The Exposure Myth: Is Giving Away Work Worth It?


I’m often approached by various “influencers” and others about doing some work for free. It might be short story, an article, or a blog post. (One person had the guts to ask for an entire novel.) The email always says something to the effect of, “I can’t afford to (or don’t) pay contributors, but the exposure you will gain will make it worth your while.” I almost never say yes, and here’s why.

Unless the person asking is from a huge media outlet, blog, or publisher, I can almost guarantee that the “exposure” on offer is not enough to make it worth my while. It’s not that I demand a huge sum of money for my work, but I do expect any deal to be fair. And most of the outlets asking for freebies cannot begin to make a fair deal. They simply do not have the reach to make “exposure” a fair trade for hours of my time (Or yours.).

Here’s the thing: Somewhere along the way writers started buying into this myth of exposure. “Any publicity must be worthwhile!” It’s not. And giving too many things away for free is what has led to minuscule pay scales for writers, and more and more outlets refusing to pay at all. The outlets think exposure is a fair deal; writers know it is not.

Writing is work, a fact that most people refuse to believe. “How hard can it be to sit around and put words together for a living? It’s not like you’re curing cancer.” No, it’s not. But it is a legitimate job. Nothing in this world writes itself, be it a brochure, script, commercial, novel, or article. Yet most people assume that writing is so easy it’s not worth paying for. It’s real work that can take just as many hours a day as any other “real” job. And if you want an excellent product, it requires someone with experience.

Would you work in IT or engineer a bridge for “exposure?” No, you would not. You’d want money because you put in the hours, you have the necessary skills, and you deserve to be compensated. Writing is no different and giving too much away for free teaches others to believe that it is; that it’s okay not to pay. This is why writers can’t find paid work, or if the work is paid, it’s often not even minimum wage.

Exposure, even “good” exposure, won’t pay the bills. Even in the case where an outlet can legitimately offer a lot of eyeballs, it’s often not worth it. Few people read the byline of an article in the newspaper, a blog piece, or a magazine article. Even when the piece carries a callout with the author prominently mentioned, most people just pass right over it to get to the next article. If they do note it, they aren’t likely to remember it. So you get a lot of eyeballs for one thing, but it rarely translates into anything more than a piece you can post on your resume/website. It doesn’t drive people to seek you out for additional projects. Actual cash is far more useful when it comes to keeping the lights on.

Offering you exposure is just another way for companies and others to weasel out of paying you. Of course, it’s up to you whether or not you want to give work away. There are some instances where it’s a great thing to do. Volunteer work is wonderful. You’re giving your talent in the service of helping achieve a larger goal. Other times you may simply want to see your name in a certain publication, even if you’re not paid for it, or you really want to do the work and love it so much you’d do it for free. Work for family and friends can be great, too.

But if the freebie isn’t something you’re passionate about or doing out of kindness/a desire to help, really consider whether or not it’s worth it to you. Ask yourself if whatever deal is on offer is a fair trade, and if it’s worth rewarding this outlet for not paying. (Because that’s what you’re doing. You’re teaching them that it’s okay not pay the next writer.) If the deal is fair, then by all means carry on. But careful consideration will likely reveal that you’re better off holding on to your work and time for paying projects.

One other thing to note: Anyone can claim the job title of “influencer.” It’s not like you have to pass an exam or anything. Someone who writes one book review a year that three people see can lay claim to the title. Obviously, this isn’t the exposure you’re looking for. (Unless the person is a friend or family member and you do it to keep the peace.) So when someone claims to be an influencer, take it with a grain of salt before you decide to do any freebies.

(Image by Spencer Wing)

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