Don’t Work For Free!

Oh but my goodness has there been a recent uptick in demands for artists to work for free!

Or maybe it’s just that Twitter makes these fools so much easier to find.

This week’s post is about how to avoid the psychological mind tricks people use when they ask you to work for free (or for booze or for the glory of [Fill in the Blank Social Movement]).

By Alan O'Rourke via

By Alan O’Rourke via

Because I like them so gosh darn much, I’m going to be using tweets from @forexposure_txt‘s twitter feed in this post.

The fine folks at @forexposure_txt post ridiculous requests for artists to work for free which they cultivate from various internet fora. One of the benefits of their work is that you begin to see that requests for free work pull from a very small bucket of pitiful psychological tricks and tactics. Once you can recognize these tricks and tactics, you can ignore them.

I am brilliant, hear me roar” a.k.a “You’re lucky I’m asking.”

Like the popular kids in high school that made fun of your Star Trek: The Next Generation communicator pin before asking for your math homework, these people don’t actually see you as an independent human being, they see you as a means to get what they want.

Why would they possibly think this could work?

Well, because we’re all social creatures. And as social creatures we like being close to those who have things we find socially valuable, like  popularity or  power. The closer we are to people with popularity or power, the easier it is for us to get popularity or power.

But let’s be honest: you aren’t going to gain popularity or power from a stranger on the internet you’ve never had any other interaction with. It’d be like going to the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan and expecting to get rich as a result.

To truly be able to trade in these social goods, you need a relationship in which to trade. Subscribing to the same message board is not a relationship.

If you are going to work for free with someone in an attempt to gain power or popularity, or some other intangible social good, choose someone you know and already trust. Those people will have a stronger motivation to take good care of you.

“I’m not asking for a whole lot; why are you being so demanding?”

These are the folks that belittle your work before you’ve even started. You are a formality, an ugly necessity, for them to get what they want.

I think some of these people are just ignorant; they don’t understand what they’re asking for. If you come across this type of person, educate them so they don’t do it again.

The rest of the people who make this kind of request do know that they’re being ridiculous, but they are banking on the fact that you feel bad about your skills as a freelancer.

These folks are intentionally setting up the situation to take advantage of the fact  that you feel guilty about not having a “real” job and that you doubt whether you’ll ever be able to “make it.” They are hoping that by sparking your insecurity, they can get work out of you. They want you to feel like a jerk.

Maybe they want you to feel like a jerk because they feel like jerks for asking for free work, or maybe they didn’t have a good home life growing up, or maybe their dog just died. It doesn’t matter.

No one, no one, gets work from you because they’ve made you feel bad about yourself.

Life is too short. Move on.

“Won’t someone just help me? Please?”

In a weird way, I think these can be the requests that are hardest to resist.

Here’s a guy (or gal; though they’re hardly ever gals) just trying to make a thing, trying to make the world a better place.

And no one will help them.

They are alone in the world.

You are their only hope.


Here’s a secret: someone else’s poor business planning is not your fault.

Just because they don’t know how to get a comic or album or film from concept to reality doesn’t mean you’re required to help them. Hitching yourself to their poorly thought out horse is a bad idea.

I think these folks are hardest to turn down because they sound the most like a collaborator. “I’m just an artist, looking for another artist to make a beautiful thing.”

But if they are fumbling around for a stranger to work with, they aren’t a collaborator.

If they were looking for a collaborator, they would care about who they work with and they would spend the time and energy to build relationships with other artists. They’d go to conventions and meet ups and signings to meet people and talk about their project. They’d try to find someone they had a creative connection with.

They’d work.

Just like you do.

They wouldn’t be trolling on the internet looking for just any jerk who was willing to say “yes!”

True collaboration is very, very, very (very!) different from asking for a stranger to work on your stuff for free.


Come back next week when I’ll talk about how to ask for someone’s time or talent when you don’t have a lot of cash and you don’t want to be a jerk. There is a polite way of asking people to work with you when you don’t have a ton of money to spend.

Until then: Don’t  Work For Free!

Categories: The Rest


Tags: , , , ,

« These Are Not the Clients You’re Looking For

How to Ask a Freelancer to Work For Free »

7 responses to “Don’t Work For Free!”

  1. Kelly Kend says:

    I just found that twitter feed last week and love it!

    For what it’s worth, I have come into contact with several women who embody the “Why won’t anyone help me?” category really well. I don’t think this is a gendered thing in general, although I would believe that it’s mostly guys posting into the ether of the internet, and mostly women looking to manipulate their in-person contacts (which has always been my experience).

    Either way, great post. Working for free sucks!

    • Katie Lane says:

      A very good point! I’d actually meant to take out that comment before publishing the post because I’d decided the generalization wasn’t actually helpful. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think the more people talk about this sort of thing, the better!

  2. Ro says:

    Another type I’ve gotten a lot of is the “if you want money, you’re sell-out, not an artist/writer/etc.” I had a roommate who worked insanely hard for years as a comedian and got this all the time – he brought in crowds to plenty of venues and never saw a dime for any of the work he did – and often was ostracized for even asking to cover his expenses.

    • Katie Lane says:

      Yeah, Ro, the shaming approach is also a weird one. I sort of lump it in with the “You’re lucky I’m asking” set because they are hoping they can get what they want if they make you to feel badly about yourself. Which is just plain dumb but sadly not uncommon.

  3. Candace says:

    Hi Katie,

    Great post! Ro shared this on G+ and I’m glad I saw it. I admit I’ve worked for free, but the minute it became cumbersome, I bounced. You can’t ask people to go above and beyond on your project when life “gets in the way” if you’re not paying them. As some would say, you get what you pay for. I’m not fickle, but I’m not stupid either.

    I’m really looking forward to your post on how to ask for work politely when you don’t have a lot of cash on hand. I recently had an online tete-a-tete with a website owner who tried to defend his policy about paying writers pennies for their work.

    You can see our mini-kerfuffle here:

    The post is from 2012, but his comment appeared this week. Some may have felt I was harsh in my reply, but I think the attitude behind his policy is worse than the policy itself.

    • Katie Lane says:

      Glad you found the post and glad you liked it! Thanks also for sharing your mini-kerfuffle. The more we bring this stuff out into the light the harder it will be to get away with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

RSS Feed

From the Blog

5 Things to Know Before You Sign Your Publishing Contract

The following is the first of five emails from a free e-course about understanding publishing contracts. You can sign up for the rest of the course here. In any publishing deal, you're in charge. That's because a publishing contract is you giving the publisher permission to use your work. They need permission and


Subscribe to the Work Made For Hire Blog

Twitter Updates

Upcoming Workshops

Check back soon!

Email Subscription

Want Katie's tips via email?

Sign up here: