For a large part of my career I’ve received emails asking me to do work for free, usually for some scheme, a project someone is very excited about that will make big money one day; a charity, a collection of postcards that will head into a gallery, a children’s book that’s been written by someone who hasn’t got the budget, but when the book sells they’ll have some…
Most of these people mean well, and don’t mean to offend. They often, however, simply don’t think about their email from the point of view of the recipient. Even now the notion lingers that artists work for the love of it, with money as a nice but inessential by-product, or that they create because they ‘simply have to’, and payment is somehow vulgar or selling out.
Those attitudes may sound ludicrous, but they do still exist, lurking right along the edges of the creative world, often by those who like to look at and be involved with creative stuff, and don’t or can’t do it themselves, but want something for free, for their own hopefully money-making scheme.
I handle all such requests with politeness and grace, because to do otherwise would be rude and pointless — they wouldn’t learn a thing. If it’s not a straightforward case of not wanting to do the project (because, occasionally, if the circumstances, timing and criteria are right, I will), I’ll always to help the sender see where their approach might have gone awry.
The most recent one, received yesterday, was an example of this.
Here was their opening paragraph (you may even have received this one yourself):
I stumbled across your illustrations earlier this week. They are really good :)
‘Stumbled’? Dreadful choice of word. They weren’t even researching, or honing down a shortlist; they hadn’t trawled websites, Instagram, or bought a book in which the illustrations hit just the spot for their project. They merely ‘stumbled’ across me (and no doubt myriad other artists).
Why is this a problem? Well, it says nothing at all about why they picked me, what they love about the work enough to ask for it to be created for free, what my profile could lend the project, or what my experience in book illustration might bring to their project.
I could just have been a name scraped from anywhere, one of 500 emails fired off at once hoping that one at least will stick.
‘They are really good’. What on earth does that even mean? ‘Good’ is massively subjective and says precisely nothing — merely a lazy word presumably chosen to suggest flattery. They don’t say why the work is a good fit; why the medium is a sound choice. They betray the fact that they probably haven’t even looked at the work in any detail with that solitary choice of word.
And that was the only part of the email which spoke about my work — the work they then went on to ask for for free, with virtually all of the rest of the email telling me about their project.
So I replied, politely declined, and explained why I wasn’t going to do the work:
I get a lot of enquiries like yours but don’t have the time to engage with them all, so I am going to say ‘no’ to this one, sorry. I also have very specific organisations which my business supports, and we endeavour to keep our free-of-charge work to those.
All of which is completely true.
I went on to suggest how they could improve their approach:
I will give you a little advice though, about how to contact someone when you’re asking them to supply their skills and services for free. You say you ‘stumbled’ across my work, which is not a good start — it makes it look like the individual who you’re asking to work for you, for free, is just a random find, rather than someone you’ve carefully researched and chosen. This does not make the artist feel good, and won’t help them to feel enthusiastic about working for free.
Also, all you say about my work is that it’s ‘really good’. What does this mean? Why do you like it? What makes it good? More importantly, what makes it ‘good’ for your particular project? Where did you see the work? Do you know how long the artist has been working, or what famous or high-profile projects they’ve worked on? ‘Really good’ again could make the artist confused, because it is such a subjective word, and says nothing about what YOU like about the work, and why it’s suitable.
This throwaway line also makes the recipient feel like you’ve just copied and pasted the same email to an unknown amount of artists. Which you may well have done; I can’t tell.
And then suggested what a better approach might look like:
A better opening paragraph would be something like this (an example):
“Hello (name of artist),
We know your work from the ‘****’ series you illustrated for **** (name some real work they’ve done, that you like) and we love your ink and wash, colourful illustrations, especially the recent work for author **** *****. We know you’ve worked for a long time and have real experience with book illustration and story telling — we follow you on Instagram — and we’re contacting you about a project we would love you to be involved with, if you have the time and the energy. We appreciate you will be busy, but would be grateful if you would read about our project.
And at the end — ALWAYS, ‘thank you for taking the time to read this email’.”
Finally, what was also missing from the email is ‘what’s in it for me’. Not even a mention, in this particular email, about ‘feeling good about’ helping the particular group they’re working with, or contributing to so-and-so, or suggesting any kind of kickback in terms of involvement, or seeing the project through — though there was the teeniest dusting of emotional blackmail via reference to using the skills to help someone ‘not as blessed as you are’.
A little strange, but then, as I mentioned, every email is different!
I hope my emailed replies never come across as, well, cross — certainly I always wish the best for them and genuinely hope they get their project off the ground — but I can never just send a ‘no’ without suggesting how they can improve their approach, which they very often need to.
Exceptions are requests from agencies or corporations, which at best can be a little entitled and over-keen; at worst, demanding a whole load of stuff in return for ‘exposure’ when they should know better.
Money makes the word go round, but so does charity and collaboration, and I have and will continue to do work that isn’t for currency. But if you’re going to ask for a creative handout, at least do it properly.
So in summary, here’s my checklist for senders!
1) Do you know who you’re writing to?
Have you familiarised yourself with their work, medium, clients?
USE THEIR NAME.
2) Do you know why you’re asking that artist specifically, and can you articulate that?
3) Are you able to tell the artist where or how you found them, and what drew you to their work?
They will want to know they’re not just a name on a ‘fingers-crossed’ email list.
4) What’s in it for them? Besides basking in the glow of having given to charity, or the promise of ‘exposure’ (which the artist likely doesn’t need, or you can’t meaningfully provide)?
5) Can you be flexible in your timings? Artists may want to help, but can’t do so right away. All good things come to those who wait, so be prepared to. You can’t have ‘on-demand’, fast, AND free.
6) If the artist says no, do you have your reply ready? ALWAYS send a ‘thank you anyway’ email. It’s very poor form to simply fail to reply. Unless you really have sent out 500 emails en masse.
7) If the artist says yes, do you have your reply (and your gratitude) ready?
8) What happens after the work is created/donated? Explain how the artist is involved in the project beyond just handing over the booty.
9) Tell the artist who YOU are, and what this is important to you.
10) Say please. And thank you. Always. Even when you reply to their ‘no’ email.
‘Manners maketh man’, and every human wants to feel like they’re important and valued in a project or team. If you’re asking an artist to be involved, for free OR for money, you’re asking them to be ‘on your team’. Start out by writing to them as if you believe that, and you’ll be off to a much more hopeful start.