“I’m writing this totally cool book; I’d like you to illustrate it. Do you have to be paid, or will the exposure be enough?”
We were recently asked this question at a comic convention. Like many of you, I’ve heard this several times in my career and it still shocks me every time I hear it.
“Wait, you are wanting me to work …. for free? In the hopes that this mystery project of yours will be a New York Times #1 bestseller and I will somehow get famous for it?”
I find that it happens more often at comic shows. Perhaps this is because so many struggling artists attend and get artist alley tables in the desperate (and understandable) hope of being noticed by a publisher. And here unscrupulous people prey upon them.
Before I begin, let me clarify: This is not about all free work. There are certain times when it is right and good to do free work.
Briefly, a few examples of free work that are exceptions here:
A Charity or Cause
Perhaps it is for something you truly believe in and want to support. (Like being asked to contribute art to the Society of Illustrators Microvisions show, the proceeds of which are dedicated to student art scholarships.)
For A Loved One
Perhaps it is for a close personal friend who you truly believe their book needs to be illustrated. Perhaps it is your mom, and you love your mom. (Note: These are almost always bad ideas to accept, but they are exceptions and people are absolutely allowed to do crazy things for their loved ones.)
For Your Artist Representative
An Art Rep is someone who you have agreed by contract to provide art for so that they can market you. In this case, you already agreed to provide art for exposure. But an art director isn’t trying to get you to illustrate his project. He is trying to put together your portfolio. He only makes money when you make money from actual clients. So this is very different, and until you get work, you should be doing everything in your power to improve your portfolio.
And this is also not about work where there is some form of profit-sharing being suggested. That is a different article entirely.
This is about providing free work, given in exchange for the dubious promise of “exposure.”
Here is a flow chart I have created so that you can decide wether or not a project of this nature is right for you:
Providing skilled artwork in exchange for exposure is an exchange of services. You provide art, and they provide marketing for you and your brand.
It is not that this is an inherently bad exchange, it is that 99.9% of the people who promise this ‘exposure’ cannot deliver on their end of the bargain.
Here is why you NEVER take these projects:
1. Someone who offers exposure for art does not understand the industry. If they did, they would know that they HAVE to pay you. Someone who offers this will have NO idea how to get the project produced. And therefore won’t be able to deliver on their promise of exposure.
2. Someone who offers exposure for art lacks the capitol necessary to produce and market the product towards a successful end.
3. Someone who offers this lacks respect for you and for creative professionals in general.
They will be miserable and extremely demanding to work with.
4. It is insulting to you and to creative professionals everywhere.
By taking the work, you are supporting an evil and manipulative market and furthering a corrupt mindset that devalues the art of illustration and dehumanizes those who practice it.
If you are still tempted, ask yourself:
Could you use the time you would spend on this project to do your own, much cooler project?
Could you use the time you would spend on this project to further you art education through classes? Could you use the time you would spend on this project to improve your portfolio so you have a better chance of getting ACTUAL, paying commissions?
Do you have even a shred of self-respect?
If you said yes to any of these, then don’t take the project.
Keep this in mind:
If their project is so great and is going to be so successful, then they can go sell an investor on it, and he can put up the money to pay you a fair rate for your work. Let the sharks handle that. You make sure you get paid.
What to do when someone asks you to do work for free:
Kindly, politely, educate the person that this is not how the world works.
Perhaps they didn’t mean to say something so horribly offensive to you.
Perhaps they didn’t mean to suggest that you give up 3 months of your life for no pay because they think of you as something inferior to themselves.
Perhaps they just don’t understand art.
Or perhaps they didn’t whole-heartedly agree with the abolition of slavery.
So take a moment and explain to them that illustration is a professional skill, acquired through years of difficult training and practice. The execution of it takes time and great effort. Illustrators are just like other professionals, and they expect to be paid for their work, and to work under similar working conditions of any other human being in our society. Perhaps when they understand that you are a working human being just like them, they will change and become someone who can support the arts in a more honest and helpful way.
NEVER take unpaid work for the promise of exposure.