When someone comes to you with an opportunity it’s exciting. You’re probably going to feel flattered that someone wants to work with you, and you’re probably feeling validated as a writer. In our post-COVID world things are changing rapidly when it comes to how – and where – we work, and how we interact with one another. But if I could give you only one tip when it comes to opportunities, it would be to investigate them thoroughly before jumping on board. Some “opportunities” are misery waiting to happen – an opportunity, not for you but, for someone to use you as free labour to further their agenda.
Of course everyone has their own agenda but some people, some companies, will pretend they value your time and effort when really they’re just milking your creative energy. I can’t think of a single time where I’ve done free work for “exposure” where it’s actually been worth the effort I’ve invested.
I have done co-writing projects, taught classes in public spaces, and given lectures on indie publishing. I’ve provided content for publications, donated time, and been on committees. The only projects I could say have helped me career-wise, or have made sales, have been the lectures. That’s not to say co-writing projects or teaching classes can’t help you move forward in your career. They definitely can. But who you work with, and why you work with them, makes a huge difference to whether or not the collaboration will eventually help or harm your own professional goals.
Sometimes the proposal seems too good an opportunity to miss, like being part of a group with a large reach (social media, newsletter, or other) or appearing as a guest speaker at an event. If you decide to take the plunge here are some things to look out for – before making your commitment. I’m not here to tell you not to take the opportunities that come along, merely suggesting you examine whether or not they are the right move for you, and if they really are an opportunity for you.
To that end I’ve made a list of some of the things you can do to make sure an opportunity is likely to be beneficial to you, and ways to avoid being conned into a time and energy sucking venture.
1. All Take For “Exposure”.
Look over any contract or written agreement carefully and ask yourself the following questions.
- Are they getting more out of the arrangement than you?
- Are they getting paid subscribers/attendees etc. to their project for your free labour?
- Do you get a percentage of any merchandise sold related to the project, especially related to content you have created for them.
(Basically if you aren’t getting a steady paycheck are you getting royalties on your art?)
- Who is benefiting more from this arrangement, and how vast a difference is there between each party?
(Ideally the split should be 50/50 but unless you’re co-writing a book where everything is split down the middle (profits, royalties, liabilities etc) it’s highly unlikely to be this even.)
- Basically is the pay off you’re going to receive by “exposure,” or learned skills, worth you investing your time and energy. If other people are making money off your work and all you’re getting is your name on a by line or a shout out on social media is that really something you think is fair?
On that note, something that authors should specifically pay attention to is contract terms. Specifically look for clauses dealing with the following questions:
- How long do they have rights to use your work?
- Is it a fixed term (i.e. they can use your work for a year? Or is it in perpetuity?)
(I personally think it unwise to allow other people access to your content in perpetuity. This then includes not just the person(s)/company you originally allowed the rights to, but any descendents, and if a larger company buys them out, then that company has the rights to use them. Trust me, this does happen. Look at the lawsuit between Disney and Alan Dean Foster.)
- Does your contract allow you to retain rights to your own characters and content?
(Some contracts allow you to use the content you create for them as you like. Others will specify that any content you create under the terms of the contract belong to the company/project/whatever you are providing content for. Some may be hybrids (i.e. you can post it on your blog but not sell it to a rival project/magazine/blog etc))
- Are the rights you are giving to the company/project/etc exclusive or non-exclusive.
(I.e. If you write an article can you also publish it on your professional blog? Or does the company/project have the exclusive right to the content. If you have already published you may have come across this before. I know from my experience to be included in the KindleUnlimited program your titles have to be exclusive to Amazon.)
- If in doubt I always, always, recommend getting a lawyer to look over the contract. Most western countries have access to free legal services, and there is a lot of information that can be found online with a simple google search. A lawyer will be able to advise on industry standard, whether or not a contract is legally binding (not all of them are), and what key terms mean to you.
2. Time Commitment.
This has two different facets. First, how frequently are you expected to produce content for their project? I.e. weekly blog posts, or weekly interviews on a podcast etc. Second, Do they require you to make time commitments that will take away from your life demands?
(I.e. Is the “exposure” a couple of hours at a festival one weekend? Is it a weekly commitment of creating content? Are there weekly staff meetings? Is there intensive training or recurring training specific to their project that is required?)
