The Next Big Thing!… Not

May 5th, 2008 | Posted in Freelancing

“I’ve got the great idea for a <product-book-comic-property> and I need an illustrator like you to get onboard and share the wealth! This is guaranteed to be the Next Big Thing! You’re artwork is perfect and together this will be HUGE!!!”

Sound familiar? I’ll bet not a few of you are nodding your heads right about now. How about this?:

“I can’t pay anything right now, but I’ll give you a share in the profits!!!”

Uh huh.

Get rich quick schemes are a side product of the American Dream. Sometimes it seems like everyone wants to believe they have the next million dollar idea and just need to get it in motion to become a wealthy entrepreneur. I get dozens of variations of the previous diatribe from people who find me through the internet or via MAD or some other publication I have a piece in and approach me with these “million dollar” concepts.

The entrepreneur in question has always got a lot of energy and enthusiasm. They are truly convinced they have a highly marketable concept and will be able to put it in every retail store in the country if they can put it together and present it to whoever. Usually these are product ideas of some kind… T-shirts, novelties, etc. Some times they are books or other publications. They are always full of ideas and have plenty of confidence… what they almost always lack is money and experience.

No money is no problem, at least for them. Ideas are cheap and all they need is some artwork to “complete” their vision. They “can’t pay up front”, but will give me a “percentage of the profits” when the idea makes it big. That’s like coming up with an idea for an apartment building, then asking the architect and contractors to design and build it for free with a promise of a percentage of the money they will collect once it’s all rented out.

Worse, 99% of these concepts I get approached with are mostly “art driven”, meaning the art IS the product. It probably took a few hours to brainstorm a dozen gag t-shirt ideas about golfing, but it’s the artwork and illustration that is going to make it into a sellable product. In other words, it’s the artist that is really creating the product and without them they have nothing. Their concepts are dependent on the humor of the illustrations or caricatures, and often they need the input and ideas of the illustrator to make their initial concepts effective at all. My favorites are the amateur children’s book authors who come to me with a book concept and outline that consists of a title, twenty separate empty two page spreads with one line of text on each and a description of some elaborate and lavishly painted scene illustrating each spread… oh, and don’t forget the cover! Author’s total time invested: 6 hours. Mine: 2-3 weeks of solid work. Payment: a share of profits when we “hit it big”.

What do the idea people bring to the table… except the idea of course? Usually very little. They often have never produced, written or manufactured anything at all, and just figure that little detail will take case of itself once their brilliant concept gets seen and instantly fallen in love with by the powers that be. They may have some small background in marketing or management, but a solid track record of any kind is very rare. If the person making this approach has any kind of real idea what they are doing, they wouldn’t make the approach without the understanding that a substantial financial investment is going to be needed to make any concept a reality. Sometimes these are legitimate jobs, but usually any mention of actual fair payment brings it to a grinding halt.

That’s usually the litmus test with this kind of thing. Payment of any kind, even an ‘advance’ against future profit sharing, is not something the entrepreneur is willing to consider. They honestly believe they are being generous in sharing the rewards so freely… and all they are asking you to do is share the “risks”. For them, the risks are their spare time while they continue doing their day job, but for me it’s spending often considerable amounts of time doing work that may or may not ever pay me a dime.

Needless to say my advice in these instances is simply to require fair upfront payment for any work done. I often counter these offers by offering to do the artwork at a fair price and also offer to sell them the full copyrights to the work for only 10% more, rather than the 100% more I would ordinarily charge. Usually that will facilitate a quick end to the conversation… and that’s good. For every one idea in every million ends up being the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the rest go nowhere. That means you can expect to strike it rich after getting the shaft 999,999 times. Idea guy continues his day job with only a little of his spare time wasted, while the artist has wasted hours of work time and effort.

