Sample Is Not The Same As Spec

In an earlier post Once Upon A Sketch addressed the subject of being asked to work on spec for a prospective client. Generally defined as creating a sample specifically for an upcoming project, spec (short for speculative) work is often requested by individuals unfamiliar with the industry, impatient to get their book ‘on the market’, and often not offering any payment to the illustrator.  An increasing trend among traditional trade publishers is the process of sampling illustrations. It works like this: an illustrator will get an email from the editor or art director who is late in the process of assigning an illustrator to a manuscript. They will inquire about availability to do the book and ask if the artist is open to creating one or two character samples. They will inform the artist that other illustrators are being considered. While this sounds similar to spec work, I would argue that sampling for a major publisher is not the same as working on spec for a novice or self publishing client.

Here’s how they differ:

• Unlike spec work there is often a small fee paid to the artist. But even in the cases where that is not offered, art director Giuseppe Castellano argues in his #arttips thread on Twitter that illustrators should always take it seriously and return a sample. At the very least the illustrator’s work will be viewed by an art director and the illustrator should get a great portfolio piece out of the process.

• While the novice client really  has no idea how to view a portfolio and decide if the style presented is appropriate, the trade art director has already vetted the artist’s portfolio and has two or three illustrators that  the editorial team just can’t decide between. Particularly in the case of high profile author or celebrity books, editorial needs to know how easy the illustrator is to work with and how sales thinks the art will help position the book.

• The traditional publishing house has other projects in the pipeline. The novice client or self publisher likely has only one. Working on spec has little return on the time invested simply because there’s just not another job to be hired for. Even if you are not chosen during the sampling process with a traditional publisher, your chances of being called on again are greatly increased.

When choosing to be part of the sample process here are some tips an illustrator should keep in mind:

• First of all, if it’s a publisher you’ve never heard of then it’s probably spec work… not a sample. Don’t do it unless you are paid.

• It’s perfectly ok to ask how many other illustrators are being considered and when the publisher expects to make the decision. I’ve even asked the editor to tell me how many people will have to approve the sample.

• If you can’t do a good sample by the time requested, offer something different. Generally an illustrator will be asked for only one color sample of a character but i’ve been asked for spreads as well. In that case I asked if I could do a color character and just a sketch of the spread.

• Even if the art director does not request samples by a certain time, set your own (relatively quick) deadline and then beat it. It’s always nice to show that you are disciplined about meeting a project’s timeline.

• No matter what, go above and beyond in the work you create. After months or years of sending postcards to this publisher you got a call. Now’s your chance to shine.

I’ve sampled for a small number of publishers. In all cases I felt like I was opening a line of communication with a potential client that I had previously only been able to reach through mailings. Even on the projects I wasn’t chosen for, the art directors were enthusiastic about my work and the samples created have gotten me other projects. As Castellano’s #arttips suggest, doing exemplary work for a sample is a small investment of time that can pay big dividends in the future by making a good impression on art directors that are on the lookout for the next great illustrator.

Illustration Biz Best Practices: Dealing With Difficult Clients

While all freelance creatives have the unique benefit of being paid to do what we would do for free anyway, along with that benefit comes the responsibility to run our businesses wisely. There are several posts on Once Upon A Sketch about dealing with spec work, managing studio expenses and getting work. But what if you’ve done your homework; gotten what looks like a good, non-amateur client that’s paying a decent commission and the project still goes south? There is an old proverb that says “a learning experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” For the last few weeks I’ve been getting a learning experience dealing with quite possibly the most challenging client of my career. We’re not at a finished point yet but I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned so far:

 1) Don’t ignore orange flags. I take vetting a client very seriously. I don’t show my work in places where wannabe, McClient types would seek to get work for cheap or free. I understand my rights and make sure I understand the scope of the project and the contract. But let’s just say something innocuous, like the trim size, doesn’t seem right. In my example, I questioned the dimensions presented as they didn’t include a bleed and the single and spread sizes didn’t match. I was assured the dimensions were correct. When I started finals, I double checked the contract, surely they wouldn’t make a mistake there. Yep, the contract had the same strange sizes I was given. So I proceeded… but decided to add my own bleed area just to listen to my intuition. Three weeks later after a series of stops and starts from the designer’s side I was given the “actual” dimensions and they were quite a bit different. Fortunately my self added bleed helped some but not enough. The strange size wasn’t a big red flag, it wasn’t a terrible manuscript or teeny tiny budget. It wasn’t being asked to work in someone else’s style. In my opinion these are all reasons to bolt from a project. But looking back, that one wrinkle set up the entire trajectory of the project. Next time I will press and question, even to the point of saying “I want to confirm this doesn’t change after sketch approval”…. and if the answer’s not good enough, I might consider that a reason to bolt.

