I Can’t Pay My Mortgage with ‘Exposure’ – Why Creatives Should Be Paid For Their Work


I don’t usually post rants on this blog – it’s not really my thing. I actually wasn’t even going to publish this piece at all, but I had a short online conversation about it with Ali Isaac, and so here we are. And perhaps this isn’t so much a rant as a collection of thoughts. But I feel the need to talk about the idea of ‘free’, and the seeming value placed on writing these days.

I would like to be clear that I am not talking about choosing to list our own books for free, nor am I talking about writing guest posts for other blogs. This is because I believe that offering books for free can be a strategic marketing tool leading on to more sales, especially if you have several titles on offer – Nick Rossis recently featured an excellent guest post on the subject, well worth a read. Besides, offering our books for free is optional. As independent writers we can price our books however we like, and still remain in control. And guest posts are a great way to exchange information with other bloggers – more often than not, you get the same in return.

Rather, I am talking about the expectation that creative work be offered for free to other businesses, with no expectation of return other than that elusive beast, ‘exposure’. One obvious example would be Huffington Post, which has come under a lot of flack lately after the UK editor-in-chief, Steven Hull, stated that:

‘If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.’

So. A multi-million dollar company basically saying that they made their money from people writing for free. And pushing the idea that we, as writers, should be happy to do so, because we ‘want to write.’ Well, I do ‘want to write’, but I also want to eat, and maybe pay the mortgage. And I’m afraid I don’t entirely buy into the concept of working for ‘exposure’ – apart from the creative arts, is there any other field where people are expected to do their job for free, in the hopes that they might impress someone enough to actually get paid?

Here’s what I think about ‘exposure.’ Maybe ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, when the blogosphere wasn’t saturated, when content wasn’t raining down at 73 tweets per second into our feeds, exposure might have meant something. But these days we are more likely to simply disappear into a digital forest of a billion trees or more, each with something different to say. And I know there will be those of you out there who say ‘but I posted a blog on HuffPo (or similar) and my stats went up and I sold x amount of books and it was AWESOME.’ To which I say, well done you. You beat the odds. Because it’s a gamble, at best. A gamble that people will find your post, will click on it, will read it, will follow through to your blog or website, then follow through again to your books and buy them. You might then say ‘Well, why are you blogging? You don’t get paid for it.’ True. I don’t. But I do get the benefits of being part of a blogging community, knowledge sharing and support for and from fellow writers, plus the chance to write whenever I want, about whatever I want. And, you know what – I’ve met new readers and sold books too. And I’ve done it on my terms.

This sort of exploitative behaviour isn’t limited to writing – Sainsbury’s in Camden recently ran an ad looking for an artist to decorate their company canteen. For free. Incentives included ‘doing what you love,’ and ‘a chance to leave your mark.’ All very noble, I’m sure, but you can’t exactly pay the bills with this sort of stuff. Sainsbury’s were ripped apart on social media, and rightly so – the ad was pulled and the company apologised, adding that the ad had been run by the store in question, rather than by the company itself.

As a writer, I work every hour I can – writing, honing ideas, editing, planning, marketing, designing, reading, studying craft books… well, you get the picture. And I’m sure I’m no different from the majority of writers out there. We all know that, for the most part, we’re doing it for the love of the craft, for the joy that writing brings us – with the average yearly writer earnings in the UK working out to an underwhelming £11,000, the vast majority of us are not in the game to get rich.

I’ve been fortunate, over the past ten years or so, to be paid to write for other people, bringing in a reasonable income. My books, however, are operating at a loss – the cost of a professional edit has not yet been offset by sales, although I’m close to breaking even. But once again it’s my choice to have an edit done because I wish to present the best, most professional product I can, and so I consider the expense to be worth it. I’m laying foundations too, eventually planning to have several titles available – therefore I’m starting as I mean to go on. Building a brand, so to speak. And all of this takes time and study and practice, as does gaining proficiency in any other type of job.

So why should I, or any other creative individual, be expected to work for free?

94 thoughts on “I Can’t Pay My Mortgage with ‘Exposure’ – Why Creatives Should Be Paid For Their Work

  1. I agree, Helen. I suppose it is one of the downsides of the technology that allows so many writers a public voice these days that many writers are happy to work for exposure… but they shouldn’t be. It is one thing to choose to allow publication free of fees, another to be expected to. Especially when you have something of value to say. The ‘sensationals’, on the other hand, will pay thousands to make a gory public mess of your life.It makes me wonder how much of this profiteering from artists and writers could be controlled simply by readers…and writers… saying no.

