'Compensated' vs. 'Paid' by jean-francois dubeau

Yesterday, Will Wheaton posted an article about getting paid for your work. It’s a rousing piece. A call to arms for creatives to stand up to ‘The Man’ and demand compensation for their work. No more ‘pro bono’! No more work for exposure! We demand dollars. As the title of his blog post says: you can’t pay the rent with ‘reach’.

The story goes that Huffington Post asked to publish one of Wheaton’s articles but didn’t offer any compensation for it. Wheaton declines and takes to Twitter with his outrage and proceeds to type a blog post on the subject. The ultimate suggestion is that no creative should ever do work for free because. You. Deserve. Compensation. For. Your. Work. (punctuation, his). “If you write something that an editor thinks is worth being published, you are worth being paid for it. Period.” is the quoted advice. And it’s bad advice.

I’ve been doing graphic design for over two decades now and I can say that I’ve sworn off doing pro bono work for over ten years. I don’t need to fill out my portfolio and I don’t need any exposure. I’m not the Will Wheaton of the graphic arts but I certainly can get away with turning down offers that don’t compensate sufficiently. Wheaton is very transparent that he knows he’s in a similar and even superior situation; he can turn down things because he doesn’t need that kind of visibility. Wil is also a very intelligent individual who knows the internet market. He’s fully aware that a new article about not giving your work away, a call to arms to stop stand up to companies that ask for free content and the tweets that accompany that article, are a far bigger bang for his buck then allowing his content to be published without compensation.

However, I’m also an aspiring writer. While I don’t need the money to pay the rent and buy my next meal, as I’m building an audience for my creative content I do need the exposure. If Huffington Post would ask to republish a blog post of mine (this one for instance) but not pay me for it, I would gladly accept and not feel exploited by it at all. How much HuffPo is worth and how much the going rate for this kind of article are completely irrelevant to the bigger picture: I would get unprecedented exposure from it.

Now, I’m no Wil Wheaton and Huffington Post isn’t going to be emailing me about publishing one of my posts. However, I did do a guest post for SF Signal a few months back and although I was the one who went to them with that offer, if they were to come back and ask to publish one of my blog posts about robots on their site, I would gladly accept. I’m at a stage where I need the visibility.

I understand where Wil is coming from and I agree that every creative should be compensated for their work. But compensation doesn’t always come in the form of payment. A subsequent tweet from Wheaton says that anyone who makes something deserves compensation. The missing tweet or the missing paragraph from his article however should state that sometimes visibility and exposure are compensation. The call to arm shouldn’t be to refuse all offers that don’t end with money but rather to carefully consider what is being offered. Maybe offer a checklist of things to ask in return for a free article (how many hits do you expect on this article? What markets are being targeted? Can I promote this project or charity I’m involved with in the article? Etc.)

I don’t think Wheaton reacted badly. In his situation I would have done the same or similar. But it’s still bad advice. It’s a blanket recommendation that assumes that every creative have the same needs, want money above all else or that cash is the only kind of compensation. Perhaps that’s true of someone on Wheaton’s level. I don’t want to assume, but I doubt Wil’s had the same climb from obscurity that most creatives have to face today.

So let me be so bold as to offer an amended version to the advice: Don’t do work without compensation. Make sure that compensation has worth to YOU and improves YOUR situation. Even if you’re not offered money, ask what else you can get. Get any agreement in writing. Know YOUR context and play to it.