2) Once you see an orange flag, get explicit approval for EVERYTHING. I’d finished sketches, finished revisions for those sketches, the designer had said “everything looks great!” At that point the deadline was a comfortable three week margin away. Everything was rosy. I did what every responsible illustrator would do – I started the finals. Because when the client says “everything looks great” that’s what you should do right? Maybe not, looking back I wish I’d pressed them again and point blank asked “Can I start finals?” Because 10 days later, after half the project was complete, I hear there’s a new approval process… and my sketches “may not really be approved.” When I pointed out the earlier communication of everything being great, the client questioned whether they had ever approved anything. Fortunately I was able to lay out email correspondence showing the timeline of sketches, requested revisions, and how everything looked great before they ever mentioned a new approval process.

3) Communicate entirely in writing. It was tempting to pick up the phone and sort everything out with a single half-hour chat. That’s what I would have done with any of my long time clients. But as their changes, approvals, and deadlines got more and more tangled I realized that the person I was working with was only caught in the middle. Talking would leave me with no proof of what we decided and possibly start a “he said/she said” scenario. By communicating exclusively over email I was able to lay out my understanding of the project and have a record of it. Be as professional and enthusiastic as possible, but be ready to defend your side reasonably in writing.

4) Know when to say when. Once the process has started to tilt toward endless revisions beyond the deadline and beyond the budget it’s time for the illustrator to consider whether or not they will continue the project. At that point you can say “this is my last series of changes unless you increase the budget” or “unless this is approved without changes I can’t do any more on this project.” You can fight about a kill fee or just walk away. But the main thing is you have to know at what point you should move from helping the client to protecting your business. In the long run, a difficult client will drag your business down no matter how much money the contract says they will pay you. Finishing this project is on my to-do list but I grind my teeth when I think about it. I have other really exciting books to work on at the moment plus, my own projects which are close to my heart. This difficult client is sucking out my inspiration for those. Just like any relationship, once you reach this tipping point, spend time with the “good projects” and get the difficult ones out of your studio as quickly as you can.

As the process got more out of whack with this client I began researching them online to see if any other illustrators had had problems. I recommend doing this at the start of a new client project anyway. I didn’t find anything substantial but I did find a few other interesting tips for freelancers in this same position. I hope my fellow illustrators never have reason to need it, but in case they do I add this advice to mine:

Dealing With Difficult Clients

Three Questions To Ask Your Illustration Clients

The Bad Client Diet


Sculpting an Illustration with Clay Illustrator Susan Eaddy

Let’s meet clay sculpting illustrator Susan Eaddy in the first of a two part interview about her process, children’s book illustration, and licensing artwork. Susan’s illustrations are fabulously detailed clay reliefs. Each form is designed, sculpted and attached – each part becoming a facet of the whole glorious piece. But even better than me trying to describe it, watch this short time lapse video as she creates colorful tide pool creatures for a Click Magazine illustration.

OUaS: How did you get the impetus to begin making the videos of your clay process? How have they worked as a self promo tool?

SE: I took a Make your own Book Trailer breakout from Chris Cheng at the 2011 LA Conference. It was so empowering that it basically gave me the confidence to tackle iMovie. I had to keep telling myself not to get perfectionistic, that this was supposed to fun, and I should totally revel in my amateur status. So I have! And that has released me to just play with the medium. The clay is so perfect for video-ing the process, and it has been a great self promotional tool. I started out videoing with my still camera and when I saw how fun, I finally bought a video cam.

OUaS: Susan is being completely humble when she describes these as a great promo tool… in fact her videos have been shown all over the world and even landed her a feature on the Parent’s Choice blog and a TV interview with Tennessee Crossroads.

In this world where everything is more an more digital what challenges do you find working in a most non-digital medium? What benefits?


Final tide pool illustration

SE: Well, there are so many steps in my process and digital  certainly plays a part. I start with drawing, then composing, then coloring, either with pencil or on the computer, to figure out my palette. Then I do the clay. The clay is the most joyful part of the process for me! By the time I start the clay, I have figured out composition and palette, and I can get my hands dirty and figure out how to construct my reliefs. I’ve said it before, but it is this discovery process that I love the most. I don’t know HOW to make things until I just get in there and play. I often redo pieces and parts of the clay as I go along. Because you don’t really know if something is working until it is made. After the illustration is done, I photograph… again playing with light and angle until I like what I see.  When I put the digital files in the computer, THEN I can see how it translates to 2D and I notice things that I didn’t see before. So I usually shoot things anywhere from 5 to 15 times. I finalize all of my files in Photoshop and send digital files to my clients. Without Photoshop, I could not do my job.

OUaS: How do art directors/buyers react when you tell them about your process?

SE: Actually, it’s been a bit of a hard sell. Even the very visually oriented are often uncomfortable with a medium that is so different, and many are afraid to take a chance. Before digital was so common, art directors were confused about HOW they would get final files. But the digital age has streamlined that so easily that there is not so much confusion.

I was an art director myself for 15 years and I KNOW how tight and important deadlines can be. If an art director perceives that a process will take longer than normal they tend to shy away. When they look at my very detailed illustrations they assume that it takes me longer than other people to do an illustration. But that is just not the case. I have worked in ALL mediums through the years and the clay doesn’t take any longer than other mediums I have used.

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