    • Thank you, Sue 🙂 I think there is starting to be a bit of a push back now, where people are tired of being taken advantage of. There was a story a while ago about the touring Oprah show asking local dancers and entertainers to work for free at each venue – one pushed back and asked to be paid, and they then told her they didn’t need her after all. The thing is, if all the art and music and words go from this world, how will we nurture our spirits? There is such value to creative endeavour, and it should be encouraged and artists be compensated.

      • The corporate end have no excuse… they know what is involved in any artistic pursuit…and what the successful creative will charge. A fair fee is a reasonable demand. I’m not sure that everyone understands, though, what goes into art or writing. I did a lot of murals at one point, for peanuts really… though I wasn’t complaining as they were my first paid public murals. What took days on site, had taken weeks of solid work to prepare. Most people only saw the days.

      • Oh yes, I’ve done a couple of jobs like that too – I did some work in a restaurant and they complained so much about paying me, even though we’d pre-agreed a price and I’d done no end of prep work and spent weekends on ladders doing murals and chalk art. I imagine every creative has at least one story like this. And I think it’s the fact that ‘we love what we do,’ that makes people think that they don’t need to pay us, then.

  2. I wrote about something similar a few months ago: http://witandtravesty.com/creators-got-to-get-paid/
    I’m also tired of how creatives are taken advantage of; we’re somehow considered less loyal to our craft if we want to be paid for it. So, if a doctor has a passion for saving lives, he or she should do it for free, too? It’s an underlying, unfair truth that people don’t always appreciate the time and talents it takes to create something–writing, art, music, anything. Like, the work is somehow too easy but they can’t do it themselves. Until people change, we have to stick up for ourselves and our craft.

    • Absolutely, I agree, and I think there is starting to be a pushback of sorts by creatives to be compensated for their work (as they should be). It’s as if, because we love what we do, it’s not seen as being ‘real work.’ No-one sees the endless hours of study and craft that go into creating a book, song, or painting. It infuriates me that people will pay $3 for a coffee, but balk at paying the same for a book. Boy, we could talk about this forever, I think! I’ll head on over and read your piece as well 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

  3. My feeling is we never should “de-value” any of the arts, including music, art, theater, writing and other areas (wood-crafting, quilting, etc.) Time consuming and definitely time has made the “crafts” meaningful and valuable. I love reading books but I do borrow them instead of buying them. I also fill out library requisition forms once I discovered there are monies available to purchase books. I have only succeeded with two books after filling out about 50 forms, though.
    My brother is a muralist. Often, some who don’t appreciate his art, degree and experience try to talk him into doing “free” rough drafts and then possibly they would hire another artist to use his ideas. He sends them a series of his work and he is definitely making a low wage compared to fine artists, but he asks for travel money, hotel money and hourly wage of $30-40/hour!Writers cannot do this, but they deserve compensation for their time and energy! 🙂 ❤

      • Whoops! My tablet is playing up a bit and I ended the comment too early. I was going to add that, if we devalue arts to the point where they can no longer be sustained, then we run the risk of losing them forever, which would be a grave situation indeed. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  4. Well said, all of it.
    There is absolutely no excuse for people or companies taking advantage of writers and artists in this manner.
    I’m guessing that to an extent the situation has come about as a result of the glut of unedited crap lowering the overall standard of books available, both for free and for money. The resulting lottery for purchasers makes them less willing to take a chance with their money – even if it is only the price of a cup of coffee.
    I have similar issues with my day job, which involves training competition horse riders, many of whom are amateurs. In the leisure industry, as it is so often a hobby for my clients, they think nothing of cancelling a session because of bad weather, or social events they’d rather attend, when I still have to pay a mortgage at the end of the month.
    But professional work should be paid a professional fee. I write for several professional non-fiction outlets, and I’d be outraged if they suggested I work for free.

    • Absolutely, Deborah, I would be outraged too. I’ve always charged for my freelance work, even if it was a low rate at first, because it was important I started the way I meant to go on. And that’s awful that you have people cancelling at the last minute like that! Once again, because your work is a ‘leisure activity’ the amount of preparation and expertise that goes into it is somehow discounted. It’s immensely frustrating, isn’t it? Thanks for commenting 🙂

  5. You make many good points very well. I have undersold my writing at all stages but, like you, I consider that, as I publish more and build a portfolio I can begin to look for a return. But mostly people just want a freebie. As you say, people don’t seem to appreicate the effort and assume they can get it for nothing.

