really good, people might think you’re too expensive, are well off and could afford to do free work. That’s a real splinter in your side that won’t easily go away.

    Reply
    • True- I think Huffington Post is a great example for the kinds of dynamics you’re exploring here. Good for the writing career or not? The answers depend on the writer’s goals, I guess, but if you’re writing for HuffPo for free, what’s any other editor’s motivation to pay you?

      Reply
  32. I just found my way to this post tonight, which must have been a fortuitous act of fate, because not even an hour ago I was debating doing a short writing gig (unpaid, I’m almost certain) for the proverbial “exposure.” I definitely needed this verbal smack upside the head, so thank you for that!

    I’m a young writer trying to establish myself as a freelancer from down here in Colombia, so obviously there are quite a few hurdles to climb in terms of solidifying a base, breaking into a new area of the industry and having enough clips or experience to feel qualified. But I went to journalism school and have written for major publications, so it’s not like I’m some kid who doesn’t know how to use the AP Stylebook. I think this is one area where even our j-schools kind of fail young writers — we’re taught all the skills we need to succeed at the job, but then we aren’t given the tools to market or assert ourselves when it comes to those jobs. Just because everyone is capable of typing a sentence on a page doesn’t mean that sentence is a good one, and I think we writers do need to stop undermining ourselves.

    Anyways, thank you for giving me the reminder I needed to say no to this gig and go out and find one that’s actually going to pay me instead. I’ll dedicate a few pesos of the next paycheck to this blog post (in spirit, of course)!

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment. I’ve long thought that j-schools and MFA programs have needed to expand their offerings with respect to marketing and finances. The fact they don’t is a disservice to their students.

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  33. It’s a dilemma for me too, both as a freelancer and as a recent graduate looking for a job I get stuck with interning :(. Right now I do intern at a place where I get some great exposure (and I do get paid for some written work), projects and met great people but organizations are definitely looking for ways to get free labour when possible! I have said no to some places, but it really does depend on if you feel it’s worth it.

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  34. great read, you write well!

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  35. I always tell people when donating to nonprofits they should check it out first. Make sure that the money is going to where you want it to go!

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  36. the only thing that has ever proven to raise value is the old “supply and demand” principal.
    there is a glut of supply: therefore the value is lessened. my solution is to cease working altogether. thus giving some one else a chance. someone who might be better qualified, and just the mere fact that I have been exploited, so many times, on so many levels…
    . this article struck a huge chord with me.
    all those years of “working” for free, to support someone else… it is baffling. It started when I was a child… dance lessons, and recitals, and parties the instructor made a few dimes off me, but I never received anything= but applause. The drama teachers putting on performances from grade school all the way up through college level, the college makes a living, but as the actor, I only received applause. and worse of all…. the churches I sang in, worked in, volunteered for, served at, the pew dollars paid to keep the building running, the pastors paid. and all I ever received was a warm fuzzy feeling.
    For me, asking to be paid for a talent is like a crime. And it would take a tremendous miracle for me to value my own work enough to demand payment…..i am ashamed to even post this. but it is true for me. so to all the orgs out there seeking volunteers…. I QUIT!

    Reply
  37. Back in the 80s I had a second income doing editorial and stock photography. I started out as a free-lance photographer, but most people only heard the ‘free’ part of the title.

    The turning point for me was when someone was selling me on the idea of working for free and giving me a paying job ‘down the line’. The light went on inside my head and I simply said, “I’ll tell you what, pay me my going rate for this job and I will give you a free one ‘down the line’ in the future.”

    I did not hear anymore from that person and the time I would have spent working for free was instead spent building the business and making contacts with people who would pay for services rendered.

    It is good to help people and causes when their finances are not up to paying market rates, but your bottom line doesn’t have to suffer too. Their problem doesn’t have to be your problem.

    Good luck.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Hi, Allan-

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. I like your response- I hope I don’t have to borrow it, but if I do, I’ll definitely pull it out of pocket!

      Reply
    • Allan, I love the turn-around there. Giving them some of their own medicine allows them a chance to see what they’re doing to you.

      Reply
  38. I think, with writing, particularly, there has always been an expectation that it should be ‘free’ or ‘not well paid’. That comes in part from the idea that ‘anybody’ can write. That itself devalues the profession. And it’s not so! Anybody can put words together. Can anybody write? Sure, but it’s a learned skill like any other. And like any professional, you hope to get value from that education. I mean, doctors get paid, lawyers get paid (boy, do they get paid!) – why not writers?

