About a year ago I was working on a series of illustrations for a series of novels. This experience would come to be one of the most foul of my career, but also serve as a turning point for me as I realised the worth of my craft. See, out there in the world there are tonnes of people who want you, as a writer, artist, typesetter, editor, musician, whatever, to work for nothing.
Sometimes, with the right agreement, things can be worked out: My friend Carl is a framer, and he has been known to frame art for Artists in return for a piece of their art. A trade of services. But, more often than not, working for free is a terrible idea. Working for “exposure” doesn’t mean you’ll get exposed. Working for the love doesn’t put food in the cupboard, and believe it or not, making art takes time, effort, sleepless nights, planning, stress: because after all, it is work.
With that in mind, when I was approached by an old friend to do a series of Illustrations for her dads potential book, I agreed to under the condition of payment.
At this time in my life, I was making money from art, much like now I was doing jobs for established brands and companies to earn cash, as well as selling my own prints to get dollar dollar bills. I had a nine to five job to support me, but I’d done work for people like NSFWcorp and done a few comissions and everything was good.
My rate was $20 an hour, and people paid. That’s like £16 an hour, and I think, for the work and the quality of my service, it was reasonable. Working for the friends dad, who will now go by the name of The Rabbit for reasons that will never be explained, I agreed to work for £8 an hour. Mates rates and only £2 more than minimum wage. I work harder at art than I did at my minimum wage jobs.
Initially, the rabbit gave me the manuscript for his novel and wanted around 16 illustrations, full colour for his book, plus a cover. I told him that without even planning, if I started off doing 16 illustrations I’d be doing about five hours work on each watercolour painting, and it’d cost him about £40 a picture, meaning he’d be paying £640 for 16 pictures.
I’m going to break down what he’s buying with that money. He’s not only buying the picture, which £40 for an original piece of full colour painted art is smashing (I’ve seen comic artists charge £40 at conventions for sketches) But he’s getting right of ownership and right to distribute. He owns the pictures and the right to make money off them. Fair cop, right.
So, obviously for one guy hopefully selling a novel to a publisher, £640 is a tonne of money, so I told him that what would be a better idea is if we worked on four or five images as an example of the work that’d be included in the book. At this stage of the game I was still unsure as to how a publisher would react to a book pitch for an adult novel with full colour illustrations. I mean the writing costs would be severe and for an unknown author as well…
I didn’t want him to whittle away his money on a concept.
I agreed to start working on the pictures in December. He wanted me remember, and I was in the middle of an art gallery show with relief work and all sorts, so was busy up until the beginning of December. He’d seen my work. Liked my style. He’d reviewed my portfolio, come to my show, looked through sketchbooks that had my art in them. He knew what to expect and was excited about the project. So was I, his book wasn’t to my taste but I thought it was the sort of thing in vogue, and people might be into it. With a severe edit it’d be an all round good bit of fun, and some vintage style illustrations would be neat. I did some planning on the pictures, did concept drawings, proposed layouts, put then into sheets, did some detailed works, sent them over with a bill for £50 initially. We met two days before Christmas, during which time I had the norri (i think that’s how you say it) virus and had been out of action for a week. We were a week behind, and he was very eager to get things going, and as such he gave me my money and a £50 deposit to get the ball rolling. Great stuff.
Now, I made a few mistakes here. Firstly whilst I sent a paypal bill, the dude paid me cash in hand, didn’t want a receipt or any for of proof of transaction. He didn’t want a paper trail because he said he was a bit of a socialist and didn’t want to tax man to know about this. I was uneasy, and I should have been. There was no evidence of anything. No work agreement. No pay agreement. The majority of what we’d talked about had been over the phone, the rabbit and I were the only two humans on earth who knew the ins and outs of our agreement. This is bad practice, very bad practice, and as a creative you should never put yourself in that position. It could have happened that I gave him the work and he said “what money” and disappeared into the night and it’d be my word against his that he ever agreed to pay me. Put as much as you can in writing.
Get the work required. Get the agreed fees. Get time scales, get all this and more in writing, even if its just an email to their address that they reply to with a yes, and always, always make a reciept that you have a copy of. Know where the money is going and coming from.
Anyway, back to the story. I got a phone call from the Rabbit soon after saying that he wanted to step things up a notch and that he wanted me to push ahead with the final pictures. He said he trusted my with the designs from what he’d seen and he’d agreed which pages needed to be illustrated and which layouts should be used. So, giving me a week, he wanted 4 mock ups of the pictures that would go in the book, as well as layouts and concepts for 4 future illustrations like I’d done before. I agreed, took time off work and got them done. I emailed them to him on the Tuesday evening, a day late on the time scale. I apologised about it in the email, but the work load had been bigger than expected and I hoped all this was to his liking.
Another mistake on my behalf. If you say a date, produce SOMETHING on that date, even if its just half the work and an apology. If you feel the work load is too heavy don’t agree on it, and if you’re feeling the pressure send an email to who you’re working for. Make sure that they know you’re struggling or having doubts. Most people will be ok with that. Remember that my deal with the Rabbit was super casual, and I thought a day would be alright.
I awaited my reply from the Rabbit, and a day later I got a phone call whilst I was back at the day job from him, asking me where the art was. It was in his email folder, I assured him I’d sent it a day late, he was very angry with me, told me he checks his email every evening and he hadn’t got it yet. I had sent the email to the address he’d replied to me several times on, and all I could do was insist. We ended the conversation with him disbelieving I’d done any work.
