Working for Exposure

I see a lot of whingeing about people expecting artists to work “for exposure”.

No, you can’t buy a loaf of bread with exposure, and I’m not contesting that. Work is work, and if we’re going to live in a capitalist system where we’re compelled to exchange money for goods and services, we need to pay creative people money for the work that they do. (Hint: most of us don’t get much choice about existing in such a system.) My rule of thumb is that I’ll generally work for free if it’s sortof my idea, or if there’s little or no effort required of me (and only I get to decide what that means on a given day).

That said: without exposure – without people who haven’t heard of you getting to hear of you and your work – it’s pretty hard to make money. You can call it exposure or publicity or market visibility; it’s still necessary. One of the attractions, for many, of working with an established publisher (or some other gatekeeper/distributor of creative work, let’s stick with publishing) is that such publishers already have a foothold in the market. Having your work published means that you trade some of your income from a work, and some of your control over that work, for what the publisher provides, and I’d say that “exposure” is a big part of what publishers provide.

If you don’t want to go down that route, you’re going to have to get that exposure in other ways. You’re going to have to advertise. You’re going to have to build a social media following (though many publishers now expect you to do this anyway), you’re going to have to tell everyone you know how great your work is and you’re going to have to convince them to tell everyone *they* know. That’s a valid path, but let’s not pretend it isn’t work, and let’s not pretend it isn’t costly.

Most of the problem with “do it for exposure” offers is not the principle of trading work for exposure; it’s in the quality and quantity of exposure offered not being commensurate with the amount of work being asked of the creative person. Rather than being insulted, perhaps negotiate. Ask questions: How many people are expected at this gig, and where do you get the data on that? What is your publicity plan for this project? How much of the publicity work do you expect me to do on my own? If you’re distributing my poetry in your zine, how many readers do you expect to direct back to my crowdfunding site? And when you’ve asked a lot of questions, decide whether the ‘exposure’ is indeed worthwhile compared to what you would normally charge for the level of involvement requested. If it’s “Well, who knows, there could be an agent at this gig and they might like your stuff…no we don’t really plan to invite any agents personally…but it could happen…” it’s probably not a good idea to work “for exposure,” but if it’s an annual event they regularly sell 600 charity tickets for in a town where you aren’t known and the charity is related to your interests and work, the admin work is going to be minimal on your side and they’ll let you advertise in the accompanying printed programme? It’s worth considering.

Originally posted at tumblr. I haven’t worked out what I’m using tumblr for yet.