    I think it’s got worse of late, though, because of the way the world is changing. There’s an expectation today – especially in our wired, online world – that any contributor people should work for free; that they should give away their intellectual creations for free. Artists – by which I mean anybody who creates something abstract for others to consume (writers, photographers, painters, musicians, etc etc) are facing a perfect storm just now; the advent of web 2 with its relentless push for free content (and easy copying), coupled with the loss of discretionary spending among the likely audience as the world economy continues to bump along. And I’m not averse to altruism. It’s good to help others, to bring them pleasure with what we can create. But hey – we gotta eat too…don’t we? Our time’s worth something too – just like a burger slider or petrol pump attendant’s (both fo whom, truth be told, probably earn more than most artists, alas).

    As for others profiting off the donated work of writers? That’s pretty common on my experience – I used to write book reviews for a New Zealand magazine. The payment for it was desultory, effectively I was subsidising their bottom line with my time and skills. I don’t do it any more. Why? They made a mistake over what I was supposed to invoice them and failed to pay me altogether, and when I followed up, my reward for being at the receiving end of their error and putting more time into fixing it than the money was worth, was to be dumped. It’s all one way, and the writer loses. Sigh.

    Reply
  39. Good for you!! I’m guessing the hubby is not a ‘registered charity’ and therefore his goodwill should not be abused; freebies sometimes pays off though…..hopefully being Freshly Pressed should SERIOUSLY raise his profile!!!

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Ha- well, maybe the hubby *should* register as a charity…. In all seriousness, this experience resulted in his new mantra: “I’m not a charity!”

      Reply
  40. “Paying our dues” as in not getting paid because you haven’t reached a certain point in your career is a slippery slope. If your work is good enough to be published or utilized in some way, then you should be paid. Period. There’s an Italian saying: Not even a dog wags it’s tail for no reason.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      “Not even a dog wags its tail for no reason.” LOVE it! I also think your articulation of your argument is simple and perfect. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
      • I had to keep it short and sweet Julie or I would have gone onto a venting rampage… What some people don’t understand is this: if you work for free, not only are you the cause of another person not getting a paid gig, but you are also ruining your own career because why on earth would a company pay for something they can get for free from the other 20 “exposure” dummies standing behind you?

  41. What a tough challenge for anyone in creative positions. It’s part of why I gave up trying to make a living doing photography – with so many people willing to work for free, fewer people & organizations are willing to pay (even though those same people certainly wouldn’t work for free). A very successful organization in Aspen, CO wanted me to photograph their big annual event. I went to the meeting expecting to bargain a fair deal for all. The fee they offered? $0.00. They didn’t even try to sell me on the “exposure” bit – they just felt I should do it, well, just because. I walked out of that meeting MAD.

    It’s one thing to take something on because you see value in it (whether it’s giving back to the community or it has potential to increase your professional worth), but the BS of “exposure”…. ugh.

    Sorry for my rant. No good answer to any of this.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Kevin-
      No apologies needed; I think a good rant can be productive and cathartic. :) What are you doing now to make a living, if I might ask?

      Reply
    • You think YOU have a reason to be mad? HA! I did websites and had to leave the market after one evil woman not only would not pay me, she said I owed her my work and she would sue me to get money out of me o.O

      There was a rescission agreement signed and when she found out that she had essentially agreed that the contract had never taken place, she’d tried to have me fired over the circumvented lawsuit. Never agree to work for a customer where you work. Keep freelance and day job work completely separate!

      Reply
      • Julie Schwietert Collazo

        Thanks for sharing your experience. It brings up another point that is worth considering: Do you charge for your services in full before providing them? As with working for free, we each have our own approach to this dilemma, but I’m willing to bet many of us have been burned in the same way you were. I know I have.

  42. Scriptor Obscura

    I think this is particularly relevant here:

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  43. My thoughts are, if you’re in a field where the supply-and-demand ratio is disproportionate, as it is in photography, chances are you will not find enough paid opportunities to be consistently working unless you are exceptional. That comes with practice, so … once you have enough of an established point of view and a skill level, you can try to make money. Pro bono jobs are important if they are being published but it’s up to you to learn which publications will get you the right exposure. Once you’re at the point where people who matter are asking you to do work, get an agent to discuss the pay so you can focus on being enthusiastic about the work.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Hi, Alisha-

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Agents *can* help manage these issues much more handily than many writers, photographers, and other artists, though the practice of having an agent isn’t as common for writers who work primarily for print magazines. The rates freelancers get paid hardly justify having an agent, so there’s that challenge. And while I think that being exceptional–or at least highly skilled!– is important, I’ve also seen plenty of creatives who aren’t necessarily the best or even great, but who happen to land a gig because of luck, timing, or circumstance. There’s certainly a lot about these fields that isn’t “fair.”

      Reply
  44. Hi Julie!

    I am a former teacher, current stay at home mom, blogging and writing my way to my dream career. While I have been paid for some of my freelance writing, more often than not I am asked to contribute for free (for exposure). It’s tough not to say, No.”