    • Thanks, Geoff. Yes, when I started out writing, I didn’t get paid much for it, but I did get paid. Then, as my experience grew, I was able to charge a bit more. This is how it is in most professions, so I don’t know why there is this perception that it shouldn’t be so in the creative arts, too.

      • Kick that nerve a little harder. It makes a great mantra. Unfortunately, there will always be someone to fill the request for free. Maybe we can thin the group some though.

      • Yes, I agree about the fact there will always be someone willing to work for free. I recently looked at Freelancer.com. and the jobs on there for writers were priced insultingly low, yet there were still people bidding on them. As you say, if we stand up and demand to be paid a living wage, then perhaps we can thin out the group and start to be appreciated.

  6. Creative people were once admired and respected. But now it’s all about science. People want to be entertained, but they don’t want to pay for it. And Indie authors have made a rod for their backs by giving so much away for nothing, as Amazon and Smashwords are always encouraging us to do, that now it has become the norm, and consumers expect it of us. They’re so busy downloading all the free books, they have no time to read or review them, and are probably just deleting them off their overstuffed and flabby kindles. There’s so much free stuff, even your promo days don’t get seen anymore. Its a sea of freebies out there! Anyway, I agree with all you said. A thoughtful and well argued post.

    • Yes, so true. I commented to someone else that we now live in a world of scientific fact and money, rather than wonders – perhaps that’s how the shift has occurred. It’s almost as though those who work in the arts are doing it as some sort of indulgence, that the perception is that it’s easy, a wonderful way to live. The reality is that there is just as much study and hard work involved to become proficient as there is for any other profession, and it’s time we were taken more seriously.

      • Absolutely right. Their lives would be dull if we all just suddenly stopped creating. Imagine… no books, no paintings, no music, no movies, no computer games…

  7. Well said, Helen, and from the comments it is clear people agree with you. I was asked if I would do some creative writing classes (poetry) in a school and then help the pupils get their work broadcast on local radio and go into residential homes to read their poems (whether or not the residents wanted to hear their poems!). I was given a great spiel about how valuable these workshops would be then, ‘oh, sorry, we don’t have any money to pay you – but there may be budding poets in the school and wouldn’t that be rewarding?’
    The other strand of this which irritates me is ‘citizen journalism’ when newspapers and radio, including the BBC, want people to send in stories and photos but won’t pay them – and, often, grab the rights.

    • Hi Mary, thanks for your comment. There’s been an extraordinary amount of feedback on this post, and I’m just catching up on the comments now! And yes, everyone seems to agree and most people, sadly, seem to have a story to share of a time when their work was undervalued. It’s heartening to see more and more creative people standing up and saying ‘No, actually we need to be paid for what we do.’ Hopefully it will start to make a difference. 🙂

  8. You voiced what I have often felt – do not like offering my work for free,but have done it for marketing purposes. But with the density of the digital world now, more and more I think I write just for the joy of it. It’s nice to see a real book that I’ve written – wonderful when others enjoy it, but the value for me is in the writing: a blog, a book, a tweet!

    • Thanks, Noelle – this is so true. Seeing others enjoy our work is part of the reward for being a writer. However, letting others profit off our labour is not, so it’s nice to see that you are writing simply for the joy of it 🙂

  9. Well ranted, Helen, and spot on – artists and writers have always been undervalued and I can’t see a time when this will change. All we can do is to stick to our guns and be true to ourselves.

  10. I started bloggin because my first editor was pushing me to establish a social media ‘platform’. I kept blogging because of the incredible community of writers and readers I met that way. I write books because it’s fun. But it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if I didn’t get paid for them! And (more importantly) I write books NOW because I can afford a nice life without depending on income from them.

    I think the current situation where everyone and his brother is putting their indie books up one the web is probably going to shake itself out in the next few years. It reminds me of just before the Great Depression when everyone from shoeshine boys to pensioners was investing in the stock market and going to make their fortune. Some did. Most lost. The ones who studied and worked at it, who didn’t take chances or shortcuts, who were in it for the long haul–they (mostly) did just fine.

