Several years ago, I made the huge mistake of applying for a writing job from an online site that required a few "sample articles" as examples of my work. I was to post them on the web site's forum, and get as many views as I could. I wasn't about to write anything new, so I posted my old stand-by article about the time I tested the Altoids mints blow job on my husband. That post alone got more views than anything else that was posted, and lots of people posted. I posted at least one other previously published article, which also got an amazing number of views – more than anyone else. I was confident that I had jumped through all the hoops and was on my way to paid employment.
I didn't get the job.
I didn't realize until later that the web site was farming for free content. I did all the legwork proving the time and product as well as promoting my posts, and the site didn't have to do a damned thing. I learned my lesson. I have never again sent sample articles to any writing job application that required them. That said, I understand reputable companies need to see examples of my writing to determine if I'm a good fit. I realize that. Instead of creating new content, I send links to existing articles so the company may see what I have already published. Sometimes I get a response, but I usually don't hear back from those companies. Now, I don't bother to send anything to companies asking for sample articles unless I can provide links. Burned once, shame on you. Burned twice, shame on me.
Why are writers so often asked to work for free? Or for "exposure"? Promising a vague form of exposure is another way of getting free content. There are some things I do as a means of promotion for which I am not paid. Writing on this blog is one of them. I gain an audience writing here, and it keeps my name out there in between books. I've written stories for charity anthologies because I like contributing to a good cause. However, I will not simply give someone a free story or article just because. No more content farming scams. No more free writing for web sites that make scads of money from advertising and subscriptions.
Designer Dan Cassaro ran into a similar "opportunity" when he was invited by Showtime – a company clearly needing to rub dimes together to pay for paper clips - to join a design "contest" he felt was really only a way of fishing for free content. The contest involved promoting the Floyd Mayweather-Marcos Maidana boxing match. Those who submitted designs for Showtime's use could – to quote the message Cassaro had received from Showtime – "be eligible for a chance to win a trip to Las Vegas and have your artwork displayed in the MGM Grand during fight week!" He let Showtime and everyone else within earshot know exactly what he thought about it, dripping with sarcasm:
"It is with great sadness that I must decline your enticing offer to work for you for free. I know that boxing matches in Las Vegas as extremely low-budget affairs, especially ones with nobodies like Floyd "Money" Mayweather. I heard he only pulled in 80 Million for this last fight! I also understand that a "mom and pop" cable channel like Showtime must rely on handouts just to keep the lights on these days. Thanks a lot, Obama! My only hope is that you can scrape up a few dollars from this grassroots event at the MGM Grand to put yourself back in the black. If that happens, you might consider using some of that money to compensate people to do the thing they are professionally trained to do."
Why are writers (and artists in general) so often expected to work for free – or for "exposure", as the request is often sugar-coated? Would you expect your dentist to give you a root canal for free? Do you pay the housecleaner? The car mechanic? Do your plumber and electrician walk away without monetary compensation once they do the job you've begged them to do because they are professionals and you are not trained to do the work they do? So why expect a writer to write for free?
Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison had plenty to say about those who expect writers to provide free content. A DVD company asked him if he'd let them use a very long and very interesting on-camera interview about the making of "Babylon Five". He said, sure, pay me. The woman who called was flabbergasted, as if she expected him to just fork over his hard work for free – even though she received a paycheck. Here's a portion of what he had to say about it.
“Does your boss get a paycheck? Do you pay the Telecity guy? Do you pay the cameraman? Do you pay the cutters? Do you pay the Teamsters when they schlep your stuff on the trucks? Then how—don’t you pay—would you go to a gas station and ask me to give you free gas? Would you go to the doctor and have him take out your spleen for nothing? How dare you call me and want me to work for nothing!”
If you want to read his entire rant – and it's worth reading – check out "Harlan Ellison On Getting Paid" at Print Magazine. There is also a link at that page to a video of his rant. It's from the film "Dreams With Sharp Teeth".
Ellison is not alone. This "we won't pay you" schtick is something lots of writers and other artists hear. Last year, hula hoop performer Revolva was contacted by Harpo, Oprah Winfrey's company, to perform at Oprah's "Live The Life You Want" event stop in San Jose, California. Revolva was thrilled - until she realized Harpo had no intention of compensating her for hours, effort, or travel. In fact, Harpo intended to not pay any of the creative workers it contacted, despite the fact that tickets to this event cost anywhere from $99 to $999 just to get in the door. The events producers claimed they didn't have the budget to pay performers. Yes, that's right. A billionaire's tour didn't have the budget to pay performers. If Revolva and the other artists wanted To Live The Life They Want, they could have it - without being paid for it. She chose to not perform. She, like Ellison, had plenty to say about being not only asked but expected to work for free:
"Back to that spiritual lesson you had in store for me, Oprah. Maybe it’s because my car broke down, and I’m struggling. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and after all the requests for free or discount work, the one by a billionaire’s tour was the straw that broke my back. But I thought it through, and achieving “the life you want” is not always easy. The risks we have to take, to transform this culture into something more nurturing, involve looking at the way things are and saying, 'Hey, wait. That’s not cool!'"
It's ironic that this tour of Oprah's was about realizing your self-worth. Apparently, you're worth a great deal – as long as you don't expect to be compensated in cold hard cash.
Stories like these strike a nerve with artists, including writers. They grate my teeth. All of us get these messages, and they really harsh our cool. It's almost as if those doing the asking think artists create the works they create only out of "love" or an internal drive and have no interest or understanding of how money works. Granted, some writers do write for the love of it, but not all of them.
As Tom Cruise said in "Jerry Maguire", Show Me The Money!
The corollary to being expected to work for free is being expected to work for peanuts. We've all seen the calls for submissions on places like Craigslist where a potential employer requires an assload of work – but will only pay $20.00 for said job. I just counted three such jobs, including one that called for you to be available on weekends. Nope, nope, nope. The other way of parting writers from their money are Get Rich Quick schemes – something like "7 Easy Steps To Getting Paid As A Writer". Write a book telling people how to make money writing a book and watch the cash pour in. I've seen these ads on Facebook, and the comments are always some form of "f--- off!"
There is an old adage in creative work like writing – aim high and work your way down. Aim first for the pro rates. Aim for the big publishers. Aim for the best agents. Don't start at the bottom and work your way up because you don't think you have enough experience or talent. Don't downgrade yourself. Don't settle and demean yourself by doing a shitload of work for a paycheck that barely covers a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke.
The sad thing is there are plenty of writers and other artists who will eagerly take up these offers. They tend to be newbies who are so green they don't know any better. They may not feel they have a right to ask for money. Or they fall for the "exposure" line. They see stars when Oprah or Showtime contacts them, and they happily give over free content only to inevitably get little to nothing out of it, or at the very least not be compensated in a way that the very wealthy company can easily afford. As long as these people exist, the free content farms will continue to thrive. Don't ask to be paid what you're worth. Demand it. You have that right.