    Just yesterday my mother insisted that I write a few articles for her neighbor; the editor of a very small running magazine. I told her I wouldn’t (couldn’t) because he doesn’t pay, and she was flabbergasted. Imagine my surprise when she forwarded this post to me this morning.

    Thanks for writing such a great piece!

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Hi, Martha-

      Thanks for your comment. You touch on an issue here that I didn’t even tackle in this post: when family and friends ask you for free services. This is probably more common a request for photographers than for writers, and saying no to family, for some people, may be even more difficult than saying no to a publication asking for free or deeply discounted services. It definitely makes for awkward situations.

      Reply
      • My circle of friends and family and friends that are like family is large enough that we give freely knowing that what we need will be given to us. I am lucky in that regards. If the request is for a friend, I will ask for a token amount such as a ride to an event that I want to go to or bus fare / gas money / a meal.

      • Julie Schwietert Collazo

        For most of us, we probably *do* put friends and family in a separate category when it comes to charging for our work. My mother, for example, has asked me to translate a few letters and to do some copy editing work and I would never dream of charging her. She’s my mother!

        But I like to think of the flip side, too. My brother is in computers and networking, and he’s probably good and ready to put me on a retainer, so often have I called him for tech advice. He’s always a great sport about it, but I do think I need to be more cognizant of the fact that I’m tapping him for his skills and knowledge regularly. What can I do for him in return? None of us is sitting around making a tally of what we’ve given vs. what we’ve received, but I do want to make sure I’m not abusing his time, talent, knowledge, and skill.

      • When dealing with a family member, ask them what they would they want in return -offer your talent list and say you owe em a favor :)

  45. I have a standard reply when someone tries the “exposure” line — “People die of exposure.”

    It’s absurd to expect people who earn their living from creative work to offer it unpaid. I’ve been working as a freelance writer since I was an undergrad in university, and living on that income. One of the issues that gets messy is the some people do work unpaid; some are seriously unprofessional and don’t invoice or don’t fight hard (enough) for their work and their incomes, and some are just dilettantes who are desperate for the title “writer.”

    I’ve raised my hourly rate in the recession and no one blinked. You either have a budget that allows you to use my services or you don’t. I don’t walk into Saks and expect them to offer me a 70% discount because I want it. Nor should anyone who tries to cheap you out. Let them use a cheaper/less skilled or experienced alternative and see what headaches lie ahead.

    But. Having said all this, you have to offer clients a very clear value proposition. Why *are* you worth X dollars? Why are you worth more than the guy charging half your rate? Creatives need to treat their skills as a business and behave accordingly. The more professional and business-like we are, the clearer the message we send.

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  46. very true.i enjoyed reading. thanks for sharing! :)

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  47. I agree that working for free must be dealt with scepticism. I have my own example.
    2 years ago, my boyfriend was asked to help his best friend in a job. They were supposed to install all the elecrtical stuff in a huge night club. Being unemployed, my boyfriend accepted to help him (afterall he was a very good friend of his) without discussing anything about getting paid. After 5 days of hard work, the job was finished and his friend told him that he was going to pay him but unfortunately he hadn’t received all the money from the manager of the night club (so he kept all of it for himself). The bad thing is that my boyfriend agreed to help him again in another job. Bottomline, the second time he was paid. But only a fraction of his share. And the most peculiar of all is that my boyfriend still thinks that this man is his best friend. No matter how hard I tried to express a different point of view, I was accused of being very tough to his friends’ actions.

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  48. Thanks for the great article Julie. I’m not a writer or photographer. I teach yoga.

    I ran into the same issue over and over, for me, it’s especially hard with co-workers and friends, I’ve been clearly being took advantage of, but I just don’t the guts to say “No” or ask for some cash, I hate it and it bothers so much. In the context with yoga, in this case, I’m not TRUE to myself.

    Thanks for the reassurance, it definitely gives me more confidence in what I believe! You just made my day! Thank you!

    Reply
    • I’m glad I could make your day! People in the healing arts are often treated much like artists and writers and because many of us aren’t completely confident when it comes to money issues, we allow ourselves to get taken advantage of. However, when we start treating our work as a business, I think it begins to become easier– not overnight, but gradually– to see the money as just a part of the business– we’re not asking for favors, after all.

      Reply
  49. This is a very good and well written article. You are right, no company would ask for other professions to work for free. Some people on the briefest of acquaintance do try to get others to work for free. Oh your’e an accountant well I have a VAT problem; a psychologist I have these amazing dreams; a doctor someone I know has ….; a teacher my Jimmy just has a little problem with maths. And I think everyone thinks this is acceptable apart from the person whose attendance at a party is ruined.
    I write and take pictures for pleasure. If I did it for a job I wouldn’t do it for free. I wonder if I were a photographer whether I would cease to resent being asked to teach Jonny irregular verbs.

