Every poet eventually will be asked to provide an original, unpublished poem for exclusive use by a shiny new magazine or to come and do a reading because “it’ll be great exposure.” Unfortunately enough people who want to establish themselves as poets will agree to do this but stop and think:
If a magazine can budget for marketing and printing and includes advertising and a cover price, but will not pay the people who write its contents, how long will it survive and how great will it be that your name will be associated with it?
Even poetry magazines that are run on a shoestring with an editor working voluntarily manage to pay in contributors’ copies, so if you are not being paid (in money or kind) or discover that contributors are expected to buy a copy if they want to see their work in print, is it really worth it?
If you are invited to do a reading where entry is by tickets bought in advance or on the door, the organisers and staff at the event are being paid, is it fair that the only person not getting paid is the poet?
Some poetry events and open mic evenings are organised by unpaid volunteers with either free entry or ticket prices only covering the costs of hiring the venue. Open mic slots won’t be paid. If you’re invited to read as the featured poet, you may not be paid. This isn’t exploitation because no one else is being paid either but there should be an opportunity to sell books or other promotional materials and there may be travel expenses if you are not local. If you think it’s worth travelling to a venue because you’re sure you’ll recoup your travel expenses in book sales, it might be worth doing, but if you’re going to be out of pocket with no benefit to you, it’s not worth it.
If a publication or event is organised to raise funds for charity, the organisers may suggest you waive your fee. This decision should be yours. If the organisers say there’s no fee or no contributors’ copies because it’s for charity, walk away. If you want to waive your fee or buy your own copy rather than have a contributor’s copy because you support the charity, that’s fine, but it should be your decision, not an assumption from the organisers. Some poets who want to get involved may not be able to afford to attend the event or buy a copy of the publication so it should not be assumed everyone can waive their fees.
Most publicity events such as book launches or a interview on local radio to promote a book or event won’t be paid. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing, but weigh up the pros and cons before agreeing to do them.
Often it is worth volunteering to help organise a local open mic night or set up a local poetry group or start a magazine or get involved in a similar project. You might not get paid in money, but there will be other rewards: learning new skills, improving skills you already have or meeting other writers who you can learn from. Here there’s a mutual benefit: you’re helping others and yourself and whilst it feels rewarding, it’s worth doing. As soon as it becomes a chore or you feel you’re being taken for granted, that’s a signal it’s time to move on or change the way the project works.
If you’re being asked to do a reading or a workshop or event that doesn’t feel like it has any rewards and it’s not offering pay, it’s not worth doing. And if an organiser mentions the word “exposure” or is working from the assumption you’re not worth paying, they’re not worth working for.