No Respect with Spec

March 4th, 2016 | Posted in General


Those who create art for a living, be it writing stories, drawing pictures, creating comics, making films, etc., are constantly fighting the bizarre conception among the rest of the world that what we do is effortless and not really work. The creative layperson seems to think that what we do is so much fun, getting paid for it is just an added bonus. Since what we create isn’t made from bricks or wood or plastic or any other tangible material other than our heads (and maybe a little paper, ink and paint), it isn’t really worth anything.

Case in point: I’m working at a caricature booth at a theme park. It’s a kind of slow day and I’m not drawing anybody at the moment. Someone comes up and asks if they can get drawn “for free” or “for $5″… since I’m just sitting there doing nothing. Their perception of the situation is that I must love to draw and, as I am doing nothing, I would rather draw them for free than to sit there and continue to do nothing. My typical response is to point to the corn dog stand next door, which is also without any customers, and tell this person to go over and ask for a couple of free corn dogs–since the corn dogs folks aren’t doing anything and no doubt would rather hand them free food than continue to do nothing–and see what they say. This usually elicits a blank stare and a response along the lines of “but corn dogs cost money to make.”

You see, the perception is that creating something is easy and without cost… i.e. it has no value.

Which brings me to spec work.

The internet is rife with creators screaming about how they are constantly being asked to work on spec (meaning to work for nothing with the promise of something down the line when “the book sells”, etc). Don’t worry, I’m not going to bitch about it here. Instead, I’m going to briefly examine why is it that so many people consider the act of creating something from nothing has little commercial value. Personally, I think there are two reasons for this:

The creative layperson doesn’t equate creating with work- The idea that drawing, writing, painting, etc. is actually work is something those that don’t do it professionally have a hard time grasping. They see talent as something just handed to you by the gods, not something that has to be worked hard at for a long time to develop. These folks probably have jobs doing things like delivering the mail, cleaning people’s teeth, stocking store shelves, selling insurance, etc. In other words, working with commercial products or services that have tangible costs of goods sold or other clear commercial value. Many of them probably think if they could draw they’d do it for nothing but the praise and admiration of others. I’m sure many people would love to be able to sing so well they could pack an arena, and would do it simply to hear the applause. They just don’t have any concept of how much time and effort is put into creating things. They are the people who shake their heads when they hear some baseball player just signed a contract for $125 million to play a kid’s game that they’d probably play for free if no one would pay them. It’s hard to explain to someone that makes their living hauling 80lb stacks of shingles up onto roofs all day long that sitting in a chair and drawing funny pictures is “work”. This will probably never change.

We have met the enemy, and he is us- Cartoonist Walt Kelly was promoting environmental awareness with that “Pogo” line, but it also fits for this discussion. In many ways creators have themselves to blame for the perception that what we do is valueless because too many of us agree to do work on spec.

The usual culprits are young artists who don’t have much of a body of work and get suckered in by the promise of “exposure” and their credit on something tangible. They don’t understand how doing that perpetuates the perception that creating is valueless. The young artist that takes on spec work today is the older one who complains about their work not being valued properly years later. This will probably never change either. There are always going to be starving artists willing to do work for little or nothing when trying to jump start their careers. The trouble is with every one of those spec jobs we are training someone to undervalue what we do.

Here’s the thing about spec work… it isn’t really that big of a problem. Yes people ask creators to do it, but the majority of the people doing the asking are not really legitimate clients anyway. They are wannbe self publishers or small time entrepreneurs whose “projects” have little or no chance of actually going anywhere and were reliant on getting that spec work done to even move forward. In other words those were never real jobs even if those looking for creative work to be done were educated about the value of creative work. The ones that are really scary are when legitimate publishers/media start asking for spec, like when the New York Times tried to run a weekly editorial cartoon by soliciting submissions and picking one each week to run (i.e. asking top pros to do cartoons on spec), or when companies stage “contests” to create a new logo or some sort of advertising image. That is frightening, and it does happen.

I’ll close with a heartwarming story about how educating someone about the value of what creators do actually makes the world a better place for creators.

A few years ago I got a call from an author who had a concept for a book that needed an illustrator. This guy had been published before but those books were self-help diet books and that sort of thing… this was a kids book that was heavily reliant on illustration (re: very few words, lots of pictures). He assured me he had financial backing and wanted to make a pitch at a book fair in a few months, and he needed a few pages illustrated for the pitch (nevermind that this is not how it works in the mainstream publishing world… but I digress). I talked with him several times after going through a manuscript he had sent, discussing which pages would be best to do, etc. The problem was I wanted some money up front and he never seemed to be able to get me a check. After I racked up a couple of hours of discussion I shut the whole thing down, explaining that even though I had yet to put pencil to paper I had already put in too much of my time without seeing any payments. He was not very understanding.

