December 2013

Working for ‘exposure’ – the plight of the independent creator

Before we begin, I’d like to draw a quick distinction between a self-directed creative project, and work-for-hire. Unless they are lucky enough to be under contract or have received a hefty advance, artists generally expect self-directed work to be unpaid, and work on spec in anticipation of future royalties. That kind of work is not the focus of this blog post. This post is concerned primarily with the second type of creative work: work-for-hire. Generally speaking, this means that the creator has limited creative control, usually (but not always) because they are working in someone else’s universe.

In my brief career in comics, I’ve done work for others for free. I’ve had a great deal of work published that I never saw a cent for (somewhere in the vicinity of 100 pages so far – that’s writing and artwork). While I’m not bitter about that, and treasure the experience, contacts, and exposure I got from those projects, I do sometimes regret not fighting a little harder for some consideration, especially in those instances where someone else made money for it.

I look back over some of that work from time and time – and, while it’s far from my best, I believe it’s worth more than zero.

Somewhat paradoxically, the most important part of getting paid isn’t the money. It’s the sense of self-worth that accompanies the confirmation that the work has value.

Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.
(Tim Kreider, 2013)

I’ve been fortunate enough to have my work picked up by Zetabella Publishing, who were courageous enough to take on an unpublished, unproven writer with big dreams and an unorthodox style. I value this work and this achievement. There’s nothing quite like the feeling that your work, your vision, has value.

And yet, it’s an achievement that eludes many artists, even those producing reams of professional work. An incredibly common phrase heard by these artists is “working for exposure” – the notion that although you won’t be paid directly for the work you’re signing over to the client, it will be seen by other potential customers, and will build your public profile.

There are reasons for this, and they are relatively simple to understand.

  1. Economics. Simply put, there are more artists than there are jobs for artists. The power really does lie with the client.
  2. Intrinsic reward. Art is seen as a hobby, rather than a vocation.

Although it’s possible that one day artists will Grapes-of-Wrath each other out of work entirely, there’s not a whole lot to be done about the economics of the situation. It’s the second item in that list that I want to focus on: the notion that the value of an artist’s time is diminished simply because they enjoy producing art.

This is an attitude that can be found in many arenas. In society’s eyes, teachers, nurses, and child care workers have willingly traded away their right to a reasonable payday, ostensibly because they have elected to pursue a career that is rewarding in non-financial ways. This often goes double for the freelance artist, who is often considered by society to not even be working at all, and who can be paid in ‘exposure’.

So what can be done?

The all-too-often-heard cry from project leaders is “I can’t afford to pay an artist.”

Hell, I can relate; I’m in that boat. It’s one reason I do my own artwork.

And when you look at the economics of the comics industry, particularly at the indie level, it’s unsurprising that so many creators work for nothing. There just isn’t enough money to be made for everyone to be paid what they’re worth.

But there’s no reason to give up hope. There are already examples of comics creators being paid for their work at the indie level, and there are emerging opportunities in social media and online ventures that are opening some equally encouraging doors.

Anything is better than nothing

In 2012, I submitted a short script for the forthcoming Killeroo: Gangwars anthology. I was fortunate enough to have my work accepted for publication, and I received some financial consideration for my time. It was not a lot of money, to be sure, but it was more than I expected, and a better hourly rate for my writing than any I had received before, or have received since.

Recall what I said earlier: the most important part of getting paid isn’t the money. The amount almost didn’t matter at all.

Simply by getting paid, I was given the feeling that the work had value.

Offering money to your creators, even a pittance, is better than encouraging them to work for ‘exposure’, or for royalties that will probably never amount to much.

Getting a kickstart

The proliferation of crowdfunding campaigns for creative works, and their high rate of success, demonstrates that people are willing to invest in work that has not yet been published. In a traditional commerce model, this money would not become available to creators until after the work was released and royalties started flowing; in the crowdfunding model, the royalties are available upfront (effectively negating the “I can’t afford to pay an artist” argument), and present a very interesting opportunity to pay contributing artists in advance for their work in a work-for-hire scenario.

The planning stages

I am in the early days of planning a crowdfunding campaign. I’d like to put together an anthology of work, encouraging comics creators and writers of prose to contribute to the universe of The Lesser Evil. This project is still in its infancy, but I’m excited by it.

The money from the Kickstarter will be distributed in the following way. After covering all the fees and charges imposed by Kickstarter and Paypal and so on, and after filling the backer reward tiers, all of the money will go towards paying authors and artists for their work.

As the existing books from the series already have a publisher, this campaign will not be funding book printing costs, no fancy equipment purchases, no huge drunken parties… all the money is going straight into the pockets of anthology contributors.

Because they deserve to feel like their work has value.

As part of the planning process, I put together a brief survey about crowdfunding and payment for freelance creators. The results are in and freely available.

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