3. How They Treat You When You Say No.
This is huge. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to say yes to an opportunity, you can try a soft no. “I’m too busy to take on new projects at the moment” for example, doesn’t say, “no I don’t want to work with you,” and it leaves the door open for them to approach you again in the future. You could even leave an invitation at the end to encourage them to do so. A yearly festival for example will be an opportunity that comes around again. You could say, “I’m too busy this year but I’d love you to keep me in mind for the next one.” A project that really wants to work with you will generally ask again further down the track. If they treat you badly after you say no, then I would take that as an indication that it wasn’t really an opportunity, but rather someone looking for free content. Business focused people with legitimate opportunities will understand that sometimes schedules clash, especially for things like festivals, and that notice periods are a must.
4. Talk To Other People
This is the #1 tip I can give you. Talk to people already involved in the “opportunity.” Find out if there’s anything you should know before you join. Contract clauses, toxic work environment, actual pay off vs how much work you put in etc. No one is going to be able to give you these kinds of answers other than people already involved. Additionally, if you can see that the people behind the “opportunity” are trying to fill a void where someone has left, it doesn’t hurt to contact that person and ask what made them leave. They might be able to tell you positives or negatives about the people they worked with there.
On the feedback front other things to keep in mind are:
– Does the negative outweigh the good?
– Does the person giving you feedback clearly have an axe to grind?
– Does the person giving feedback have something to gain by enticing you?
Basically, what motive does that person have to give you the kind of feedback they are?
5. Do You Still Have Time And Energy For Your Writing?
This is so important. If you are working for exposure then you want to be seeing actual return on that time investment. If you are not reaping the benefits of that exposure and you do not have the time or energy left to pursue your own writing goals, then what is the point of doing the work? If you are a novelist trying to make it as a writer, spending all your free time writing free articles or content for someone else, and you aren’t working on your own books, then you aren’t going to reach your own goals. You’re slaving away bringing someone else’s dream to life.
6. Do They Provide Opportunities For You To Grow?
If you’re working for “exposure” or other benefits rather than pay, what are they? Are you engaging with your target audience? Are you getting “paid” in experience or learning valuable, transferable, skills like marketing. Or is your art being improved? Be mindful that they may consider opportunities to rise within the ranks of their project (i.e. become a spokesperson for the project/festival, become a committee member, etc) and opportunity to grow. I don’t. If the opportunity doesn’t allow you to grow personally or professionally, only to grow within their organisation, then there is a good chance that the project is going to be a time suck for very little gain. Opportunities to provide more free labour are not opportunities. Additionally, are you opinions and ideas respected?
7. Do They Provide Avenues For Sales?
I’ve done a lot of talks and market stall volunteer work in exchange for free space to show off my books. This has in the past generated a small amount of sales. Part of this is because people can see what you as an author are offering. At a market stall they can pick up your book. They can flip through it. You can have a discussion about it with them. If your only sales opportunity is you name with an “author of” next to it, how likely is it to be an avenue for you to market your own work? Ask yourself:
- Does the project you are thinking of joining have a physical or online store where you can sell your other content or merchandise for profit?
- Is having my name on something like a poster or blurb going to help me professionally?
(It can. If you are being cited as an expert in a panel, or on the back of a book, it can help your credibility to sell existing work and to find professional opportunities, so long as the project/festival/panel is run by a reputable group in the field.)
- Are you expected to promote their content on social media, and are they willing/expected to share your unrelated content as well?
- Does this project/committee/etc have connections in the industry? Are there editors, agents, publishers associated with this project that you can talk to? Are there opportunities for you to pitch to people in the industry?
I’m not here to poop on co-writing projects, festivals, panels, or anything else where people come together to strive for a common goal. But I do have a distrust of group projects after having been burnt in the past. Volunteering, or being part, of writer’s festivals and conventions can be immensely rewarding. So can group writing projects. But its imperative to find people who really are working with you – and not people you are working for. If you’re getting very little out of the arrangement, if you don’t have time to do your own writing, if they treat you badly, and if they have unrealistic or exceedingly high expectations of what you are expected to do for them, then how much of an “opportunity” is the project?
At the end of the day it is up to you how much you are willing to give, and what you are willing to give it for. I can’t make that decision for you. But the industry is growing, our attitudes are changing, and in our new post-COVID world where more people are leaving behind traditional ways of working, I felt it was an appropriate time to have this discussion. As with all my Indie Author Tip articles, I want you to learn from my mistakes. I don’t want to sound like a pessimist but I don’t want to see anyone lose their love of what they do, or the shine from their eyes, because they’ve been taken advantage of. The key take away I can give you from this I can give you is to look at opportunities critically. Some opportunities aren’t opportunities for you, but for someone else to take advantage of you.