On Speculation

Wed 7/25/2012

A guy emailed me last night, looking for a cartoonist to create characters and storyboard some pilot episodes for a TV show that he wants to pitch to a network. I told him I had no interest in working in television and he suggested that I might pass along the info to The Center for Cartoon Studies alumni, via the CCS message board. Payment would be "a partnership percentage in the production company." I told him this was spec work and I could not post it, which he did not understand. Below is the email response which I sent him. I get offers like this every once in a while, and the school gets them all the time, so I thought I would publicly post my response, with the hopes of cutting down on these types of unwanted and insulting offers.

Hi [name removed],
Movies, TV and Mainstream Publishing are all "hit" based industries, meaning that about 1-10% of the content created is actually profitable. This means that as an artist, there is a 90-99% chance that projects in these industries will NOT be profitable. Therefore, work in these industries that does not pay up front is referred to as "spec" work (short for "speculation" or "speculate verb - invest in stocks, property, or other ventures in the hope of gain but with the risk of loss").

Why should a freelance artist absorb the risk for YOUR concept? Whether or not your idea is going to be successful is YOUR gamble, not ours. If you want talented people to develop good ideas (and increase your chances to be in the 1-10% of profitable content) you should pay your creators. Even if the contract is "work for hire" (meaning the creators do not retain any of copyrights for the characters they create), they need to be compensated for their time and the expertise which they are providing. You can find fair rates in the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook - Pricing and Ethical Guidelines.

In short, most freelancers (including all of our alumni) are highly trained individuals, who have bills to pay every month. We can not spend our time working for free, with the hope that someday our efforts will pay off, especially with those odds. If YOU are taking a chance to produce YOUR idea, then YOU need to raise money to pay talented people to generate great content. Then if YOUR idea is successful, YOU will reap the rewards.

I hope for your sake, that your idea is in the upper 1% and that you enjoy success with your endeavor. I would be very happy to look back on this email in ten years and say, "Darn! I could have worked on that great project!" But here, right now, with bills to pay and only 24 hours in each day with which to work, I can not afford to work on spec projects, and it is a CCS policy to not pass on such projects to our students.

Best of luck with your TV show,
Alec Longstreth.

If anyone is still confused, you can check out the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Artists) page on spec work.

19 comments on this entry

This is a great post and email and so very well articulates what needs to be said. It always mystifies me when I say "no thank you" to that kind of work and the creator is offended or doesn't understand. I'm totally saving this to my "references" files...HIGH FIVE!

Beth Jul25

I said DAMN! Great response to a common question/idea that cartoonists will just work for free. This eloquent response will definitely find a home in some of my own responses.


Now I need to send this to Nomi.

Agree with Beth! Thanks Alec.

a* Jul25

Huzzah! Well said. It's especially nice that you're making an attempt to educate the public as well.

Holy cow! Wat to break this down in an accessible way for someone without sounding at all like a jerk! You have to assume that people simply don't understand what they're asking for when they make these kinds of requests (which is all the time) but it's hard not to get too frustrated to respond. I'll definitely be referencing this post next time I get one of those emails! Thanks, Alec!

Nomi Jul25

This is exactly why I pay every artist I work with. I respect them.

I can't help but think of all the complaints about artists in the golden age of comics that got paid wage for creating characters, and didn't later get part of the millions of dollars those character's generated.

alexander hollins Jul25

Thanks gang, glad this was useful.

@Jonathan - that's why you're a stand-up guy!

@alexander - compensation for your time is a bare minimum, and while a promised percentage alone is an insult (see above post) the best case scenario would be a combination of the two: compensation for the time put into the creation and a percentage of the earnings generated by that creation.

Alec Jul25

SHARED. And well said, as always.

Excellent post. As an animation teacher I see speculators offering students work experience (not even payment) on project ideas all the time. I point out to the students that education is no longer free, so there has to be a fee.

Franko Jul25

Yet another handout for my students.

Joel Gill Jul26

This is a fine response, if you have all the paying work you want, at the level of success you aspire to.

However, if you want to grow your career, spec work can be a useful risk. If you want to expand into another medium, or raise your profile, instead of just refusing spec work, ask yourself "what is the risk and what is the reward?" Then decide rationally on those terms.

Effects genius Phil Tippett has been doing a spec project for years, and he only accepts unpaid volunteers. However, for your work, you get to hang out with Phil fricken Tippett and work at his elbow. While you would demand payment, your competitors will realize the value of the spec work, and get the valuable experience and time with PT.

There is more to compensation than money. There are opportunities, job bumps and the chance to work on something that you will enjoy more than your current paying drudgery.

