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.
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