Is this “the free market at work”? Mike Hyatt—whom I admire—has always been an early adopter of technology and a keen observer of the publishing marketplace. I look to him regularly for ideas and inspiration. However, in one of his blog posts he touted crowd-sourcing the design of book covers: designers submit comps (samples) on spec; the one whose design gets selected gets paid, but generally below market value.* He also noted that traditional (that is, old school) designers don’t like this system.**
And they shouldn’t. I find it very disturbing that creatives—who have a lot invested in equipment, software, training, creative and critical thinking, time—are so willing to give away their work. Often they’re young, trying to build a portfolio and a business. The argument is they don’t have to take the bait, but with the economy the way it’s been, one finds even established creatives running this race to the bottom of the financial barrel.
To me it feels like a wild-goose chase.*** Yes, it’s a voluntary goose chase. But I think it sends the wrong message.
Not long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.
Right. Because “No way, Jose” is so dated.
And Kreider’s not the only one. When TV giant Showtime recently solicited designers to submit ad comps on the off-chance the winner would be displayed to a bunch of folks attending a boxing match, Dan Cassaro’s response went viral. He was asked why it struck such a chord with his fellow designers.
Because they all get these emails. And it’s not just designers. I received a ton of responses from writers, cartoonists, architects and people in other professions who get asked to work for free. … But I also wanted to let people know that while it’s good to say no to this kind of work, it’s even better to explain to everyone why this business model is unacceptable.
When I posted the Hyatt article on Facebook, many of my self-employed friends came unglued, and I don’t blame them. The point I wanted to make was this sort of thing is happening in the arts across the board. You’ve heard the restaurant joke, right?**** My musician friends have heard it. They don’t think it’s funny. Not least because there’s inevitably some poor schlub who takes the gig for the exposure. But, the saying goes, you can die from exposure.
My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy—doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great—because it’ll help get her name out there.
And that’s the thing. You don’t ask your dentist for a sample filling, do you? You know, just to see how you will work together. But that’s the sort of requests I get, y’all. Just last week:
I’m looking for an editor for my 96k+ fantasy novel. It is book 1 of 4. I’d love to get a quote and sample edit. Thanks!!
Last month I got this one:
Could you do a free developmental or copy editing sample of the extract below? Whichever you think is needed—and as much as you like. Just start on p. 1.
Before that, this:
Would you consider editing a few pages gratis, so I can see if we are a fit?
Um. What does one say to this type of naïveté (or disingenuousness)?*****
Sure, you can read all over the Internet that you should get a free sample from an editor you’re thinking of hiring to find out if you can work together. But that’s just wrong. I object to free. (I used to do it, years ago. I used to give a free sample. And it never once led to a paying gig. Never. Once.) When a prospective client uses the word sample and doesn’t overtly offer to pay for it, it reads (to me, at least) as if he or she is asking for something free. For me to do something on spec.
I wonder, then, if the person asking me for a freebie is experienced enough to recognize whether an editing sample is “good”? Most seem to have a manuscript burning a hole in their pockets and they’re anxious to get started. They want a sample and a quote, stat. When I have to qualify the request—How many words? What type of edit?—I can tell they haven’t even looked at my website. And I can’t show them someone else’s edit. (I’d love to; some of them make me look pretty good.) But that’s proprietary. However, you can see the results—just check my portfolio.
How will we work together, though? That seems to be a huge question for some folks. Here’s one thought: many of my blogging topics are chosen to expose my editing philosophy, if you will, and my blogging voice—which really is me—was chosen to expose who I am as a person. I believe it does.
So this is the last time I’m going to whine about this. (Maybe.) I’m done chasing the geese. If you’d like to sample my product, check out the blog. Here’s a list of posts specifically about the writing and editing process. If you want a sample done on your specific manuscript, drop me a line and I’ll give you a quote for my time.
Thank you, and God bless America.
* It shouldn’t always be about price. Hyatt talks about the expense of traditionally designed covers, and notes he was able to get a cover designed for $400 to $500. But there was quite a bit of commentary on the post about how often that image of the life preserver has appeared in ads and on other book covers. The life preserver image was probably from free or nearly free stock; there’s no way a designer could meet the $400–500 budget otherwise. When you pay the going rate for an image, you are also paying to guarantee it isn’t sold to anyone else.
** To be fair, Hyatt notes that he uses traditional designers for most projects, “but when I am stuck or need something fast, I am increasingly turning to crowd-sourced design.”
*** Hyatt isn’t the only one who crowd-sources design, of course. Those online stationery companies (wedding invitations, Christmas cards, and so on) use contests to select the work of designers they will display. I have no idea if it’s lucrative for the designers. But you should think about this when you’re buying Christmas cards next year.
**** Q: We are a small and casual restaurant in downtown Vancouver looking for musicians to play special events that might become nightly if the response is good. No pay but you can sell your CD and get exposure. Interested?
A: I am a musician looking for a restaurateur to come to my house to make dinner for my friends and I. Might become nightly if the response is good. No pay, of course, but you get to promote your restaurant. Interested?
***** This is what I say:
Thanks for getting in touch. I no longer offer free samples. Editing is my business; I am a professional, and it’s how I earn my living. My time and what’s in my head (and heart) are the only things I have to sell. So I can’t really give my time away. I will be happy to do a one-chapter sample at my hourly rate; it takes an average of three hours. I hope you understand. I do, however, give a lot of free advice on my blog. You should check out this page on my website; it might be helpful to you. If you would like personal recommendations, most of the authors and industry professionals you see on my website are easily reached. All the best, J.
Tweet: Should you take the job for the exposure? But you can die from exposure.
Tweet: You don’t ask your dentist for a sample filling, do you? Just to see how you will work together?
Tweet: When a prospective client uses the word sample & doesn’t offer to pay, it feels like an insult.
Tweet: Is this “the free market at work”? Crowd-sourcing professional creatives.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”