Exposure Doesn’t Pay the Bills: Taking the FREE out of Freelance by Tiffani Jones

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“Eff You, Pay Me.” –Goodfellas

Adrienne Graham’s 2011 Forbes essay, “No, You Can’t Pick My Brain. It Costs Too Much” forever changed how I navigated by struggling freelance career as a writer, blogger, and editor.
Despite what you’ve seen on Sex and The City, life as a freelance writer, creative, or independent contractor isn’t replete with luxury shoe shopping, Cosmopolitan cocktails (hate those, but there is copious red wine swilling though), or afternoons spent typing away in a spacious NYC apartment clothed in boho chic designer duds. I’m sad to report that Carrie Bradshaw has led some of you hopefuls astray.
Unless a writer pens the type of controversial click-bait that guarantees site hits and causes established digital or print media entities to woo you or a trust fund grants you the luxury of finding your niche as a creative or writing about fumbling through a well-orchestrated hot-mess life of privilege, sex, drugs, narcissism, and rock & roll and you manage to reap the rewards of a lucrative book deal advance from a well-known publisher, this life isn’t easy. In fact, it’s frustrating wondering when you’ll finally be compensated for your published work and accounts payable will stop giving you the runaround or whether your pitch will be well-received.

Trying to eke a meager living as a freelancer is a constant hustle that’s heavily involved. Waking up every day pitching your idea in hopes someone will find it interesting enough to bite, constantly challenging yourself to create even when working is slow or non-existent, distressing over a check that’s long overdue, finding the spoons to keep your website updated, indulging creative side-projects and keeping your sanity and wade in a shallow sea of other creatives who crank out the same formulaic click-bait and work but stay in editors’ rotation while trying to keep your sanity at a thankless day-job is the norm until you’ve truly arrived. And even when you’ve managed to build a respectable reputation, getting respect from people champing at the bit for your time, work, and intellectual labor seems like an exercise in futility. Here’s my petition…

I’ve been writing for years and blogging since 2004. It’s not something that’s a newly discovered hobby of mine and I’ve never taken it lightly. It’s a passion that took a long time for me to craft. I’ve been published along-the-way, have gotten my feet wet within various writing genres, and have developed a ‘writing voice’ that’s unique to me and has become recognizable. At this juncture, I’m finally confident enough to say that I produce quality work and am a damned good writer. I’ve done a great deal of it to acclaim and recognition and, at times, without compensation. But my days of agreeing to give away my intellectual labor have been over for some time much to a lot of people’s chagrin.
But I’ve earned my stripes, as the saying goes, so it really grinds my gears when established people or publications with access to heft budgets think they’re entitled to my hard work free of charge, with no reciprocity or compensation whatsoever. And I’m lucky if I can get my hands on a free hard or digital copy of any of the publications I’ve written for, for FREE for my portfolio.

Some folks believe that writers and other creatives should be happy to share their work and readily accept any opportunity for “the exposure,” which is a grave insult to my intelligence as a writer, particularly since I already have a platform which I showcase my work.

I welcome the opportunity to consider legitimate and interesting-sounding projects and promising opportunities as they’re offered to me, but won’t do any of it for free. Not anymore. Messaging me and outlining what you need me to do for your project, blog or publication or pitching some collaborative idea you’d like me to consider comes at a cost if I decide to contribute.

Alas, finally putting my foot down and setting boundaries has presented some challenges for me, but it’s a non-negotiable issue I refuse to budge on nevertheless. The cost of my time and work is possibly open for negotiation, though. Particularly since I know, without question, those of you who harbor this sense of entitlement to my work and intellectual labor would scoff at the thought of being asked to work any job or contribute your ideas free of charge.

When you contact me for a project professing to enjoy my work and ask about utilizing my services, and I make an inquiry about your budget and I don’t get a follow-up response from you when you see or hear the word ‘budget,’ or when you stiff me on services rendered despite having made a payment agreement with me or tell me you aren’t willing or don’t have the budget to pay me, but have every intention of profiting off of what I’ve provided you, you’re telling me that you have no genuine or vested interest in my time and that you truly don’t value what I do. You’re telling me that you think writers and other creators are lesser-than. It’s insulting and you’re encroaching on my livelihood.

