Every time artists are invited to work for free, or for exposure, or for the chance to be part of something very special and wonderful (ahem), people like to defend the offer of, well, nothing, by comparing it to other things, which it is not comparable to. Here are a few of them, for easy reference:
Working for free is not like...submitting to the Spectrum annual (and similar publications).
Why not? Because these publications really ARE used by creative directors looking for fresh talent. I've been hired based on appearances in Spectrum, and so have plenty of people I know. Submitting to annuals is a reasonable investment. I know, I know, I haven't submitted to Spectrum in ages, but that's not because it didn't help. It's because I was miffed about not getting my copies, but that's just me being curmudgeonly, and cutting off my nose to spite my face. There IS value in annuals.
Working for free is not like...internships, student-teaching, apprenticeships, and similar on-the-job training programmes.
Why not? Because many jobs REQUIRE on-the-job training, before you're allowed to do them by yourself. On-the-job training is part of your education, not your working life. You're there to learn, and if your placement is a good one, it can be incredibly instructive. Furthermore, a good reference from an internship or training programme can be valuable, in the job market. Sometimes, you may even be asked to stay on in a paid capacity, when your training or internship is complete.
Working for free is not like...collaborating with other artists and writers on projects you're passionate about, with no guarantee of compensation.
Why not? Because when you're asked to contribute to a commercial project of any sort, someone is profiting from your work. And it's not you. When you collaborate with other artists and writers for the fun of it, or with a view to turning a profit eventually, either nobody profits or EVERYBODY profits. Why on earth would you want to line someone else's pocket, while yours goes empty? And why would anyone want to put you in that position?
Working for free FOR A LARGE COMPANY, OR FOR AN INDIVIDUAL is not like...submitting to small zines, which pay in copies.
Why not? Because most small zines don't make a profit, or if they do, it's very slim. They're pretty much labours of love. They can't afford to give you much, if anything. But choose your zine carefully: some of them are widely respected, and can get you seen by the right people. Others...well, let's just say they can't help you, and leave it at that. If you're considering submitting to a publication that pays little or nothing, check out some back issues. See if anyone famous is in there, or anyone you respect. Google that publication, and see who's talking about it, and for what reasons. Also, when you submit to a zine, you can often submit something you've already done, rather than creating something new: that is to say, you can get legitimate exposure to the right people, for no extra effort, beyond the time it takes to submit. Not a bad deal.
Working for free is not like...doing something you'd do anyway, for fun, and getting some added exposure for it.
Why not? Because when you do that same thing for fun, nobody else gets to profit from it. You don't have to give up any rights to your work, or allow it to be associated with somebody else's brand; you can save it for later, and maybe profit from it, yourself. "Exposure" is a misleading currency. Even if the project soliciting free work has a famous face or a large corporation attached to it, there's no guarantee your work will be widely circulated. Even if it is, the bulk of the attention will not be on you or your work, but on whatever company, product, or famous face is being spotlighted. This is the age of social media. If we want exposure, we can...ha, ha, ha...expose ourselves. Let's flash the world, guys! Yes, it takes work to get heavy circulation, but when you put in the time to advertise yourself properly, you can make sure the focus is on YOU. And you can target that advertising to people who can help you, or people who'd appreciate what you do, or to whatever audience your heart desires.
Working for free is not like...cheese bites in grocery shops.
Why not? (Are you serious, with that? Well, yes; somebody was, at one point, which is why I'm including it here.) Because the value of a cheese sample is, what, half a cent? A cheese bite is not an entire meal. It is not satisfying. You eat a cheese bite, and you want a whole sandwich. But to get at the sandwich, you need to buy cheese. And bread. And veg. And whatever else you like on your sarnie. Basically, a cheese bite is a teaser that costs next to nothing, and whets your appetite for a whole lot more than just cheese. If even one person likes their cheese bite, and buys sandwich stuff, the promotion's a success. If not, who cares? Nothing of particular value was lost. A free illustration, however, is worth quite a bit. At least a couple of hundred dollars, in most cases. And it IS an entire meal. It IS satisfying. The customer has what they want. Maybe they'll come back for more, later--in fifteen years of professional illustration, I've seen this happen exactly ONCE, and most of the "paid" work given out as a result of free work was never, in fact, paid for, as the company went under shortly thereafter--but probably, they won't. If you want to hand out free samples, they need to be equivalent to cheese bites, so, I don't know, send Christmas cards to your favourite clients, or something. Include free doodles when you sign autographs. But don't give out sandwiches.
Added 24/02 - Working for free is not like...lawyers (for example) doing pro bono work.
Why not? First, let me explain the term. It's short for "pro bono publico" -- for the public good. It doesn't really mean "free." Pro bono work CAN be free, or it can involve a reduced rate. The idea behind pro bono work is to allow people who can't normally afford professional services to benefit from them, nonetheless. There are also a variety of less altruistic reasons for performing pro bono work (good press, for example). Many law firms require employees to perform a certain number of pro bono hours per year. But when you provide free artwork to an entity that CAN afford to pay for it, and chooses not to--a corporation, for example--you are not working pro bono publico. You're working pro bono cheapo. (Providing free art to a charity, a school, a library, or any number of deserving beneficiaries, however, could certainly fall under the pro bono umbrella.)
Also, a note to all artists who believe they have to work for free, or for exposure, just to get a toe in the door: cracking into the illustration world is difficult, but not THAT difficult. I promise you, you don't need to do that. You really, really don't. You might have to brace yourself for a spot of rejection, but if you keep approaching companies which regularly commission art that's similar to yours--that is to say, companies which are buying what you're selling--sooner or later, you'll be hired. In the meantime, keep expanding that portfolio, and use social media to spread the word. And keep your self-esteem up. If other artists can become successful without coughing up free work, why not you? Are you worse than they are? Are you too lazy to promote yourself? Of course not. Be proud of what you do--and if you want to do it for free, at some point, make sure you're doing it for a good reason. Charity springs to mind, or, y'know, a present for your mum.