    [I really never link my own stuff so feel free to ignore, but I thought you might be interested in a humor post I wrote about this:
    https://barbtaub.com/2014/10/20/its-still-not-personal-its-the-writing-business/ ]

    • Hi Barb – thanks for your comment! I think you’re right – the current way of things can’t be sustained for much longer, especially as there are more and more writers now who are, as you say, in it for the long haul.
      And thank you for the link – heading over to check it out now! 🙂

  11. Hi Helen! It’s been so long but I’m back in the blogosphere!
    Reading your post made me think of unpaid internships and all that work-to-get-experience malarkey. I have always found this concept outrageous and suffered from it on multiple occasions. I once worked for a magazine who convinced me to write for them and “get published” but for free. It was such a dilemma at the time because I really needed money but also really needed the experience too. It’s just wrong. But people do it all the time. Exploitation and whatnot.

    • I also did an internship while at university, to get experience, but once I graduated I just couldn’t afford to do that kind of work. And you’re right, it is exploitation – that magazine story is awful.
      And yay! I’m so pleased to see you back in the blogosphere – hope Paris is treating you well 🙂

    • Yes, absolutely! Because, even though we do enjoy what we do, there is a vast amount of work involved. My brother is a professional musician, and I’ve seen him going through the same sort of thing, even though he is quite successful now.

  12. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Helen Jones on the subject of providing writing and any other creative talent for FREE for organisations and companies that offer ‘exposure’ in return. I agree wholeheartedly.. If we choose to share our books for free for a period of time or share them on our blogs that is our decision. I think there are times when contributing your work to a high profile organisation can be beneficial but you need to consider it very carefully. For example always happy to contribute to a charity anthology and certainly would consider an offer from J.K. Rowling! I have been approached three times by large health organisations who offered me all sorts of support if I would blog about certain topics that they would share on their websites.. Which I did and they did not even tweet the blogs that I wrote just took the copy and ran.. Head over to Helen’s post and read it all and then perhaps offer you opinion on the subject.

  13. I started my career as a writer for an archaeology department and went on to become a journalist. Writing for free for someone else to profit, like Huff Po, is complete anathema to me. I have the same view regarding photography. Professional photographers need to make money and making photos freely available on the internet doesn’t help anyone. So when someone takes my copyrighted photos I ask for them to be taken down. Unless they want to pay me. My partner works in construction and he gives a price for a job. Then the customer wants ‘extras’. For free. No. Just no.

    It’s a good well-written post that needs saying. And, the link to Rossi’s is an excellent post too.

    • Thank you. I agree with everything you’re saying. Photography is another area where abuses happen, such as people just lifting images to use without permission. And my husband was in construction for years – I remember him going through the same thing with people wanting extras for free once the job price has been fixed. It should be the same for every kind of work – you pay for the service, or item, you receive, regardless of whether or not the person ‘loves’ what they do. Thanks for your comment, and your kind words – glad you enjoyed the post, and the link too 🙂

  14. No this isn’t a rant (I should know). This a good old simple straightforward eloquent plea for a “Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work”. Well said you!! Same as it ever was. Those with the money will try their best to keep it and convince the worker (writer in this case) what a great honour it is to be noticed by them.
    (I will stop now, I feel a Marxist style rant coming on and don’t want to clutter up your blog)

      • Yes. And everyone is willing to exchange views, listen and support…as opposed to Facebook etc

      • Yes. It’s been a great exchange of comments on this post, again part of why I enjoy being part of the blogging community 🙂

    • I have no idea. Somewhere, a shift took place and artisans and crafts people became undervalued, along with other creative pursuits. I suppose now we live in a world of money and scientific fact, rather than wonders, so perhaps that’s how the change has taken place. It’s a sad thing to see more money spent on war than on the arts, but that seems to be the way of governments these days.

      • I think that’s what wrong with us. Part of me wonders if this happened during the Industrial Revolution. I think things may have progressed slowly downhill from there.

      • Well honestly, money isn’t a bad thing; I think there was merely a shift in what was deemed to be valuable, which was math, science, and work/labor. Last time I checked, no one ever wound down from a hard day by solving equations, doing mounds of paperwork, or creating chemical reactions. While those things aren’t bad, the majority of folks engage with the creative to forget about the rigors of daily life (reading a book, listening to music, dancing, writing or even making or looking at artwork. Heck, I’ll even add cooking to this). Take all of that away, and what is left? These things enrich people’s lives, and it’s not appreciated for what it does.

