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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Working for exposure.


There was a major kerfuffle on the Internet a few months ago when Wil Wheaton -- a far more professional Professional Nerd than myself -- wrote a piece concerning being asked to work 'for exposure.' The web divided into its camps pretty quickly: people agreeing that yes, you should always always be paid for your work, and others shaming creators for not understanding the value of exposure in the digital age.

Oni Hartstein landed in her own happy medium, speaking from her experiences growing up underprivileged and eventually becoming a major event runner. Her points (for those not in a mood to click) are that Wil is correct that the onus is on the company to not demand free work from creatives, while adding that if you never do any gratis work, you won't get very far.

She's correct, and I speak from experience. Many of the paying jobs and opportunities I got, I got because I opted to take gratis or low-paying jobs. Writing work that paid a pittance (in that 'We're paying you so we can say we paid you' way) got me writing work that pays a fair bit more than a pittance. Fansubbing got me into the anime industry. My webcomics, which I continue to count as gratis work until such time as my ad revenue and book sales actually cover more than the price of my webhosting, opened doors that put me in many of the good positions I'm in now.

But let me tell you another story.

Several years ago, before I started doing blogification of my own to any great degree, I was asked to write for an anime/gaming news and info site. (I won't say which one, partly because this isn't a call-out post but mostly because I forgot the name of the site.) Occasionally my webcomic rants would be reviews of recent anime I'd watched, delivered in a style that people apparently find fun and engaging. I was told that there wasn't enough in the budget to pay me, and thus if I said no it'd be understandable, but I would get a chance at eyeballs and they'd 'pay' me in ads for my comics.

I weighed my options, figured that could translate decently for me, and agreed. I did several columns for them, but eventually it was becoming too much work and not enough turnaround. I was beginning to triage my work and cut down on anything gratis that wasn't, like, a labour of love with a friend or some such. I was asked not to leave, being told that my writing was really good and people liked it. I thanked the person in charge for the compliment, but said I simply could not afford to keep doing the amount of unpaid work I was currently doing.

They then said, 'But your writing is so much better than the people we actually pay!'

... beg pardon?

Yes, apparently the reason they couldn't afford to pay me was because they were paying other writers. I'm not sure what bugs me more in retrospect: the lie by omission, or the fact that their staff writers were thrown under the bus when I said I had to go.

Now let me tell a different story.

Recently, AnimEigo announced that they would be doing a 25th anniversary re-release of Otaku no Video, and they were crowdfunding it as well as crowdsourcing the work. I sent in my resume and was told I'd do best on the research team for the new liner notes. I spent a lot of time on those. I'm getting no money in return, but I do get goods the way any of their backers do, as well as a couple other goodies.

However, I did not choose to do it because I figured the goods would equal out to what I was owed, nor did I do it for exposure. I did it because Otaku no Video is a classic -- it's basically the Trekkies of anime -- and my first thought was 'Damn, son, I want my name on that.'

I am perfectly happy with the choice I made, and I would've done it without the goods. I've also worked on books, shows, and other projects unpaid or for, like, one contributor copy because I've looked at them and gone 'I very much want to say I was a part of that.'

What I'm saying is, I think if we make the discussion solely about whether or not exposure and money are equally valuable, we are losing a massive part of the picture. And while 'working for exposure' is kind of the big bugbear we need to tackle because it's everywhere, I think it's harmful to train ourselves that we should never, ever, ever not work for pay.

The through-line that is absolutely correct is that, at the end of the day, the creative decides what their work is worth. That not only means that if you're quoting me 'exposure' for a $300 job, I get to say no if I feel the promise of exposure is not enough. It also means that if I decide I'm going to quote you $300 for a job but do another job for someone else gratis Just Because I Want To, that's okay. Because I have decided that something about that job -- be it a perk involved, the ability to work with someone I like, the opportunity to say I had a hand in it, or good old exposure -- is worth as much as or more than a paycheque to me.

I will occasionally get that, too. 'You work for them for free, but you want money from me?' Yes. The job may be a collaboration with a friend. I may be getting something out of it that is not readily evident. It could be charity work for a cause I'm passionate about. Or maybe it's just fun. On more than one occasion, I've contributed to anthologies gratis simply because it means a friend and I can have our names in the same book. Does that mean I expect everyone else to apply those same standards to their own work? No. Absolutely not. I'm a sentimental nerd about stuff like that. But it does mean I expect to be free to judge the type and amount of compensation I get for my work on a case-by-case basis.

The tl;dr is that this should not be a debate about whether exposure has objective value -- for better or for worse, it does. We do not build up young creators' ability to place a value on their work by telling them they work for money or they don't work at all. Rather, we should be refocusing on the base argument: the right of a creator to decide their value for themselves, and for those decisions to be malleable based upon circumstances and independent of each other. After all, money and exposure are not this world's only two currencies.