(Not) working for free

Today I want to talk about something not directly related to games, but more to the industry, and to creative industries in general: working for free.

I’ve been interested in turning my creative writing into a career for a long time, though due to reasons of immaturity, arrogance, and general flakiness I never really tried all that hard.  In the last six months I’ve been doing some work editing and proofreading for various people.  I enjoy it and I figure that it’s all part of the industry, and something I can do while I also write and work my day job.

I’m bringing this up because I mentioned last time that I was doing some proofreading for a cyberpunk game.  I have since decided to pull out of this – even though it is enjoyable and a valuable opportunity to get a credit in a book – because the designer wants people to do this proofreading for him for free.

When I first started doing this editing and writing for real, I had the attitude that you have to do everything you can to get your foot in the door – including working for free.  I had done some paid work for a university before, have done some unpaid work helping my friend with his PhD thesis, and I am currently editing and proofing the work of two other friends gratis.  But I think there is a difference between working for free for a mate who is producing academic writing or starting out in fiction writing, and working for free for a stranger on a project that he intends to make money out of.

People often expect writers, artists, film-makers, editors – in other words creatives and their ancillaries – to work for “exposure.”  The reasons they give if pressed usually boil down to “you love it, you should want to do it anyway.”  I’ve been guilty of spreading this attitude myself.  But I have since had a change of heart, after talking to some professional editors and really thinking about it. 

So what if you love what you do?  I’m sure there are many people in the world who would hate going through a written work with a fine-toothed comb and proofing it, even if they were capable of the job.  Which brings me to my next point: this is skilled work.  With 43% of Australians functionally illiterate, this is not something anyone can just do.  If a plumber enjoys his work, does that mean he should do it for free?  Of course not.  For one thing he trained for years to know what he knows.

Working for free undercuts everyone else who is legitimately trying to sell their valuable skills.  The only reason businesses even ask creatives to work gratis is because people do it.  So I’ve decided not to.  I can see no difference between agreeing to work for free on someone else’s commercial project, and being a scab on a union job site.  This has been a really difficult decision for me as I’m still in the early stages of my new career, and as I said I wanted to do the work and I wanted that publication credit.

But doing “whatever it takes” is being a free-rider.  It’s being a scab, an anti-vaccinator, someone who puts their own welfare ahead of the group.  I think that’s cowardly and morally dubious, if not wrong, and I try not to act that way in the rest of my life.

I’ll still buy the guy’s book.  I’m not angry at him or anything, he’s just doing the smart thing for him, and no doubt someone else will help him.  Maybe one of his friends who has a more personal stake in the project than I do.  But I’m not helping someone make a product in return for “exposure.”  That’s not going to pay my electricity bill.

9 thoughts on “(Not) working for free

  1. The Warlock says:

    43% of Aussies functionally illiterate? and we call ourselves a first-world country.

    Also read some of the stuff you posted via FB- working for ‘exposure’ should be illegal as it’s a violation of ethics. You don’t want to pay someone for something they did for you that you’re then going to use to make money. That donut company one, adverts are solely produced to make money, so why should the person making it get paid nothing. That’s fair, right? -_-

  2. beat ronin says:

    Well, that statistic came from a person I don’t know in a conversation on facebook, but this is the link they provided: http://www.abc.net.au/local/videos/2012/09/07/3585457.htm

    And apparently it’s actually 47% 😮

  3. Porky says:

    I think you get at the core of it, especially in the last three paragraphs. This is a major problem in terms of quality of life, or even ability to live. The first step towards a set of solutions is as simple as people making this kind of reasoned withdrawal of support for exploitation.

  4. Kelly says:

    100% agree with your policy of not working for free if the “client” is going to be making money off your work. I’ve never thought of drawing a line there, but it makes sense. If I’m doing something for a buddy to help them out, that’s a favour. If I’m doing something to help someone make money, then it should be paid work.

    It’s difficult if you’re trying to get your name out there though… companies (more to the point, the people behind the companies) often exploit your desperation for exposure. Every aspiring artist / writer / etc., wants to get more name recognition, and it’s easy for someone in the right place to barter that into free work for them.

  5. well said. The Musician’s Union in the UK is running this campaign which makes the same points:

    I remember being ‘invited’ to play at a local festival (which meant bringing £5000 worth of kits, setting up PA etc, plus a late night gig) in exchange for ‘entrance to the festival and a delicious vegetarian meal’. Entrance to the festival, whoopie do, am I going to invite a plumber round to replace a tap in exchange for entrance to my house?

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi Knight of IR. Yeah, that’s a bit rough! The music industry are not exactly clean when it comes to treating artists fairly!

      My partner got commissioned to do some installation art for a music festival here a couple of years back, and they paid for her materials, as well as free entry and food from the staff kitchen for me and her (I was there to set up). Not exactly paying her for her work, but it’s a step in the right direction.

      People can go too far in the other direction too, I’ve noticed: the Australian Society of Authors recommends demanding a rate of $892 per thousand words! I’m in the market for sci-fi and genre fiction, and even Asimovs or Amazing Stories only pay 3c a word, which is about one third of what the ASA thinks is reasonable to ask for. I doubt even Playboy or Rolling Stone would pay a dollar a word.

  6. sinsynn says:

    Well…as a Union member myself, I can do nothing but agree on this one.
    Must’ve been a tough choice, though…but you made the right one, I think.

    • beat ronin says:

      Thanks sinsynn. Yeah, I think so. I managed to get some work reading the submissions for a sci fi magazine, and that doesn’t pay either! But all their staff are volunteers and the mag only charges to cover costs, so I’m cool with that. Plus it’s fun, I get to read two free fantasy, sci-fi or horror stories a week.

      I’m starting to realise that it’s amazing we have any works to enjoy at all. It seems like all the artists were brainwashed into thinking they shouldn’t ask for money, and were slaving away for little to nothing. They’re only now starting to wake up.

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