In Defense of Writing for “Exposure”

There are many writers (most of them quite obscure) who make a great deal of noise about not being willing to write “for exposure.” Translated, this means not being willing to write for free.

Essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider expressed this point of view forcefully in his 2013 New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

A familiar figure in one’s 20s is the club owner or event promoter who explains to your band that they won’t be paying you in money, man, because you’re getting paid in the far more valuable currency of exposure. This same figure reappears over the years, like the devil, in different guises — with shorter hair, a better suit — as the editor of a Web site or magazine, dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it’ll offer. “Artist Dies of Exposure” goes the rueful joke.

Or, as Kathleen Geier has written in The Washington Monthly:

The reason I insist on being paid for my writing is not only because my time and services are valuable and doing unpaid work for someone else is insulting. There’s also a principle of solidarity at work. Every time a writer agrees to work for free, she drives down writers’ wages and makes it harder for other writers to make an adequate living from their craft.

(Note: Kathleen blogs for free here.)

We often hear this refrain: “When electricians offer to fix my lighting gratis, and plumbers repair my water heater without charge — that’s when I’ll write for exposure.”

One must consider, however, the laws of supply and demand — as well as the fact that tradespeople generally do not need “exposure,” per se. And like anyone, they charge what the market will bear.

So too must writers, whatever their specialty. And frankly, it is often the case that all the market will bear is … exposure.

Aspiring writers of fiction and poetry — as well as painters, sculptors, musicians, and other such creators — have reputations to build, followings to develop, critics to impress. In order to do so, they must arrange for their work to be read, seen, and heard. Exposed.

Consider that most small literary publications — whether digital or paper or both — operate on a shoestring, with far more idealism than cash on hand. Thus their inability to pay with anything more than “exposure.” Without such venues, novices would be even more hard-put than they are today to find outlets for their work. And without the advantage of “free” content, these venues would for the most part simply cease to exist.

The spin for writers of nonfiction — depending on the type — is somewhat different.

Numerous consultants, political pundits, and business influencers are more than happy to write for free — whether on LinkedIn, Huffington Post, or here on Medium — in order to build their reputations and brands, and generally make themselves known within their fields. Many also publish pieces in such forums as these — or as unpaid Op-Eds in newspapers — so as to boost the sale of writings for which they have been paid, such as books. Still more, like me, aren’t particularly interested developing a following or selling a book so much as simply having a place to publish on those occasions when we find ourselves with something worth saying, and want to say it.

How many books have been sold because readers encountered an opinion piece in Huff Post from an author who sounds like he or she knows a subject well and has interesting ideas? How many consultant gigs and invitations to speak have materialized from similar publications? It’s hard to say, but it has to be plenty.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe writers should be paid whenever possible. My small press New Street has scads of authors to all of whom we pay royalties on a regular basis. And when I’m working as a freelance ghostwriter or editor, I’m damn well being paid.

But let’s not paint with too broad a brush. For some writers, depending on their status and agenda and the forum through which they choose to publish, exposure is a very valid form of currency. Indeed, at times the best.


Note: I offer a full range of ghostwriting and book editing/coaching services. Details here. Also, consider following me on Medium or Twitter.

Writer published by Doubleday, Crown, Oxford University Press, and other major houses.

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