Caroline Hamilton speaks

Caroline Hamilton is a research fellow in the Department of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne and has also worked as a freelance writer. Her latest book One Man Zeitgeist: Dave Eggers, Publishing and Publicity is published by Continuum. Caroline chats to Overland about her article ‘The Exposure Economy’.

How did you come to write ‘The exposure economy’?

I’m researching the working lives of independent writers and publishers at present and as part of that project I delved in to the blogs of many local writers. One issue which kept cropping up in some form or another was the problem of getting paid. Writers were keen to take on opportunities only to discover the work was unpaid.

As disappointing as that is, what really struck me, was that despite their frustration all these writers didn’t seem to think that the situation could be changed in any way. Writers were commenting about the situation on each others’ blogs, but there was little discussion of how collectively they might be able to find some better solution to their problem. It made me wonder about writers, about the traditions of their work practice and they ways in which those traditions are being challenged (for better, and for worse) in the age of digital media.

What you hope the reader will take away with them after reading your piece?

In particular, I hope that a few of those writers who have been grudgingly prepared to work without pay in exchange for exposure might reconsider their value; and how they can demonstrate their value for their peers. By no means am I suggesting that people shouldn’t volunteer their services! That’s the lifeblood of small independent operations. But, I do think that their needs to be a greater consciousness about volunteer labour.

I see a distinction between a small enterprise that operates essentially as a charity, and a larger operation that exists ostensibly to make money. Those big operations sometimes don’t pay their writers, promising them ‘exposure’ instead. Now, that’s bad enough, but small operations are starting to cite ‘exposure’ for their writers as a way to justify the absence of a pay cheque too. Exposure isn’t a reward that can be doled out to contributors make up for the fact that you can’t (or in the case of the bigger employers, won’t) pay them. When you think about other models of free work (like giving your time in a soup kitchen, say, or an op-shop) it’s fairly obvious that those participants are contributing because they value the opportunity to be part of a community. The economy is different there.

Exposure, or any kind of calibrated ‘payback’, is not a lure to those volunteers because volunteer work doesn’t operate according to that logic. Writers, and the organisations that want the content they provide, need to be clear about what kind of economy they want to operate within.

Where you are now with your writing practice?

Well, I’m an academic by trade, so my writing practice is fairly well defined. At present, because of my research into writers and publishing, I’m especially interested in writing about subjects that are of interest to the broader cross-section of the industry and the public: ideas about work life, creativity, the place of technology and the printed object in our lives.

The thing about these subjects is that they attract debate and, as a result of that discussion, there is an opportunity to have tangible effects in policy and creative practice. Being able to reach an engaged audience via Overland is a great opportunity in that respect.

I’m also in the process – along with a couple of colleagues – of developing a collection of essays to address some of the knotty issues that come out of this scenario of being ‘not quite professionally recognised’. I’m very curious about who is now called the ‘amateur’ and who ‘the professional’; the definitions for both of these seem to be changing rapidly …

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.


  1. Hi Caroline, thanks for this 🙂 I’m really enjoying being an intern at Overland and being stretched and engaged. I began another unpaid internship for a commercial magazine and it was awful – I really did feel exploited (even though the people there were lovely, too) and left knowing my spot would soon be filled. I did come out of my editing/copywriting training expecting to have to work for free to help ‘carve out a place’ in wordsmithing.

    It’s hard to see how Overland could keep going without volunteer work – and perhaps there would be no online blog if everyone involved was paid – certainly if they were paid what they’re worth. It’s kind of like working in a literary op-shop (as in: all for a good cause) and I think I’ve got some ‘exposure’ and opportunity. Such as interviewing your lovely self.

    Ah, money and worth and writers … great article tho, Caroline, raising some inconvenient truths for writers (and editors).


  2. Hi Caroline and Clare,

    Good to hear established writers actually talking about the poor pay in freelancing. I investigated this topic for a feature last year (http://gregfoyster.com/a-write-off/) and was shocked at what I discovered: pay rates haven’t risen in 13 years, many opinion sites don’t pay and even established writers are being offered payment in ‘exposure’. How are professional wordsmiths supposed to make a living from their craft? One of the only well-paying roles left is copywriting, and even then juniors are charging almost nothing and some companies are outsourcing website work (mainly for SEO) to India. I look forward to reading the piece in Overland. Hope you got paid for it!

  3. you could say exactly the same thing about exposure/poor pay with regard to almost any entry-level position in the publishing or arts industry in general…

    I’d be interested to see what the statistics are about writers giving the game away in order to earn some money. you see it in the zinemaking world – people \grow up\ and stop making them. Same thing in the spoken word world, and creative writing in general – done a lot more by people who are young and willing to get by on a subsistence wage, less by those who are unwilling to do that kind of thing. and then the money earning gets in the way of the creative practise.

    or is that a whole nother topic?

    • It is another topic, but an interesting one. I know a really talented fine-artist who doesn’t pursue her art because she’s too exhausted with her day job and also because the ‘disappearance act’ that entering into her artistic process is, for her: she finds too difficult unsupported – she struggles to eat at regular hours, wash or look after kids/house/pets … add to that the difficulty in asking even peanuts for artistic work and the expectation that you’ll pay to submit for exposure and the chance to be shown or win something … and the fragile ego on top of that – yikes!

