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On working on for nothing

Is it ever right or sensible to work for no pay?

In certain specific circumstances and if we properly understand the consequences, yes. But the consequences are unusual and far-reaching, affecting more than the individual. Authors (in this case) need to understand them, and so does anyone asking us to work for nothing or little. It’s a topic that comes up again and again amongst writers and other artists. (Amanda Craig recently wrote powerfully about this here and I absolutely agree.)

Deciding to work (in my case write or give a talk) without a fee may seem like a simple “Can I afford it?” question. No, and that question is entirely irrelevant. Would you say that a teacher whose partner earns enough to support both of them should therefore turn down a salary on the grounds that he/she can afford it? No. We don’t accept wages because we’ll starve without them – we accept wages because wages are what you get for working, in an economy that isn’t based on slavery.

Or it may seem like an “Are there other benefits than the fee?” question. “But think of the publicity”, people say when they ask you to work for nothing. OK, you eat the publicity and I’ll just be paid for working, thanks. Joking apart (actually, I wasn’t), yes, sometimes there are other possible benefits:

  • The pleasure of helping a cause we believe in. Of course we do that sometimes. We are good human beings who understand about helping those in need, with voluntary work or charitable giving. But actually giving up one’s working time and donating pay is a huge ask. It is not the same as doing extra voluntary work or giving a sum of money. It’s hellishly expensive for us to donate working time and wages: most events and articles take many hours to prepare and deliver. Do it if you want to but know what it is you give. And be sure that the organiser of the event understands what is being asked.
  • The chance of selling books at the event. Since we get a few pence per book sold, we’d have to sell a shedload to make that one work. If we supply the books ourselves, we will make more (max 50% of cover price, if we don’t provide a discount) but we have to provide transport and buy the books in the first place, storing them and not being able to return them even if they get damaged during the event. And we’d still have to sell a heck of a lot to make up for no fee.
  • Publicity/promotion? How many events would we need to do before a piece of publicity would ensue that would lead to income? Don’t answer that, because I can’t. Note to organisers: when you say “it will be good publicity for you”, listen out for the echoing sound of hollow laughter.
  • The chance that the event will lead to another event? What, a paid one? You mean, like a loss leader? OK, but let the author be the one to decide whether the cost of doing the event (because there are always costs, always, and often major ones) really stacks up in terms of “investment”.
  • A genuinely prestigious gig, and/or one with huge feelgood factor. For example, a trip to Dubai for no fee (but expenses paid), might be worth it for the sake of the experience, meeting readers from another country and being able to put on your CV that you have done an international event. Or an amazingly prestigious festival in the UK – though the good ones do pay, (apart from ridiculous Hay, which pays in wine, which you have to lug home on the train. Or drink.) But be careful of mentally exaggerating the importance of a particular trip and saying yes to so many that you wreck your time for work that will earn your living.
  • As a favour for a friend or acquaintance. Of course. But favours are tricky things with acquaintances (though less so with close friends). If I willingly did a favour for someone, and they kindly offered me something in return, such as a gift or a token of appreciation, I’d accept graciously, and I’d understand that this would make them feel better. It would be polite. Quid pro quo is a good model.

So, back to the original question. “Is it ever right or sensible to work for no pay?” Yes. I hope so, because I do it all the time. I’m doing it now: blogging. Or blogging for the Huffington Post, which my husband says I absolutely mustn’t do but which I do because I’m a sucker. [Edited to add: changed my policy on that. I now don’t!] Or for the Awfully Big Blog Adventure, which I absolutely must do because they are my friends and colleagues and it’s collaborative and fun. Or when I do all the many genuinely publicity-related things I have to do. When I have long email conversations with schools or festivals while we work out whether I can come and do a (paid) event and what I will talk about when I’m there. When I do my accounts and admin and invoices and work out strategy. When I do most of the things involved in being a writer. Including, very often, writing! (I have several unpublished novels, as most writers do, and the one I’m writing now has no guarantee of publication.)

And then there are the times I choose to do something for the various organisations I support. So, when Blackwells in Edinburgh do their Christmas Book Tree, I’ll be there, blogging, speaking, buying, tweeting, hustling. And when Larbert High School, the school where I’m Patron of Reading, ask for anything, I’ll jump, willingly, happily. Of course, we do things for charities. But other people are not asked to give up their wages for charities, so think very carefully whether there’s a way you can work for free which doesn’t undermine the whole principle of working people deserving a working fee.

But these situations must be of my choosing. No one should ask or expect me to work for nothing. But they so often do. Or they raise their eyebrows when they hear the fee, forgetting that this fee represents several days of work.

Why? Why are people like writers, musicians and artists expected to work for free? If you haven’t seen it, you have to listen to Harlan Ellison’s famous rant. My favourite lines are:

“Everyone else may be an ass-hole, but I’m not”

“Would you go to the doctor and ask him to take out your spleen for nothing?”

“The problem is there are so many goddamn writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid.”

There are a couple of moments when I become uncomfortable and it strays from what I think, but it goes to the nub of the problem: that too many of us don’t realise that we have value and that we are worth being paid, just like anyone doing a piece of work, and that too many people outside our business just don’t think about the fact that being unsalaried means not being paid unless we can persuade people to pay for what they ask us to do. It’s a brilliant, guttural cry from the heart.

