It sounds like a great idea, right? Sign up for 99 Designs, get a bunch of great artists to compete for your cover, and get to look over their work then decide which one fits you best. You get a great cover for an inexpensive price. How cool is that?
Let me tell you that it is not cool. It is not cool at all. It may be great for you, but it totally sucks for the designers. Why? Because it means they are putting a tremendous amount of work, hours, and effort into something that they may never sell. It’s called speculative (spec) work, and it is against the Ethical Guidelines of the Graphic Artists Guild. For very good reason.
As artists and designers, our work and time has value. So does our education and experience. When a professional designer sits down to help you with your cover, they are bring with them degrees, certifications, high end software and the knowledge to use it, a huge hardware investment (my software does not run on dinky $500 desktops!) and years, sometimes decades, of hands-on experience. That has a value. Doing work for free that has a low probability of being purchased? That not only hurts the designer who does spec work, but it helps demean the entire professional design industry as a whole, reinforcing the belief that our work is valueless.
I can hear what you are thinking. “Wait a minute,” you say. “I work on spec too. I write an entire book not knowing if it will sell. What’s more speculative than that?” Yes, you write a book and you don’t know if it will sell. But you have options with that book. You can take that book to a number of agents and publishers, or you can publish it yourself if you like.
Now let’s take a mythical scenario. Let’s say that self-pub is not available to you at all. And let’s say that you have an agent, and that agent has a publisher, and (remember this is mythical) that publisher wants you to write a certain, very specific type of book for a niche market held only by that publisher. There is no advance and no contract. So you work hard on this book and you finish it and present it to the publisher. Only to find that the publisher has also solicited 10 other authors to write that same book, and he likes that other person’s book better than yours. And even worse, because of the way that book is written, you cannot sell that book to anyone else, because its niche was so specific that you can’t rework it. You have to just trash it. All those hours down the drain.
That’s what happens with spec work and outfits like 99 Designs. If I, say, pour 10 or 15 hours into designing a book cover for an author that wants a specific cover (or if it’s a logo, or a business card, or branding, or packaging) and the buyer decides to go with someone else, I am probably just out those hours of work. I have given my expertise away for free. Maybe I can use elements in something else, maybe not.
I find it sad that designers feel the need to do spec work. I personally think it’s a very poor way of doing business. I hope that at least some of you will consider the artist’s side when thinking about outfits like 99 Designs. Most professionals will have some kind of portfolio for you to look at. Instead of asking them to do free work on the small chance they might get your business, I hope you take the time to find an artist you like, and work with them personally.