When journalist Nate Thayer wrote a blog post in 2013 about the indignity of being asked to contribute work for free and shared an email exchange he had with an editor at The Atlantic magazine who wanted him to reformat a previously written article so they could republish it, it went viral among writers, bloggers, and journalists across digital media, prompting a myriad of reactions. Some people felt that Thayer was out of line for putting the editor on blast and suggested that writing for free isn’t such a horrible idea. Others were glad he took a public stand and set a boundary. Personally, it resonated with me and I think it needed to be said. In one of Thayer’s responses, he wrote,

“I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. (…) I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for-profit company so they can make money off my efforts. (…) Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed by how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them.”

Writer Ta-nehisi Coates weighed in on Nate Thayer’s post for The Atlantic and added the intersection of race to the conversation, writing there was no Golden Age of freelancing for Black writers. And while the system between freelance writers and editors isn’t perfect, he found value (earlier in his career) in agreeing to write for free because it led to exposure, a platform for him to express his ideas, and other opportunities he presumably wouldn’t have had otherwise as a Black writer and public intellectual trying to make a lucrative living and compete for gigs until someone (white) in a position of power vouched for him. He essentially thinks freelancers should be paid for their work but made it clear that he did what he needed to do, free of charge, to get the work and didn’t feel put-upon,

“I think journalists should be paid for their work (…) I think it would be a good idea to provide a nominal amount, if only as a token of respect for the work. But more than that, I want more jobs at more publications wherein journalists have the basics of their lives (salary, health care, benefits) taken care of.” Coates delves further into the matter in a follow-up post.”

Being a Black woman opinion writer who works in media, I more than likely won’t ever get offered thousands of dollars and a book deal to write about drug-addled exploits and stints in rehab interspersed throughout reviews or opinion pieces like my white female counterparts. I share perspectives that aren’t highly sought after or even popular with the mainstream media platforms, but any work that I openly publish here or wherever else will probably be ripped off anyway, so I’m justified in expecting compensation for my work, especially since it takes work to compose and because I bust my ass and will often forgo sleep to conceive of and write it.

Once upon a time, like Ta-nehisi, I also found some value in giving my intellectual property away for free, until I realized there was and is no longer any value or future in letting others profit and benefit from my ideas and work, and that opportunities continue to be limited for me as a Black woman writer. I don’t have any media heavyweights to vouch for me despite having paid my dues because most people have grown comfortable with getting my work without any inclination to offer me incentive to continue obliging their requests.
I’ve cultivated relationships that have merit and where I have no qualms about contributing work and collaborating because the professional relationship is reciprocal and I believe in what they’re doing. Each writer, creator, and creative must essentially chart the path that works best for them. I’ve finally reached the point in my writing life where I’ve earned the right to deserve to be paid for my work and for my ideas.

Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced the country’s first The Freelance Isn’t Free Act that went into effect earlier this year in New York City, mandating that freelancers be paid in full for work worth $800 or more, either by a date set forward in writing or within 30 days of completing an assigned task and aims to protect freelancers from employer retaliation and increase monetary consequences for employers who refuse to pay overdue invoices and balances.

Legacy media giant Ebony Magazine was recently put on notice for exploiting and not paying writers for completed work, owning a total of at least $200,000 in unpaid invoices after writer Jagger Blaec (real name Masimbaashe Zvovushe) broke the story for The Establishment, prompting journalists to share their frustrations with trying to get Ebony to pay them what they’re owed under the Twitter hashtag #EbonyOwes.

 

When you think you’re automatically due free content from experienced writers and believe doing us some sort of favor by employing the ‘exposure’ argument, you’re contributing to a growing culture that doesn’t respect the creative process or encourage diversity and opportunities for those of us who are susceptible to being marginalized in our creative and who deserve to make a living doing what we love and are good at. I’ve provided more than enough freebies so giving away intellectual property for free and being stiffed a business, person, or media platform that think they’re going to benefit from my hard work is no longer an option. Besides, coffee and red wine don’t pay for themselves. Charge for your labor. And to those thinking they’re entitled to free work, pay up.


Tiffani Jones is the creator and writer of Coffee Rhetoric, a blog about women, pop-culture, film and race. A frequent contributor to both print and digital media platforms, she is the Digital Content Editor for Northend Agent’s and has offered commentary on HuffPost Live, in the NY Times, and on WNPR. More info about her work can be found on www.coffeerhetoric.com. Follow her on Twitter: @Coffey0072