Teachers and librarians, please don’t be cross with me. I know your budgets are tight. I know you have a duty and a right to get good value for your school. I absolutely appreciate and praise that. But please realise that what you pay us has to cover several days of work, and most of us are not earning anything or much else. I’m so grateful to all of you who understand that and who work so hard to find a fair fee for me.

I’m not greedy. I am not asking for enormous bonuses or huge fees. I don’t eat expensive food or stay in flash hotels when I’m on expenses. I just think that when someone wants me to work for them they should pay me. And, if they can’t, they shouldn’t ask me. I don’t go to a decorator and say, “Yes, sorry, I don’t have a budget for this but I thought you might do it for nothing because I’ll recommend you to all my friends.” I don’t decide I’m going to put on a concert, and pay the sound technicians, cleaners, door staff, marketing people, but not the pianist.

And if the pianist does it for nothing (leaving aside the situation of a genuine charity concert), then what? Someone organises a concert, invites a different pianist, pianist names a fee and the organiser says, “Oh, but XXX did it for nothing – I’ll look for someone who works for free.” Doing things for free, except in certain, thought-through circumstances, undermines the ability of other working people to be paid for what they do.

So, do it when it’s right, but understand when it isn’t.

[Edited to add: Just read this piece about Philip Hensher’s views on working for free. Exactly.]

 

 

11 Responses

  1. My daughter’s a face painter, and a really good one at that, but when quoting (especially for events) she often hears ‘Oh, the last one we hired wasn’t so expensive…’ or ‘So and so does it for free…’ So frustrating, when her supplies aren’t cheap. We shouldn’t need to justify costs, but people still expect us to!

  2. Thank you, wonderful woman, for saying it for all of us. I am old enough and (like you) crabbit enough to know that I am worth paying a fee for when I do events – and I won’t go if I’m not paid (unless for one of the excellent reasons you set out above). But I remember all too well when I was just starting out 22 years ago, and didn’t know that I could and should ask for money for events, because I didn’t then know any other writers, and it was before the days of Facebook, Twitter et al. Harlan Coban gets to the heart of it in the last line you quote. Lots of writers DON’T have any idea of what or whether they’re supposed to be paid, especially if they’re new to the business. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all publishers had to provide a ‘What Every New Author Should Know’ pack with every debut book contract?!

  3. I was a musician before I became a writer, so your blog really does strike a chord (pun intended).
    I shock people when they asked me how much I earned as a musician and I explained that if they counted all the instruments, the travelling, the hours of practice and rehearsals then I didn’t even come close to breaking even!
    As a writer, I’m aware of all the expenses and what I must put in to build my career. Your blog reminded me to value myself and my work, so thank you!
    When I do get to the published land, I’ll have to keep in mind that if I work for free, I doom my fellow writers to the same fate.

  4. One of my first acts in the book world was to bribe an author to come to ‘my’ school for free. The author came, which was very kind. He/she never even used the bribe. I now feel worse than ever.
    And don’t get me started on what I don’t earn. (Although I find you get used to having books with milk for breakfast after a few years. Spread with marmalade, they are really very nice. Not to mention how warm the house is when you burn them…)

  5. Work for “free” when you are inspired to. On the other hand, when the work is an *imposition*, when someone else is *asking you to do it*, then you deserve *compensation*. That’s why it’s called *compensation* — because it’s *compensatory*.

    Yeah. It’s that simple. I think half your commenters misinterpreted your point here. Nobody deserves, per se, to get paid for their work — if nobody wants your work very much, then nobody will pay you for it, and writers and musicians often simply have to suck it up and deal with this. This is because most writers and musicians do the writing and music-making because they love it, in contrast to ditch-diggers, who never ever work unless they’re compensated. If your work isn’t popular enough for people to want to give you money, your have the choice of doing it for free or not doing it at all. (You should never ever make an arrangement where someone else gets paid for your work and you don’t, however — that’s known as “being scammed”.)

    But by the same token, nobody should be forced or guilted into working — you always have the choice of not doing it at all. And it’s often the right choice.

    I think Stephenie Meyer said once that if her current book was leaked she would never write another one, and my reaction was “Good. Don’t write another one. Please.” But the *fans* who actually *wanted* her to write another book needed to compensate her for writing it if they wanted to see another book.

    “But these situations must be of my choosing. No one should ask or expect me to work for nothing. But they so often do….”
    Exactly.

    “Why? Why are people like writers, musicians and artists expected to work for free? ”
    The answer to this should be obvious if you think about it. Because, frankly, most writers’, musicians’, and artists’ work (with notable exceptions) is not sufficiently in demand for them to be able to charge anything for it. Because most writers will continue to write, *and* continue to make their work public, even if they are not paid to do so, and the same is true of musicians and artists. When you’re driven by internal compulsions, you can’t really expect to be compensated for it. When, on the other hand, people are actually asking you to do something which you wouldn’t do otherwise… why then you must demand compensation.

    Compensation is associated with the choice of saying “no”. Most writers keep writing — and trying to get people to read their stuff — whether or not they are getting paid, which means *they can’t say no* to that. In short, you can’t expect to get paid for work unless you can credibly threaten to not do the work, and that’s actually true in any profession. Which is why we need a guaranteed minimum income (regardless of whether people work) which will provide food, clothing and shelter for everyone, but now I’m drifting off into politics.

    Sorry for the long comment. I’ve thought about this topic for *decades*, and something crystallized here.

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