Part of being a commercial artist is running a business. While there are aspects of this that I’m horrible at and procrastinate on (accounting, marketing) and parts that I very much enjoy (comic book conventions, book fairs, meeting fans and showcasing my latest books, and art), I still have to do all of them. This series of my process blog will talk about different aspects of the business.
There are many aspects of illustration that I love. But with the good there is also the not so good. While I understand that many people don’t know exactly what goes into illustration, from concept to finished art, I find that most clients and people in general are open to learning about it. In describing the process to them, I’ve tried to come up with language that is relatable to what they do in their own life. By doing this, they can then understand why you charge the amount of money that you do for a commission or freelance job, as well as the amount of work it will involve, and the length of time it will take. However there will be some people that approach you and try to offer you work, but not in a way that is in your best interest. These people may just need to be educated a bit more in what you do. And once enlightened will hopefully readjust their approach and offer a much better proposal. If they are the very few that are true scammers, then being able to recognize them for what they are and having the language to counter them will hopefully prevent them from continuing their scam. But only if all artists can recognize it for what it is.
Recently, I was emailed by a guy who inquired about getting a t-shirt designed for a convention that he was part of. The first email was pretty sparse on information, but what I got out of it was that he had met me at a previous convention, liked my art and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing a shirt design and what my rates would be. Before I could go ahead with anything, I needed to know when he needed it by and what it was for exactly. I’ve got ongoing projects that might not allow for fitting in other projects, but knowing the type of project it is and when it needs to be finished, can help determine whether it’s something I can do or not. As a result, I’m always very careful in my responses, and make sure that I get all of the information I need before making any kind of commitments. On top of getting info about the time commitment and the type of work it is, you are also sussing them out to make sure they’d be fun to work with, that they have realistic expectation and that they are approaching you the right way. Work pays bills, but you don’t want to get yourself stuck in a situation where you have more headaches than the money is worth. In other words, you can turn down work. More will come along.
The second email I got from the man was about a week letter. In it he gave more information about the job. He lead with wanting a design to be submitted to a sub- committee, which he was part of, who would then vote for the best designs. Then another committee would make the final decision. I interpreted it to mean that this was a contest and not a commission. Basically he buried the lead in that first email. This made my spider-sense go crazy. Was he trying to be misleading or was he genuinely not explaining himself very well.
There was further information about the convention and that past winners would get a free t-shirt and a ticket into the convention, which was a $50 value. After reading through this, my mouth slightly a-gap, I did see that he still wanted to know what my rate was. So again, maybe he was wanting to pay me for my time, but I had to be careful on how to approach him next.
I read through the email a few more times, before deciding that I needed to not only let him know this was a confusing email, but that there was a certain way to approach artists about this sort of thing and what an artist for hire actually did. I felt that if I was misunderstanding what he was asking and that it was indeed a paying gig that it would be okay for me to tread on the side of caution by explaining what an illustrator did. I’m sure he would agree with my savvy business practice and forgive me for preaching to the choir.
Because I wanted him to know I wasn’t yelling at him, I let him know the tone of the letter was more educational and not angry. Too often, people don’t take into account their tone when typing an email. Making sure the reader knows what the tone is will hopefully clarify the sender’s intent.
First off, I let him know what my rates were for submitting concept work as well as a finished piece. Because this is commercial work, I have an automatic starting rate of $1000 regardless of how much time it will take me. Commercial work, where you are creating a product that is going to make money for someone means they are going to profit greatly from what you create for them. You need to be compensated accordingly. Of course this price may change depending on the situation; if you know the person, or if it’s for a project that you are passionate about or if it’s for an industry like comic book work, animation or an industry that has a different system. I just wanted to make sure that this person understood that what I did had value, that I wasn’t an amateur, and that I was an experienced businessperson.
In educating someone about what I do, I will try to relate it to something they do. Most people have some kind of steady job where they use a skill set they have acquired over hours and hours of practice. Even the most menial of tasks require some kind of skill. Most people would agree it’s a bit crazy for a stranger to ask someone at their place of work to use their skills and give away their product and to spend hours and hours of their time on a project they may or may not get picked for. I can’t imagine walking into a restaurant asking for a free meal, on the off chance I might promote their business. There is a certain protocol when approaching someone for potentially free work. Also there has to be a trade off for it as well as legitimacy with the person approaching you. Even with advertising agencies bidding for work, they will use past work to get in the door to show that they are legitimate and there will be proper channels and a certain structure to the whole affair.
And that’s the next part I wanted to drive home. I didn’t approach him. He approached me, and wasn’t very clear in doing so. I’d never heard of his convention and he should have assumed so. If he had lead with the second email first, then at least it would seem a bit more legitimate. The idea of giving your work away for a contest is very sketchy though. That part needn’t be mentioned if indeed it was a paid commission. What they had done in the past didn’t concern me, as long as they were treating me as a professional. So when you get that email from someone asking for work, make sure that it is straightforward and seems professional. In that first email, the introduction should clearly define what it is they are looking for. It should lead with it being a paying gig, and that the prospective client wants your work. Or if it doesn’t pay monetarily, that they are willing to trade service for service.
Let me go on to a little side bar here and talk about publicity, because that will often be someone’s answer to you not wanting to give away your work. Their response will often be,” but you’ll get free publicity.” Any time you get an email asking for your service for free or more generally, any time you see a contest asking for your work without trade, don’t do it. You can spend your time much more wisely on one of your own projects. When anyone says free publicity, you need to ask them what they mean by free. Are they giving you a page on their website, linking to your own site? Will they put your name on the product? Will they give you merchandise, a table, back end fees? Will they know what your product is worth, and give you something of equal monetary value through trade? Always be weary of free publicity.
Lastly I want to talk about the act of responding to emails where you decide to educate the prospective client. This takes time out of your busy day. It also uses your skill set and experience. While they didn’t solicit you for this information, you didn’t solicit them for the commission. It’s your choice, but you can treat this as a consultation. I’d charge about $50 an hour, whether over the phone or via email. Time is time, no matter how they receive it. In this case I decided I’d trade two tickets to their con for the consult. I think it’s fair, and would show good faith on their part that they were professional and not pulling my name out of a hat, nor asking skilled professionals for free work. I’m still waiting on a response!
Most people have good intentions, and just need to be educated on the language to use when approaching others for a service they want. Fellow professionals need to help those up-in-comers in teaching them the language of how their process works and what the value of it is, so they know how to communicate it properly to prospective clients. We need to be patient with others who may not know what they are doing is the incorrect way to approach us. It benefits everyone involved if clients are happy with the work and the skilled worker is happy to do it. After all we’re in this together .