A few years ago, I received a solicitation from a complete stranger asking if I wouldn't mind contributing to a book. Upon requesting the particulars, it became clear that this person had no publishing credentials and would self-publish, that the book was to exist for the "editor's" personal profit and not in order to benefit a charity, and that I should be glad to write for him for exposure in lieu of money. He seemed startled that I was not keen to have him profiting off my name and efforts.
The book never came out, of course.
I recently spent months bandying about an article/interview for a popular humor website that shall remain nameless here. After writing and reworking this piece, they turned it down in what seemed to be a form response. I am no stranger to rejection-few successful writers are-so I shrugged and moved on. In the subsequent months, one of their staff writers wrote two articles that seemed to be very pale imitations of what I wrote for them. It cemented the lesson to me: since they weren't going to pay me, since this was for exposure, they didn't see any reason not to plagiarize my article.
I know those who are eager to write for whoever might turn a kind eye in their direction, but they don't seem to understand that they are not only depriving themselves of respect, but they are lessening the place of writers in the world. Why should anyone ever pay them if it is clear that they are keen to give it away for free? Those who do write for exposure discounts that creative professionals deserve to be paid.
I am not telling authors not to write for exposure. However, I am definitely telling people not to ask authors to write for exposure alone. I would write a story for a charity or a friend in need because I am getting something (positive karma/stronger friendship) in exchange. However, it should be our choice to work for free, not the slap of the invisible hand of the market that sees creative professionals as inherently worthless.
Most people are not overly keen to ply their trade for free. You do not ask a plumber to unclog your toilet in hopes you'll mention him to a friend, you shouldn't think any differently of a writer. If you want to see what most people think of writers, search any job site and see how many supposed publishers want twenty articles a week when the only listed pay is exposure. Literary talent is apparently not worth the cost of paper and ink.
Think of it this way: do you want what would have been your favorite author stifled by having to take a second or third job because the market saw her labor as worthless? I live in America, home of the wage slave, and I shudder to think that the next Nabokov is slinging burgers in some dive bar instead of getting his story written.
If we don't respect writing as a profession, we will have only those who have the means to not work, who can treat writing only as leisure. I do not need a wave of novels from the perspective of the unfathomably privileged. Give me books of people who have struggled and succeeded, those who have lived in the middle class. Don't drown me in prose of people who have the aftertaste of Cristal and caviar lingering on their tongue when they contemplate commas. We only empower minority voices when we value their work. Asking authors to write for free silences those we need to hear.
Writers, do not ask if you will be paid for a gig, but how much. Get it in writing or you are likely to get screwed over. If a venue isn't offering what you want, do not compromise yourself down to nothing. Ask for free copies, demand free ads. Make the publishers explain why they want your work, but they don't want to pay you for it. Watch them squirm. (Though the venue that doesn't have the money to pay you for your work probably doesn't have the clout to get your work in front of enough eyes to make it worth your effort.)
I have had people turn abusive when I politely decline the opportunity to write for them for free because I would rather dedicate myself to writing things that either pay or that I choose to write. "That's not writing then. That's selling!" No, it is very much still writing, just for people who respect my talent enough to offer me something in exchange. Perhaps this has damaged my relationship with publishers who would ask this, but it is hard to justify perpetuating one with someone who thinks my talent isn't worth a bit of effort on their part. If writing is so easy that it is worthless, I don't see why these people bother asking for submissions at all. Why don't they just work for free?