Friendly reminder to all working artists or (especially) aspiring artists.
If a client says they can’t afford to pay you but you’ll get good exposure, one of two things is happening:
1. They are lying. They can afford to pay you, but they are choosing not to. They will pay the printer to print the books, they will pay the mail service to deliver them, and you’d better believe they’re going to pay themselves for sending you an email explaining that they can’t afford to pay you. They think you are a sucker, and if you take the job you’ll be telling them they are right.
2. They are not lying. They have zero budget, no audience and no real distribution system. They’ll still be paying the printer and mail service because people who work in those professions don’t work for free just because someone promises them a recommendation. But they aren’t paying themselves, they’re running on an incredibly small margin, and there’s a good chance they won’t exist as a corporate entity in a few years. Publishing your work with them will give you less exposure than putting it on tumblr or Instagram for free would. It will never lead to a paying job.
If a client starts ranting about the “short-sightedness” of artists, or otherwise complains about artists in general in their opening offer to you, run. Run as fast as you would run if a blind date spent the whole of dinner ranting about how horrible your entire gender is. Yes, there are doubtlessly clients who’ve been screwed over by artists in the past, but the ones who complain about artists in general will not respect you, they will not treat you well.
Working for free does not prove that you are passionate about something. It proves that you do not need to be paid for your work. How many doctors went into medicine because they are passionate about saving lives? Do you think any of them are asked to perform heart surgery for free?
No one will ever pay $50 for something if they can get something similar for $5. When you charge next to nothing for art that you’ve worked for hours on, art that required years of training to create, you are telling your client that it is worth next to nothing. They will remember that the next time they want to hire an artist.
People who are looking to exploit artists know that artists are hard on themselves. They know that most artists don’t think their work is good enough to charge top dollar. They know that artists have been told from the first day they started taking their art seriously as a career that they’ll never make any money off it, that it’s not a real job, that it has no value to society. They know how to push artists’ insecurities about their profession in order to convince them that that demanding fair compensation is unrealistic and uncooperative.
If you’re just desperate for a job in the arts, any job in the arts, give yourself a job. Start a webcomic, or give yourself illustration assignments that you post on social media regularly, create work for a gallery show even if you don’t have one yet, or make a book. Give yourself a job. If you’re going to work for free, you may as well be working for yourself, setting your own hours and following your own interests. Having original art with original characters and ideas in your portfolio, and making sure your art is visible online will get the attention of publishers who are actually looking to hire people for good jobs. Drawing a shitty comic for a defunct publisher based on someone else’s shitty ideas will not.
Protect yourself, because no one else will. Protect yourself, because no one else will. There are people lining up around the block to exploit you. Protect yourself because no one else will.