Last week, geek hero Wil Wheaton made a wonderful point about payment vs. exposure. The Huffington Post contacted Wheaton in order to re-publish one of his posts for free. Instead, the site offered “exposure,” like a famous actor would need something like that.
I’m glad that Wheaton’s experience has brought this important reminder to creatives everywhere—you are never, ever obligated to give away your work for free.
That said, Wheaton’s post also acknowledged that unpaid exposure can be valuable to some writers: “If I’d offered this to Huffington Post for nothing, because I hoped they’d publish it, that would be an entirely different thing, because it was my choice,” he added.
I want to tell you about the times I have chosen to work for free.
I got my start as a professional anime blogger by writing for free. I staffed at Japanator in 2010 where I wrote anime reviews and Japanese pop culture stories in exchange for exposure. That same year, I interned at Kotaku and wrote about video games. I got some school credit for my trouble, but the most important part, honestly, was the exposure. The last time I wrote for free was In 2012, when I pitched a story about Homestuck to CNN. Even though I worked at the Daily Dot and regularly got paid for my writing, it wasn’t worth it to CNN—too many people wanted their name associated with a big site like that. Judge me if you like, but I accepted anyway, and wrote what is perhaps the most widely-read article I’ve ever written.
Today I wouldn’t dream of writing “for exposure.” Now that there are places willing to pay me for my anime stories, like Anime News Network and Forbes, I don’t value it anymore. Even Otaku Journalist gets 30,000 unique visitors a month—more reach than some places I once wrote for to get my name out there. But five years ago, when the only commenter on Otaku Journalist was John, and nobody in the anime blogging world had heard of Lauren Orsini, exposure was something that motivated me as much as monetary compensation motivates me today.
As your writing career grows, you will need to constantly be weighing your values the way Wil did. In the beginning, as it was for me, exposure was worth it. It was worth so much to me that I treated my chance to attract a larger audience as seriously as if it were my job. It’s this, not talent or anything like that, that made it possible for me to work as a professional today. Nobody would hire me with zero experience. My unpaid clips led to paying work.
It’s easy to feel resentful about working for exposure. But nobody is making you do it—it’s simply what worked for me. I wholeheartedly agree that if you’re a talented writer who puts a lot of effort into improving your skills, writing for exposure IS beneath you, but that’s the indignity of starting a niche writing career, especially in a niche like anime where there are very few ways to get noticed other than writing for free.
You should never think of unpaid writing as the end goal, but as a stepping stone toward better opportunities. Treat it like a job as long as the job benefits you. As long as exposure is valuable to you, stay. I recommend staying for up to six months to build up clips and learn the ropes of working with an editor, but no longer than that, and one-time essays are even better. Furthermore, be sure you really are gaining exposure! If you’re putting your posts up on some no-name blog and nobody reads them, it’s time to try a larger site. I recommend Anime Talk Amongst Yourselves, The Artifice, Yattatachi, and of course, Japanator. That said, always go by your own terms. If it leaves a bad taste in your mouth to write for free for somebody else, start your own blog and promote the hell out of it on social media.
When it’s time to go, ask for a recommendation from your editor (which they should be thrilled to provide in return for your professionalism), and add your clips to your portfolio. Don’t ever feel guilty about leaving—editorial blogs that aren’t paying contributors were lucky to have you providing any content at all, and they know it.
While Wil Wheaton certainly doesn’t need to get his name out there, beginning bloggers do. There will be a time when exposure doesn’t matter to you. But as long as you’re getting something you value in return, even if that’s not money, treat it like a job.
P.S. Building up a writing portfolio takes time. Want some advice on how to build a geek career that earns money now? Attend my webinar with Steven Savage this Sunday.
Photo by Pete O’Shea