How To Avoid Getting Screwed As A New Freelance Artist

I’ve just discovered this great article over at Painter Creativity called “Top 10 Lies told to Naive Artists and Designers.” It basically sums up on one page the first half of the “welcome to the business” speech I give to new freelance filmmakers.

(The other half of my speech has to do with basic financial advice regarding emergency funds, health insurance and retirement accounts. Of course, everyone wants to talk about how to find clients — and I talk about that too — but I’ve found that finding new clients seems to be a lot easier than figuring out ways to survive on what they pay you. Most of the filmmakers I talk to live paycheck to paycheck and I know a number of fellow editors in their 50s who haven’t saved a penny for their retirement. There’s a big difference between working because you want to and working because you have to and I believe that if you are choosing to work in a highly competitive and poorly compensated creative field, you should do everything possible to keep your work in the “want to” category. That includes being good enough to be chosen for the plum projects, being a savvy businessperson and becoming skilled at managing your money.)

But back to the lies… Even though my freelance experience is mainly in the film biz, I’ve found that these “Top Ten Lies” seem to be told to everyone in the creative fields at one time or another — whether they are filmmakers, graphic artists or musicians. And while it’s unreasonable for beginners to expect to get paid the same as more experienced artists, all of these “lies” take advantage of that niggling fear that all beginning artists are prey to, that fear being “I don’t deserve to get paid for my work.”

These “employers” turn the new artist’s enthusiasm, humility and faith in “training opportunities” — all good traits no matter how much experience you have, mind you — to their own advantage. And it is not only the new artist who is vulnerable to such offers — I see friends of mine, fellow freelancers with well over a decade each of paid work under their belts, tempted by such work-just-this-once-for-free “opportunities”, especially if they are looking to expand their skill set.

In my experience, such jobs are almost always dead-ends that sap your time away from serious clients — you know, the ones looking to compensate you for the time you put in a project — and those are the clients who deserve your full attention. If you want to work with a friend for free because it’s fun, I say, have at it. But if a “client” approaches you for work with one of these lies, trust me when I tell you that you deserve better.

If you are interested in making a living as a freelancer in a creative profession, you should read this article — it will save you a lot of heartache.

(And once you’ve started work, please give me a shout out and let me know how you are getting on! 🙂 )

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4 comments

  1. All those lies are pretty much true for the freelance writing profession as well– whether it's creative writing or business/copy writing– except possibly #4.

    The fact of the matter is, with writing, if I want to sell an article to such-and-such magazine, I have to pitch the idea to them. They are under no obligation to hire me to write the article. They could pull up any other favored freelancer and give them my idea. You can't copyright an idea.

    Most reputable publications won't do this, of course. And sometimes they already have something in the works very much like what you submitted. But it's been known to happen.

    If any other freelance writers (or potential freelance writers) are out there reading this, I have the be-all-end-all link for you: http://forums.writersweekly.com/

    WW is full of writers of varying experience levels working in all sorts of fields (fiction and nonfiction), and they are fabulous at giving advice on what to do in whatever situation you find yourself in.

    Additionally, Angela Hoy (who runs the site) offers a lot of her free time to run her Whispers & Warnings board, which is chock-full of companies who scam, lie, cheat, and steal. She essentially goes to bat for writers in contacting these companies and often gets them to pay up.

    ..Erm, went a little off-topic there, sorry. ^_^;

  2. Hey Jen,

    Seemed to me like you stayed right on topic.

    All those lies are pretty much true for the freelance writing profession as well– whether it’s creative writing or business/copy writing– except possibly #4.

    The fact of the matter is, with writing, if I want to sell an article to such-and-such magazine, I have to pitch the idea to them.

    I agree, for writers, giving a publisher some kind of written pitch before payment is standard business practice and usually necessary. Ideally, you'd get them to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, but it's probably not realistic for a writer just starting out to expect them to be willing to do that.

    That said, a written pitch is copyrightable — the ideas are in a fixed form — so they can't steal your words at least. (And in the case of creative writing, characters and very specific plot lines might also have some protection.) Cold comfort, I suppose, when your brilliant and novel idea gets given to another writer, but then, ideas are a dime a dozen — it's the execution that really matters. Chances are, if the idea really turns you on, you will be the best person to write the story and any reputable publisher should see that. And if they can't, no reason you can't pitch that idea to some other magazine — it's not like we don't see similar topics in different magazines all the time.

    WW is full of writers of varying experience levels working in all sorts of fields (fiction and nonfiction), and they are fabulous at giving advice on what to do in whatever situation you find yourself in.

    Thank you for that link– it looks very cool. It's been my experience that the best support you can find for your business is from other freelancers. I've always taken a cooperative as opposed to competitive tack with others in the biz and I firmly believe it's wound up helping my own business a hundred times more through referrals, etc. than being secretive or stingy with my work/clients ever could.

    So here's another bit of advice for would-be pros: help others succeed in your field of work. It's the nice thing to do and it's good karma that can actually help fatten your wallet.

  3. Hmmm I can tell you this much #2 does not apply in manga. As a writer or artist, you don't see a dime until art and or completed script is turned in and ready for production. That's just to avoid the infamous 'creator's flake' that tends to run rampant in the western scene.

    For series work, artists can get away with turning in 20-30 pages and being paid for them as they turn them in, but writers have to have the completed and approved script finished, even on series work. 0_0.

    We learned with Dark Horse and a few others, that, the manga medium stateside isn't big enough to warrant an advance before delivery. All work must be complete before any advance against royalties is paid out. But then again, with manga…it's not about the money, it's about the ego and the fanbase you acquire by telling your story in a broad scale. If you're in manga to score bucks, forget it–it's not there. You can license your book to foreign markets and collect cash that way, but overall, big 'per page' rates just aren't the norm, and it's not because companies want to f_ck you over, it's because the medium isn't an all encompassing market in the West. Not yet, anyway. ^_-

  4. Hey Tina,

    Yeah, #2 is an interesting one, huh? I know that in the freelance filmmaking world, getting money upfront is also almost always unheard of — thus, you have to be very careful about choosing your clients. "Client flake" is unfortunately not unheard of in the waters I swim in…

    It comes down to buidling/maintaining trust and performing your due diligence. I've chosen to give some money upfront to the artists I am working with and I haven't regretted it, but others' mileage may vary and an artist shouldn't be under the impression that it is industry standard to do so. Thank you for pointing that out.

    If you’re in manga to score bucks, forget it–it’s not there.

    And it's my understanding that this goes for Western comics in general. Yes, we have a few superstars — in terms of writers, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis come to mind — but I don't believe any are living the lavish lifestyles afforded to similar luminaries in film or mainstream prose. A Western manga creator becoming a financial success like Rumiko Takahashi doesn't seem likely to happen, well, ever.

    It would be wonderful to have manga be an "all-encompassing market in the West", but for now, it's a labor of love for those who want to spend the time and effort making it. You're right — it ain't about the money — and frankly, even the ego and potential fanbase ain't nothing compared to what you could get writing successful conventional novels, for example. We do it because we love the form — and I'd like to think that helps to make our work a little bit better…

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