I was supposed to continue my blog post series “Being a Pro Manga Artist in the West” today, but I decided to do a “blog aside” thanks to some of the comments I’ve received on the Inkblazers site. I joined that site on the weekend, and I’ve gotten a fair number of comments.
People asked some good questions, and I answered them, but I’m getting the impression that a number of people on this site are young, and while some have certainly been to art school, many are clueless on the business side of being a freelance artist. Someone asked a good question about how to support oneself through doing commissions (and graphic novels), and I felt I needed to address this issue in a quickie post.
To be honest, in the years I’ve spent working as a manga artist, I never did much commissions. So I may not be the best person to give this advice, but I will give it anyway, because it’s so important. I actually worked for the family business all along, so I never needed to take on jobs that I didn’t want to take. Still, I did a few commissions, and there is one bit of advice I want to give to someone who wants to work as a freelance artist: NEVER DO COMMISSIONS FOR FREE.
NEVER. EVER. WORK FOR FREE. EVER.
The “NO SPEC WORK" movement has been going on for about 10 years now, so a fair amount of people already know about it. There is an education website devoted to it with an FAQ, which is very good, and utterly worth a read if you’re unfamiliar with this subject. “Speculative work” is where a client asks a freelance artist to design/create something for them on the client’s specifications, with the promise of payment in the future, though NOT the promise that the work will be used.
Either way, if you’re an aspiring graphic artist who intends to try and make a living from it, you should read this. However, I admit the site seems geared towards people who are already working as professional graphic designers, so I’ll sum this up for you in simple terms. Should you want do work in art, whether as a manga artist, an illustrator, concept designer or whatever:
NEVER. EVER. WORK FOR FREE. EVER.
On the most basic level, working for free sends a message that art is worth nothing. Specifically, it sends the message that YOUR art (and time) is worth nothing. Believe me, once people find out you’re a graphic designer, they will come to you with a million offers to work for them for free. And if you have any sense, then you would say NO.
You say NO because you have bills to pay, and because you’re trying to make a living from your art. There are a million other reasons on the internet why you should never work for free, so I’ll spare you the details. I suggest you do some research yourself, because it’ll help a lot.
But what if you’re just starting out, and you’re offered exposure in return for free work?
That’s a very silly argument, but one that is constantly made. So I’m gonna gut this fish open, and throw all the smelly entrails around so this TEMPTATION to work for free will be slayed and scattered into the dirt once and for all.
It’s not that exposure is bad, it’s just that working for free in return for exposure is utterly ridiculous. People constantly over-estimate what exposure will bring them, and worse of all, they do free work in return for exposure, in the anticipation that your hard work for free will somehow magically bring money sometime in the distant future. It’s unlikely, and here’s two reasons why:
- SITUATION ONE: I’m an advertising executive, and I see a ad with an amazing illustration. I totally think it’s a great look and style, so what do I do? Do I find out who the artist is? Nah. I snap a picture of the ad with my iPhone, then send the picture to my in-house graphic designer, who I pay as part of my company. And my employee will copy that style, because they’re my employee and they’ll do as they’re told. (The only situation where the ad executive won’t do that, is if the graphic designer is famous and has a large fan following. But if you’re just starting out, you won’t have a large fan following, will you?)
- SITUATION TWO: I’m a marketing person in a company, and I just got someone to do great artwork for me, in return for exposure. It gets lots of attention, so I brag to all my marketing friends that I got this great artwork for free. All my jealous friends will now contact this amazing artist to do free work for them too. But it turns out this amazing artist now wants to charge $500 for doing work. Oh, what the heck? Talk about jilted expectations. All the people looking for free work will now lose interest, because they finally thought they’d found some schmuck to do free work that’s actually GOOD.
Exposure’s great, everybody. But paid exposure is better than unpaid exposure. Sure, you’ll get less job offers, but you’ll get PAID. Getting paid is kinda crucial to “working for a living”.
What and how much should I charge?
That is entirely up to you, but I charged about $500 per illustration when I was asked to do commissions. I’ve done work for educational magazines, schools, universities, bookstores looking for flyers, companies that put out stationary/folders/etc, and government departments, charities… and guess what, they’re all willing to pay money for work. The people who wanted to get me to do spec work without paying a thing? There’s been 2 cases where I did that, once for a advertising company, the other for a TV studio… and NEVER AGAIN. (In my experience, these folks are happy to look at the spec work you did, then say “nah, that’s not what I’m looking for”. You don’t even get a word of thanks, let alone payment, but you sure feel dumb afterwards).
My suggestion is this: Work out clearly with the client what needs to be done, and charge them a single amount for EACH piece of artwork. Make sure you get them to agree that (a) they are only allowed 2 changes, before you start charging them for each change, and (b) that even if they don’t accept your final artwork, that they STILL have to pay you. There a lot more information on the internet that’ll tell you more about this, so look for it.
I shall leave you with two videos that may be educational. One is from a guy who runs a graphic design company, and the other is from Harlan Ellison, a well-known writer. (If you think that artists are the only people who get short-changed by people, they’re not.)