What to Do When People Want You to Work for Free
How to deal with "choosing beggars"
Take a deep dive into r/ChoosingBeggars or r/ForExposure on Reddit and you’ll find thousands of tales of entitled people demanding things for free. While the stories are amusing (and sometimes infuriating), they speak to a larger issue, one that many creative people face.
Many people don’t value artists’ work, despite regularly consuming it. Combine that bias with an attitude that artists must be “starving,” and you’ve got a recipe for disaster: Artists whose imposter syndrome whispers to them to lower their prices and “buyers” who figure that artists aren’t making much anyway, might as well get it for free.
Let’s be clear about a couple of facts:
Yes, artists can and should make a living off their art.
Yes, buyers should expect to pay for a product, even if it’s artistic in nature.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s go over what both parties should expect. How can you deal with choosing beggars, and how can you avoid being a choosing beggar?
Choosing Beggars 101
According to the Choosing Beggars subreddit, a choosing beggar is someone who demands a specific item for free, demonstrates unreasonable standards for a seller or buyer, or wants free or steeply discounted stuff with a “comical sense of entitlement.” That includes people who:
- Attempt to commission an artwork then haggle on the price
- Ask for discounts or refunds due to unreasonable expectations
- Refuse to pay for creative work because “it didn’t take you that long” or “I could have done it myself”
- Demand that the artist drop other projects and work only on their piece
- Offer to pay in “exposure”
Choosing beggars may not realize they’re doing it, or they may turn abusive when someone declines. Either way, they lack an understanding of the norms and rules of buying and selling creative work.
Sometimes, choosing beggars will deliberately manipulate a situation to cause the artist to fail in some way. They do this to be able to claim that the artist violated some sort of agreement and that they’re entitled to a discount. These are certainly the worst type of choosing beggar — the “Karens” of the art-buying world.
No matter what field of creative work you’re in, you’re bound to encounter a choosing beggar during your career. And if you’ve ever demanded something for free from an artist, you may have been a choosing beggar.
Artists: How to Deal with Choosing Beggars
I once had a potential client message me through my Facebook page. We set up a time for a phone call to discuss the project. That time came and went, and the “client” failed to answer his phone or my followup email. The next day, he sent me a rude message demanding to know why I’d missed our call. I explained that I’d tried to reach him in two different ways, but hadn’t been able to do so. He said,
“Well, I’m available now.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not free today,” I said. “How about tomorrow?”
“No, it has to be today.”
“I have other appointments today. When is good for you?”
“Don’t you want the business?”
And right there, that was the moment I knew I had a problem client. Insisting that I drop my other clients to cater to him is the pinnacle of entitlement, as was his assumption that I wanted or needed his business badly enough to dump other appointments and ruin those relationships.
I had no doubt that this client would continue to be difficult, demanding free stuff along the way because I’d “missed a call” or didn’t serve him when he wanted to be served. And so I declined to take on the project, and I have no regrets.
Whenever I receive messages demanding me to do something for free, that amounts to my losing money. Asking me to ignore my commitments for a free phone call is effectively the same thing because I’d be harming my reputation. I have a firm policy when it comes to clients who expect me to drop everything and cater to them.
I fire them, and I encourage you to do the same.
I’m sorry, fellow creative people, but too many of us feel like we can’t afford to lose a lead, and so we jump through hoops to keep potential clients happy. Here’s the thing: Long-term, established clients are the clients who are entitled to ask you to take care of something urgent or adjust your schedule for them. You’ve probably already prioritized them because they’re good clients.
Think of it this way: You’d probably drop everything to run and help your best friend when her car breaks down. But what would you do if someone you haven’t spoken to since high school messages you and asks for $500? You’d probably decline.
Treat your business the same way. Don’t undercut yourself or work yourself to death for someone with whom you don’t have a working relationship. Let’s face it, you don’t even know if they’ll pay you! Which brings me to…
Get a deposit — and a contract
Nothing weeds out choosing beggars like requiring a deposit. You honestly don’t know if someone is going to pay until they do, unless they’re a longstanding client.
Many choosing beggars don’t understand that deposits are standard for creative work. However, I almost can’t blame them, because too many artists are willing to work without this guarantee!
It’s just too easy for unscrupulous buyers to ghost you. Even if you deliver watermarked or low-res work, many of them will still take it and use it without paying you a dime.
Never work for free. Remember, choosing beggars often feel entitled to a discount if anything goes wrong. You’re not a big-box store who can afford to give into Karen when she screams about a price-match guarantee. You’re a small business who needs to aggressively lay claim to all the money you earn. Work with a strong contract in place and a deposit in case the client vanishes. Make sure that the deposit covers your time and materials cost for initial phone calls, sketches, etc.