I can only remember one job where the idea people put their money where their mouth was. It was about 12 years ago and for a group of four lawyers or accountants or something who were avid golfers. They had this concept for a line of funny t-shirts called “Y.A.H.I.”, which stood for “You’re A Hack If…” and made fun of bad golfers. Some of their gags were along the lines of “You’re A Hack If… you take a mulligan on the 19th hole” (image: guy spills his beer in the clubhouse bar, often called the 19th Hole) or “You’re A Hack If… your brand of ball is ‘Driver'” (image: guy stealing balls off the driving range, which are all marked “driver’). They wanted me to design the Y.A.H.I. character and 6 different t-shirt scenes. I actually managed to find the original logo I created for it (the shirt designs themselves are long gone):

Totally art driven concept. I was to be compensated by being the 5th partner in the venture with a 20% share of profits. I asked instead for a paltry $300 per illustration and $200 for the character design for full copyrights, and to waive all profit sharing. They kind of balked at that, but I said “Hey, this is going to be really big, right? So you are getting a great deal by only paying me about $2,000 for artwork that you own out right and can sell forever, with no further payments to me.” That caught them between a rock and a hard place, as they could not admit that was not a good deal without admitting they had no confidence in the success of their product. To my surprise they paid me for the work and did produce the shirts… which they sold for a while via a website and to my knowledge never saw the inside of a golf shop or retail store of any kind. That is a rare story in that they actually did pony up some loot and take some financial risk on their end. I respected them for that, and wished they’d had more success with the endeavor.

The moral of this tale is that you should always require a fair payment upfront as opposed to a back end share of profits… at the very least there should be an advance against future profit sharing or royalties. Anyone with a legitimate idea and the ability to see it through is likely to have some experience and to understand how professionals work, and expect to follow that through.


  1. cedricstudio says:

    Excellent article Tom! I couldn’t agree more. You are exactly right in calling their bluff. If they are really so sure their idea will pay off they should at least have enough confidence in it to pay the artist. Unless they’re expecting the t-shirts (or bobbleheads or whatever) to be manufactured for free too!

    I regularly get asked to work on children’s books from Dr. Seuss wanna-be’s who have no experience writing for children, no publisher/distributor, and no business plan. They just assume writing for kids is easy and profitable, neither of which are true.

    I used to take such offers semi-seriously by discussing possibilities, reading and writing lengthy emails, and drawing up contracts. Gradually I learned that I was almost always wasting my time. Now I just quote my hourly rate up-front and 90% of the time I never hear from them again.

    Sorry if I sound a little bitter. Guess this post touched a nerve.

  2. SteveH says:

    I have lost count of the approaches I have had on exactly this type of enquiry for my art. What is even worse is that just this week a commercial website wants me to do 5 caricatures for their ‘How we are’ page and when I mentioned the copyright conditions they said I was pulling ‘a fast one’, as if i was trying to scam them out of more money! Customers are cute but sometimes scary!

  3. Tom says:

    Actually I do not recommend trying to call their bluff as I did in the YAHI case. That would just be wasting your time and trying to “squeeze blood from a turnip”. This was just one instance that it happened to work out, if you call getting $300 each for a 12 x 12 inch full color illustration “turning out”.

    Cedric has it right… best to just quote your full fees upfront and have done with it.

  4. Mark Hill says:

    This hit home with me, too. Like you Steve and Cedric, I have developed a similar approach to these folks…who are simply trying to get rich from someone else’s efforts.

    Occasionally someone will pay a fair fee up front — and if so, fine. But usually they walk away or argue that I’m missing out on a huge opportunity. To those persistent people, I say something like this: If you were creating a new invention, (say a plumbing item), would you go to a hardware store and tell them they can have a % of profits if they GIVE you the materials needed? No. –That usually shuts them up.

  5. cedricstudio says:

    In all fairness, I think part of the problem has to do with a common misconception people have about art. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve been asked to “just whip up a quick sketch”, as if I just wave my hand across the paper and out comes a masterpiece. I don’t know where people get that idea, but it seems to be a common misconception. People honestly have no clue as to the process involved in making a piece of art. Part of my job is to politely and patiently educate clients about the creative process and how much time and effort it requires.

  6. yondaime_kazekage says:

    opportunist. this happened to me before. and this will keep on going happening to someone else. it’ll hurts more when u think of it. but it’s a lesson learn in time


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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