Almost everyone I know in show biz does spec work from time to time. It's how you expand your career, build your CV and augment your network.

So go ahead and deliver sanctimonious lectures about how you will never work on spec. The artist across the street, your competitor, the gal who wants success more than you, they will say yes to these jobs and you will be left wondering why they get hired later on and you don't.

Collier Jul26

@Collier I fully understand the value of doing work for free, when there are other benefits (such as the ones you outlined).

When Weezer asked me to design some icons for their website, I did it for free, not only because Weezer is my favorite band and it was a thrill to work with them, but because Weezer has sold millions of albums and has hundreds of thousands of fans. It established a relationship which has already turned into other illustration work for the band which was paid work, and I hope to work with them again.

My first question I asked the producer in the email above was, "Send me a list of some things you've worked on and your rates." When he dodged both questions it was clear that: 1) He had no track record and was pitching his very first project, and 2) he had no budget and was trying to get labor for free by promising percentages that are VERY unlikely to ever see the light of day.

I'm not trying to be sanctimonious, I'm just pointing out that people who have nothing to offer (years of experience, connections or a boost in career prospects) who waste the time of freelancers are much more common than the Phil Tippetts of the world. Saying that you should take all offers of work with no pay is just as ridiculous as saying you should never work for free.

Alec Jul26

Very well said Alec. Yes, as the gentleman above stated, there may be times when working for free might be an opportunity (internships, etc), but as a trained artist/cartoonist/illustrator those people you come across asking for some free storyboards, free character designs, etc, are often just exploiting you, and as a young person just starting out its worth being aware of that. I have done work for free for some people with little or no experience, but in those cases it has been out of friendship, and a wish to contribute to their success. That situation can be exploitive too. One just has to keep an eye open so that if you spend a lot of time with a project you feel it is worth it. With bills to pay these days, and a child to feed, I need to be paid for any graphic work I do.

Cam Jul26

This is really helpful stuff to share Alec, now if other illustrators or designers want to save time, they can point prospectors here.

On a related note, here's an email I wrote last week in response to contest-style spec work. It was a buddy and former colleague of mine, who I know had no bad intentions, he just didn't know the deal. He subsequently felt really embarrassed and ended the contest immediately:


Hey [ buuuuddy ]

As a pal, I thought I'd chime in real quick about the contest. If I understand correctly, you're asking Designers to come up with some initial designs as a way to compete for the contract? If so, I thought I should let you know that this is strongly poo-poo'd in the design community — because the "losers" of the contest will have wasted their time creating work that would go unused, that they wouldn't be compensated for.

A contest might work if you are hoping to hire very junior desigers — like undergraduates still in art school who are looking to build up their portfolios. But hiring professionals via a contest will likely scare away quality designers.

Because I know you, I know that you have nothing but good intentions, so I just wanted to give you a quick heads up in case you're getting strange responses from the designers who you are hoping to work with.

Let me know if you have any follow-up questions. FYI, the "bible" for trade practices for designers is called the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Ethical and Pricing Guidelines, you can find extensive info on hiring designers there, and they discuss this issue specifically.

I hope it's ok that I let you know about this, I only mean to be helpful!

Cheers! :)


Thanks for including your email Sally! "Contests" are definitely another way that spec work raises its ugly head, and it's great that you were able to get this point across to your friend.

Alec Jul26

Yeah, in his case, he honestly didn't know. Once it was explained to him in this way, it made perfect sense and he felt really bad about it.

I don't see the insult here. It's someone pitching his project to what is essentially an investor - someone who puts resources into it (in this case they happen to be drawings) to possibly reap a dividend later on.

Unless he makes serious misrepresentations that's not a sign of a lack of respect - you yourself stated that he seems to have no budget, so him not offering any up-front payments is probably a matter of necessity, not stinginess.

If you do not wish to make the investment, don't do it. Where's the harm?

Dom Jul27

@Dom - The problem is that there are always misrepresentations that accompany these kinds of proposals. It's always presented as a "ground breaking opportunity" (direct quote from the most recent email) and the person will tell you "how well connected" they are, and that it's a "sure thing." When in reality 99% of the time, that person's pitch will never even be seen, or if it is, it'll be thrown in the trash.

More seasoned professionals can spot this B.S. a mile away, which is why these offers often target students who have less experience and are more vunerable (as with the email I received, which was directed to me, but really only to get to my address book full of recent CCS alumni)

I think if people were more upfront about this ("Listen, I don't have any money, and I know it's a long shot, but if you help me out and it succeeds, we will both do well") it would be less insulting, though I still wouldn't take on this kind of work.

Alec Jul28

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