Working hard, or hardly working?

Learning to say no to unfair job proposals.

A couple of months ago an exciting email hit my inbox.

It came from a big magazine published in 15 countries, they had an interesting project they wanted me to illustrate (Yay!) It was for the fashion section of the magazine; with the occasion of the 90th Academy Awards, they wanted me to illustrate iconic dresses from the red carpet across the years. They went on to explain how much they loved my work and that they wanted to create more content about fashion and lifestyle and they were interested in extending the job to something steady (Neat!) Then, they closed saying they didn’t have budget for the project but they could offer me amazing exposure.

Major flop.

Suddenly my enthusiasm faded. I couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t the first time someone asked me to work for free but usually these offers come from acquaintances that have an idea or want help with their small business. Not from a best-selling magazine.

Let’s think about it

I was sad, angry and I wanted to reply to their email saying that it was an insult only to ask. But I also wanted to work for a big publication and prove myself up to the task of a regular collaboration. The idea of my illustrations in a major magazine was so exciting! I told myself that I draw for free all the time for my instagram and how was this any different? (except for the fact that an audience of millions awaited on the other side!) I told myself this could be the key to a very wonderful door and, if I didn’t take it, someone else would.

So I answered the email politely.

Tom Hanks being cute in You’ve Got Mail (1998)

I said thank you for thinking about me, I don’t usually work for free (hoping they would offer some sort of compensation) unless it’s for charity (hoping they would offer to make a small donation to charity for me) but the project sounded like fun and could I know more about it and the conditions of this ‘unpaid collaboration’ (hoping they would send over some standard agreement for pitches/spec work).

Sure enough I got a response. All very informal; they repeated the same one-line job description and proceeded to wave the magazine numbers at me; their more than a million weekly readers and over 9,000,000 monthly unique visitors to their website were proof of all the publicity my work was going to receive. They ended emphasising how important it was for them to know that my work would fit with them so we could work together again in the future.

And that was it. No talk about an agreement, copyright or licenses. No offer of compensation of any kind (they didn’t even offer a subscription!) And what was worse, the promise of future work now sounding more like coercion. On top of everything, their mention of numbers only made me think about all the advertisers; world class brands paying prime to promote their products, all the subscribers; one million people paying the front cover price every week, and all the celebrities; stars showing their wedding dresses and introducing their babies for top dollar

I knew they were trying to take advantage of me but now it felt real.

This is not ok

It also made me feel insecure about my work. As if I wasn’t good enough so I didn’t deserve to be paid. I felt they wouldn’t dare making this sort of offer to well-known illustrators. But for someone like me; working on personal commissions, trading at craft markets, selling my comics to local comic shops and uploading daily to instagram trying to approach my audience, the promise of reaching an upscale market for my work is so bright that it might just blind me long enough to forget about what my time and work are worth.

I was heartbroken. I didn’t understand why someone would think that it’d be ok to make such a job offer.

I think for many people the fact that, as an artist, I enjoy what I do, makes my time doing it less valuable than the time of someone who doesn’t love their job. It’s not like I’m at sea away from my family doing hard labour, drawing is fun so I shouldn’t mind doing it for free because I’m still getting enjoyment out of it. But this could be said of a passionate doctor or a lawyer by vocation, and I don’t think these professionals are asked to work for free as often as artists do.

I also truly believe the people making these proposals have never considered the fact that working for free doesn't only mean I’m not being paid but also paying for that job from my own pocket. Because bills keep coming no matter what so every minute of my work that hasn’t been compensated is paid for by me. On top of my time and work, I also use expensive materials; paper and art supplies, my computer, tablet and scanner, electricity and rent, which are not cheap but I’m also supposed to cover. And all this for a commercial publication with advertisers and subscribers. How is this different from asking a shopkeeper if I can take their produce for free to sell at my restaurant?

I think this person had pitched an idea to their supervisor who, for some reason, was not green lighting it and they wanted to show they were resourceful and get it at no cost so they could prove themselves. And that’s all very well for them but it’s not how the world works.

I’m a professional illustrator and they are a profit-making magazine. We both move in a commercial environment and it’s only fair that they pay for contributions.

Finding the words

Saying no is not one of my strong suits; I often find it difficult to put my own needs before those of others. I can spend 20 minutes listening to a sales pitch knowing I’m not interested and getting late to my next appointment just because I cannot say no and walk away.

On top of this I had so much to say and I wanted to say it with such emphasis I was afraid I would end up being rude or inappropriate.

Tom Hanks gets me.

I really didn’t know where to start so I took advice from the incredibly helpful Jessica Hische’s Client Email Helper and told this person thanks but no, thanks. I spoke about almost everything I have spoken here, I seeked to connect with them at a human level, trying to explain how these practices are not ok and it’s in our hands to stop them. I told them how much I would like to work with them in fashion and lifestyle projects if they decided to allocate budget for this.

Good night and good luck

This is the answer I received;

Oh, I thought since you asked for details you were into it. I think I explained in my first email we cannot pay for this kind of collaboration but maybe in the future we could think about it. It’s a pity, it would have been a good way to start a relationship. Anyways, thanks for your time.

Major flop II.

As soon as the free work was off the table the conversation seemed to come to an end. It’s quite apparent they had no intention to pay for my work. Not for this project nor for the potential steady contributions (if there were to be any). And the bare reality is I don’t want to work with someone who thinks a good way to start a relationship is asking me to put in my time and work so they can make money out of it in exchange for the promise of maybe, perhaps, hiring me later. That’s a couple of levels under spec work.

I wanted to reply to this email and keep the communication open. For some reason I really wanted this person to see that I was right. I needed to write a better email; that would surely do it. But I also was in the middle of moving flats; trying to work on paid jobs while selling my desk second hand so a couple of days became a week and when things cooled off I felt it wasn’t even worth it. I would just have to let it go.

There’s always a lesson to be learnt

Once I shook off the insecurities and the disappointment of knowing I wouldn’t be working for this magazine anytime soon, I realised something much more important; I do have clients that appreciate what I do and are willing to pay for it. I do what I love and make some people happy with it. And I can reserve my free time for my personal projects like Colourful Women and my zines, which I enjoy so much writing and illustrating.

Because saying ‘no’ to the wrong thing means I can say ‘yes’ to the right thing.


My name is Lucia Soto and I am an illustrator living in London. You can find my work in LuciaSoto.com or follow me on instagram to see what I’m up to.