-By Lauren Panepinto
I hadn't planned to jump into financial matters just yet, but a few things happened this week, and they perfectly illustrate a side of the industry that is really so much more difficult than it should be. First, I spent a whole day chasing invoices that should have been paid by my company, yet for varied reasons, weren't. Then an AD friend who shall remain nameless told me an artist was holding out on sending a piece of hi-res art until they got paid, which was potentially contractually causing them to cancel the piece of art and not pay the artist at all. Then I had an artist email me who was supposed to be paid literally in November, and yet neither the check nor bank transfer has arrived yet, despite my many efforts to get it done. So I thought this would be a fabulous time to write a bit on Finance & Contracts, the most annoying part of being a freelance artist or Art Director (yes, trust me, it's as annoying for us as it is for you).
Before we start, let me say this. 99% of the Art Directors in the world are not out to screw you. First of all, if a company has an AD, then chances are they're a decent size and pretty legit. Second, paying artists is literally one of the great things about our jobs. Generally ADs wish they could pay you more than they are allowed to, because we know better than anyone how much work has gone into a project. And we already agree that the art is the most important part of any book cover, or game, or movie, so trust me, we're on your team. We'd like to pay you more. (And while we're at it, our salaries should be higher too. My artists get a much higher hourly rate than I do.) So, the moral of the story is, the AD is on your side. They want to give you everything they can to let you make great art, and then they really do want to pay you for it.
Because I so thoroughly believe this, I am totally in support of things like PACT, who are setting out to make a database for artists to see ratings of potential clients and companies. I'm not denying there are scams out there—unfortunately there are too many, but I'm not going to cover that here. I'm also not going to discuss working with super-small companies, or directly for individuals. That is a whole other can of worms, and I will put it on the list for a later post. This post is going to be about legit companies, professional Art Directors, and what you can do to help yourself get paid with the most speed and least confusion. In a perfect world, you wouldn't need to hear this, but let's be realistic...
So what the hell goes wrong? And what can you do?
1—The Bigger the Company, the More Bureaucracy
In a major company, there are a lot of separate departments, and they're generally crap at talking to each other. The more departments you have to get to work together on something, the longer it's going to take, and the more opportunities there are for it to get screwed up. Well, getting a freelancer paid involves 3 of the most bureaucratic departments in any company: Legal, Human Resources, and Finance. You get your contracts approved through Legal, then Human Resources has to approve the "hire" and make sure we're not going to get in trouble with the IRS, and Finance is the one that handles the invoicing, and has to check with Legal & HR to make sure they're cleared to pay the person before they let any money out of the house. Each of these departments has sub-divisions, and they're not great at communicating either. In my company's pay flow it literally, no exaggeration, takes 8 people to get someone paid. And none of these people are trying not to pay you, it's not their money, they don't get to keep it, they're just doing their jobs. But any one of those people can be having a bad day, miss a cup of coffee, have a hangover, not be paying attention, and poof, a document goes missing, or a checkbox doesn't get checked, and your money goes straight into limbo.
What can you do?
Unfortunately not much. Communication with your Art Director is key. They may or may not have a studio manager helping them deal with paperwork (I wish), and if they don't, they are chasing paperwork in between their art-related duties, and it tends to pile up. Personally my favorite days to catch up is friday nights after everyone goes home, which shows you how awesome my social life is. Polite reminders and queries are always appreciated. Sometimes it might take me a day or two to get back to you, and it might be a "I'm tracking this I have to get back to you" reply, but don't stew furiously in silence assuming the worst until you are ready to explode in a nasty email. I'd rather have someone emailing me once a week than simmering in silence. I literally have no way of knowing an artist isn't paid until they tell me they haven't been paid, which is a little ridiculous, but sadly how things work a lot of the time.
