February 16, 2016

Should We Work for Free?

Long-exposure photo of light tracks with text: When Is "Exposure" Worth It?

Over the last month, Kristen Lamb has written several blog posts about how authors need to have a business-oriented mindset if income is a goal. Her recent post about how the “culture of free” is killing creatives is especially thought-provoking, and I encourage everyone to read it.

In that post, she shares the story of Revolva, a performance artist who was liked enough by Oprah Winfrey’s production team to be invited to perform at a conference charging around $600-$1000 per ticket (with 18,000 tickets available). Yet Revolva was expected to perform for free.

Kristen’s post also links to a blog by Wil Wheaton, who was contacted by an editor at Huffington Post when they wanted to republish one of his articles. Yet despite the fact that HuffPo is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and makes money off advertising based on the traffic driven by their content providers, they weren’t going to pay Wil for his content.

At the same time, I recently posted about how we can use free content as a pricing strategy. So which is it? Should we work for free or not?

The Short Answer…

Should we work for free? It depends. *grin*

For example, deciding to work for free can be a valid choice:

  • if we’re new and trying to prove ourselves,
  • if we’re pursuing exposure as part of a bigger strategy, or
  • if we’re supportive of the cause (like a charity case).

Exposure isn’t a bad thing. It’s only bad if that’s the only way we’re being “paid” in every situation.

Being Purposeful with Our Choice

As I mentioned in my post about offering a story for free, a freebie can make sense if we’re an unknown author (i.e., 99.99% of authors). But the strategy only makes sense from a business perspective if we have a plan in place to exploit that exposure.

A freebie can act as a sales funnel to our other (non-free) stories or an enticement to sign up for our newsletter, etc. If we don’t have something in place to capture those readers for future sales, we’re giving up income for no reason.

(Some writers don’t have the goal of making income, but I’m speaking to those of us who would like to make something for all our work, especially as cover art and editing to put out quality work costs us money.)

Our freebie might make sense if we’re offering something that will entice readers to pay for the rest of our work and using the backmatter of our freebie to share an excerpt and links to our other works. But if we have only one story available for sale, it doesn’t make sense to offer that story for free.

The point is that free should be a purposeful choice because it’s part of our bigger, long-term strategy. It’s our decision—not something that someone else decides.

What If We’re Not Sure?

Some might think Revolva crazy for turning down the opportunity to perform at Oprah Winfrey’s event. But as she points out, Oprah’s event is paying “the lighting people, the sound people, the caterers, the janitors, the people who erected the outdoor side stage, basically everyone except the local artists appearing on said stage.”

So why not the artists?

Oprah—of all people—can afford to pay something to the artists on her stages. If Revolva were to say yes to playing for free for Oprah, who would she be justified in saying no to? If she can’t charge someone worth $3 billion dollars, who can she charge without guilt?

Yet at the same time, that opportunity could be life-altering. So it’s a hard decision to be sure.

What Factors Might Affect Our Decision?

When we’re debating and there’s not a clear-cut answer, we might want to keep a couple of variables in mind before making our decision:

Which Party Is the Instigator?

In the cases of Revolva and Wil, the producer/publisher approached them specifically because they possessed something deemed valuable. Value should be recognized and/or rewarded.

As Wil points out, the situation changes when “they” recognize the value:

Which Party Is Doing the Favor?

In Wil’s case, he already has a platform and wasn’t hurting to get his message out. He didn’t need HuffPo, but they need content providers to keep their traffic up to charge advertisers.

In Revolva’s case, the conference needed someone on the stage to justify advertising “multiple stages of entertainment” to ticket purchasers.

Is Money Involved for Either Party?

As I mentioned above, we might decide a charity case is a valid reason to donate our time or work. If a person or group isn’t in it to make a profit, we might volunteer and add to the effort.

However, if others are going to use our work to justify charging more money that will go into their pockets, by all means, we deserve a cut. In both Revolva and Wil’s cases, the groups use their content providers to charge others more.

How Solidly Does the “Exposure” Tie into Our Strategy?

One of the most important factors is how well we can exploit the exposure from the opportunity. Some situations will do a better job of getting our name out there, or some might be a better match to our target market. Still others might give us a chance to “pass the hat” or offer our for-sale work to the audience.

In Revolva’s case, because she was going to be on a side stage with no way to predict foot traffic or offer merchandising, she decided the “opportunity” wasn’t as good as she first hoped.

A Case Study: Guest Blogging

In the writing world, there are several types of blogs. Some are run as money-making companies (typically through advertising), and some are small individual blogs with no income stream.

Those differences affect whether I think bloggers should be paid for their guest post content. Going back to those four factors mentioned above…:

Which Party Is the Instigator?

If the blog approached the guest poster with a request for a guest post because of their expertise, their knowledge is obviously valuable. In that case, guest posters might be justified in expecting to be paid.

If the guest poster approached the blog, guest posters might be less justified in expecting to be paid.

