Working on Spec

April 21st, 2007 | Posted in Freelancing

I was thinking the other day about how much the internet has changed the dynamics of freelancing, in terms of how illustrators communicate, conduct and deliver jobs and market their work. For the most part it’s been an invaluable tool, but there is a dark side to it. The easy access and instant communication of the internet often leads to being contacted for jobs that aren’t really jobs.

I used to have the same problem when I drew at the theme parks. A few times each summer someone would approach me at the park and ask me to draw something for them that was obviously to be used for some commercial project. I’ve been asked to do everything from conceptual product design to company logos to T-Shirt designs, and they expected to pay the theme park caricature prices for this illustration work. Realtors were always the worst. They would sit down and ask to be drawn next to a house that said “Sold” on it. It was obvious they intended to use it in their advertising… for the price of a live drawing! I eventually got tired of explaining that using a caricature from a theme park for that purpose was copyright infringement, and they would need to pay me considerably more for the rights to do anything with the drawing but hang it on their wall. My solution was to draw them as they requested, but make the house look like a run down shack with holes in the roof, flies buzzing and garbage all over. Sometimes I’d draw an outhouse instead. They hated that, but couldn’t complain to the park as they knew they were trying to rip me off!

At least at the park they had to look you in the eye when they asked for something like that. Via the internet you can get an e-mail asking for your participation in someone’s latest million dollar idea without ever having to keep a straight face. This type of “job” usually consists of someone who has this “great idea” that just need some art to go along with it to pitch it to somebody who will make us all rich. Almost always the art is the driving force behind the concept… the idea took ten minutes to conceive but it will take countless hours to do the art to make it work, for which we get a portion of the profits. No money up front, of course, but sure riches just around the corner. In other words, working on spec.

The term “Working on Spec” (short for working on speculation) means to do something for free in hopes it will lead to future payment. It’s usually just “some artwork” to put together a pitch for the publication of a book, the development of a product or some other project to be sold to a distributor or manufacturer. Working on spec is almost never a good idea, especially with people who approach you cold without a track record of similar successful projects. Even then, most serious professionals will pay you to do the art they need, incurring some financial risk on their part to back up their big ideas. It’s amazing how many of those Big Idea people who are so ready to risk your time and talents on their sure-fire million dollar project shrink at investing a few hundred bucks in paying an illustrator a working wage to do the visual work.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been had once or twice on some of these kinds of “jobs”. Mostly when I was young and naive, though. One I really got burned on was by a production company who wanted me to design some animated characters for a series of shorts depicting members of Major League Baseball’s 500 Club (those with 500 or more career home runs). On spec I did designs of an Ernie Banks (who owns the rights to the “500 Club”) and Sammy Sosa for them, just style sheets in color. I never got a dime and as far as I know the animations were never produced. A few months after I did them, and hearing nothing from them since, they had the audacity to call and ask me to do the art for a birthday card for Ernie to be given to him at some shin-dig in Las Vegas or somewhere like that. Needless to say I didn’t oblige. I lost all that art when my computer crashed in October, or I’d share some of it.

Some spec jobs are legitimate and might be worth the time for the potential reward. I tried my hand recently at some greeting card ideas with a specific theme when submissions were called for by a greeting card company. They were rough sketches and jokes that were submitted like gag writers might submit basic joke ideas and fleshing out the ones that get chosen. That did not involve a ton of work and if some get picked up it might mean some royalties down the road. This is for an established greeting card company and that makes a big difference. That’s not really a spec job anyway as it’s not finished art but just a call for some roughs.

One spec job that was very disappointing was from a few years ago, when I was contacted by a writer named James Fitzgerald who had done several books in the 80’s that were political satire “Paper Doll” books featuring the Reagans and other politicians. Of course as paper dolls they were in their underwear and had cut out clothes and accessories that were gags, as well as different environments to be placed in. They were quite funny and sold very well. This writer wanted me to do the art for a new paper doll series based on the Bush twins. It was on spec, but he was a literary agent in New York with a lot of books to his credit and felt he’d have a publisher for this one without a problem. He asked me to work up a cover and one page for each twin, including his gags and some of mine. Here’s what we came up with:




He kept me updated but eventually he had to admit he’d struck out on publishers. So, that work went by the boards. I had really wanted to do a book and that one seemed like a lot of fun so I was more disappointed about that than not getting paid.

That was the last real spec job I did. Since then I ask those wanting spec work to pay me upfront and they can keep their profits. A few actually do, and so far I have not seen something I worked on become the next hot craze and cry over any lost millions.


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New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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