You Can’t Eat Exposure

Freelancers, artists, and creatives have this nasty situation where the world thinks we aren’t worth paying because we are “just” artists. I could rant about that for thousands of words, but let’s suffice to say that is utterly and completely absurd. Yes. It’s so absurd it warrants two adverbs. Worse yet, many folks seem to think it’s okay to pay us in the ever-elusive “exposure”.

Let me start by saying sometimes doing something just for exposure (like having a giveaway or free weekend or sale) isn’t entirely bad. However, if you are busting your backside for “exposure” then there’s something very wrong with that situation. I think I speak for all artists when I say we deserve to be paid. That isn’t to say I think everyone deserves equal pay or that everyone deserves to be hired, but if we are doing work then it’s not wrong to expect payment. Folks who pull fries out of the oil at McDonald’s get paid, but artists who spend years honing their craft and work for hours, weeks, or months often are told we don’t deserve to be paid.

Increasingly, blogs and e-zines, and other such media tell us they’ll “get our name out there”. But I can’t eat that. While I sometimes will still submit a story that I’m not being paid for (particularly if it’s to a large outlet), I can’t eat that so-called exposure. Now, if that exposure translated into sales of my services, books, artwork (insert-your-own-art-here), then that would be worth something, but so often this so-called exposure translates into precisely nothing.

So how do we deal with this? The first step is to realize your own worth. If you are freelancing (in any capacity) you need to do a cost analysis. That means looking at your costs of living. Sit down and write up how much you need to make per month to survive. Hopefully you have a “day job” to help, at least in the beginning, because you’re going to need it. Once you have that magic number of how much you need to make per month you start looking at how much work you can do per month and start examining other people’s pay rates. Not all workers deserve equal pay, so make sure you are charging what’s proper for your skill level. Are you a beginning editor? Chances are you aren’t going to be charging what I charge. I don’t charge what people who’ve been in the industry a decade charge, either. This process of setting up your pay rates and so on sounds an awful lot like running a business, and (surprise) that’s exactly what it is.

This attitude that creatives aren’t worth much isn’t limited to the writing world. Unfortunately, the arts have grown less and less respected over time. Understanding the power and importance of the arts is a dying thought pattern. I have a friend who is a musician. He’s played for decades, and he’s one of the finest guitarists I know. These days, when he books a gig, he’s often told, “Well, I can get a five-piece band for that price!” The price he’s quoting isn’t high. It’s enough to cover gas, his equipment, wear and tear on his car, plus a little extra for him. That’s not asking for more than a business-savvy wage. But a five-piece “band” with no experience, no credentials, and crappy gear can show up and crank out atrocious music for that same price, so he’s been turned down despite his resume, skills, and knowledge. It’s just not right.

So how do you survive in a world that thinks what you do isn’t worth a whole lot? That’s something we’re all working through, let me tell you. I’m still trying to figure that one out, but when I do I’ll write a book and make millions. (Cue evil laughter here.) What I can say is it’s worth it—it’s very worth it. Our world would be nothing without art, and if art is in your spirit, don’t deny it. What I can tell you, is you probably will need a “day job” for at least awhile.

It’s hard to make a living in this world using the arts when people don’t consider them as valuable. That’s a sad, sorry state of affairs I don’t know how to fix, but it’s a reality for most of us. I won’t tell you it’s impossible to make a break because it’s not. It’s not impossible. I have friends who have made a fair amount and support their rent or supplement their income. It is possible. I know folks who write and edit and make a living doing it. Don’t be discouraged. Just recognize the reality and soldier on.

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