Should you do work for exposure (free)?

Should illustrators take on projects that offer “exposure” instead of cash?

This is becoming an age-old question, instead of a joke people laugh out loud at.  Much like every age-old con job, it seems to just keep coming back around.  Up and comers ask me about it at it pretty much every convention I go to, and nigh weekly on every social media platform.  It’s wise that they ask me, because I’ve been around a while, and have seem hundreds of projects, illustrators, and writers come…and go.  The ones who succeed understand quickly how valuable their time is and are viciously pragmatic with it.

Let’s break this down pragmatically.

I’m going to skip over the usual obvious points that have not yet been able to make this absurd proposition something that is laughed at right out of the box, such as- The person asking you to illustrate this book for exposure instead of cash is making a tool out of you, disrespecting you and showing no value to your skills.  People find money for what they think is important.  He (or she…I’m not going to keep saying “or she” so just know it is implied) is going to come up with money for printing, for shipping, possibly for promotion…for the latest Apple phone, for cable t.v., for fast food, for name brand beer, for a car wash, starbucks, but not to pay you anything? 

Illustrating for him, how many hours is that going to take you? What is your time worth?  You have bills to pay, you work a job to pay those bills, and he wants you to work that job and then work for him for say 40 hours or more illustrating his book.  So why does he not work an extra 40 hours somewhere to pay you?  He wants you to risk your time on something, without kicking in the same amount of his own time to compensate you… he is using you.

I’m also going to skip over the absurd second part of the proposition that usually goes “once the project makes money, I’ll start paying you X%”.  If you think that’s acceptable, you are probably too stupid to even be able to read this blog.

…I’m skipping over all that.  Pretend I never brought it up.  The simple fact that you are being used doesn’t mean you won’t still benefit.  That’s the premise here.  The premise is that you will benefit from the exposure of being part of the project.

To assess that premise, look at the key element…the person proposing this to you.

99% of the time this person is going to fall into one of two categories…

The first- some middle-aged douche bag who out of the clear blue sky remembered that once upon a time he wanted to be an author or publisher, or maybe he’s been slogging along and won’t accept the reality that his place lies in mediocrity.  He’s been alive long enough to be able to be successful enough to pay you, but he’s not paying you, because he’s not successful enough.  He hasn’t been able to help himself, but this project is somehow going to be such a fire brand that merely being part of it is going to be worth as much to you as cash? …I find that unlikely, what do you think?

The second category is some young punk full of piss and vinegar who is convinced he’s going to set the world on fire with his ideas but has no experience or resources.   Usually this type is very charismatic/driven/ambitious and that is his sword and shield.  A sword and shield are nice, but experience, connections, practical knowledge of how the industry works are a bow and arrows…and he doesn’t have those.

That’s 99% of the people who are going to propose that you work for exposure instead of cash, BECAUSE legitimate publishers and pros, who’s projects ACTUALLY GET EXPOSURE don’t ask anyone to work for free. They can afford to pay people, they want profession talent ( they have been around long enough to know you get what you pay for), and they recall themselves what it is like to be asked to work for free.

So…given that, is this promised “exposure” going to be enough to justify the time you put into it?

This is 2016.  What is “exposure”?  It is the internet.  If you are in the position where someone proposes this, you are probably young, late teens , early to mid twenties.  What are the odds some middle aged guy is going to know more about getting exposure on the internet than you? ZERO.  You know more about social media and how to use it than he does PERIOD.  You know the terminology, the hashtags that work best, the times and sites that work best and why, you know the ones that are falling by the wayside or are a waste of time.  This project will get more exposure from you plugging it than him.  That 40 hours you spend…would it better for you to plug a project that has your name on it…somewhere…or plugging yourself?  Posting the cover of a book that that benefits him first or posting illustrations that promote you only?  Is that time best spent working on the ideas of someone who isn’t paying you, or emailing your portfolio to every publisher you can find who actually pays their illustrators?

Whatever “exposure” this guy manages to produce…will feature his work, his book, his ideas.  He, if the project has a snowballs chance in hell, will be focusing on the title of the book…not your name.  You will be an afterthought in whatever exposure there is.  You’ve been on the internet, people need to see the same thing 8 times before it sinks in.  Unless every single post, interview, and feature on a website he manages to get, has your name in the headline it has done you no good at all.  It has done FAR LESS for you than you posting/emailing your own illustrations.

Here is how the outcome breaks down with this type.  You illustrate the book, and an out of touch geezer ham handedly plugs away at it on the internet, mentioning you perhaps occasionally, and YOU for the sake of pitching in, actually do the lions share of EFFECTIVE promoting…for free.  Your value is not only your skills, but the access to your social media outlets, followers, your social media savey, and your time spent promoting.  Make NO mistake, the times have changed and by and large have eclipsed what this person understands on how/why/where/when to promote something.

He cannot help you, he does not know how.  What little knowledge he has on how to promote online, and how he does so, will come off as douche-bag-ish and outdated to the audience he is attempting to entice. You can give yourself better, more, and more effective online promotion than this person ever will or can.