Which Party Is Doing the Favor?

If the blog relies mostly on guest posts, they obviously need guest posters to survive. Just as traditional publishers need authors to publish anything, some blogs are the same way. In that case, guest posters might be justified in expecting to be paid.

If the blog’s traffic mostly relies on home-grown content, or if the guest poster needs access to the blog’s platform, guest posters might be less justified in expecting to be paid.

Is Money Involved for Either Party?

If the blog makes money (such as through advertising)—and especially if they rely on guest posters for content—the income should rightly be split between the platform provider and the content providers. In that case, guest posters might be justified in expecting to be paid.

If the blog isn’t geared toward making money, guest posters might be less justified in expecting to be paid.

How Solidly Does the “Exposure” Tie into Our Strategy?

If the blog isn’t a good match for a guest poster’s paid work, or if the blog doesn’t do a good job of “pushing” the guest poster, the exposure might not be worth much. In that case, guest posters might be justified in expecting to be paid.

If the blog does a good job of talking up the guest poster or emphasizing their name or work, guest posters might be less justified in expecting to be paid.

How This Might Play Out in the Real World

Obviously, no matter those situations above, we can always decide whatever we want. We can choose to work for free in any situation, and we can expect to be paid for every piece of work we do. That doesn’t mean we’ll get what we want out of the opportunity, but the choice is always ours. *smile*

However, I’ve been thinking a lot about this paid vs. unpaid situation recently, both for myself and my blog. So that’s why Kristen’s post resonated so strongly with me.

Conference Invitations and Workshops

Several times in the last couple of months, I’ve had groups approach me with requests to speak or to give one of my workshops. For virtual appearances, I require being paid something, as my time is valuable. If they want a full workshop, I charge accordingly, based on the OnDemand workshops I sell here. (If I’m trying to sell something, I’m not going to give it away. Duh.)

For in-person workshops, some authors want to make them a big part of their income, and some don’t. For me, there’s a serious pain-in-the-butt factor to present a workshop at a conference for my travel and time involved (not to mention my introvert-fueled panic attack before every conference trip *sigh*). So I charge accordingly for the PITA factor, and I’m okay if that higher charge means I don’t give many in-person workshops. That type of income isn’t my goal.

Many authors have stories about spending a day and travel costs just to sell a handful of books. That costs us money and probably isn’t the best use of our time.

Guest Blogging

A certain well-known writing magazine also runs a blog that I would never guest post for. Yes, they’re a money-making enterprise, but I’m not sure their blog brings in much of their income, so that’s not the main problem in my mind.

Remember how I mentioned that one of the four factors is how well guest posters could exploit their exposure? For this particular blog (and they’re not the only ones), they suck at formatting guest blog posts.

That means their guest posters get no recognition. Many of their guest posters don’t get an introduction, so casual readers might not even realize the content is provided by someone else. They might barely get a bio, and many blogs don’t offer a way for guest posters to promote their work to the blog’s platform.

Then what’s the point? For exposure to be worth anything, we need to get something from it, and that means our name and our work need to be front and center.

An Example: What Might Solid Exposure Look Like?

Compare that guest post situation with how I handle guest posts here:

  • Before a guest post ever goes up, I work with the poster to ensure their work will make them look good. I give them tips on how to make their content more applicable, shareable, or interesting.
  • I format their guest post to look good and encourage reader interaction.
  • I include their name in the title, which helps their personal SEO for Google.
  • I know how to use keywords and subheadings to make their content an authority in Google.
  • I give an introduction, emphasizing their authorship of the content and sharing their expertise so readers know why they should stick around.
  • I always include a picture and bio with their links so readers know how to connect with them.
  • I always include a promo blurb and buy links, where they can directly promote their (paid) work to my readers.
  • I use my social media platforms to promote the guest blogger and the content.
  • My blog’s SEO strength means that posts here come up in Google searches, so that exposure will continue indefinitely.

All of that adds up to how I do “pay” my guest bloggers. My blog doesn’t do advertising or anything to bring in money, so I can’t pay with money. I don’t make money off it, so there’s no money in the pot to share. *smile*

I provide over 90% of the content here, so when I include a guest post, it’s usually because I’m trying to help others gain access to my platform of readers. In most cases, I’m providing the “favor.”

But at the same time, those bullets above show how I take my responsibility to pay my guest posters in exposure seriously. I want my guest posters to be happy with the experience because they’re my guests and I want to treat them well.

So when we’re evaluating an opportunity, we can ask: What will we get out of it? Can we see a direct line between the exposure and a way to get value from our work? That’s what we should be looking for when we’re considering accepting exposure for payment.

Exposure can be good. But not everything that people claim will give us exposure will actually do so, especially in a way that will help us get paid for work down the line. Hopefully this post will help us figure out when a “do it for the exposure” gig is worth it—or not. *smile*

What do you think about writers working “for exposure”? When might it be a good idea, and when might it not be? What work would you be willing to do for exposure? What wouldn’t you do for free? Do you have any other tips for what we should keep in mind when deciding?