2—Most artists suck at paperwork. (Art Directors too)
Sorry guys, it's true. Getting most artists to fill out paperwork is like herding cats. You only send back the signature page and don't realize you missed filling out a whole bunch of info in previous pages. Then you'll use colored inks that don't scan well, or you'll scan pages at resolution too low to read. You don't read contracts, and you are crap at following directions on forms. Paperwork is redundant, annoying, and confusing, but I can't pay you unless you fill it out and get it back to me in legible form. (No iPhone pictures of paperwork either.) A lot of companies have moved to digital signatures and fill-in pdfs (sadly not mine yet, I'm trying to spearhead that here), but regardless - whatever paperwork hoops a company asks you to jump thru, you have to jump thru them. The ADs didn't make the paperwork, and we hate it as much as you do, but our hands are tied if we don't get the proper forms from you. And if they're filled out wrong and we don't catch it, then your invoice will die in the process, and I often won't know until you ask me why you haven't been paid and I have to go chasing thru the system looking for where the holdup was.
What can you do?
When an AD sends you paperwork, don't let it sit. Read it (especially contracts), ask questions if you have them, and then fill it out neatly, with the proper information, ALL the information, scan it in nicely, and email it back. Keep a W9 (US citizens) up to date. Or a W8-BEN (non US-citizens). And for god's sake, if you're a US citizen, then get an EIN number already. It's a code number you use for business instead of your Social Security number, which you shouldn't be giving to anyone anymore. Getting an EIN takes 5 min on the internet, does not cost any money thru the IRS (do not fall for a scam site that charges you money for one) and it does not change your tax status in any way. If you have questions about your tax status, deductions, stuff like that, there's tons of resources online, or talk to an accountant. A good one saves you money even beyond what they charge you. Some specialize in freelancers, or even freelance artists. Ask around.
There are also many different time management and invoicing management programs around, and honestly, having one is a great investment. You're not just an artist, you are a businessperson, and running the business is half the work. Chime in artist folk, in the comments, what management programs do you guys use?
3—Artists & Art Directors are not lawyers or accountants.
It is a crime against artists that art schools do not teach more business. We are launched out onto the professional world with not only very little idea how to find work and conduct ourselves professionally, but we also just don't know how to protect ourselves legally. In fact, I was on the FIT Illustration Program Advisory Board this year, and I said that art students should have an "Art in the Real World" class that starts freshman year and runs right thru to senior year, and have it cover contracts, copyrights, invoicing, taxes, self-promo, marketing, etc. and they gave me a nice pat on the head and sent me on my way. Most schools, at best, have a one-semester Business for Artists class which is woefully inadequate. I'm considering talking to smART school about starting a class that covers business for artists, just because so many people ask me about where to learn this stuff. (Good idea? What do you guys think?)
And it's not just artists. I have received zero training in law & finance, yet I manage budgets for all my books, and have had to teach myself the ins and outs of contracts, copyright laws, and licensing (which in our new digital age, changes constantly). I am always pestering my patient legal department for explanations, and reading business magazines, and slogging thru fine print. It's not fun, but I have to be able to explain all the terms that we work by to our artists if they ask. And I feel morally obligated to know the company I work for is as fair as possible. But I still fly by the seat of my pants a lot of the time. I am often behind on paperwork, and I feel horribly about it, but I, like most ADs, do the best we can, and spend sexy friday nights elbow deep in paperwork.
What can you do?
All this boils down to a lot of people who are scared of legalese working on a lot of gentlemen's agreements and trust. And you know what, it's a testament to how awesome most artists and ADs are that there's so few problems. But the fact is, every company has different policies about work for hire vs. licensed art, kill fees, revision rights, resale rights, and a thousand other things, and as an artist it's up to you to read a contract before you sign it. (And feel free to remind your overworked AD that she forgot to send it.) And ask questions if you have them. And if you can't live with something in a company's contract, then don't work for them. But don't sign a contract and get pissed at the AD later for having to follow it. This also applies to budgets. If you agree on a price, it's extremely unprofessional to get mad about it later. You can always have a mature conversation with an AD if revisions are getting out of hand, or something seems unfair, but don't lash out at us like we're the enemy, ok? Party foul.
If you take anything away from this article, take this: It's all about Communication & Care. When you're working for a new company read everything, ask questions, prepare to fill out a lot of paperwork, and have patience. Yes, there are people out there who will screw you over. But most people are just trying to get the job done. Protect yourself with knowledge, don't sign anything you don't understand, and be patient, polite, and persistent.
Added 7/25: Getting You Paid Part 2: Contracts & Licensing