      I think lots of writers (and some editors I reckon) and artists feel that to work at their work is a privilege to start with … and it takes tenacity to remain dedicated to something the world sees as rather self-indulgent (or something).

  4. Hi there

    Great article/post. I am a writer who had to work (now retired) because my writing didnt bring in enough money to contribute to the family wage. This meant that it was and never could be taken seriously and was considered as a hobby. I am now retired, catching up on uni and have started my own blog to get myself over the nervousness that accompanies trying to get work published. At least with my blog I get to write about current affairs, publish my poetry and photos of my art work.

    Another issue for a writer, young or old, is when you try to get published. I have been told that my work is good but it is very hard to get an agent or your work onto a publisher’s list.

    Its good to see the issue being discussed:):)

    Olga from http://revedoa@blogspot.com

  5. Maybe it’s because I’m an academic in the creative writing field, so my writing practice is intertwined with my main source of income… But, I much prefer to get work published on the OL blog for no pay, rather than stuffing around for weeks/months for paid publications with journals/magazines who are disorganised, lazy, have poor editorship, no vision, don’t value honest/frank reviews, don’t understand the digital media and don’t know how to run a successful publication online. They pay, but they’re morally devaluing.

  6. That prick in the video is a great argument *against* paying people for their writing, even against writers talking to anyone at all. If I wasn’t so lazy he’d motivate me to get blogging for free just to snub capitalist literature production.

  7. Harlan Ellison was something of a radical once. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, far away. He looks as though he is being badly-acted by Al Pacino.
    Of course it would be great if writers were paid etc etc, but to be honest I enjoy writing and do it precisely because I don’t get paid. If Overland offered to pay me for blogging, frankly I’d refuse. It’s refreshing to have a transaction that is free of economic exchange. I have a part-time day job, that is one of my versions of activism, and the rest of the time I write. Occasionally I have received money for writing, sometimes in reasonable chunks, but that has been pretty much chance. Financially, I just aim for comfortable poverty in my life. When I started blogging for Overland one of the editors wrote to me apologising for not being able to pay me. OL had initially asked for bloggers to commit to once a week or fortnight, but changed that offer, perhaps for many reasons, but one of them being that it might seem exploitative to make that demand of a voluntary writer. I didn’t understand the argument then and don’t now. There seems more guilt than logic to it. It’s true that OL pays the writers of its print copy, and not its blog. There could be many reasons for this of course, and I’m not questioning them, but print is still generally seen as having more kudos than blogging, more literary gravitas, is more a kind of ‘real’ writing.
    Writing for money could be the death of a subversive, non-normative experience.
    Overland’s online venture is a very interesting project, easily the most interesting blog around, my own contributions excepted of course, and OL itself a project that it is trying to say things that are very difficult to say elsewhere and deserves more applause than it receives. Freelancing is a specific type of writing I think, and doesn’t cover all that writing could be. I couldn’t do it myself, and wouldn’t try. Reviewing for a living would be beyond me. I like my writing to have as few external impositions on it as possible. It’s hard as enough as it is, and I am barely competent at it. For someone like me doing it for a paycheck would be too dispiriting.

  8. As an emerging writer the opportunity to blog for Overland is a pretty good deal – I get some exposure, an opportunity to express opinions that perhaps I couldn’t express in many other forums and be part of a committed thoughtful community – a sort of payment in lieu.

    Nevertheless I’m really bothered that a number of us seem to be happy with the status quo – that is that writers for the most part are very poorly paid if paid at all.

    Of course, there’s a place for unpaid work but in general writers should expect to be paid for their words otherwise we devalue that work and the writing community more broadly.

    I’ve seen this willingness to forgo payment for work performed in the workplace, particularly among women and particularly in the so-called caring professions, where people work over-time of up to an hour a day without any thanks or recognition let alone payment. Before you know it, anyone who complains about working an extra day a week without being paid for it is lazy or selfish or both.

    I remember years ago when I first started freelancing, three articles were accepted for publication by a major newspaper. Months went by without publication and I was too timid to ask the editor not just about publication but payment. I eventually contacted the MEAAA for advice and they asked me if I thought an electrician would wait 6 months for payment. I rang the editor and to his credit, was paid in full.

    I’ve also almost applied for writing jobs with online publications and then after doing the sums, realised I’d only be earning $200 for a solid’s week work plus paying the cost of travel to interviews etc.

    While this is an area screaming out for some sort of regulation, it is also up to writers to recognise our own value and expect to be paid accordingly.

  9. The just-launched campaign against Huffington Post seems relevant to this discussion.

    Jonathan Tasini writes:

    Today, I have filed a class action lawsuit against Arianna Huffington, Huffington Post and AOL on behalf of thousands of writer-bloggers. Here’s why.

