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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.

Spec Work, No Thanks

A little while ago a client asked me to work on a project with them. I quoted the job and waited to hear back, but the response I got took me by surprise. The response said:

“Please move forward with the project, but we will only pay for the work if we use it. If you do not agree to this, please let me know. Just wanted to make sure we are both on the same page.”

Well to be honest the response was not what I was expecting and left me a little upset. So I kindly wrote back:

“As much as I would like to work on this project with you, I can’t in good conscience work under these terms. I’m sure I will provide a wonderful service and you will love the work I create, but with this stipulation being in place it becomes too arbitrary to determine whether I will get paid for my ideas or not. If you’re willing to waive this stipulation I would love to work with you on this project.”

So I thought that was that and continued on with my day. Lo and behold within a few hours I heard back from this client and they were willing to waive their stipulation and send me a signed version of my contract as well as the first half of the payment for me to begin the project. I was completely surprised and caught off guard. I couldn’t believe that somebody a few hours ago had just asked me to work for free and just as quickly change their mind to get me to work with them. I guess the moral of the story is people will see what they can get away with and if they really want you to work for free they’re not worth working with.

There’s a term in the creative community for someone asking people to work for free, it’s called spec work. Basically, “spec” work, short for speculative work, is any work done for a client, completed or not, in the hopes that you will be paid for your ideas and time. So what are the risks of participating in spec work. Personally, I feel it devalues the work that you do. It says that you’ll do it for free and if you like it you can possibly pay for the work. Creative people are at risk being taken advantage of all the time. People who normally look for free work say things like “this is a great opportunity for you” or “this could make a great portfolio piece.” These days more and more spec work is wrapped inside a contest. “Illustrate this poster for us and we’ll use it for blank project.” People may see this as a way to get free ideas for their project and not have to pay for them. There’s nothing to stop somebody from taking your ideas to somebody else who will work for less and then have someone create it for them. Some Artistes may say that this is a lesser version of your idea if someone else creates it, but either way you’re not getting any value for your ideas. Please remember that your ideas are half of the process and that your ideas have value. It diminishes the true value of other people’s work as well. If these people continue to get away with getting free ideas then the value of the other Artistes work goes down too.

Not all “free” work is spec work. You can volunteer your time for a good cause or do an internship. These are different types of work that you don’t get paid for but you can get some type of credit for, which helps you out in other ways. For instance, an internship you get on-the-job training or if you’re doing some type of Pro Bono job normally you can negotiate some sort of credit line that will be added to the piece which in turn gets you a little bit of marketing. I personally suggest doing this for nonprofits or say a school district, somewhere that is not planning on monetizing your ideas. Just last year I created an illustration for a project that I thought was worth working on for free. A few artists were putting together a art book for another artist who has cancer. All the proceeds go to this particular artist to help take care of the medical costs associated with the illness. To me, this is a good reason to work for free. I will get credit in the book and I have become part of this community of artists but helping someone else in need is payment enough.

I know there’s been a lot of other articles written about spec work but my personal favorite is the position that the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) takes on this subject. This article also includes a good sample letter to send to someone that is asking you to do spec work. If you’re still interested after reading this article just search “spec work” on your favorite search engine and you will find plenty of information.

My message to you after having this experience would be please choose your “Free” projects wisely.

About the author

  • Norm GrockNORM GROCKContributor, Founder

    Having grown up on the shores of Maui, Hawaii, Norm has always had a love for drawing. Since leaving the Islands’ beautiful beaches and landing in Oregon he went to college and received a degree in graphic design. Now living in Beaverton, Oregon, Norm has been working as a full-time graphic designer and illustrator for the last 12 years. He has spent countless hours perfecting his craft as a freelance illustrator working on several children’s books, a few video games and creating numerous educational products. His ability to draw has given him the chance to do the thing he truly loves — Create.