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  50. Maybe when you are beginning, so people can get to know your work, do it for free. I am starting to think of putting myself out there and showing and selling my work. I plan “to give back” for a charity event next month, which may be good for exposure, but some people have seen my work and know my passion for photography and want me to do photos for them-for pay-and I am not going to sell myself short. All the equipment is expensive as is the editing, as is the printing and the hours of practice and courses…no, no no., I will repeat what an artist said to me a long time ago, ” the starving artist image may be romantic to some but I think that’s BS. I am worth the money and I intend to support myself.” And he was out there selling his work. I have been waiting until I get “good enough” so I am not known for mediocre work but when people pursue me, they are going to pay. And family? My brother will get a “discount” but since he makes far more money than I, but he would pay too. Now the question is, how much do I charge? I am observing the prices in galleries and bistros and taking into account that I am relatively new at this.It is a reality that a lot of stuff hanging on gallery walls stays there because it is not that good, or overpriced.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment and for being honest about your own challenges. It sounds like you might benefit from a mentor who could help you determine what the market value for your work is. If you’re not sure about who to approach about mentorship, you might want to consider paying for a consultation with someone in the field to help you establish your fees. Sounds like it would be worth the investment. Keep us posted!

      Reply
  51. I read with interest your post and I find that, as always, the realm of the professional and the amateur cross boundaries yet again. Because of the wonderful world wide web, we have a almost endless supply of amateur writers. I class myself as one of the amateurs as I have never been paid for a piece of work that I’ve written. I have written for news publications when I was in the military, but, as an amateur again.

    Now in the world of entertainment, I was a professional actor. I was paid each and every time I got in front of the camera. I would never dream of “working” for free.A small wage if the budget called for it, yes. But never for free.

    If I ever reach the point of getting remuneration for my scribblings and stories, then I would be resistant to writing for free. The only exception would be perhaps as a favour of a friend.

    As someone else had said in the comments, there are an awful lot of folks who are professionals, writers et al, who love to get contributions to their publications for free. I don’t think that this will change any time in the near future and I should imagine that the field of photography is the same.

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  52. Great points in this blog. I should add that it’s appalling that many web sites will aggregate creative work from many sources without thinking about paying the people who produced them, then make big bucks from the ads. Will definitely think about this blog whenever I am tempted to sell myself short. Thank you!

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  53. Thought provoking and relevant. Congrats on being FPd!
    Enjoy the ride!

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  54. Working for free sometimes gets out too easily and then before you know it you aren’t making any money! I would have a strict family (And few friends) rule on freebes! Great post, congrats on FP!

    Reply
  55. Wow, you analyzed this situation so sensitively. It is really hard when one’s partner won’t push to value his skills properly because a family’s financial consequences are all bound together!
    While I acknowledge the need in some fields for people to get experience (my teenager’s “in kind” modeling payments, for instance, seem fair but only for now), I do feel that “unpaid internships” and mandatory “volunteering” (Isn’t that an oxymoron?!) are huge steps backward in time.
    At the same time as trade unions can demand unprecedented amounts for certain skills, governments have made it law in some places (Ontario!) that kids cannot even graduate from high school without a minimum of 40 hours of volunteer work behind them. Add all that free labour up and then figure out what someone would have earned doing this work.
    I’m all for volunteering by those who have the resources, and my kids would have done large amounts of volunteering out of community spirit anyway–but if it’s mandatory for all, then it’s not volunteering, is it?
    Overall, “internships” and “mandatory volunteer hours” reduce the available paid job market and force more people to work for free or for lower pay just to compete with the forced free labour. I’m not quite sure how “internships” are compatible with minimum wage legislation . . . .

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comments and feedback. In the US, the Fair Labor Standards Act actually *does* have criteria that delineate when an intern should be paid and when non-payment is acceptable: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm#.UKXx8c3Oh4h

      Now what I wonder is how many places not paying their interns are even aware of this law and if so, whether they adhere to it.

      Reply
      • Oh, that is really interesting. I’m sure we have something like that here but have never looked into it–still, as you sort of indicate, businesses don’t always know the entire maze of laws that apply to them.

        Businesses are obviously motivated by survival, besides, and competing with others that don’t have to pay their workers surely makes it more of a struggle for those that do . . . I don’t like the competitive implications–it’s like trying to compete with salaries of workers in India and China when work is outsourced, but permitting it within one’s own country besides.

      • Just skimmed that link . . . I think there is a huge amount of latitude in there and as much as I’ve been accused of being “right-wing” often enough, I think it is hard to justify these unpaid positions–it’s hard to believe that a trainee’s work can be of so little value that it would be unpaid–I think legislation like this creates a lower value for all related work, harms all workers and damages the economy, personally.