So, when a reply to my email came I was happy, until I opened it. I kind of saw the contents coming, seeing he’d got his daughter to ask for his manuscript back from me because he needed to show it to a publisher. Of course this was a lie, he wanted it back because he wanted to terminate contract with me. I made up some excuse, and when the email came I saw that binder of paper as my only bargaining chip.
The rabbit was displeased. He didn’t like the drawings. Said they weren’t what he was looking for. Said he never wanted me to act without consulting him on the designs first. Confused the characters in the pictures so that they didn’t represent them, which was more annoying than anything. He said the illustration of the elegant police chief made her look like a tramp, and they did, because they were illustrations of the tramp character. This was annoying. But, not only did he want his manuscript back, but he wanted his money back.
Now, what had I done wrong here chaps? Well, I’d not agreed upon an end of contract deal. If someone wants to terminate half way through, make sure they have agreed to pay you for all work done. I’d spent about three hours each on those illustrations, four on one hugely tricky action scene, so at my reduced rate he owed me £104 taking into account the £50 he’d given me as a down payment for future work having gone on the concept boards I’d sent him as well. So instead of the £104 he should have given me he wanted half of his down payment back, leaving me getting paid -£25. This was an arrangement I would not be prepared to go into.
So, all that came from him to my protests was silence, I sent him a carefully prepared email to which I got no reply and after consulting my friend who happened to be a legal beagle solicitor realised I didn’t have a leg to stand on. I decided to call the rabbit one evening after work. We’d had many conversations about this time, usually about eight o’clock nine-ish, so I thought this was his reasonable office hours. I got the answer phone where I left him a message, basically stating in official terms I wanted my money.
What did I do wrong? When shit got real, I should have gotten real. When a client turns sour, never expect them to have a squishy human side. Never treat them like the person they were, this worm has turned sister, lawyer up, seek legal advice, get a rational third party to deal with it, but never expect the avenues you once walked down to be still open to you. Calling him was a horrific mistake. I should have gotten ANYONE else in the world to phone him, midday on a Wednesday or something. On a Friday evening gave him ammunition which he used.
I had done something stupid. Is called him during HIS time and bothered him in HIS HOME. This gave him the legal standing that I was harassing him. Whilst he owed me money, and we had talked many times before in his home phone at similar times before, we weren’t friends now, and if he says I was harassing him, I was in the eyes of the police, which he told me that he was more than happy to go to.
I know that one phone message wasn’t harassment and if I had more balls, I should have stood up to him. I like to imagine different versions of me across time and space and dimensions are standing up to him right now, putting their foot down and saying “Not today!” but I didn’t. In the furious phone call he aimed at me the next day, he threatened me with all sorts of legal things that I had no defence against because I had no paper trail, no agreements, no contracts, nothing. It looked to the casual observer that I’d agreed to do work for free and then sent him a bill, or done work he’d never wanted doing and demanded he pay me for it, he held all the cards and I had to play by his rules. By the end of the angry call, we’d come to the arrangement that I’d give back the manuscript, drew a line under monies owed, and he didn’t go to the police, removing the answer phone message from the machine.
I was whipped and beaten. I’d done the work, received none of the benefits and now had to take a holier than thou aggressive speech from a goblin with an attitude. He dressed me down after turning up to collect his manuscript from me AT MY PLACE OF WORK. (I told security the whole story and I still think they look for him daily with the hope to beat the sass out of him).
It’s a big manuscript and I did keep a large chunk of it encased he went back on his word, hoping to float it on the internet and ruin his claim to authorship as a self destruct button. He didn’t. I was being silly, it was over, I’d lost having been taken for a ride.
So what did I learn from this? Well I now have a procedure for everything. If I’m entering into a contract I get everything in writing. Even if its just a phone call with long term collaborator Stu Perrins I send him an email after detailing everything we agreed upon so we’re on the same page. It’s easier for everyone and speeds up the creative process.
For two, I make sure money and timeframes are agreeable and agreed upon. I don’t rush jobs, I don’t agree to work its impossible to achieve and I get it all agreed upon in writing.
I do all payments with receipts and declare all time usage in spreadsheets and official documents so there’s no arguing over time.
And I have learnt to say to myself “You are worth more than this”. Because I am. I can afford to pick and chose what I do, because I have things in place to support me. Never do a job that’s risky because you need the money. Risks are only worth it if they pay out and if they were certain to do so they wouldn’t be risks. Never do a job you are uncertain whether you can deliver on.
Artists, creators, we’re worth more than this. Realise the worth of your talent and whilst its a struggle if you value yourself, others will value you too. Be good to one another and keep your head above water. Be sensible and always look before you jump.
The rabbits book never got the publishing deal, according to the website it was set to be release on Amazon at the end of 2013, and I hope to god he edited it, I always think the sign of a classy Ebook is a good editor. All the team on it apparently waived their fees for working on it because the profits from the first three books will go to Charity, which is genuinely nice and Nobel. Working for charity is a wonderful thing, and I recommend it, it helps the world and makes you feel good in the process. I wish everyone involved in it the best of luck with true sincerity, I really do. You may not believe me after a few of my flippant comments this this very post, but I hold none of this against anyone because I feel this ordeal has helped me realise quite a few things, and ultimately, wasn’t too costly in time, money or my physical well being.
But the thing that sticks with me the most dear reader, and thanks so Much for reading this far, is the last thing he said to me before storming out of my place of work that day. He said “I pray to god you never do this to anyone again” and I can assure him, I will never, ever do it to anyone again.
I will never let anyone dupe me again.