I Can’t Pay My Mortgage with ‘Exposure’ – Why Creatives Should Be Paid For Their Work


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I originally wrote this post back in 2016, but it seems that not much has changed when it comes to payment for working in the creative arts and the seeming value placed upon such work, so I thought I might share it again. While I write books, I also do freelance writing work, and I recently came across a job posting for a Michelin-starred restaurant in London, who were looking to emply freelance writers. I’ve written for restaurants before, so I clicked on the link, and was disappointed to see that the role was listed as paying £10-15/hour, and that the job description consisted of ‘Send us some poems and articles, and if we like them, you might be considered.’

This is a Michelin-starred restaurant in one of the most expensive cities in the world. They are asking for people to create content that represents them and their brand, work that requires skill and experience, yet they’re only willing to pay just above minimum wage for the privilege. And, as they only want freelance writers, anyone who got the job would have to pay their own taxes and expenses out of that £10-15/hour rate. For comparison’s sake, standard freelance rates for this type of work in London usually start at about £40/hour. Anyway, it frustrated me. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I’m working at the moment, and so is my husband. But these are desperate times for many people, and I could see that the job had had several hundred applicants already. However, it was still listed, so perhaps they haven’t found the right person yet – and I doubt they will, at those rates.
So here, in all its glory, is one of the few rants I have ever posted on this blog – enjoy!

IMGP0001_5I don’t usually post rants on this blog – it’s not really my thing. I actually wasn’t even going to publish this piece at all, but I had a short online conversation about it with Ali Isaac, and so here we are. And perhaps this isn’t so much a rant as a collection of thoughts. But I feel the need to talk about the idea of ‘free’, and the seeming value placed on writing these days.

I would like to be clear that I am not talking about choosing to list our own books for free, nor am I talking about writing guest posts for other blogs. This is because I believe that offering books for free can be a strategic marketing tool leading on to more sales, especially if you have several titles on offer – Nick Rossis recently featured an excellent guest post on the subject, well worth a read. Besides, offering our books for free is optional. As independent writers we can price our books however we like, and still remain in control. And guest posts are a great way to exchange information with other bloggers – more often than not, you get the same in return.

Rather, I am talking about the expectation that creative work be offered for free to other businesses, with no expectation of return other than that elusive beast, ‘exposure’. One obvious example would be Huffington Post, which has come under a lot of flack lately after the UK editor-in-chief, Steven Hull, stated that:

‘If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.’

So. A multi-million dollar company basically saying that they made their money from people writing for free. And pushing the idea that we, as writers, should be happy to do so, because we ‘want to write.’ Well, I do ‘want to write’, but I also want to eat, and maybe pay the mortgage. And I’m afraid I don’t entirely buy into the concept of working for ‘exposure’ – apart from the creative arts, is there any other field where people are expected to do their job for free, in the hopes that they might impress someone enough to actually get paid? I doubt if my toilet broke, the plumber would be happy to repair it for me in return for a shout-out on Instagram.

Here’s what I think about ‘exposure.’ Maybe ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, when the blogosphere wasn’t saturated, when content wasn’t raining down at 73 tweets per second into our feeds, exposure might have meant something. But these days we are more likely to simply disappear into a digital forest of a billion trees or more, each with something different to say. And I know there will be those of you out there who say ‘but I posted a blog on HuffPo (or similar) and my stats went up and I sold x amount of books and it was AWESOME.’ To which I say, well done you. You beat the odds. Because it’s a gamble, at best. A gamble that people will find your post, will click on it, will read it, will follow through to your blog or website, then follow through again to your books and buy them. You might then say ‘Well, why are you blogging? You don’t get paid for it.’ True. I don’t. But I do get the benefits of being part of a blogging community, knowledge sharing and support for and from fellow writers, plus the chance to write whenever I want, about whatever I want. And, you know what – I’ve met new readers and sold books too. And I’ve done it on my terms.

This sort of exploitative behaviour isn’t limited to writing – Sainsbury’s in Camden recently ran an ad looking for an artist to decorate their company canteen. For free. Incentives included ‘doing what you love,’ and ‘a chance to leave your mark.’ All very noble, I’m sure, but you can’t exactly pay the bills with this sort of stuff. Sainsbury’s were ripped apart on social media, and rightly so – the ad was pulled and the company apologised, adding that the ad had been run by the store in question, rather than by the company itself.

As a writer, I work every hour I can – writing, honing ideas, editing, planning, marketing, designing, reading, studying craft books… well, you get the picture. And I’m sure I’m no different from the majority of writers out there. We all know that, for the most part, we’re doing it for the love of the craft, for the joy that writing brings us – with the average yearly writer earnings in the UK working out to an underwhelming £11,000, the vast majority of us are not in the game to get rich.

I’ve been fortunate, over the past ten years or so, to be paid to write for other people, bringing in a reasonable income. My books, however, are operating at a loss – the cost of a professional edit has not yet been offset by sales, although I’m close to breaking even. But once again it’s my choice to have an edit done because I wish to present the best, most professional product I can, and so I consider the expense to be worth it. I’m laying foundations too, eventually planning to have several titles available – therefore I’m starting as I mean to go on. Building a brand, so to speak. And all of this takes time and study and practice, as does gaining proficiency in any other type of job.

So why should I, or any other creative individual, be expected to work for free?


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.


11 responses to “I Can’t Pay My Mortgage with ‘Exposure’ – Why Creatives Should Be Paid For Their Work”

  1. Ohh Helen, I agree with you. We wouldn’t breeze out of Sainsbury’s with a trolley full of goods saying ‘I’ll catch up with you sometime, possibly never, but my Facebook/Insta group will love seeing the pictures. Just think of the exposure.’ We need to start valuing our time, otherwise, no-one else will. If you find a plumber who is happy with promotional payments let me know. 😉

  2. I hear you, and feel this even extends to the healing arts and yoga. Also areas where we’re supposed to give freely of ourselves. This post hit home ????

    • Helen Jones says:

      Oh gosh yes. There’s a strange expectation in society that if we ‘love’ doing something, and are fulfilled by it, then we won’t want to be paid for doing it. It frustrates me immensely.

  3. I remember this post. What I notice this time was Ali. She’s kind of dropped out of sight. I know she returned to college and hope she’s doing well.

    • Helen Jones says:

      I still speak to Ali a fair bit on Twitter (and Whatsapp and Instagram)! She does seem to be doing well, lots of wonderful writerly things, although she is very much sheltering in place at the moment as much as she can.

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