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Our Take on Spec Work

Sonal Panse,

It seemed like an email that would brighten up my day. An editor from a children's book publishing company had seen my work on my website, had liked it, and was now asking if I would be interested in doing a picture book for them. Further correspondence established reasonable payment terms, and the manuscript that arrived next looked promising. I asked them to send me a contract to go over and the editor said, “We'll talk about a contract after we've seen the samples.”

It turned out that they were soliciting several illustrators for the same project. Each was expected to present two pencil and two color samples, and they were then going to make the hiring decision. I asked what they were going to pay for the samples, and the question seemed to surprise the editor.

“The samples are for assessment,” she said, “Of course, we're not going to pay anything for them.”

I reminded her that she had seen my work on my website and that this work ought to give her an idea of my illustration skills. If she still wanted samples, they needed to be paid for and a rights agreement signed to make it clear that the work was my property and was only for assessment purpose and was not to be reused in any way.

“No, we can't do that,” she said.

Which, of course, made it spec work, and I turned down the opportunity.

What is Spec Work?

The client, as in the above case, asks you for samples specifically targeted to their project. If they like the samples, they will hire you, otherwise the time you've put into the work is your loss.

Why is it a problem?

On two counts. First, the time to come up with a workable illustration concept and then to render it is not negligible – it can take up to eight hours or longer for one illustration – and it does not make good business sense to spend these hours on something that you might not get paid for. Even if you didn't spend a lot of time on the work, you, as a professional, still deserve to be paid for something that requires your skill.

I don't want to get into the usual gambit of 'Would you ask this of your plumber or your mechanic?', but you really do yourself a disservice if you don't value your own time, skill, and profession. You also run the risk of being taken for a ride, where the client just takes your concept and hires someone else to do it at a rate far lower than yours. Instead of this, you would be better off looking for other paid work, creating new work of your own, or learning a new skill.

Why do people request spec work?

Of course, all clients aren't out to gull you. Many people may not have worked with an artist before and simply do not realize the amount of time and level of skill involved in creating an artwork. In which case, you need to detail your process and explain why spec work is not feasible for your business.

Some people don't know what they want, or think they need to see an exact work sample before they hire an artist. They are concerned about spending money on something that may not turn out as they want. What you can do here is refer them to the samples on your website and assure them that you will work with them – for a reasonable time frame and for a specific number of roughs and revisions – to produce the work they want. You can also agree to provide them with a few paid samples, if necessary. If none of this works, then you were obviously not meant to work together.

Is there any reason why artists should do spec work?

Not really. It is possible for a client to get an idea of an artist's work by looking at his or her portfolio. On the other hand, if you are quite convinced that working on spec is going to lead to bigger and better things, then that is your decision. For your own sake though, get a contract stating that the work is for assessment only and not to be used for any other purpose. Unless it involves already existing licensed characters, you own all rights to the work, and you will reuse it as necessary. The client does not own any part of it.

If the client does not agree to this, consider again if the whole exercise is still worth your while. If the client is a 'Big Name' – and these are often a lure to both emerging and experienced artists – ask yourself why such an established player refuses to pay you for your work when they so easily can, and why you, whether you're new or not, are so willing to let people walk all over you for nothing. Work for a charity or do your own project if you want 'experience'; working for free at your expense for people who do not value you is not the best way to gain experience, and it only corrodes your self-respect if you're doing it for the 'prestige'.

How does spec work affect the industry

Spec work devalues the time and effort needed to created an original artwork. When you agree to do spec work, you are basically agreeing that your time is not really worth anything. That it is fine for prospective clients to waste it according to their whim. As mentioned earlier, this will not translate to great business success.

From the client's side, they may not get a very high level of work by this type of solicitation. Professionals who value their work are not likely to play this game; on the other hand, if spec work is allowed to become the norm, they wouldn't have the choice to refuse, and that is all the more reason to say No to spec work.