Working for Free: Factoring in the Fun

One of my most enjoyable events of last year - Grantown.
This is a topic that crops up with great regularity on social media and various other forums when writers and artists discuss the ways in which they are asked to work professionally for nothing except exposure.

And we all know that you can die of exposure.


It's not an all or nothing issue though, which is where the difficulty lies. Recently, I decided to post some information about events on my website. (Have a look at the News and Events page and you'll see what I mean.)

It certainly made me think about what kind of freebies I will and won't do, and for whom and why.

Because I write plays and am still occasionally involved with theatre, I'm on a few message boards for theatre professionals. I am also a member of various social media groups for writers of fiction and non-fiction. Whenever anyone posts a message to the theatre professionals about some unpaid project, the theatrical people voice their objections in the strongest possible terms. The justification is always that 'there's no money in the budget' which implies that there is, in fact, a budget. Just that they thought you would do it for nothing.

Now I don't mean that nobody ever works for nothing in theatre because obviously they do. Amateur, semi professional and community groups abound. Excellent profit share projects abound too, where nobody is making any fortunes but everyone is valued. But where a project has significant funding but those in charge have assumed that actors and writers don't need to be paid, there is a general - and completely justified - outcry.

On the other hand, a recent request on a writing group for people to come and give talks within a setting where everyone else was getting paid, elicited a heap of enthusiastic responses. Why yes, people said in droves. We'll be delighted to travel many miles to your venue and speak about writing. Just tell us where and when.

The contrast between the two groups of people was marked.

The second thing to prompt these thoughts involved a couple of direct requests to me to speak for free. One was from a delightful group, not too far from where I live, and with very specific interests that coincide with mine. Plenty of notice, and a lovely invitation. I said yes immediately. Mostly because I really want to do it. It's an evening event, a short drive away, and I'll enjoy it when I get there. I do a number of these kind of events on a first come first served basis, and they're usually a pleasure.

The other, however, was an invitation to travel three hours there and three hours back to an unpaid event where I would spend a few minutes actually 'on stage'. So that's six hours away from my desk, six hours when I'm not writing, and not even promoting recent work. In professional terms, that means I'm actually losing money. I said no to that one. This is not to denigrate the event, which will be lovely. If I lived in the immediate vicinity, I may well have gone, but the six unpaid hours on the road - even with travel expenses - was the clincher. Some years ago, I attended a literary event with a friend who had been asked to read as part of the programme. I paid my entry fee but - astonishingly - so did she!

Last year, with the publication of my new novel, The Jewel, I did a string of book events and enjoyed them enormously. It was a tiring but rewarding year. Many events were paid but a few weren't, or only involved travel and/or accommodation expenses. But since almost all of them were directed at promoting my book, and since even the unpaid events (or most of them) involved generous hospitality, they were well worthwhile. Between us, we sold a lot of books and I met a lot of wonderful people.

So because it's complicated, I've been trying to hammer out some ground rules for myself.

There are the professional organisations, festivals, groups who ask me to speak for a fee - the one recommended by Live Literature Scotland - and that's great. (I should add here that Scottish book festivals have a nice egalitarian ethos with everyone being paid the same from the most starry bestseller to the first time novelist.)

Then there are the small, charitable organisations and book groups who don't offer a fee but offer a great many fringe benefits: lovely audiences, excellent hospitality, good book promotion and sales. That's fine too, even if the events are quite small. I've had some of my most enjoyable evenings ever in the company of interesting people at not-for-profit events of this kind and from time to time, I've sold an astonishing number of books.

But there are also, sadly, events where you turn up and there has been little publicity and an unbelievably casual attitude to the speakers. Sometimes you arrive to find locked doors and have to wait outside for somebody to open up. Tea, coffee, biscuits: these are surely non-negotiable but they aren't always offered. Proper directions to the venue. Somebody to meet and greet and do the introductions. Predictably, these poorly organised events are almost always events where there has also been 'no money in the budget' etc.

What's the solution? There's no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If you elect to do no unpaid events at all, you might miss the gems such as I experienced last year. If you do too many, you'll eat into good writing time to no purpose. And as a self employed person, remember that time away from your desk isn't just free time in the way that it might be free time for a salaried individual. It's unpaid time away from your business.

So I've reached the conclusion that the fun factor is vital. If you're pondering an enthusiastic invitation and you reckon it'll be a lot of fun, whether or not the potential exposure is good, then go for it. If you're pondering an invitation that sounds so casual that your heart sinks whenever you think about it, think again. Essentially, they have to want you and your work! Not just any old writer!

Above all, learn from experience. As a beginner, you might find yourself saying yes to just about everything on offer. We've all done it. It might be right for you. Or it might not. You have to decide.

Paid gigs are good. Even when they're bad, they're good, because there's money in the bank at the end of them. Often unpaid gigs can be very good too so don't automatically turn something down. It may be that nobody is getting paid, but they'll buy a ton of books and tell their friends too. That's where the fun factor comes in. If the event looks like fun and you really want to do it, then go for it.

But a lack of organisation, a lack of specifics at the invitation stage, tends to mean that the event will be poorly organised and publicised. Just remember that unpaid gigs where you feel you 'ought' to do something, but where you're unappreciated, will leave you thinking, as you drive the long miles home through the sleety night, while the organisers put their feet up with a nice cup of tea, that you'd have been much better off doing the same thing.






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