Friday, February 20, 2009

Exposure doesn't pay the bills.

I've been spending a lot of time on freelance websites lately, in particular, and I am baffled by the number of potential clients who want artwork but don't want to pay for it. I've seen several project postings asking for full-color, detailed illustrations and budgeting $250 for artwork for which any decent artist would charge at least $1000.

Here's a typical example of this sort of posting:

Hi, I’m creating a series of kids books for ages 3-7 and need a very talented artist...each book will have roughly 16 illustrations per book, and I’m talking about full spread large illustrations... [etc. blah blah] As you can see... I would certainly keep you busy full time job, so please give me your best pricing you can do. The pricing is extremely important for me as this is a high volume venture and I can’t afford a lot per illustration but on the other hand I need excellent quality. I need 50 books illustrators over next 2 months alone and then 1-2 per week which will eventually grow to 3 books per week. I look forward hearing from you.
In your response, let me know if it’s just you or if you have a team of artist and if so how many. Also how long will it take to do per illustration on the level I’ve given above and are there any styles you can’t do?

Estimated Budget: Not sure/Determined by bids

"I can't afford a lot per illustration but on the other hand I need excellent quality" seems to be the mantra among most of these clients. I realize the economy is in the toilet, but that doesn't change the fact that professionals ought to be paid appropriately for their services.

Another common phrase I encounter is "this will be great exposure for you". As far as I know, exposure doesn't keep the lights on. One of the first freelance jobs I got was designing a website for a local startup company: a secure off-site data storage facility. They bought an old underground Cold War-era government command bunker and converted it into huge rack space. Their concepts are security, isolation, and protection. The owner asked me if I'd be interested in creating some paintings for their facility; corporate art stuff. He told me that he couldn't pay me but it would be great exposure for me.

Great exposure?! You're an underground, impregnable fortress designed to keep people out! What the fuck is it going to be exposed to?! Fortunately I handled it more delicately than that. Footnote: for a complete 5-page html site, with layout and links, I got paid $150. This was long before I knew what I was doing.

Imagine this pitch: "I'm an entrepeneur with a small start-up company. We need a lawyer to help us draft an agreement with investors, one that would be specifically tailored to our needs. Unfortunately we can only afford to pay what amounts to $20/hour for attorney's fees, but we have a great product and it's going to be really popular and we're going to blow up and be the next and we promise to tell everyone we meet who our attorney is and you're going to get a ton of work from this." Any self-respecting attorney would laugh them out of the room. Why should artists be any different? We have a skill, and we've worked hard to develop it.

That's not to say I've never worked for free. Three years ago I submitted artwork for a contest held by Random House to have an illustration published in the paperback edition of the New York Times bestseller World War Z. The contest terms also stated $800 prize money. I won the contest, and was published, but they somehow forgot to send the $800. I contacted the publisher about this, and never got a response. At the time I didn't care much; I was just happy to be published in such a popular book. I figured the jobs would start rolling in, and they would more than make up for getting fucked out of $800.

Well, that didn't really happen. I did have a few people give me props on deviantart, but otherwise I haven't gotten any work as a direct result of that "exposure".

So from now on, when somebody offers to pay me with exposure, I literally start laughing. Especially now that I've become familiar with the notion of speculative, or "spec" work, which is the completion of a body of work with no guarantee of payment for said work, or even that the work itself will be used. Before I entered the World War Z contest I had never heard of spec work. Now that I've done some more reading on the subject, I'm almost ashamed of myself for entering the contest in the first place.

At any rate, spec work itself deserves another post, and perhaps I'll write more about it later (especially how it relates to my day job more each day). For now I'll just say that if you want art, bite the freaking bullet and pay for it.

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