Whatever “connections” this person says he has are a mirage.  He doesn’t have the money to pay you, how good do you think his connections are?  He can’t get investors to properly pay for a project, had can’t get the project picked up by a publisher that can afford to pay you…those don’t sound like very good connections to me. How good do you think the book is going to be if he’s not willing to spend any money on the important ingredient of the ILLUSTRATIONS THEMSELVES?

Category two, I have less disdain for this category, because this type is usually more genuine and is probably suffering themselves trying to accomplish a project, AND pragmatically it has a better chance of producing actual “exposure”.  I didn’t say it would, I said it has a better chance.  The first type has a 2% chance of actually doing anything for you, the second has a 10% chance.  This person is charismatic, knows the internet, knows how to get people interested and riled up.  This person lives in the zeitgeist, understands it, and possibly has some ideas that WILL grab people. 

The  problem here is…he is myopic. He is focused on his ideas. he is focused on his book.  And if the middle aged dope was going to mention you occasionally, this person, if he is smart, will not mention you at all.  I say “if he is smart”, because for the book to be successfully promoted, every post and mention of it must be about the story.  The story is what will hook people.  The ideas are what needs to be focused on and only the ideas.  He will understand, that he needs every link and hashtag to take them to a way to buy that book. So what exposure are you going to get out of that?  People will see your work, perhaps love it.  They won’t know who you are.  It will be up to you to promote that, to post about it, to put in in your resume or bring it up to publishers and editors.  You’ll again be doing more work for someone else’s career than for your own.  Is it better for you to spend time on the internet telling whoever will listen about someone else’s book, or showing off your own skills and letting paying publishers know how to contact you?

With both of these, it is important to understand that while one will be borderline incompetent at online promotion and the other will be adept at it …neither of them will be “getting your name out there”…they will be getting THEIR name out there and using your illustrations to do it.  The focus of whatever attention they manage to garner will be on their book/title, not you/your name/how to contact you.  Run the numbers in your head, take the 100% of people they actually manage to get to be aware of the book thanks to their efforts, from that a much smaller percentage will give a damn, from that a smaller percentage will take the time to look into the book, from that a smaller percentage will take the time to notice you drew it, from that a smaller percentage will figure out how to find you and other work you have done…  Sure seems to me like  the time you would have wasted on that project would be better spent making illustrations for you portfolio and posting and emailing them yourself…since 100% of what YOU post will have your name and how to contact you.

Both of these types usually believe in their heart of hearts that their project is going to be big and successful.  Belief is worth a fist full of smoke.  I have seen hundreds of people who believed in themselves come into the industry like a lion…and go out like a lamb.  HUNDREDS. They are the venus flytrap of time wasting.

The “exposure” you are promised by each of these people will amount to nothing more than a title to put on the resume.  Do paying publishers care about your resume?  A little.  In order for them to see it, you have to send it to them, and they have to notice your skills/see your portfolio and decide you have what it takes.  If/when they get that far…listing work on a bunch of titles they never heard off isn’t going to make or break you.  It is largely irrelevant unless you have worked on brand name titles, and those come from publishers who don’t expect people to work for free.  In the six years I did work for Mad Magazine it don’t think the editor in chief had any more than a vague idea of anything else I ever did.  They saw the samples I sent them, and that was the deciding factor.  Good thing I spent time sending out samples rather than doing work for “exposure”, wouldn’t you say?

So you could spend 40 hours illustrating someone else’s book, more hours promoting someone else’s book, and THEN spend time searching out publishers who will pay you. OR you could spend ALL that time searching out publishers who will pay you.

If you are even remotely confident in your work, than working for “exposure” is not just an extra step that is unnecessary, it is a step in the wrong direction.  It is a detrimental waste of your time.

Having said all that, you do need a portfolio don’t you?  You do need to keep drawing in order to get better.  So, logically, if you can’t find a paying gig…don’t you need to do something?  Sure.  Here are some options.  You can translate parts of a movie script into a comic book.  You can find old comic book scripts and do them.  Most submissions editors want to see 5- 7 pages of story.  You can cherry pick scripts for 5-7 pages of story that will highlight you strong points…instead of trying to hammer out a way to turn someone else’s script into something that does the same.  You could write your own script.  Either way you’re not getting paid, and not getting any more exposure than you could get on your own.  Better you are working on scripts that you know you’ll be able to show off your style with.

Collaborative work is a different thing.  You and another person, or a couple of other people, banding together, splitting the duties cost and any revenue immediately…if something like that comes up it’s a whole different animal.  I’m not going to get into all that right now.

Is there EVER a time when an “opportunity” like work for “exposure” works out well for the illustrator?  I dunno, I’ve never seen it, but hey…what do I know, I’ve only been in this business for 15 years. You do what you want, I like it when illustrators waste their time working for free…more paying jobs for me.

I’ll end with this.

You want to get your foot in the door? Than put your foot in the door, don’t waste time listening to someone telling you they’ll put it in the door for you once you help them put theirs in.


when Douglas is not complaining he and his work are here.  You can see him this year at Comic-con International booth 2200!


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