“There’s a mark born every minute, and one to trim ’em and one to knock ’em.”
According to Wikipedia, “The earliest known appearance of the above phrase in print is in Opie Read‘s 1898 novel A Yankee from the West,” even though the more common, ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ is often wrongly attributed to P.T. Barnum.
Freelance artists, in my experience, can be a naive bunch, and there are plenty of people out there willing to take advantage of them. I’ve been guilty of falling for a few empty promises on more than one occasion in my career and even though somebody can warn you of giving in to temptation, you most often learn the best lessons from experience.
Many of us just want our names and our work out there, to repeatedly have those Sally Field moments when you can stand on stage and say, “You like me, you REALLY like me,” when in fact, those moments are few and far between if you allow yourself to be taken advantage of. There are plenty of con artists out there willing to promise the world, and it’s easy to let the dollar signs in your eyes blind you to the fact that you’re selling your work (and often your soul) for bargain basement prices.
I’ve recently had a couple of life lessons handed my way in that area, and I’m grateful for them, primarily for the fact that I was able to learn from them, without any great financial cost or significant loss of time.
Without going into great detail of one of the situations, I’ll simply say that I ignored a gut feeling. I’d said that I’d required a written contract, but still began work without one. Then when push came to shove, and I insisted on it, I was told that the contract for this sort of arrangement would come at a later point, that this is how things were done ‘in the real business world,’ and that I was a rank amateur if I didn’t know that.
The worst part of it was that, for a very short time, I almost believed it. The situation went south fast, the deal fell apart, and ultimately, I was threatened with a lawsuit (later recanted, sort of). After consulting a lawyer, I was told not to give it a second thought as nothing was ever put into writing.
There were a number of things I could have done better in this bad arrangement, but in the end, I wouldn’t have changed anything, because I won’t fall for the same trap again. Having done more research after the fact, talked to other illustrators with more experience than I have with this sort of arrangement, I’ve confirmed that I really was setting myself up for a very big fall. While a contract can always be revised, I shouldn’t have put one pencil stroke on paper without at least a written understanding of the agreement, signed by both parties.
Too often, artists will ignore their own instincts in order to prevent the boat from rocking. Concessions are made that should never even be considered, in an effort to be ‘a nice guy.’
After you agree on a price, get a deposit of half of the money up front. If somebody gets angry when the subject of money enters into the conversation, then they don’t have any. You wouldn’t have gotten paid, anyway, so you’re no worse off.
If they get angry or try to avoid the question of a written agreement, then you’re better off parting company because you weren’t likely to get what you thought you were, anyway. Once again, you have nothing to lose (and everything to gain) by walking away.
In retrospect, the experience was very unpleasant, but it could have turned out worse. I learned from it, and am moving on, better prepared for the next offer that sounds too good to be true.
Some suggested reading for freelancers, to better protect yourself.
Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines
Photographers’s Survival Manual: A Legal Guide for Artists in the Digital Age