Please Pay Freelancers With Money. Thanks.

money
This is what money looks like. Freelancers need it to buy things to live, just like everyone else.

As a freelance writer, I get my share of sneaky requests for me to do stuff for free. Some of these make sense: appear on a podcast I admire to promote a recent piece I wrote and my upcoming book, help a talented friend with a promising book proposal. Now, I’m not saying everything I do must include some clear payoff for me and only me. I’m not even saying that you can’t ask me to do something out of the goodness of my heart. But more than anyone else, freelancers in the arts must set boundaries. You cannot imagine how much the world wants us to give for free. I teach writing, I edit, I help people launch their writing careers, and I write … for my job. This seems fair to me. I am good at what I do, and I believe that I provide valuable services to the world. If it weren’t for people like me, all of this stuff would probably still get done, but it would be done a lot crappier. If only hobbyists write your books and articles from now on, please expect a noticeable downtick in quality. And if you’re willing to hire a non-professional to teach you writing or consult on your writing career, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, and neither do you.

Tweet: If only hobbyists write your books and articles from now on, please expect a noticeable downtick in quality.

I can see this difference most clearly with my chosen hobby: singing and playing guitar. Because I’m an overachiever, I practice pretty regularly and am determined to perform in public as a way of furthering my skill and making “use” of it. But the thought of someone paying me for what I do does not enter my mind because I’m not that good. I actually don’t plan to be that good. I mean, maybe someday someone will pay me in free drinks to do a regular set of covers in the corner of their bar or something. And I’m planning to start hosting an open mic soon. But I am not a professional. I do not dedicate the majority of my time and educational resources to being a skilled musician. I believe very strongly in paying people who do this, who put in the work and will bring you a professional performance. These are the people who will have all of their own sound equipment, will know exactly what they need to make things great, will be able to take requests or improvise on the spot or perform their own material. I know several of these people, and they are great at what they do.

To be clear: There’s also definitely an in-between area, in writing and music and many other fields, where people are highly skilled and do get paid for this even if it’s not their main profession. My partner, Jesse, gets paid for some of his serious photography work even though he’s a full-time programmer. He should. He’s put in the work and it’s great. Lots of people write articles on the side about their area of expertise, like psychologists who write self-help pieces or books. I know more than a few people who have jobs to pay the bills and put on excellent musical productions or rock shows for money as well. It’s the sad reality of being an artist that you often need a day job.

That’s exactly why we need to pay our skilled people in money. If you want art in the world, you need to pay someone for it. (Taylor Swift agrees.) Here are some things that are not money that friends have been offered in exchange for their services, as they noted in comments after I posted a Facebook rant about this recently: nothing at all (singer-songwriter Sean Skyler, who is excellent), “an excellent opportunity for exposure” (photographer), T-shirts (stagehand), internships (stagehand).

My photographer sister also noted that people often post online looking for a “photographer/volunteer.” Nope, that’s not a thing, not if you want real services. Please pay for services. In money.

And one more thing: I’ve realized while writing this post that the people I’ve ended up giving services (editing, consulting, etc.) for free all offered to pay me first. They let me be the one to offer it for free. Just a tip.

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6 comments

  1. Yup! Been there SO many times. There’s plenty of work for those of us others want to work for free – – or decide for themselves how to pay us.
    Hey, slip me a ten or a twenty – – even a five or so – – in a plain envelope, no comment necessary, no bartering over price, simply a genuine nod of appreciation. I LOVE what I am doing and I’m good at it, but it really IS work and even a buck or two gets me a little food.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. When, in a past life, I was a fundraising consultant, I was always expected to work for “free” or at a reduced rate. “We’re a charity, you understand?” Well, how was I supposed to eat and pay the rent? I wasn’t seen as a charity. Obviously, I don’t do fundraising consulting anymore. I still work in that arena, though, sometimes and the expectations are the same. Sigh.

  3. Interesting topic! A good (and financially very successful) friend likes to say “Oh, I’m always working. I just never know for sure when I’m going to get paid.” But in the same breath I know he would add “The laborer is worthy of his (her) hire.” Or at least should be. I suppose there will always be tension between creating art and selling art–one factor might be who the artist is working for. Many artists are working for themselves. I’ve found in my writing the need to constantly balance what I like to write with what sells. Ultimately, the amount of work I’ve done doesn’t create value in the reader/customer’s mind. Perhaps the ultimate art happens when the artist (regardless of the medium) creates what he or she loves and the world replies “We have to have this! How much is it?”

    As long as I’m dealing in platitudes and pithy sayings, there’s also that old “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” Our customers won’t value us if we do not value ourselves.

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