Author Etiquette - Working for Exposure: Not Worth the Effort

by Jennifer 1. November 2018 09:54

Life is hard enough as it is especially if you are any type of creative. Most authors have regular jobs and have to squeeze in time for writing, editing, and promotion in between work, family, and other activities. The few hours they get to dedicate to words pass much too quickly, and the pay they receive from their work doesn’t pay the bills. Yet, they write, rewrite, submit, and start again hoping that someone out there will enjoy their work.


Unfortunately, there are other people out there who try to take advantage of this dogged determination. Some are predatory publishers and agents. Others are people who copy a manuscript and try to publish is as their own. And then there are those who offer to pay the creative in exposure.


Exposure isn’t always a bad thing. Vaccines expose the body to an inert virus or bacteria in order to produce an immune response. Exposure to different cultures and ideas helps develop empathy and broader sense of community. People expose themselves to a variety of things such as environments, ideas, and foods to increase tolerance, expand their knowledge, and learn about different cultures. All of these are good things.


But when it comes to creative work, exposure probably isn’t in the best interest of the author.


Offers of Work

Most people simply do not understand the time and effort authors put into their work. Writing stories is difficult and takes a tremendous amount of skill. It can take years of practice before an author actually sells a story. Many authors take workshops,college classes, and join critique groups in order to improve their stories. Then they take on reading inside and outside their genre to learn to break down story structures, character arcs, and plots along with reading just for fun.


For some outside the writing sphere, this seems like more like a hobby than a second job. This could be why authors are approached for exposure work. (Among other reasons.)


Now some of these “opportunities” could be honest people looking for volunteers to assist on a community project, getting a newsletter for (insert public service) off the ground, or simply someone who does not understand the difference between doing things for free and doing something for some sort of payment. (Insert cringing shrug here.)


But those types are very few. Mostly when an author is approached for “exposure opportunities” the person is very well aware that they are asking someone to do something for free. And many times the person doing the ask will be the only one who benefits.


Negative Exposure

Case #1

An author sells a few short stories. They are then approached by a friend who is trying to launch a website and was wondering if the author would write some stuff for them. The author wants to help out the friend and starts writing. After several time-consuming revisions, the author’s work is published on the site, where the byline is listed as the friend. The website makes some cash but nothing flows to the author. The friend wants more writing, but in a different style and subject. The author spends quite a bit of time writing for this website, without pay, and sets their own work aside…


Case #2

Author is approached by an editor or publisher who has seen their work. They want the author’s stories, however, they can’t pay except for royalties (after artwork, editing, etc. has been paid out.) Author agrees to write a story which is then accepted. Author never sees a penny.


Case #3

Creative (of any type) is approached to work on a project. It could be anything from writing flyers, producing artwork, or any number of jobs. The project sounds exciting. The creative asks about pay. The answer is “nothing but you’ll get lots of exposure.”


In all of these cases the author loses out on time and potential money. The promise of exposure is a hollow promise. While people might see the author’s work, more often than not, none of these opportunities are going to pan out more than a few curious offers at the same sort of work usually without pay.


Positive Exposure

Can exposure be a good thing? Of course it can. If the author is approached for a charity anthology, work for a portfolio, internship, or is willing to donate their time for a project they feel worthwhile. Even For-The-Love publications (publications that offer no pay for publication) can be a great opportunity to an author, especially one just starting out. Internships allow authors to see a different view of whatever industry they are working for, a chance to get to work with key people, and a line on a resume.


Exposure can lead to bigger things, BUT you must be aware of the pitfalls and may need to set boundaries on a project first.


Some simple guidelines for exposure work:

1- Be aware that there is no pay.

2- Be aware of the time needed for the project. Set a firm limit. When it hits that limit, it’s time to either renegotiate, demand some sort of payment, or walk away.

3- Be sure you have a byline or other acknowledgement of your work.

4- Have some sort of finished project for your portfolio.

5- Have a contract stating the terms and conditions of the work, the time you are willing to donate, and other important details.


Offering Work for Exposure

If you happen to be in a position that you are approaching authors or other creatives about unpaid work, please tread carefully. First, many authors are going to flat out refuse as they know that unpaid work undercuts their budget. Second, they may not agree with your project. Third, they don’t have the time.


Offering up at least a token payment (flat fee, printed version of the publication, other sort of compensation) is often the best choice for attracting quality authors. A second option would be to ask about a reprint especially if you are working on a charity anthology. Authors often have an older story out of print that could use new readers.


Generally, working for exposure isn’t good for an author. Too much time and effort often goes into projects that do not benefit them. Those who approach them often aren’t the type to appreciate the hard work and the time needed to create a quality project. Although there are exceptions (as to most rules) exposure work should usually be avoided.


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