  56. I truly can appreciate this post. Being that I am I work a full-time job, with goals to become a full time writer. I have to say I learned something today, thank you.

    Reply
  57. As an amateur musician and full time software developer let me offer my view. My musical skills are not great, but OK (I play keys/piano). Along with a bunch of other guys we play charities and local cultural events. We have fun, we do a bit of good, we entertain a few people. If a coffee shop lets me play, just for tips or ‘exposure’, I’d do it because I just like to play. If me doing that is going to cause so called ‘professional’ musicians to have a fit over it then maybe they need another profession.
    One the other side of the fence, as a professional software developer I do not freak out every time some kid creates a cool app or piece of software that is free. I am good at my job, I can stand my own ground but I can always learn new stuff too.
    The thing is, if you are an established professional then you have to offer something that makes you worth the money. If you have aspirations to be a professional then you have to accept lower/no pay and exposure (call it free advertising if that makes you fee better). If you are an amateur you’ll do it just because you love to and there’s not much anyone can do to stop you is there but then again, you’ve got a ‘real’ job that pays the bills so you’re not doing it full time and thus no real threat to anyone that is.
    So you can bitch and moan about people working for ‘free’ all you want, it’s not really going to change, understand why they do it and do your own job to a level that gets you out of that zone.
    Let’s face it, people are always going to want to pay less/nothing, that’s why walmart does so well!

    Reply
  58. Thanks for this. I struggle with this as I work on marketing my books and wrestle with the question of whether to take advantage of Amazon’s free days in the Kindle Direct Program. I can practically hear Harlan Ellison scolding me when I decide to put a book up for free for a day, but at the same time, as an indie author, I need to do something to get my work out there. If people aren’t willing to take a risk at a 3 bucks, then giving it away here and there has to be an option.

    Reply
    • Richard-

      Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think trying the free for a day program is bad at all. In fact, I think it can be a useful, important way to build some initial buzz. What might be interesting, though, is finding out if Amazon/Kindle has numbers on conversion rates. What’s the average download on a free day and what’s the average download on a paid day? What other factors affect purchasing behavior on that platform?

      Reply
  59. It depends mainly on who you are working for. If the person happens to be a very close friend or relative, I think then it’s okay to work for free. But where a concern is hiring you just because you cost them less, I think then one shouldn’t work for free because that’s taking you for a ride. It depreciates your value. As joker (Dark Knight) says, “What you are good at, you should never do that thing for free.”

    Reply
  60. As a photographer I keep dealing with this problem all the time. Even though I know I wouldn’t get much “exposure” out of free gigs, it’s hard to say no, especially when I know that if I send them my (pretty low) price list I’ll never hear from them again…

    Reply
    • I’m curious to know if you’d be willing to talk about how you established your prices.

      Reply
      • Looked at prices of other people who were doing similar things (portrait and fashion) for inspiration and tried to find a middle ground so it would be affordable for both the customer and me. But Im always adjusting and revising them…

      • Julie Schwietert Collazo

        Setting fees is often a challenge, and looking at colleagues’ fee structures is definitely one way to come up with your own pricing system. Are you aware of any professional organizations or services that may help you set fees?

  61. Hmm agree. Then What church will do? They will start Pay service too.

    Reply
  62. Great post, Julie. So far, my blogging career has netted me 85 cents (one Amazon Associates book purchase). Fortunately, I’m viewing my blogging as more “practice” at writing than writing itself. It’s forced me to sometimes focus on a topic that I might have been lazy about researching as well as given me feedback on what people are interested in (a Marine Sergeant and a boy with a terminal illness: http://habap.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/young-marine-passes/ or articles about veterans, like sniper Ted Gundy http://habap.wordpress.com/2011/05/11/bulge-sniper-reloads/ ) So, it’s a learning experience, though I will make sure that anything I write for publication will be for pay, so Harlan Ellison won’t be chastising me!

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Ha- right. Because I don’t think anyone wants Harlan Ellison to chastise them. That’s a serious dressing down.

      In all seriousness, you raise another issue I’ve written about before and am about to explore again: the role of researching and facts. I met a fairly successful, well-published writer recently who said, “I don’t really care about facts. I just want to write good stories.” Ay…. Thanks for reading and commenting; hope you’ll stick around.

      Reply
      • Ugh, I think I must have read some of his stuff! My writing tends to be on military history and there are plenty of people who seem to have that attitude when it comes to widely-read stories. As much as I love the writing of Stephen Ambrose, Michael Shaara and Shelby Foote, both of them spread a lot of things people accepted as “facts” that are wildly inaccurate. At least Shaara told people he was writing fiction….