Shut down abuse
If the screenshots and stories on r/ChoosingBeggars are real, they paint an alarming portrait of a world in which people believe that insulting an artist’s talent and worth is a great way to get something for free. However, too many artists suffer from imposter syndrome, so I don’t doubt that many of them have succumbed to such demands because they don’t believe in their own worth.
Hear this: I believe in you and that you deserve to get paid for your work!
We live in a society that readily consumes art, yet pretends that artists are mooching lowlifes who don’t deserve compensation. Witness the countless posts on r/ChoosingBeggars that assert that people who make art do it as a “hobby” or that it “doesn’t take that much effort.”
If you hear these things and you feel tempted to undersell your work or give it away for exposure, remember this:
- If the “buyer” really thought it didn’t take much effort, they would do it themselves.
- If they thought it was your hobby, they wouldn’t ask for your business.
And speaking of exposure…
Never work for exposure
Exposure is worthless. I mean it. Unless you are invited to headline for Lizzo, the exposure is not. worth it. Most people who would hire you aren’t going to see this one client’s event or poster or logo or whatever it is. If they offer you a “shoutout” on social media, be especially wary. Most people offering you such exposure have only a few thousand followers, if that. Only 10 percent of their followers see their posts. Only 10 percent of them will take action. Here’s the math: for every 1,000 followers your client has, only 10 people will look you up. And even fewer will convert to paying customers.
It’s usually not worth the hours of free work.
Buyers: How to Not Be a Choosing Beggar
If you’re interested in commissioning an artist or hiring a designer or writer, it’s important to understand the typical arrangement you’re entering. You’re hiring someone on a temporary basis for a limited-scope project. They’re devoting time and materials to produce something that you want. You should be prepared to adjust your expectations: Art takes longer than you might think.
That means that this sort of arrangement is much different from buying something pre-made. Not only should you not expect instant results, but you should expect to clearly communicate the project specifications to the artist. Don’t make them read your mind.
Most importantly, you must let go of any entitlement you feel to their time. Treat them the way you would treat any other business: They have other customers.
Actually, treat them better, because artists are usually solopreneurs with limited resources and availability. While they should communicate dates and expectations to you, understand that they’re typically giving you the timeframes that they can accommodate. If you need the project done instantly, expect to pay a rush fee.
Communicate your expectations
As I mentioned, don’t expect artists to read your mind. Be clear and reasonable in what you’d like from the project. Here’s a quick-and-dirty guide to what artists expect from you:
- Graphic designers expect you to know what type of product you want (brochure, poster, handbill, etc), its format (PNG, PDF, etc), size (in pixels, inches, etc), and so on. Figure that out before you book.
- Illustrators and visual artists expect you to have an idea of what you want the art to look like. They also assume that you hired them because you liked their style; don’t make a zebra change their stripes.
- Writers will want a target word count, tone words, and any call to action. Don’t forget, they’re writing for multiple clients and they need to know what you want.
- Performers will want you to promote the event and compensate them fairly. Even if they’ve only been on stage a few minutes, they’ve spent 20 times that amount of time rehearsing, building costumes, and doing makeup. Don’t be cheap!
Abide by their deposit policies
I’m not saying that you are not trustworthy, but artists have little reason to trust that you’ll pay. Believe me, they’ve been burned before. Many creative professionals request anywhere from a 10% to 50% percent deposit. Remember, when you buy a product in the store, you pay 100% upfront before knowing if you’d like it, so this is actually a good arrangement.
If you want to book an artist, you should follow their deposit policies. Many of them do offer cancellation and refund policies, but it’s up to you to hire based on your research, then communicate your needs. By doing that, you can ensure smooth sailing for everyone involved.
Understand the work involved
I’ll let you in a little secret: Artwork isn’t as easy as artists make it look. We’re not simply talented people who can churn out a painting in 5 minutes. What you see on Instagram isn’t the product of “talent”: It’s blood, sweat, and tears. We need time to plan, execute, and refine our creative work, and that’s why we (should) charge the rates that we do.
I’ve seen many a post on r/ChoosingBeggars in which the beggar seems to believe that it’s easy for artists because they have this “artistic gift.” Some seem to think it’s greedy to try to sell something that’s “God-given.” The thing is, talent is a myth.
Talent is nothing more than the culmination of skills and experience, and artists are using that, not something free, to produce their work. That said, if someone doesn’t require a lot of time to complete your project, it doesn’t mean that they “phoned it in” or deserve less pay. As people become more experienced, they often become faster. That doesn’t mean you get to pay them less.
Once we achieve an understanding of each other’s expectations and reach a place of mutual respect, an artist–client relationship can be quite lucrative. There’s no reason to work for exposure, and there’s no reason to avoid paying for art. It’s a product like anything else.
Just as artists should not abide by choosing beggars, so should friends of the arts shut down choosing beggars when they see them. Let’s work together to destroy the idea that artists should be starving or “may as well work for free.”