Don’t Work For Free

March 11, 2012 • On Writing • Views: 947

Don't Work for FreeThere’s a problem many of my colleagues have faced of late. With alarming frequency, entrepreneurs, freelancers and others who make their livings proffering talents that have taken lifetimes to develop are asked to work for free.

Such requests, of course, are seldom as forthrightly phrased as “work for free,” camouflaged as they are in chummy badinage peppered with terms like “spec,” “barter” and “trade.” Though all three of these concepts have their rightful place in our recovering economy, the bank tends to frown upon massage gift certificates and cheese plates sent to pay the mortgage.

After witnessing a friend routinely exploited by his own generosity and apparent inability to invoice anyone with whom he’s traded nothing more than smiles, I was inspired to write my own credo as an act of clarification for would-be clients as well as myself.

Having the Money Conversation

As I’ve gleaned from others who work independently, the money conversation is often more difficult than discussing the birds and bees with one’s kid. In fact, I myself have sometimes opted to discuss the birds and bees with prospective clients rather than money since I was getting screwed anyway. This no longer happens to me, which I attribute to the verbiage below. I posted a version of this brief screed on my business site  to great effect. I offer it here to whomever needs it under a creative commons “share and share alike” license, meaning you can retrofit and use it for your personal business needs as necessary so long as you let others do the same with your improvements. Here goes:

I do not work for free.

But Wait, There’s More

I also don’t work on spec seeing as I have enough of my own speculative contributions to our culture in the works. If you have stock options to offer in a real company with secured funding and a future so bright that a welding mask is more than a mere fashion statement, we can talk. Otherwise, some arbitrary “percentage” of your personal pipedream, even at 50 percent, is either a pipe or a dream. I don’t smoke and the stuff my dreams are made of is clearly different than yours (insert your favorite “Maltese Falcon” quote here).

The Bartering Question

On rare occasions, clients have bartered their wares and services for the license to an existing work. This can be negotiated on a per case basis (and when I say case, I don’t mean a bottle of wine. I mean a case).

To that end, a beer, coffee or even lunch does not constitute payment for my time, which I must manage assiduously to stay afloat (read Five Time Management Techniques). If you want an actual consultation on your project (wherein, I’m not merely flattering you for picking up the tab) let’s do business. Otherwise, we’re just dating.

Indecent Exposure

Under penalty of public humiliation, never ever ask me for a creative contribution based on the prospect of “great exposure.” The fact that you believe this to be attractive to a working professional means I’m overexposed as is. And apparently to the wrong people – the kind of people who lack respect for the fact that I’ve got to buy food for my young son to wear.

The Donor Groaner

If you represent a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that boasts an ethos in alignment with my admittedly recherché values, you may send a written proposal. Please don’t send a questionnaire regarding my recherché values. If you cannot assess what they are from my work, then you likely aren’t sufficiently familiar with my work (especially a couple of films that will keep me permanently out of politics) and likely won’t want me at your event, in your anthology or speaking at your commencement anyway. If, by some strange alignment of the stars we share a mutual ethos and the same gaping hole in our schedules – wonderful – I’ll see you at the prison ribbon cutting.

Read Me vs. Feed Me

Also, I will not read your script, epic poetry cycle, inspiring personal saga of overcoming graphophobia, etc. However, I will consult with you at my regular fee. When I’m not reading for pleasure, it’s work. You can hire me. But remember: I don’t work for free.

For more strategies on navigating a successful writing career, get my ebook, The Tea Cup Whale: How to Find Your Creative Niche & Be Big in a Small Worldfrom Amazon!

(This is an update of an older post, hence the comments traveling back in time!)

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6 Responses to Don’t Work For Free

  1. […] Some writers might also find these links useful: 5 Time Management Techniques for Writers and Don’t Work for Free. […]

  2. […] my colleague and fellow musician, Daedalus Howell, posted a article to his blog and in his printed space in the Sonoma Index Tribune about how so many local […]

  3. Glen says:

    So completely perfect, spot on!

    I started a videography company a few years ago, just as the recession was going from tropical breeze to category 5. My partner and I found that while fielding inquires about our services, every third potential client would mention the “recession” and ask for rate reductions because of their budget woes. We did reduce our rate for the first year and a half, but now that we’ve been around the block, we simply state our rate and don’t budge.

    For first timers out on their own, the prospect of booking a client whether they’re paying in actual currency or really fancy donuts, is so enticing, you forget about your years of experience and all the work you’ve already done for free just to get to this point, where you have the skills to get paid for your talents. It’s ok to compete for business by adjusting your rate slightly to book a gig, but as my grandmother always said “don’t be so open that your brains fall out”.

    • Glen – You're grandmother was a sage, man. I'm glad you brought up the "years of experience" aspect, which generally comes with years of education as well and the financial obligations incurred therein. Hence, I think we should honor our investment in ourselves/business and build a "student loan" clause into our bids. DH

  4. I feel kinda bad because I read that whole article without paying anything. Let me see if there is a Google Adword or something to click on…

    • Todd – You must have clicked on something because my Adsense average suddenly spiked. Thanks. You’ve inspired me to add the “become a patron” button, available to those overcome by a sudden need to buy me a beer. Cheers, DH

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