Why Artists need to Pay Their Collaborators

So you’ve finished a novel. You’ve birthed a semi-autobiographical baby and you want to show it off to the world. You’re going to self publish and you have some idea of how to reach an audience.

You follow other authors on social media. You see a lot of book banners in your newsfeed. You’re oblivious to most advertisements, but you know how effective a clever design can be.

You’ve clicked thumbnails for novels because they reminded you of the hand drawn collages that once dominated VHS tapes, back in the heyday of horror. Others that reminded you of the black light posters for bands your parents would never let you listen to, and others that looked like Banksy Graffiti, mutated corporate logos repurposed to stick it to the man.

You’ve judged books by their covers and read many a blurb just because of the art. You want a design that compels readers to do the same. Lucky for you you know a guy.

Your good friend is a professional illustrator with a portfolio bursting with the type of horns, scales, and tentacles that would be perfect for your horror novel. He has the power to make your marketing campaign just as creepy as you need it to be.

You kind of feel sorry for your competitors. They’re stuck cobbling together cover art from the same royalty free images you see everywhere. Not you. You have an ace in the hole. There’s just one problem. Your illustrator friend is happy to discuss your project, but he’s slow to commit.

Why is that?

You wrote the book for the sheer joy of it. Why shouldn’t he get the same fulfillment from designing the cover art?

You’ve heard him say, “I don’t know what to draw today.” Now here you are handing him inspiration. Yet, he hasn’t even opened the email with your manuscript attached. You know, because this is twentieth time you’ve checked.

What gives?

Could it be that his commissioned works take priority over your friendship? Could it be that he’d rather not donate his downtime to your magnum opus, or could it be that he’s insulted that you’d assume he’d work for free?

Creativity Shouldn’t Be Free

Businesses are always looking for ways to get creative work done without paying for it, whether they’re crowdsourcing a design as part of a contest or they’re offering exposure as compensation, they’re always scheming to keep costs down.

Too many suits with heads for numbers think of creatives as some other life form. They have no idea what makes us tick. We couldn’t be motivated by the same desire to feed, clothe, and support ourselves as them. No no no. We eat seven course meals in our minds, wear Technicolor dream coats, and live in our own lavish memory palaces.

Maybe these suits saw that animation about how monetary incentives are not as motivating as purpose driven ones, so now they think they can just pay us all with purpose.

Art is supposed to be fun, right? So why should anyone get paid for it? Never mind the time artists spend developing their craft. Never mind the costs of their training. Never mind their greater career aspirations. Art is a form of recreation, whether it’s for a gallery or an advertisement.

As artists we know better than this line of reasoning. So we ought to know better than to use it on our own collaborators. We want to get paid. They need to get paid and if we can’t afford to pay then either we pay in trade, installments, or we hold off until we can.

We shouldn’t expect a fellow artist to give us their time by virtue of knowing us.

If we treat our friends like unpaid interns they won’t be our friends for long.

Don’t Count Your Resources

I’ve written a treatment for a book trailer. It needs a pair of voice actors, an animator, and a special FX wizard that literally knows how to work with smoke and mirrors.

I know a cinematographer with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment. I know actors who’ve been on stage at the Guthrie. I know an illustrator whose work has been praised by the Weta Workshop and I can’t afford any of them.

I’ll have to work within my means until I can. Maybe I’ll zoom in on a series of still photos, like a Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. Maybe I’ll narrate over my experimental film, like something out of The Ring. If I have to dress up like Rod Serling, the late great host of the Twilight Zone, and pitch my premise directly to the audience then that’s what I’ll do.

Closing Thoughts

This article may not seem as informative as usual, but that wasn’t the point. Consider this a public service announcement or more of a reminder, because this situation keeps coming up in all of my feeds. Someone is always asking other artists to work for free.

Remember if you can’t afford to spend the cash then trade is good compensation. If you want a guest contributor for your blog then offer to copy edit something in return. If you want an artist to design a banner offer to write the bio on their website. If you need a filmmaker to do your book trailer offer to help them as a production assistant for their projects.

Don’t presume your friend will do you favors just for the exposure. Don’t presume they want to spend their downtime working on your thing, and don’t presume their interest in your story means they are indebted to it. They’re not.

Don’t ruin a friendship by pressuring a fellow creative to work for free.

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