Any freelance creative has read the ad stating that a job is available, but rather than being paid for your work in money, they want to pay you in the elusive “exposure”. “You’ll be famous” they claim. “We’ll get your work seen by a broad audience where someone might hire you for real” they say.
The general feeling on the topic from artists on this matter is not a good one. Asking someone to work for free demonstrates a clear lack of respect for their hard work. It’s not a hobby that the artist is just clamoring to do. Being a freelancer is real work that utilizes real skill that they have put real time and effort into cultivating. The cliché example is always something along the lines of “would you expect an electrician to wire your home for free?”
There are bound to be a few people who invariably say yes, they expect everything for free, and we must just write these people off because not only do they not understand the core concepts of capitalism but they are downright disrespectful. Now more often than not people don’t expect tradespeople, doctors, lawyers, and bus drivers to work for “exposure” but they still expect this of freelance artists and writers. My only conclusion is that these people don’t understand the industry they are approaching and have no idea what they’re doing. If someone offers you the “chance” to illustrate their book for no pay but for a share of the profits, this indicates that they aren’t confident in the book succeeding, and additionally know nothing about how publishing generally works. Most of the time these individuals will not be able to even deliver on the project being seen let alone it’s “exposure” bringing any job offers your way.
If you’re on the fence and think they’re genuine, you can always further discuss what type of exposure they’re actually talking about. Will they credit and share your work on social media? How many followers do they have? Will it definitely be printed? Where will it be distributed? Who’s the audience? Is there even an audience? Do they have a marketing campaign in place? Ask the specific questions.
If the client (can we even call them that if they’re not paying you?) has such an amazing product that is bound to be successful then they should already have investors and be able to sign a contract ensuring you will get paid. Especially in this day and age there of crowdfunding and social media backers, there is really no excuse. At any rate, you need an ironclad contract in order to protect yourself before you do any work. Otherwise a “client” may say they will pay you upon the completion of the project and never really follow through. See my article on ghosting for more about this.
Another sort of thing clients sometimes ask for are speculative work, or spec work disguised as contests. They may ask for entries to design a logo or illustration and will choose from the entrants. There could be real pay involved, but there’s zero guarantee that your work (or any of the work) will be selected. Worst of all is when a client expects you to do spec work and also wants you to sign away the rights to your creation. Freelancers are at great risk of being taken advantage of under this guise of a fun contest and should be wary.
As TLC said, “No, I don’t want no specs. A spec is a job that won’t get no work from me”. Okay, just kidding, but still.
Fellow freelancers often view spec work as well as working for exposure to be a criminal offense. If you let it be known that you’ve done it you face being shamed, ostracized, and made to feel as though you don’t even have a shred of self-respect. Worse yet, your fellow creative will make it out as though you are single-handedly bringing down their industry by being complicit in such a heinous crime and supporting an evil manipulative market that devalues all creative out there.
I think this is a bit extreme and I have some examples of times working for free might be an okay thing to do. My basic rules about it are that the freelancer should:
1. Do it on your own terms. If you’re doing something for free you shouldn’t be pushed around to make a bunch of revisions or meet a crazy deadline. Those are the sorts of demands that should be reserved for real paid work.
2. Get something out of it even if it’s not money. If you truly believe you’ll get exposure out of it, fine, but beware. But what else can you get out of doing work for free? Experience for your resume or CV. A portfolio piece (assuming it’s something you’d like to show off and do again). Or even just a sense of fulfillment if you’re doing it for a cause you believe in such as volunteering your skills to a charity or non-profit.
3. Retain the rights to your hard work. You should at very least retain the right to show the work in a portfolio and receive credit for it, but ideally be able to sell the original or reproductions depending on what’s applicable.
I’ve done both spec and “exposure” work but only when I am getting something out of it or contributing to a cause I’ve believed in. I’ve gotten tons of hate for doing such things, and they haven’t always been successful, but sometimes they have. So to everyone out there I will end this the best way I can think to do: with a Dr. Seuss-esque poem.
Oh, the shit you will get! There are haters out there!
They’ll be cruel. They’ll be petty. But you shouldn’t care!
They’ll rant and they’ll rave. They’ll be real irked by you.
You may hurt yourself, but you won’t hurt them too.
So make your own choices. They’re your mistakes to make!
Do what you wish, just think twice for your own sake.

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