Exposure is lovely, but cash is preferred (how to respond to offers of ‘free’ work)

Have you seen the price of beer these days? In London a pint now costs six hundred retweets. Oh no wait sorry – a pint costs four quid, because you can’t buy shit with retweets.

Yet for some reason people still ask writers to work in exchange for ‘exposure.’

They never say ‘free’, that would be uncouth. They say ‘exposure’ or ‘opportunity.’ Sometimes they don’t say anything at all – their email just says ‘do you fancy doing this?’ and it’s only after you’ve invested time in replying that they say ‘oh sorry, did I not mention? We don’t have any budget.’ It’s tempting, because I am a grumpy arse, to reply to all of these people in a colourful manner, with a combination of swearwords, price tags and this gif:

Nope Octopus says I don't work for free

BUT WAIT. While that is sometimes fun (OK always. It is ALWAYS fun) the people who ask you to work for free are not genuinely evil, they are often nice people with no budget who don’t understand how long things take or how much your time’s worth. Besides, that unpaid gig could potentially turn into something way more interesting. If you, like me, get a lot of these requests in your inbox, you can easily hit the delete button, or publish an angry rant on your blog or Twitter. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do either of these things: I occasionally choose one or other of those options. However, it’s not the only thing you can do. Here are a few scenarios along with some suggested responses if you want to turn that unpaid offer into something positive for you.

The total bullshit offer.

This is the one that you’d never take even if they paid you. I had one of these recently, and while I’m reluctant to name and shame the company, I can tell you that their brand name included one of those crappy portmanteau words that implied extreme gendering of their product. And their marketing sounded like it had been written a frat house, while drunk and wanking.

What I could have said:

“There will never be a cold enough day in hell.”

What I actually said:

“Thanks for the offer, but I am not sure your product is something I’d want to endorse, given your marketing. Here’s a link to an article I wrote about unnecessarily gendered products, and as you’re in the early stages, I’d encourage you to reconsider whether you need to limit your target market that much.”

Did it work? Christ no, but it made me feel better. And hey – I got at least one extra click on an article I wrote a year ago! Well done me, have a biscuit. In all seriousness though, there are times when a quick one-liner of feedback can give a company pause for thought. You might not get any paid work out of them, but you may be able to help them improve, in which case when they become massively profitable in the future, they’ll email you and offer you sky-high consultancy fees. Perhaps.

The ‘we’re very new’

This is one of those where you think ‘hmm, I am not particularly interested in this project, but I could do with some milk and bread and whatnot, so if they were to pay me then I would happily take their delicious cash.’ Only problem is: they haven’t offered any cash. You know the story – ‘we’re in the early stages’ or ‘we’re running on a very tight budget’, usually accompanied by ‘but we can link to you!’ Like the desperate screeching of a guy being kicked out of a bar because he cannot pay his tab, ‘we’ll link to you!’ should be taken as the disappointing non-promise it is in these situations. It might be a new sex toy company or a start-up magazine, or something along those lines, but chances are the company that is offering you ‘exposure’ has precious little of it to go round.

Make no mistake – if you work for them for this nebulous ‘exposure’, that is time you could be spending working for someone else and earning money. Ergo you’re effectively donating money to a company to do work that does not excite you. And I don’t know about you but I’d rather be drinking myself insensible under a duvet, or doing whatever it is you do for a hobby.

What I could have said:

“Get all the way to fuck and stay there forever.”

What I say instead:

“Your company/magazine/innovative new thing sounds really interesting. Unfortunately I am very busy at the moment, but my rates are [INSERT MONEY SUM HERE] and I should have some availability in a couple of weeks time.”

Notice I haven’t mentioned the ‘working for free’ thing here, because while some companies are willing/eager to massively offend you by implying your time is worth nothing, they can sometimes get a bit sad if, in return, you imply that this is exploitative. If you want to teach them a lesson, go for option one. If you want to turn them into a respectful company which pays its writers, option two is more persuasive in the long term.

The ‘OMG I really want to do this’

As in gang bangs, so in life: I have saved the best and hardest for last. This is the ‘free work’ that’s offered on a project you really love. Something which you cannot bear to say no to because it sounds really fun and/or world-changing in scope. Something which may offer you genuinely decent and useful exposure. I have had a few offers of work like this, and rather than wrench my heart and soul into a cold and twisted mass of misery, I have come up with a simple rule of thumb:

If they make money, I should make money.

Thus, if the project is for a charity or social enterprise that I am happy to support, I’ll donate my time to help out. If it’s an early-stage startup run by someone good, I might do something for them if (and only if) they can tell me how they’ll pay writers when they do start making money.

If, on the other hand, they are already making money, then they need to give me something valuable. In very limited situations I’ll work in exchange for something – a ticket that I’d have bought anyway (hi Eroticon!) or media training that I’d otherwise pay for (hi iRadio!) but 99% f the time they need to offer actual money. Not links or exposure or (this happens more than you’d think) fucking condoms: they need to offer money. Dirty, sexy, cold hard cash. No matter how exciting the project, ask yourself: how much would I pay them to let me do this? If the answer is ‘fuck-all, obviously’ then you know what to do.

What you could say:

“Are you literally, actually shitting me? I can see from your site that you get ad revenue/subscriptions/sales. Do your fucking accountants work for free you devious shower of bellends?”

A better alternative:

“I’d love to be able to work with you on this project. I understand that budgets are tight at the moment, but I couldn’t justify taking this work on and dropping other paid work. My rates are [INSERT MONEY HERE] and I’m really looking forward to working with you – please do let me know if you manage to secure some budget.”

Now that’s a good one, and I’ve used it a few times. Sometimes it works, and people get back to you to say ‘OK, I spoke to the boss and we can offer you some cash,’ other times it doesn’t. All you need to remember is to never let the exciting project blind you to the fact that they aren’t paying you. Think like a capitalist supervillain, or one of those twats in shiny suits who works in Foxtons: those bastards seem to be doing OK, right? I guarantee you they’d never say ‘yes’ to a business opportunity without thinking: ‘what’s in it for me?’

This isn’t a post aimed at beating on the companies who ask people to work for free, because I understand why companies ask. As a general rule the people who ask you to do stuff like this are not the actual devil. Sometimes they’re minions toiling away in the office mines of Someone Else’s Business, sometimes they’re business owners who cannot wait to spaff their Next Big Idea onto the world. Either way they usually mean well. To these nice people, I give this response, and it is so far the one that has been most successful for me in turning unpaid ‘opportunities’ into paid work:

“I’d love to work with you on this. Thing is, I’ve been really outspoken in the past about writing for free, and if I said yes then the people on Twitter would (quite rightly) call me out on my hypocrisy. Please let me know what you can offer in terms of payment, so I can say yes with a clear conscience.”

Like I say, it doesn’t always work. But when it does work it’s the best feeling: a better feeling than the one I get by writing tweets to call out a company, and a better feeling than me just sending angry gifs in response to their emails. I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t do these things, of course: it’s your life, do what the hell you like. I’m just giving you an alternative that’s worked for me.

So if you, like everyone else on this planet, have so far been unable to buy a pint of beer with retweets, then please start getting vocal about the fact that you won’t work for exposure. Share this article, write your own on your personal blog, and shout it loudly from the rooftops: I do not – cannot – work for free.

Comment List

  • Silvia 25 / 10 / 2015 Reply

    Yes, yes and again, loudly, with clapping hands and standing ovation, YES.

    Thank you for expressing it so well. Shared 🙂

  • William Crimson 08 / 11 / 2015 Reply

    This whole post needs to be made into a poster.

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