Business Talk: Just Because I Love What I Do, Doesn’t Mean I Will Do It For Free

So as you know, I’ve been on a hardcore marketing and self-promotion grind as of late. I’ve been putting myself everywhere, trying to formulate a presence in the illustration world, and of course, land some clients. The results of my determination have brought me a bit of notoriety, which is fantastic. But unfortunately, a few negatives come with that notoriety. And the BIGGEST negative is the increase in requests for spec work.


Let me start with a short story. A few years ago, I agreed to collaborate with an aspiring writer who claimed he was shopping a children’s book around to different publishers. He had come across my site via Myspace (so you KNOW this was a while back), said he loved my work and was interested in working with me. Me, being the super-eager person that I am, agreed immediately, seeing big things with the projects. My illustrations in a children’s book? Fantastic! He emailed me some snippets of the story, and asked me to come up with some sample illustrations. “So I could see what type of concepts you could come up with and what your style is like,” he said. And I agreed to do just that. I settled down at my desk and got to work immediately. Within a week’s time I had created six colorful, hand-drawn and hand colored illustrations. I was so proud of my work and was convinced that the writer and I would land some great publishers. I emailed my work to him, and he was really impressed. He said he would finalize the story and get back to me with more parts to the story and to discuss compensation. I agreed, sat back and waited. A week goes by with no word. I emailed the writer and received no answer back. I shrugged and figured he was busy writing more. Another week goes by, and still no word. I send another email, and no response. Finally I picked up the phone and called him at the same number I had been corresponding with him for the past two months…and it was disconnected. I never heard from him again.


That experience was painful, but it was definitely a good lesson. Fast forward to now, I get approached by a company about a print project for a magazine article. I make a bid on it, and point the company to my website to see my work. I get a response back saying that they really like my work and are interested in taking my bid. But first, however, they wanted me to do a detailed mockup of their project, just to get a feel for my style and how I would approach it. I’ll admit it, for a fleeting second, I considered it. Because freelancing is now a full time job for me, I’m eager to gather as much work as possible. But then I instantly caught memory of that incident just a few years ago, took a step back, and reiterated that I didn’t do spec work and my style was evident in my portfolio. I would be more than happy to provide a few rough(and copyrighted) sketches, but that’s as far as I would go. And if that was the case, I would be increasing my bid to accommodate the extra work. Needless to say, I haven’t heard from this company since.


The prospect of speculative work, or “spec work” as it’s called, is a sensitive subject in the freelance world. Simply defined, it is any job for which the client expects to see examples or a finished product before agreeing to pay a fee. It is something is that is frowned upon in the industry. As a matter of fact, the American Institute of Graphic Artists and the Graphic Artists Guild consider it unethical and should be avoided at all costs. This is completely understandable among well-established artists who are at the point to where they can pick and choose their work without consequence. But what about the so-called “starving artists” out there? The ones who are getting their feet wet in the industry, and trying to stake their claim in the world of freelance illustration?

Here’s my take on it: I see being asked to do spec work as a way of downplaying both my work ethic and my abilities. My talent should be evident in my portfolio. That’s the whole point of a portfolio after all…to showcase what you are capable of. I also see it as an incredible waste of my time and my money. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to unclog your drain just to see if he could do it, or an electrician to rewire something to see if he was able to. They are providing a service, and they should be compensated for it, and that’s what I expect for the service that I provide. That’s what all artists should expect. On top of that, I feel that as a new working artist, you are building the wrong type of reputation. The art community is a small one. If you start building a rep as “that illustrator that does free work,” clients catch wind of that, and start hitting you up all the time for it. So whenever the subject comes up, I either politely remind them that I do not do spec work, or that if a mock-up is an absolute necessity, it will be coming at a much higher, copyrighted, and non-refundable cost. Usually that’s enough for them to retract their “offer.” There are cases where artists do pro-bono work or donate work to charities and non profits. I personally gift custom art, because I’m all about the handmade. I think that is an admirable thing, but something that should be at the artist’s discretion, not at the client’s insistence. To be asked to provide a service for nothing in return…well, it’s insulting, plain and simple.

Why does this happen so often? I think there are several reasons. The biggest one is that there is the unshakable stigma that freelancing is not “real work.” Just because freelancers often work from home, make their own schedules, and are doing something that they enjoy doing(you have to, because you definitely don’t freelance for the money), doing it is something that comes easy. Sadly, I see so many freelancers…all artists on all levels really…deal with this more often than not. I know I deal with it constantly, and it gets exhausting to have to always explain “what I do.” But like any other job, we work incredibly hard. In fact, I think we work twice as hard because we are handling all of what a different department would handle at a “regular 9 to 5″ type of job. You know all of those things that your boss handles? The Payroll Department? Human Resources? Administrative Services? Customer Service? Freelancers do all of that on their own. So the fact a lot of people don’t think that we’re really working…well, it’s almost laughable. Another reason is that a lot of potential clients just don’t know any better. It kind of goes back to the whole “it should come easy to you” deal. But again, this is our business, and a service we are providing. For every hour that is spent on an unpaid spec, it is an hour taken away from a project that we are actually being paid for. There are also those out there with more devious motives. Those that would snatch your concept and your style and run as fast as they could in the opposite direction with it, money in hand. And without a contract or a prepaid fee, there would be nothing you could do about it.

So, from one aspiring artist to all the others that are out there reading this: patience truly is a virtue in this business. Sometimes it feels like all of the effort to make your presence known isn’t going anywhere, but it is and it will. We are ready and willing to jump at any possible opportunity, but sometimes we have to take a step back and really think about whether it is a good opportunity. Someone taking advantage of your “newness” to the industry is a horrible feeling, and one of many things that can break your confidence. More than anything, follow your gut. If someone is asking you to do something for nothing, then it’s not for you. There will be many more chances where that came from, and it will be one that will give you what you deserve. Patience, persistence, and determination mean everything in this business.



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