  63. Loved this piece. Good points well presented. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks, Angelina! Being FP’d was a little bit like JK Rowling going from welfare recipient to global bestselling author… but without all the cash. :) I mean that in the best way.

      Reply
  64. Free work is always really rewarding but at the same time, money is pretty rewarding too! There is a healthy balance somewhere, free work occasionally and paid work the other times. Hard work pays off either way though. Great post, congrats on FP!

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I’d agree that free work is always rewarding, but I absolutely agree that giving our work away can be rewarding in specific contexts.

      Reply
  65. No one should ever work for free, but we all do. Even if we have regular 9-5 jobs, we wind up putting in extra hours without compensation or any expectation that we will be rewarded in any way other than, maybe, not being bawled out if we’re five minutes late one morning.

    As a society, as workers in this society, whether we’re independent workers, consultants, employees, we all fear NOT working, and thus not being paid, if we don’t go along to get along. For people who are trying to establish themselves independently – especially in the creative arts – this is especially worrying.

    As a writer, I like the challenges of writing contests which I enter frequently and rarely win. I am always intrigued as much by the prizes that are offered as by the contest itself. I am entered in a current contest for my hometown newspaper that is offering no prize whatsoever, not even a subscription to the paper!! I chose to enter for the challenge but what I did in even entering was CHOOSING TO WRITE FOR FREE.

    The endless, difficult debate goes on…

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      It IS an endless, difficult debate, and one we have to make decisions about for ourselves over and over again. I’m not really searching for a bright line for myself… and certainly not for anyone else. What I *am* doing, though, is advocating that in a professional context where we’re offering our creative work as a product or service, then we should be paid.

      Reply
  66. Very interesting and relevant topic. I’m a journalist. And find the “some” leaders ask for my services for “free” due to limited budgets. But, when I discuss the organizational needs with leaders I find that there is lack of willingness to pay for certain things. Hummm.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Hi there-
      Thanks for weighing in. Often, these organizations you’re talking about have the money. They just choose to allocate it in other ways. If paying professionals isn’t a priority, I find that problematic.

      Reply
  67. Hi Julie,

    This is a brilliant article that highlights a really interesting topic. I am currently on a 12 month Internship in the events industry – so my point of view might be bit different as I am unaware of what the ‘norm’ is. Personally in the events industry (especially as a student) you are often expected to work for free at the start, say volunteering as a steward or taking an unpaid internship. But event managers would not be approached to plan an event for free.

    Therefore I feel that no-one should be expected to work for nothing. Either the company should pay something or at least stick to actually giving credit. Sometimes taking on unpaid work can lead to great exposure but most of the time you are adding fuel to the idea that people are happy to work for nothing!

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Hi, Caitlin-

      Thanks for your comment and for bringing in the perspective of someone in another industry.

      You raise a lot of interesting points and I think that, at least in the US, unpaid internships–so long a way for businesses to extract maximum work for minimal investment–are beginning to be scrutinized as a form of exploitation. In the US, the Fair Standards Labor Act actually articulates six criteria that an internship MUST meet if the organization or business is NOT going to pay its interns. Check them out here:

      http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm#.UKXRh83Oh4g

      For me, the criterion of training is the one that’s most crucial. Are YOU, as an intern, getting the kind of training, education, and/or experience that is equivalent to what you’d get in a paid course of learning? If not– or if you’re just fetching coffee and doing menial work that doesn’t build your skills or contribute to your knowledge base–then you’re just being exploited.

      Reply
  68. Hi Julie, Nice to meet you. This is the first time I’ve seen your blog (via freshly pressed) and enjoyed your post very much.

    As someone who has experienced the not for profit arts sector first hand, I relate completely to what you point out. Yes, artists do get asked quite often for the use of their work and without compensation. I think it’s something each artist needs to decide for themselves, but they should also approach it from a position of each player in the exchange winning.

    If I had a prior relationship with a not for profit organization that was of value to the community (global or local) and they needed my support via free work, I would only do it if I believed in the cause. I would want this to be a win win situation for both of us. I would also investigate who’s attending the event and who would benefit from the distribution of the work being seen.

    I believe artists have something of great value to give, so they need to make sure the “askers” are very aware of the artists valuable contribution and don’t take it for granted.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Hi, Filio-
      Thanks for your message and for your thoughts. I agree with you about creating a win-win situation. That’s really what I was trying to get at here- the giving away *can* be fine. But ensuring that there’s congruence and mutual benefit is ideal. Hope you’ll come back!

      Reply
  69. Well written. I don’t have the words to add anything, as I’m more of a visual sort.

