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The dreaded Spec Monster: creature for 12-23-10

creature for december 23, 2010The dreaded spec monster. He dangles carrots in from of artists and illustrators promising future rewards. Do this job for the exposure or for recognition he promises. In some cases he’ll offer to share future profits when the book or project takes off if you’ll only do the art up front for free. Sometimes, the promise comes in form of a good cause, where, while you won’t be paid, you will get  an awesome portfolio piece out of it.

If you want my (experienced) opinion — run — as fast and as far as you can away from such “jobs.” 99.9% of them will bring you nothing but heart-ache and aggravation.

Since I am a children’s book illustrator, and fairly easy to find in a google search, I often get the promise of future payments to illustrate some author’s book.

I’m sorry, this is my profession. It is how I earn my living and how I pay my never-ending bills. I’m saving for my kid’s college education, paying off a mortgage and planning for retirement in some far off year. None of those people are willing to accept an IOU from me based on the possible future payments of an unknown author’s book. It’s not that I downright refuse to work with a self-publishing author, I just need to be paid for my time, materials and effort. In advance. A picture book takes me 6 months to complete. That is 6 months when I can’t be working on another job. I need pads, papers, pencils, paints and paintbrushes. I use some rather high end computer equipment and software as well. Once I finish the paintings, I prepare them into electronic files suitable for reproduction as printed pieces. I have spent 30 odd years learning the ins and outs of what works and what won’t. If an author approaches me to illustrate their story, I will provide a contract with a schedule and fee required for my services. Same as any other professional. You wouldn’t ask your plumber or lawyer to work for promise of future payment.

A new artist might say, but it’ll be a good learning experience for me, and I can use it in my portfolio. Plus, you never know, it might sell.

• Using the project as a learning experience:
This will not really work because if an artist is to illustrate a book with a traditional publisher, they will work with an editor or an art director who has spent a good deal of time learning about what does and doesn’t sell in children’s literature. They will have the backing of a marketing department, a sales department, proof reading and fact checking personnel and profession printing processes. All of these things will have an impact on the interaction between the artists and the publishing company. In the case of a self-publishing author, there is little if any understanding of how the children’s literature market works. If the author is unable or unwilling to spend money on the artwork, this casts doubt onto whether they will be willing or able to spend the $$ needed to edit the book, let alone have access to the sum needed to print the book in sufficient quantities and quality to be able to compete with established and experienced publishers.

But getting back to the experience a new artist will gain. Chances are the author will have less of a clue about what makes a good picture book illustration than the artist does. In a great many cases, the author will have a pre-envisioned idea of what they want the illustrations to look like and what to include. This can severely hamper a truly creative visual which will bring added depth to the story. When a traditional publisher contracts with an artist, they expect the artist to be able to tell a story along side the text, to make the sum of the part equal to more than the whole. They will expect the artists to understand things like bleed and spread and gutter. They will expect things to be on time and a whole host of other things which an inexperienced author won’t even know are required.

It will be as if the artist is learning to ride a bike from an instructor who saw someone else ride a bike, but never rode a bike themselves.

• Use it as a portfolio piece:
Even a professionally produced series of picture book illustrations may not be suitable as portfolio pieces. The very things that make a book illustration work such as place for text and room for gutter will make the piece itself look odd if placed in a single image portfolio. If you want to show perspective publishers your picture book illustration skills, it may be better to set yourself some assignments such as visual story telling in a vertical format or character development in a series of sketches of one character in different poses and expressions. With a self-imposed project, you will also have more control of the final image, without having to accommodate wishes and visions of an author who may not encourage creative strengths and possibilities.

• You never know – it might sell:
The sad fact of the matter is that self-published (and vanity press) books rarely sell more than a few dozen copies. Let me say it again, due to lack of funding and industry knowledge, a self-published book rarely sells more than a few copies. A lot of this has to do with lack of distribution. Most of the national distributors won’t work with authors or small publishers. Such people just don’t have the sales records to back them and their book up. No sales record (especially in recent economies) is a red flag to distribution outlets who only take on new books because they think they will sell well. And earn the company a profit. It’s all about the bottom line.

In order for books to sell well they have to be marketed. This takes LOTS of money and time. An author unwilling/unable to pay for an illustrator will also probably be unable to pay the heaps of money needed to get the word out about their book. Because of a limited source of funds, they may choose to use a POD vanity press. The resulting books will be printed on sub par paper and be priced at a sales point way too high for wholesale markets. After all, the end market, be it an independent book store or the nearest Borders, is in the business of selling books to make money. A picture book priced at 2 to 3 times above average will most likely sit on the shelf if it even makes it into the store.

But what about amazon, you ask? Just because a book is listed on amazon does not mean a potential purchaser will be able to find it, even if they know about it already. Those ranking numbers on every book page also determine how close to the top of the list on a search a book will show up. The most popular (the ones selling the most) show up on the top of the searches. And amazon is making it increasingly difficult for single title authors to list their books without using amazon’s publishing services. Which brings back the cost factor.

All this makes it unlikely the author will make back their initial investment at all, let alone have anything left over to ‘share’ with an illustrator. And if they do, the book world is slow. Distribution outlets pay 120 days or more after a sale of the book is completed. A completed sale is several months after the book is actually in the book store, because in the book world, a book may be returned for any reason to the publisher as long as it is still in print. Of course the author can opt not to accept returns, but that will further limit the places which will take a chance on the book in the first place. So, yes, you may see some money. Maybe. Several years after you do the art and after the book has been printed and after the distributors have taken it on and the book stores have decided to stock it and somewhere along the line a customer decided to spend a lot more on a book then any number of similar books at far less cost. Even if the book is successful, it will be a long time before you see anything. And a successful picture book isn’t even a guarantee with a traditional publisher backing it up!

Sometimes, an artist will be approached to illustrate a book for a good cause. Only consider this if you feel strongly about the cause. The promised recognition and exposure? It will only be among the group the people of the cause’s organizers have immediate contact with.

I am not against pro-bono work. But you should only do a free project if you are 100% behind the cause yourself, if it is something you want to do for the love of the group and if you are not in any way expecting a return on your involvement in terms of money or possible future work.

There are many places on the internet speaking out against working for free (it’s called speculative work) . This also includes doing ‘sample’ sketches so an author can see if they like your work. That’s why you have an online portfolio showing off the work you are capable of producing.

Respect your value. Respect the value of your fellow artists. Don’t work for free.

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