Monday, May 11, 2020

A Cautionary Tale...from myself, almost 20 years ago!

I've done a fair bit of digital archiving and backing up recently, and I found this article I wrote for the AOI in 2003. The incident it refers to happened a year or so before, even so; the fee will make your eyes water!

I've posted it here as it made me laugh - at my belligerent, horrified self - but it was a reminder that I still think illustrators need to be bloody careful. This could have happened today - companies will still royally try it on, more often than not these days in the form of a 'competition' in exchange for 'exposure' or those special shiny social media coins - you know, the ones you can't spend in shops! At least I was offered fifty quid! (oof).

I also chuckled at the mention of a faxed brief - I loved my fax machine. Getting one, in 1996, meant I was finally 'on the radar.'

Finally I was tempted to name Company X. But the professional in me still says no. I might be tempted to yield, however, if enough people ask...


A cautionary tale to warn the unwary illustrator: Sarah Coleman reveals how even an experienced illustrator can strike a bad deal.

This is the tale of a momentary lapse of reason, a failure to apply the Golden Rules of Illustrating and the burning cheeks that followed.

I'd worked for Company X before, a creative and enthusiastic team with an approach to briefing that wasn't my usual:
      "Here's the theme, do what you like, no real rush, ideas finished or half-developed, invoice us for whatever you think is appropriate when you send the work in. We may or may not pick out bits we want to use and if we do, we'll pay you again to publish it."

With an almost entirely editorial/design background, I was used to a faxed brief (sometimes, if I'm lucky, treated to an art director's 'helpful' sketch at the bottom), a pretty tight spec and a quick deadline. So this was bliss.

I knew that the fee for any use of the work was bad - £50, to be exact. I also knew that this was a company with a turnover of millions. But somehow, the client filtering software in my head had managed to overlook these things. Now don't get me wrong. I knew what I was doing. This was the same Sarah who
was neck-deep in a fierce court battle involving hundreds of thousands of pounds and winning. This was the Sarah who threatened to turn down years of work with a major magazine group unless they deleted the copyright section of their contract: they deleted it. The one who refused a fabulous wrap-around book cover because they just weren't paying enough. But my enthusiasm, and my belief that the exposure would give my portfolio a turbo-injection meant I was able to start work, fully aware that we'd signed no contract. I can even say I was probably a bit flattered by their requests for so much work. (Oh! The shame!)

Now a lot of the work, though well received, was never used. But I wasn't prepared for that which was to show up in every branch up and down the country, flying off the shelves before my very eyes as I went shopping. 

It turned up on my own Christmas presents, wrapped by an unsuspecting friend. 
My students told me they'd seen their mums stockpiling my 'Best Wishes' paper. 

At a quid a sheet, I began to get miffed about imaginary royalties, and much time was spent gently kicking my own shins that I had failed to negotiate some modest royalty or at least a worthy publication fee. I soothed myself with thoughts of how nice it looked in my folio and of how a momentary lapse of reason wouldn't confuse my business head again.

So by the time sample copies of a brand new gift wrap dropped through the door almost a year and a half later, I had long decided I wouldn't work for the company again. The note accompanying the samples asked me to submit 'my invoice for the £50 publication fee.' The horror of what I'd done - or not
done - rendered me incapable of acting on the invoice for several weeks. I almost wrote it off, fearing that my foolishness in not doing things properly would be best kept unacknowledged by both me and the company concerned.

But a quick check in the middle of the night confirmed what I had thought: no contract, no fee agreed, so still open for negotiation - right? Five minutes on the phone to the AOI and I was sufficiently galvanised. They might have stuck it on the shelves already, but there wasn't a thing to say what I could expect to be paid for it.

I was surprisingly anxious about calling the company, but wasn't surprised to learn that the girl I'd worked with was only too aware of how bad the publication fee was.

The designer was helpful but ultimately handcuffed by a fee structure clearly never influenced by anyone involved in the creative side of things.Royalties were completely out of the question. The four-figure sum I quoted as a second-best option was equally hopeless. Eventually, the fee paid for the original A3 board of ideas was doubled retrospectively with the £50 publication fee on top. I explained that although I had loved the organic and relaxed way I had been asked to work, their publication payment was appallingly low. 

In response the designer explained that Company X did appreciate that after a while 'developing illustrators' became 'priced out of their market and moved on to bigger and better things' - which burned a little, having spent the best part of a decade earning a living as an illustrator - but I understood the sub-text: you might be too posh for us now, but there are many more who'll think this is a great deal.

The invoice was re-submitted with a prominently-positioned reminder that the copyright stayed mine and any secondary or future uses were subject to separate and further negotiation. Meanwhile, the burning face is subsiding. You, Company X and I are the only people who know about this, and I'm using home-made paper to wrap my presents this year. 

You of course can get a nice sheet of funky gift wrap from any branch of Company X for a pound. Don't buy it. The real cost to illustrators could be far higher.

~ This article first appeared in the Association of Illustrators Magazine in 2003. ~

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