    Reply
  70. Ha! Doing things for exposure and not for pay; the story of my life as a writer. Sorry to see that I’m not alone.
    http://scarletworm.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/i-see-politicians-how-watching-the-voice-gave-me-hope-for-america/

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Oh, you’re definitely not alone. Drop by anytime- giving voice to all these challenges (and joys, too!) of being a writer is what this blog is all about, and reading and commenting about it helps you feel less alone, I think. That’s my hope, anyway!

      Reply
  71. Pingback: we all have to stop working, don’t we? | grinmiss both Green and Grin :D

  72. Good article Julie – I’m not a writer by far but I enjoy putting my thoughts down and attempting to write – I know a professional speaker and he once told me the amount of money he makes for speaking engagements – let’s just say it’s was good amount – when I asked him if he ever gets turned down because of his cost, his answer stunned me. He told me that when he was charging less he didn’t get as much business. He also told me to never sell yourself short. You are absolutely right, I think people have one nerve to ask anyone to work for free….

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks for your comment. I have lots of friends in other fields who report the exact same thing you’ve shared about your professional speaker friend (and yes, professional speakers make A LOT of money!). My friend, Kristin, who owned a cake making business, said that when she raised her rates, she found that another interesting thing happened: she got better clients, ones she enjoyed working with. She also said that raising her rates freed her to work less; as a result, she was able to spend more time with her family and more time on other projects and hobbies she loved.

      Reply
  73. GREAT article! The fact of the matter is that we are all working for “free” right know. One ponders, where do we draw the line, when do we stop? The nature of creative workers begins by providing free services; in writing, internships without pay; in the visual arts, giving away your paintings…

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks for your comment. One important consideration when trying to answer “Where do we draw the line?” involves determining whether someone else is making profit off of what you’re giving away for free. Also: do they have the resources to pay you? If so, what’s their reason for not doing so?

      Reply
  74. Poor Francisco….. why did you do that to him! :) I think you make a good point that you shouldn’t have tried to impose your beliefs upon him but is it ever a good thing to undermine or diminish a source of happiness or pride for your partner, or anyone else..

    I don’t believe that giving writing or any form of creation away for free lessens it’s value – to say so implies that its only value is in money but it’s true value is far far greater. You focus on the value you are giving to the person/entity who uses your work as ‘content’ but what about the value you bring to those involved or who experience that work? Or what can be built from it?

    Giving away creations, ideas, art is one of the most powerful and beautiful things you can do and nothing has ever empowered so many people in so many ways. After all, isn’t it more than just a little ironic to debate the value of giving away creations for free on WORDPRESS…. on the INTERNET…. :)

    Francisco I hope that the disrespectful actions of 1 group hasn’t hardened your heart in any way. Huge respect to you & your work and as long as it brings you joy you will never be poor.

    If you want a rule for when you should work for free then how about asking yourself how much good in the world can this work bring? (But even if it does bring good… can someone cover your expenses… ;)

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Ian-

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’m actually not in disagreement with you at all. I’ve given a lot of my work away for free (or nearly free), and continue to give away a significant portion of it– and, as you rightly point out, not the least of that is through this blog. What I’m really trying to get at in this post, though, is when a publication or organization or business wants to contract the services of a writer, photographer, or other creative person (web designer, what have you) and they don’t want to pay you for the *product* you’re providing them. I find the unwillingness to pay particularly problematic when the publication or organization is contracting that person for commercial purposes– in other words, they’re going to make money off of you, but you’re not going to make a cent.

      I agree that sharing ideas, creations, and art is, as you say, one of the most powerful and beautiful things you can do. I just think that our willingness and desire to do that in certain contexts shouldn’t be justification for not paying us in other contexts.

      Reply
  75. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

    Reply
  76. Once, when I brought up the subject of payment for six months’ full-time ghostwriting I was asked “But you’re enjoying yourself aren’t you?” Even though I’d been led on with promises of expenses, etc, he now offered me a share in the “future” royalties (I was also expected to find a publisher), as if this was some great reward for good work. I couldn’t carry on writing after that slap in the face. All wind went out of my sails. The lawyers said I held copyright of everything I’d written so I worked out a new plot with the intention of finishing it later on my own. Funny thing is, even though it would be something completely different, I feel kind-of dirty about doing this. Am I being stupid? I’d love to know what you think…

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Ghostwriting is a really tricky area of writing that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should, likely due to contractual obligations and threats of litigation. In your case, I think that if legal counsel has indicated you retain the rights, then by all means, take your work and do with it what you like. If it’s going to be a psychological weight on you, though, the better use of your time might be to start with a fresh project that leaves you feeling better about yourself and your work and which doesn’t have the specter of this past experience hanging over it.

      Reply
  77. Loved the entire writing. It was as if you were reading my mind and giving me an advice. That does not happen all the time. I just recently gave away some of my work with no licensing agreement, with no service charges, with no nothing. Nots signing a contract was the biggest mistake that I did. And above everything this was my first. A great lesson learnt.