        I think this deserves another blog post. I might want to write one…

      • So very well put – I agree, money isn’t always a bad thing, but this focus on material, rather than spiritual, is part of why the creative arts are so devalued these days. As you say, if they were taken away, what would people do to unwind? Where would they find joy? I look forward to your blog post – I think I might have another one in me too… 🙂

  15. Thank you for writing this poignant article. You speak for many of us writers. And I concur with your statement about hardly breaking even with the cost to put out our book with professional editing, covers, etc., let alone being paid for our writing time. We must enjoy what we do to continue doing it without looking at the dollar factor, but when brand name companies want to suck out our knowledge for free, that’s where we must draw the line. 🙂

  16. Good points Helen, nothing like a good rant sometimes. Also, next time you tune into my radio show I’ll be charging £1 per song request haha, only kidding 🙂

    • Ha ha, I’d better start saving my pennies, then! 😀
      Thanks, Steve – I don’t mind a rant once in a while. And I hope you’re feeling back to your cheery self again

      • Yeah, I’m getting there. In London just now so I’m really looking forward to the weekend for time to relax and catch up with myself…and hopefully a radio show and a glass or two of Vino Collapso 🙂

      • Sounds wonderful – hope you have a lovely time 🙂 I’m lining up those requests (and £1 coins), for when you’re back on the air!

      • Well I’m in London for work so maybe not as much fun but nice hotel, no cats and no Greg is sometimes like a holiday lol

  17. An excellent post. I don’t believe ANYone should work for free. Not interns, not artists, nor writers. The carrot–think of the exposure you’ll get–is just that, a carrot. I heard the word, ‘no’ somewhere. Might be useful. 🙂 ❤

  18. It’s a toughie, isn’t it, Helen? I agree completely on Huff Post: that stopped being free-spirited the day Arianna Huffington sold it for besquillions of dollars. But the tide is against writers, and I don’t know how anyone’s going to turn it back. There’s just so much content out there – buckets and buckets of it – and most people don’t seem to care whether it’s quality or not. For every piece of quality writing online, there are hundreds of crappy pieces willing to plug any product, endorse any idea, and do it all for free. How do we change that?

    • This is true, Tara – Craig also commented up-thread about the fact that there are always going to be people willing to work for free, or for less than the going rate. Perhaps the only way to change things is to try and change the association that free work is worth doing – rather, instead, that if it’s unpaid work, the quality isn’t going to be that good. I’ve noticed a movement to boycott HuffPo and similar, so perhaps the tide is turning slightly. I suppose we can only be true to ourselves and what we want to achieve 🙂

      • Somebody somewhere is always going to think that working for free will get them on the ladder, though. That’s the problem. And when you throw apathy regarding quality into the mix, it’s a perfect storm. I’m going to stop being depressing, now, and sing a song about jam tarts. Please excuse me.

      • Oh, you know, Helen. Jam tart, jam tart; you’re sweeter than the others; (oooh, oooh); who stole my Daddy’s heart; and so upset my mother (yeah, uh-huh).


    couldn’t agree more. Without creativity there would be no innovation and no technology. I 1000% agree. I also agree with using marketing tactics – i.e. if you have more than one book to sell especially in a series then offering one for free can work. BUT I don’t believe we should give anything away for free. Not now. Not ever.

    • Thanks, Sacha. I’d been thinking about this post for a while, not wanting to publish until I had said what I wanted to say and looked at all sides of the argument. It seems to have hit a chord. I do believe writing, especially, is so undervalued – they are now talking, in Australia, about taking author rights away from them after 15 years, because ‘writers don’t write to make money.’ It’s just so awful and insane I don’t know what to think – when did the world change so that the people who actually create are the ones who benefit the least? I feel another blog post coming on…

      • I know – it’s madness, isn’t it? I posted an article on FB about it from the Guardian and honestly, it’s just mind-boggling. Imagine the uproar if the same thing was said about music.

    • Yes, I was shocked too when I found out – explains why Arianna Huffington was able to sell it for $50 million+. All that free content is pretty valuable – too bad the writers aren’t getting paid for it. Apparently they do have a small stable of paid writers as well, but for the most part they don’t pay. Thanks for coming to visit – glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

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