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When reading this article I just remembered that saying: “People love your work until they have to pay for it.”


I personally will avoid writing for free in the future. I think it was an interesting learning experience, but if you want to be respected for what you do you should at least try to make some money, even if to cover costs like editing.

Tracy Campbell

Hi Jami,
I read Kristen’s post as well. And in Revolva’s case, I wouldn’t perform either. But your points about starting out as a newbie author and offering something free if one has other products to sell is one I agree with. In the very near future, I’ll be publishing a coloring ebook and as I only have one product at the moment I will participate in KDP Select for the 90 days. That way I can offer my ebook for a few free days. I hope my thinking is correct. Thanks for sharing your expertise, Jami. 🙂

Tracy Campbell

Ah, yes, purposeful is a great word. And thank you for all the effort you put forth in your posts. I don’t always have time to comment, but I do read them. 🙂


Offering free books is definitely a good strategy when you have a series. That’s how I get most of my sales. I figure it’s like those companies handing out free food samples at the supermarket. Some people just want freebies and others go on to become loyal customers. But if they never taste the product first, they might never buy it.

But yeah, do something for free when someone else is profiting is just poor business.

Jennifer Barricklow

Wow! Thanks for continuing this conversation and connecting us to others who are part of it. The last point – how well the exposure ties in with our goals – is perhaps the most important.
I once agreed to copy edit an anthology to benefit a charity I support in exchange for a full-page ad in the volume. When I received the text, I was told only to proof, not edit, which would have been fine if the quality of the contributions had been consistent. I offered to do some light editing to smooth the collection out a bit (though some pieces needed a good deal more than that) but was told that no further (?!) editing could be done, only correction of errors.
Deciding I could not afford to be professionally associated with something that fell so short of my standards, I declined to put in the ad. I even asked not to be listed in the acknowledgements. I don’t regret my choice, but it did leave a sour taste in my mouth.

Marcy Kennedy

I’ve really appreciated reading the discussion arising around this topic. I’m hoping to blog on it myself next week, but I wanted to take some time to think about it first and make sure I have something valuable to contribute to the conversation. I also need to decide who I want to talk to in my post (that is, who is my intended reading audience for it) because that affects the content.

In an economy where many people are on tight budgets, free can help us make wise decisions about where we’ll spend our money. I believe in trying before you buy. But then once we know we like a product (entertainment or otherwise), if we don’t pay to support that product, it might not stay around long.

Many producers couldn’t continue to produce if they didn’t earn an income from it. I couldn’t. We need my income to pay our bills. I do believe that if the “don’t pay creatives” trend was taken to it’s extreme end point, the quality of entertainment would eventually drop so drastically that we’d see a bounce-back. But I’d prefer it didn’t have to go that far, so I agree with Kristen that it’s important creatives start standing up for themselves and spread the word. That word needs to get out not only to creatives to band together, but also to consumers.

Terry Kate
Terry Kate

There are so many issues around this. First is – Does the person running the blog have something to sell? – that can be a book of their own – classes – a product If the blogger is selling a product then the blog is advertising for them. If the blogs only possible income is an ad then why should that be shared? If I guest post and the author who owns the blog gets a book sale because of a reader I brought there is no expectation of payment. A blog is a billboard – is the location worth the time and effort? If you provide a post pre-linked you are getting the SEO benefit of the location and possible sales. In order to maintain the billboard the blogger looks for money without charging those that get the largest portion of visual screen space. If a blogger makes money off the blog than that is their work just like a book is the authors. Blogging is work. It is a vicious cycle of the blogger may need the money to keep the blog rolling, and the content to get the money to keep the blog alive. Does the work that goes into a post actually make the author money and sales. It comes down to that there are a lot of people who want to do this and get financially appreciated for their time, but there is not a lot of money floating around. All the stabbing with forks…  — Read More »

Glynis Jolly

I haven’t had anything published for 18 years now. I was paid for the publishing… kind of that is. It was part of a job I had with a nonprofit organization. Therefore, I, now, consider myself unpublished again. Probably what I have to say on this matter would be questionable. However, I’m hoping that once I’m at that point of having my work out there, I’ll be publishing some of what I write for free. It IS good exposure, but it’s also a fine way to give back to the multitudes.

Stephanie Scott

I’ve missed reading your blog! (my own issues). This is such a great article with so many take-aways. This is so helpful. I’m finding I need to evaluate more closely how I invest my time. Thank you!


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[…] Many other posts have followed, including Jami Gold’s practical take on it in “Should We Work for Free?” […]

Kassandra Lamb

All excellent points, Jami. And I want to say, as one of your occasional guest bloggers, I think you treat your guests like royalty! 😀


[…] Some published-author contests include significant prizes, everything from cash to guaranteed professional reviews or other legitimate publicity, etc. Other contests offer only “exposure type” prizes. […]

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