    We live in a time of unrelenting class warfare. We are the richest nation on earth—yet that wealth is flowing into the hands of the few. The greatest stage for that class warfare is in the workplace: CEOs and their top executives believe that they are the most important part of the company and that they should reap an obscene portion of the value created by WORKERS.

    The Huffington Post was, is and will never be, anything without the thousands of people who create the content. Ms. Huffington is acting like every Robber Baron CEO—from Lloyd Blankfein to the Waltons—who believes that they, and only they, should pocket huge riches, while the rest of the peons struggle to survive. Ms. Huffington stance has been clear: only she deserves the fruits of the labor of the people who work for her.

    Actually, Arianna Huffington is worse than the CEOs of the banks, the Walton family of Wal-mart. At least, they pay their workers something—even if those wages aren’t enough to make ends meet.

    Huffington pays zero. Nothing. Nada. [more below the fold]

    Arianna Huffington is a hypocrite. While reaping money and building her \brand\ based on books and speeches decrying the growing divide between rich and poor (I am not linking to those books in order to avoid giving her even more cash to pocket), Ms. Huffington is precisely acting to impoverish bloggers and create a blogger-plantation–where her slaves work to build her fortune.

    But, a lawsuit is only a tool to organize. And that’s really what I want people to remember.

    We spend a lot of time criticizing leaders. There isn’t a harm taking them to task, when appropriate. But, we should spend a lot more time now to build our own movements because we don’t have enough leaders who will stand up for the people.

    In 2001, I won a case against The New York Times in the U.S. Supreme Court. But, truthfully, the legal case was only one part of what we did–it was a long effort to reach out to writers and build a movement for justice, to have a strong union. Nothing we win in Congress or in the courts will stick if we don’t have a movement.

    Besides this lawsuit, the National Writers Union and the Newspaper Guild are working to build a movement for justice at the Huffington Post—and we are all working together to meld all the tactics (boycotting the site, legal efforts, organizing writers) so we win.

    So, here is what you need to do:

    No one should be writing for the Huffington Post until justice is done. Writing for the Huffington Post is crossing a picket line–both the Newspaper Guild and the National Writers Union have called for a strike and boycott of Huffington Post People writing for Huffington Post are scabs. Tomorrow, I will be publishing an open letter to a long list of (named) progressive leaders who blog for Huffington Post, asking them to respect the picket line. We will praise those who do so—and “out” those who are breaking the union.

    Unlink the Huffington Post if you have a link to the site.

    If you see Ms. Huffington featured as a speaker at a progressive forum, please ask the sponsors of the event to disinvite her until justice is done.

    Come to the following sites to support the efforts:

    Our lawsuit Facebook page.

    The lawsuit information page. Sign up if you want to join the class or you just want to keep in touch.

    We will prevail.

  10. Hmm, I think it’s linked and it’s not.

    Obviously Overland is loathe to think it’s exploiting writers. BUT we’re a not-for-profit organisation (unlike Fox Studios in that video above or, god forbid, HuffPo) that relies on hours of voluntary labour every week, from our bloggers, yes, but also from you, Jeff, from Alex, our coordinator, from me, from everyone who’s involved with the magazine to some degree.

    This is, sadly, the current state of the literary scene. Yet, the literary scene has always relied on voluntary labour – it is not only the way it survives, it’s part of its appeal.

    Increasingly, it’s becoming the way many other industries survive as well, from academia to IT, and I don’t deny the exploitation of free labour for profit.

    Yet, writers blog for their own blogs without expecting payment. So where lies the difference? If I blog for myself, clearly I’m responsible for everything: maintaining the blog, maintaining its identity and profile, editing, participating in all the conversations, etc. In a group blog, I’m supporting the profile of the blog, yes, but also supporting other writers – without carrying all the weight for the blog’s success and maintenance.

    • I agree Jacinda, there’s a big difference between writing for a non-profit organisation and one which is hugely profitable.

      And a point I should have made in my previous post is that I’m sure Overland and many other literary journals would happily pay their contributors/bloggers if they were properly funded.

  11. Yes. I was not suggesting that I was Ariana. More that these questions will keep coming up in different ways as the media industry becomes more and more digital.

  12. Oh, well played Huffpo — respond to the campaign, not by writing anything yourself, but by aggregating a snarky piece from Slate.

  13. Thanks for posting this Clare, gotta love a good rant. And Ned makes some persuasive points.

    However, if I can just add to, or go slightly off course, it’s not just freelance writing or contributing to a blog or being an intern or writing for some other forum where eyeballs on said wannabees work supposedly make up for the moulah that puts food on the table. It’s everywhere in writing.

    Take the average contract for a newbie: the going rate is around the $3000 mark plus a percentage of the sales that amount to about $3-4 of each book sold. I could be wrong here so all you published people correct me if that’s the case.

    So a writer may spend anything from 2 years upward writing a great or not so great manuscript that makes its way out of the slush pile onto the shelf and yet the income it earns won’t be enough to insure against the next climate change catastrophe.

    Is it because it’s a tough industry, a small pond, because someone somewhere is making a lot of money or because in Australia we don’t value writing – literary, commercial or whatever. I dunno. I wish I did.

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