    Reply
  78. I agree to all, there should be a limit when free is free and when we just have to step up and refuse however good their offer sounds. Thank you for this enlightening post and to the equally insightful comments as well.

    Reply
  79. I’ve never worked for free, but I do take on some projects that pay very low rates. I justify that it’s a stepping stone to bigger, better things but you’re right – sometimes these things just don’t pan out. I do agree with how you set your priorities but sometimes it is hard to say no, and I get really upset too when my husband is taken for granted. Sigh. This is a great post – thanks for sharing and congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    Reply
  80. Living in Japan, where people highly value being rich and having respect, I grew up wanting to be like that. But usually “rich” jobs means that you are not doing what you want. Plus, theres no such thing as rich. People just want more and more because there is no final limit.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      I’m not talking about being rich here, though. I’m talking about making a living wage with the work that we do.

      Reply
  81. I can’t tell you how much I liked this post – I’ve also been in the situation of being asked to write something for free, simply because the group’s budget doesn’t allow for writing services. This was very well stated and should help a lot of people to prioritize both their work and the needs of others. Thanks!!

    Reply
  82. sprinklesofchatter

    I have always worked for free and was beginning to feel dissatisfied because of the amount of time and work I was putting in.
    Reading this, made me realize that if the person asking you to work isn’t offering money, you shouldn’t be ashamed of asking for it or denying the work.
    I’ve always let people steamroll me and thankyou for touching upon this topic. Reading this helped me voice my requirements and got me paid.

    Thankyou. :)

    Reply
  83. Reminds me a gallery who contacted me, very interested by a “strong artistic point of view” and willing to expose in its Paris showroom 10 of my B&W photographies.
    After some discussions and various mails, they nicely surprised me by proposing a 2 days expo for 1000 euros… which I accepted but only if they purchase the full set for 10000 euros. The gallery curator nicely refused due to their internal policy and I politely explained I have mine…
    Free for free, money for money, not for donkeys.

    Never give up your passion and enthousiasm Francisco: it’s the best fuel

    http://boubekeur.wordpress.com

    Reply
  84. I think there comes a point in every creative professionals life where we have the opportunity to work for free. To be quite honest, I think most people jump on the idea at some point until the realities of the situation settle in. I’m not opposed to working for free from time to time but it has to be on my terms. I only work for free for two organizations in which I feel strongly about. The same way creative professionals have to draw the line on what assignments may infringe on their morals are the same way they must decide what assignment could potentially infringe on their perceived value of work.

    Reply
  85. If you’ve already built up enough of a portfolio to show a potential client your skill, then there should be no need to do work for free. Now, if there’s a charity you appreciate and want to offer your skills to them free of charge, that’s a different story.

    I was surprised by how often I was asked to write something for free as a sort of interview to work with a company when I started writing freelance. I did it the first couple of times, eager for the opportunity (and once it actually did pay off), but have since come to the conclusion that unless the opportunity’s extremely promising and I know the work will be paid at a lofty rate if I’m chosen for it, then it’s not worth my time.

    Reply
  86. Interesting. I am a professional wedding photographer for a few years and for the last 18 months, I haven’t been busy. The things with global recession, tight budgets and worries of future all contributed to people’s buying decision these days.

    I am only charging the industry’s average for weddings and portraits but every since recession started in 2008, my business has been gradually declining. Not a good sign. I cannot reduce my price to future customers because most are being referred by existing customers who paid me full price and I don’t want them to feel bad. So, they rather ask some cheaper and worst photographers to fill in or even ask some friends to take photos. I don’t mind that at all but as a professional, you have too feel the pain. Experience and skills doesn’t mean much to the conscious minds these days. Money is. They rather pay nothing for someone to do a crap job than paying a professional to do a good job.

    I don’t see values anymore.

    I really hope things will change.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Hi there-

      Thanks for your comment. I’m really sorry to hear that the recession has affected you directly, as it has so many of us who are “creatives.” I’m wondering if you are part of (informally or formally) a community of photographers and if so, what you are hearing from them about their own work load and incoming income right now. One of the most difficult aspects of our professions can be that we are often isolated and we aren’t able to bounce ideas off of one another and share resources for confronting challenges. I wish you the best and hope that you see some improvement soon.

      Reply
  87. Very well written. This is a problem faced in all creative fields. It is especially true for students who have just graduated and don’t know how to value their work.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, most college programs don’t help their students learn some of the more pragmatic aspects of the professional path they’re choosing, which is a shame.

      Reply
  88. thank you so much for this. I got caught up in the work for exposure hamster wheel so to speak when I moved over the summer. After the last event I did for free, I decided I will no longer do them. It was a disaster to say the least.

    Reply

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