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago, and I got a check in the mail from this guy out of the blue. I emailed him to see what that was about, and he told me while everything had fallen through on the book, he had gotten some financing anyway and wanted to compensate me for my time back then. I thanked him for understanding that time is money in the studio, but that if I’d felt I needed to charge him I’d have sent him an invoice. I tore up the check. It was worth it to me that at least one author out there would (hopefully) treat any illustrator he approaches in the future like he or she should be treated… as a professional whose work is worth something.


  1. JJ says:

    Bravo. Very well said.

  2. Bob McLeod says:

    Well said, Tom, but whistling in the wind. I don’t think people will ever get this.
    Another variation I get all the time at comic conventions is people who think I should be happy to draw free sketches for kids, as if that’s somehow less work than drawing for an adult. I really don’t understand their thinking on this.

    BTW, the New Yorker magazine, one of the last magazines in the country still buying cartoons, requires cartoonists to draw several cartoons each week for the slim hope of having the “honor” of them buying just one. The vast majority, of course, are rejected, and yet the line of hopefuls is out the door.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      Yes, nothing new here. As I said, none of this will ever change.

      Re: free sketches for kids at cons. I have no problems with those who refuse to do this, and I would have a problem with anyone who would EXPECT someone to do it, but I do free sketches for kids roughly 12 and under at cons. I have an “Alfred E Neuman” I can draw in about 20 seconds, complete with a big “HI DAN!” or whatever-the-name-is word balloon and my signature. I only do it in sketchbooks. It’s a small thing and makes a kid happy, and reinforces their love of comics and those that create them. I do not think that kid is going to grow up and expect professional artists to work on spec because they got a few free scribbles at a comic con.

      Re: The New Yorker process. This is a different animal. This is how the gag cartoon business model works. Cartoonists create gag cartoons and shop them around to places like The New Yorker. They get accepted sometimes and rejected most times, but this is not spec work. This is a cartoonist creating their own work and then trying to sell it. They retain the rights, and can (and often do) sell it to multiple publishers/clients. They build a library of cartoons and often sell the same one over and over. Spec work is asking someone to create something specific for them but only agreeing to pay for it if it meets some kind of criteria (like they decide to use it, the book or media it’s done for sells, etc).

      • Bob McLeod says:

        Yes, I also do draw free sketches for kids. But sometimes the dad is with them, it’s it’s very obvious that he’s the one who wants the sketch (or maybe wants the kid to want the sketch), because the kid is looking all around and obviously couldn’t care less. Honestly, I just don’t believe young kids care about or appreciate the value of original art. They’d probably be much happier with a color print they could hang on their wall. So I do the free sketch just so I don’t look like a jerk, but I’m just not sold on the idea that kids that age appreciate original art or artists. They just like the characters. There are exceptions, of course.

        I also get many teens asking for free sketches, and it’s usually cute girls, who I suspect are getting them for their boyfriends (call me cynical), because I get very few teen girls willing to pay for a sketch.

        As for gag cartoonists, there used to be many alternative markets for their rejected cartoons, but not so many anymore. Obviously, initial sample cartoons are the same as any artist creating a portfolio of samples to get work. It’s the regular weekly cycle of new samples and rejection of even artists they’ve published before that bothers me. Commercial artists are paid for multiple revisions until the client is happy. Gag cartoons are a peculiar business.

        • Tom Richmond says:

          I agree that there are many situations where a asking for a free sketch is obviously a racket. That’s why I only do that simple Alfred drawing. No “Alfred as Deadpool”, etc. Sometimes they walk away when I say I’ll draw a quick Alfred but nothing else.

          And you are quite right, gag cartooning is a peculiar business.

          Thanks for the thoughtful comments and discussion!

  3. dabston says:

    Great article! I think it’s just as bad in the writing world – Huffington Post, for example, openly brags how they don’t pay for “content.” They use that whole “real writer should just be happy to write” BS, too.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      Oh yes, all creative fields get this treatment. Graphic designers, writers, performers… HuffPo is an example of the worst of that kind of garbage, and they use the weird need millennials have to become “internet famous” even if that pseudo fame translates into no more than tens of dollars at best.

  4. dabston says:

    Regarding “free” sketches for kids – I’ve been hand drawing business cards on those blank 3×4 cards that are so popular these days. Maybe keeping a few of those around for that purpose (drawing on one side, contact info on other) might be apropos? Of course, I don’t have lines of people asking me for free drawings! 🙂


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