Spec Work

Hey kids! Today’s phrase is “Spec work”.

In the creative industries (advertising, publishing, film making, etc.) doing a project “on spec” means “work done on speculation”, in other words doing work for free in the hopes that you’ll get paid later once the project “takes off”. Young artists just starting out are especially vulnerable to such projects, but even after ten years of freelancing I still get asked to do spec work. A potential client will ask me to just “whip out a few quick sketches” for their next big project or great idea. Can they pay me? No. Or if they can pay me, it’s a dollar amount far below anything resembling a professional rate. But the project has “a lot of potential”, and once it takes off they’ll hire me to do so much work that I’ll barely be able to handle it all.

I almost always say “no thanks.”

The first tip off is usually the phrase “a few quick sketches”. Those words make me cringe. Mr. Potential Client may not mean anything by it, but he’s actually insulting me by using that phrase. It implies that (a) my job doesn’t require any real work, effort, or forethought, and (b) the artwork I’ve worked so hard to produce has no real value.

Blogger Mark Evanier sums it up well in this excellent article:

Unfinanced Entrepreneurs exist because of a fiction about creative people, so widely believed that even some of us writers and artists accept it. The fiction is that writing and drawing are not assets…they are things we whip up out of thin air and which cost nothing to create. If someone steals your work from you, you can always bat out another for nothing.

If you believe this, it’s your right, but you do our profession a grave disservice. Every time someone tramples on our work — ruins it, changes it, mauls it, damages it — it’s because they have no respect for it. And, generally speaking, they have no respect for that which cost them nothing.

They think writers and artists “just knock it out” but we don’t…not really. And even when it seems like we do, it’s because of a lifetime of developing whatever skills we bring to each project. My best pal, Sergio Aragonés, once was selling some sketches he’d done. A browser was interested in one but blanched at the hundred-buck price tag.

“How long did it take you to draw that?” he asked.

“About a half-hour,” Sergio answered.

The man was horrified: “You expect me to pay you a hundred dollars for a half-hour’s work?”

Sergio showed uncommon restraint — at least for Sergio. He calmly said, “You’re not paying for the half-hour it took me to do the drawing. You’re paying for the forty-one years it took me to learn how to do that.”

Read the rest of Mark’s article here. He clarifies the issue much better than I could.

I remember how tough it was when I was first starting out. I was hungry for work and eager to take on any project that came my way. I was also insecure about my abilities. Did I really have the talent and the chops to make a living at this? So I did a lot of work for less-than-acceptable rates. Some would say I was “paying my dues” until my skills and confidence grew to an acceptable professional level. Maybe so. But I almost never did anything for free. Even then I knew I’d be getting ripped off.

Over time I’ve learned that when you agree to do a project on spec, or for a very low rate, you are actually cheapening yourself. The message you are sending to the client is, “Yes, I agree with you that what I do doesn’t take work and doesn’t really have much value”. You’ll have a very hard time later trying to convince that client (or yourself) that you deserve a more reasonable rate. You’ve already set the bar low and it can be a heavy bar to lift.

Generally speaking, before you agree to anything it’s best to politely explain to the client how hard you want to work for him/her, and help them understand that your work has real-world value. If that doesn’t get you anywhere, then it’s better to just walk away.

Have you ever been burned by spec work? What lessons have you learned? Feel free to share any thoughts or advice in the comments section.