Never Write for Exposure...or Should You?
If you've been doing the writing thing for more than three days, chances are someone has already told you never to give your work away for free. Whoever told you that is absolutely right. Exposure is something you die from. The day you go to the grocery store and the cashier tells you they're now accepting exposure as payment, then go ahead and expose yourself like that creep by the park rocking the trench coat. If that hasn't happened yet, make sure you get paid. You should always get something in return for your ideas, time, effort, and talent. Is that clear? Great. Now check this out: all rules can and should be broken from time to time. Before we get to the breaking part, here's a short list of things you should keep an eye on before deciding you're going to submit to a venue/publisher/editor/etc:
- Read submission guidelines carefully. No, I mean it. Read every single word in there. Take notes if you need to. Ask questions if something isn't clear. Three typos in there? Screw that anthology or publication. If they don't care about the words they put out, they won't care about yours. No payment? Move on. Also ignore any submission call that states something like "All 27 chosen authors will receive payment in the form of split royalties (10%)...after editing, printing, and cover costs have been covered." You'll make more money checking under the sofa cushions.
- Do your research. If you haven't heard of a publisher, maybe there's a reason for it. Look up their titles on Amazon. Google their name. Check them out on social media. No one will protect your work if you don't, so make sure you do.
- This one is simple and I've said it many times: you NEVER pay to get published. A non-paying submission call? Walk away. They ask you to pay to play? Tell them to go milk a bull with their shoelaces untied.
Okay, now that the standard stuff is out of the way, let's get to the rare instances in which working for free is acceptable:
I recently gave away a piece to an anthology that will put money in the pockets of fine people who lost a loved one to cancer. Charity is a good thing. I'm poor and can't hand money away, but I can sit down and produce something that I can give away to those in need, something of value. Sometimes you have to remember that maybe you're lucky enough to be able to think about writing another story tomorrow. Some folks don't have that chance, and helping them is the right thing to do.
Oh, this is a tricky one. Well, tricky and very personal. I recently sent a flash piece to a non-paying venue. Why? Well, a few reasons: a few years ago they published me when no one else would, I like the folks who edit there, and I knew the story was a great fit for them. You won't become a millionaire with a flash piece, and I decided that having this particular story in this particular venue was something I wanted. This business isn't that big and the folks who treat you well deserve to be treated well in return.
So you wrote this thing titled "Trump and Putin Visit the Killer Clown Annilingus Show." A year goes by and every paying venue has turned it down, but you want it on your list of published stories. You want to see the damn thing in print without changing a word. Well, there might be a non-paying venue out there willing to take your masterpiece. You can always put the story away and wait for an anthology call that fits it, but...you know.
4. Make a statement
There are strange pieces of fiction and nonfiction that make a statement, that contribute to the construction or expansion of a discourse you care profoundly about, or that are somehow very political and/or an important part of your code of ethics or something you strongly believe in. An anthology that wants to make a statement about POC in publishing is something I'd be a part of even if there was no payment involved. You know how you can send money to the ACLU and that's a statement? Well, there are rare times in which an opportunity will come along for you to use your words as a platform for your ideas (you know, more than usual, or at least in a much more politicized way).
5. Helping out
Don't confuse this one with charity. What I'm talking about here is writing something that helps someone else even if they're not going through a crisis. I get paid for 95% of the short fiction I write today, but only for about 10% of the reviews I write. Why? Because using the plethora of venues I write for as platforms to spread the word about outstanding indie literature is part of my job as an indie lit citizen. I love reading. I love books. I love writing reviews and sharing my thoughts on narratives in various genres. It brings me joy, so I do most of it for free (and for free books!). That's a decision I made that won't apply to most people, but think about it this way: every time horror maestro Brian Keene writes a blog post eviscerating a publisher that's taking advantage of authors, he does it because he understands that's part of his role as a lit citizen, not because he's getting money for it.
Yeah, I know that this is the one that's going to get all the angry comments. I don't care. There are opportunities that should be considered differently depending what stage of your career you're in. If you're starting out and get offered a chance to have a short story in an anthology with Joe R. Lansdale and Stephen King from a publisher with major distribution, maybe you should get on that. There's exposure and then there's exposure. Unfortunately, you're the only one who can truly study each opportunity and decide if the amount of attention you're going to get is worth the work. A small-town rag letting you publish your book review might be just a small-town rag taking free content. However, an essay about your love for literature in the NYT? That might get you on a couple of radars, and if you have a book out and they mention it in your bio...you know what I'm saying.
Whenever I teach an introductory journalism course, I spend a large chunk of time ensuring that students understand that absolute objectivity should be their goal. When I teach grad courses, I expect them to know that absolute objectivity is basically impossible. When it comes to writing for free, the same thing applies: you have to learn that your work is worth something, that you shouldn't let others make money off of you, and that part of being a professional author is getting paid. Then, once you're not that new anymore, you have to learn that every writing rule is breakable and that every writing opportunity demands to be studied separately. Now go out there and make that money.
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