Ask Tania: How do I Prevent Myself From Being Used?

Friday, 20 February 2015

Dear Tania,

I am a fairly established author/illustrator and have a lot going on in my life; sometimes to the point of overwhelming. I love what I do but my issue is that I'm so often asked to do things for free, whether it be school visits or other events, illustration work, book donations, artwork for charity, etc. I do believe in helping out and sharing, but not to the point of being used, especially when people get snarky when I say no. I'm kind of sick of it, actually.

Just wondering your thoughts on this. Thanks, Tania.


Dear 'Sue',

Firstly, you are not alone! This happens A LOT to many creatives--and in fact, the creative industries are particularly prone to this issue because so many think what we do is not a serious job. I mean, would you ask a chiropractor or surgeon or financial planner to give you their time for free? No. Why creatives seem to be exempt from this same respect is beyond me.

Secondly, I feel there are two prongs to this situation ...

No. 1

Not everyone might agree with me but when you're first starting out in the creative fields, I do believe it can be beneficial to carefully handpick opportunities that are low paid or free, but high on exposure or other benefits. I have been running Kids' Book Review and the 52-Week Illustration Challenge for 'free' for years, and the benefits of doing both have exponentially outweighed the 'cost'. EXPONENTIALLY. So, if you wanted to put it in monetary value, it would be worth more than I ever could have been paid.

Overall, I think it's about seeing the Bigger Picture. Being aware of where your career is going and where you want to go. Sometimes doing something for 'free' or low revenue can provide priceless opportunity. A good example of this occurred on the 52-Week Illustration Challenge recently, when a large and respected graphic design company offered members the chance to design an image for international distribution on their wares. It was a paid opportunity, but meant release of copyright of the image.

Several Challenge members complained that the payment amount was too low (in fact it was quite good) to release copyright on an image. Why they felt they needed to keep copyright on one small image was beyond me (they could certainly no longer use it elsewhere). More than that, the fact that these people couldn't see the phenomenal benefit of winning such an experience--both in terms of exposure and ongoing work with this company--really worried me.

It was a classic example of playing with 'I must be paid an absolute fortune every single time or I'm just being ripped off!' semantics over the overriding Bigger Picture opportunities.

Having said all this, lower paid opps or 'freebies' should not only be carefully selected, they should naturally wane over time, as you develop your career. Other than charity offerings, you should be, for the most part, insisting on well-paid gigs and opportunities that align with your direction and experience. The more experienced and known you are, the more you will charge. Naturally.

If you are relatively established (and I know you are!), you should be at a place where you can start to cherry pick your opportunities. Remember, there is nothing wrong with saying no. And if people don't like that, too bad!! That's their problem, not yours and you have nothing to feel guilty about.

As an example (and everyone is different, so work out what's right for you), with my own career, I'm now at a place where I weigh up any opportunity against time, effort, desire and the cost/revenue balance. If I am completely impassioned by the opportunity and really want to do it (for whatever reason, as well as the cost/revenue/exposure balance), I will say yes to a smaller 'return'. If I'm not impassioned by the opportunity and would only do it if I'm paid enough or it offered enough return for expenditure, then I set the price I'd like and if they're willing to pay it, I'll do it. If they're not willing to pay, I don't do it*. Simple.

* Of course, there are also times when I say no because I literally can't do it--I'm booked elsewhere or can't spare the time.

This isn't about greed. It's about protecting yourself and ensuring you are paid your worth/receive benefits to your worth. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I also strongly believe creatives should handpick charity events and organisations that resonate with them, and offer their time and/or product gratis, when and if they can. Not only is this important in a philanthropic sense, it's extremely good Karma. What you give, you will receive in turn. It can also bring you fabulous exposure and further opportunity, beyond the feel-good nature of it all.

No. 2

I think this issue is also about the people you deal with. When you deal with leeches or self-servers or ingrates, it's easy to become disillusioned and to feel used. I have three different avenues that people use to contact me ask for things. It means a lot of requests and I'm still, after all this time, shocked at the way some people go about asking for things.

The worst of these are the ones who presume you'll just do it. This, surprisingly, happens a lot. Someone contacted me recently regarding their FULL fiction manuscript (which they attached to the email), telling me they'd like me to read it and get back to them with my thoughts, please. I told them I don't offer that service, but what I really wanted to do was ask them who or what possessed them to ask this of me?? I said no but astonishingly, they came back again and asked more from me.

Interesting to note that when I suggested they buy my Fantastical Flying Creator, which is jam-packed with all the insider info they were requesting (and more!), I never heard from them again. And you'd better believe they never sent a 'thanks, anyway'.

The second worst (in fact, they're probably really the first worst!) are those who ask then either ignore you or respond rudely when you say no.

If they ignore your refusal, the self-absorption and immaturity on show is palpable. It's called 'spitting the dummy' before heading to the next person on their list. Receiving this kind of treatment is an abominable thing. It really is horrid and makes you feel used and crappy (perhaps even angry). But remember this reflects on them and who they are, not on you. Don't be tempted to give them a serve (tempting!). Just move on and let it go. And remember their name.

If someone is rude about your refusal, it can also be tempting to respond. Just don't. You don't need to 'explain' why you said no. Again, it shows immaturity and it boggles me that people would put their reputation and credibility on the line by doing something so stupid. Just move on and let it go. And remember their name.

Another kind of worst are those who fail to thank. If you say no, your asker should thank. If you say yes, your asker should thank. And if you end up providing a service or donating some books or giving your time out of the kindness of your heart and they don't thank you ... do this: don't feel crushed or disillusioned or pissed off that you spent so much of your time and energy on something they couldn't even bring themselves to thank you for. Just remember their name. And do NOT, under any circumstance, give them your time, energy or donation ever again.

I love that old adage: if people show you who they are, believe them. Stick a warning flag in them and back way. And trust me when I say you won't be the only one out there in the community who will peel away from them or refuse to help out in the future.

The self-serving, the leeches and the ingrates are the ones who wear us down and harden us. They're the ones who cause distrust and burnout. And they do not deserve your energy or expertise. This has nothing to do with being prickly--it has everything to do with protecting ourselves and reserving our energy and expertise for those who deserve it most.

Don't worry about offending people by saying no and don't worry about the repercussions of cutting the negative people from your world. We are not an infinite source of giving. Giving is good but when people suck us dry, there's nothing left to give--and the only loser is you. So hold onto your precious time, energy and talent, and allot it carefully. Don't let people harden you or deplete you. Tread carefully, select wisely, and your journey will be so much smoother and happier.

When we're happy, we become inspired and creative, and we produce more fabulous books. And isn't that what it's all about?

Good luck!


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hazel said...

A realistic view from a practitioner.
One other category:the difference between YOU choosing to do it for charity and it being assumed that you will.

Tania McCartney said...

So true, Hazel. Expectation is a biggie. And it's usually the ones who respond rudely to a no, or ignore you, that have unrealistic (purely self-driven) expectations.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic advice.

DimbutNice said...

Could not have voiced it better myself. Personal discretion, integrity, need and professionalism. Take them into account at all times and you will never let yourself down, or others, even by way of refusal.

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