About a year ago, I was invited to beta test ArtistsnClients.com and to provide feedback for its development team. I did so with more gusto than expected.
AnC is basically a reverse Elance for the hobbyist and semi-professional art market. I want to call it the “fandom art market,” which I’m sure is a very poor term for it, but you know what I’m talking about. AnC is aimed primarily at the artists that have, over the years, peddled their wares on sites like Livejournal, deviantART, FurAffinity, and most recently, Tumblr. It aims to provide a better platform to facilitate commission transactions, which are frequently rife with problems, many stemming from the simple fact that none of these other sites were made to handle commissions.
The site launched to the public in late July and has been growing quietly since then, adding and implementing new features on a fairly regular basis. In January, deviantART launched its own platform for commissions — it’s pretty awful, but dA is the big fish in the pond, and people will use their platform because they’re young, poorly-informed, and already on the site. AnC is the little fish, and while it’s also not a perfect platform, it’s off to a far better start. So I think it’s worth talking about, because there really does need to be a better way to deal with commissions on the Internet.
Your Basic Transaction
AnC works like this: artists can create a listing for a certain type of commission, name a base price, and decide how many of that kind of commission they want to be able to handle simultaneously. This almost exactly mirrors what many artists already do in their dA journals and Tumblr posts. An artist can create a listing to accept 10 slots for a colored character bust at $20 each. Through the listing, clients can start a conversation with the artist about what they want to commission. When the artist has enough information, they can set the final price (so if the client’s request is especially complex, that $20 bust might go up to $25 at the artist’s discretion) and accept the commission. At this point, the filled slot is reflected on the artist’s listing and the client is asked to pay via Paypal.
When the client does so, the money is held by AnC. After the artist uploads the finished work, the client can mark the job as complete, and it is only then that the payment for the commission, minus a 10% fee, is released to the artist. AnC has a built-in watermarking system that will, if the artist chooses, keep uploaded work watermarked until after the job is marked as complete. Both artists and clients can access their commission history from their control panel, along with an exportable list of their monetary transactions.
The Client’s Perspective
Most of you reading this are probably artists, though in this market, a fair percentage of clients are also artists. I commission others almost as regularly as I’m commissioned myself. Regardless though, don’t skip this section. It’s important.
The client side of things on AnC is pretty straightforward. You can browse commission listings, search by tags/keywords and price range, and sort results by listing rating, age, or price. The tagging system is a little haphazard since artists aren’t especially consistent with how they decide to tag things, but the search system does also pick out words from listing titles and descriptions. Ratings for each listing correspond to the number of successful transactions the listing has had, so it’s a decent indicator of artist reliability. Artist profiles also note their average response time. You can also browse by artist, and you used to also be able to sort artists by age and rating, though this seems to be unavailable at the moment. Once you find a listing you like, you can begin your commission.
There are a few things about the way commission listings are displayed that bother me, but for the most part they’re minor complaints. I’m not a big fan of the magnification feature on the listing example. Often the magnifier lags or takes a long time to load, and there’s no indication that it’s doing anything. And in general, I just like the typical lightbox zooming better. I want to see a bigger version of the whole image, not just a bigger version of a tiny corner of the image.
I also wish artists could upload multiple examples to the listing. Given just space for one example, artists will of course choose their best work, but the question is whether they’re able to produce something at that quality consistently. Can they do as well as they did in that example for me? Multiple examples help a lot in building client confidence! A lot of artists have strong personal preferences for drawing one gender over another; it’s really frustrating to me when I find an artist with a commission listing I’m interested in, but their example art is of a woman and I have no idea if they can draw men. Some artists supplement their default example with linked or embedded images, but these artists are rare.
I think it’s funny sometimes that Artists Beware is named what it is. Sure, there are posts now and again where artists ask advice on how to deal with a crazy client, but it seems it’s mostly the client that comes out on the losing end of a bad commission deal and a majority of posts are call-outs to flaky artists.
The most common story is basic: the client pays an artist to do a job and the artist never delivers, never refunds, and/or never responds. If the client is lucky, the artist is concerned enough about their reputation that they seek a resolution to the blotched transaction after an AB post is made, but even in these cases, the client has frequently already been waiting years for their commission, which is absurd for even the most complex of jobs. And more often, even after the AB post is made, the artist just can’t be bothered, and the client is forced to cut their losses — sometimes to the tune of a few hundred dollars.
AnC addresses this prevalent problem with the obvious solution: an escrow system. This is easily my favorite feature of the site.
The client still pays upfront, but artists aren’t paid until they deliver the work. This eliminates the incentive for an artist to overwhelm themselves with too much at once, which is usually to get a lot of money at once. (It may be obvious that I’m generally leery of “emergency commissions.”) If an artist fails to deliver in a timely manner or stops responding, the client can file a dispute. If the artist doesn’t respond within a week, the client is automatically refunded. If the artist protests the dispute, the issue is escalated to AnC staff. Partial refunds can be negotiated with staff as a mediator if the artist has begun, but hasn’t finished, the work. Sure, outside of AnC, you can dispute via Paypal, but only within 45 days of payment, and often, it isn’t clear that things are going to be a problem until well after those 45 days.
My biggest concern when commissioning someone new is always “is this artist trustworthy/reliable?” Commissioning through AnC means that the worst that can happen is I waste time dealing with an unreliable artist, but lost time is still a lot better than lost money!
Recently, AnC implemented a job board, which allows clients to create specific jobs for artists to bid on — so, normal Elance. The feature is very basic and feels a bit underdeveloped, but I suppose it works as advertised.
Artists can navigate to the job board through the main browse page, but the jobs are listed with minimal detail and are not sortable or searchable. Basic job postings expire in fourteen days, and the artist-to-client populations on the site currently are probably very skewed to the artist side, so I suppose the site doesn’t anticipate there being enough jobs to require search and sort functionality? Clients can pay to extend the job post’s lifetime to thirty days, which also gives them a “featured” status on the job board and additional visibility elsewhere on the site. Until the site gets more actual job posts, this paid feature is relatively useless, but I guess it doesn’t hurt to have it there.
My main quip with the job board is just that the job listings themselves are too simple. Clients can’t converse with applicants through the job listing before accepting one, and while they could send individual artists private messages, this fragments the process and would create multiple threads of conversation that aren’t tied to job listing, which can get confusing. URLs that artists paste into their applications are also not auto-linked to their destinations, which is annoying.
I also kind of wish that the text of each artist’s application, instead of being displayed in a lightbox popup, would be displayed in the table view (above), maybe with an automatic ‘read more’ after a few hundred characters, or an option to expand/collapse text. It isn’t like the table is very crowded (why the hell is the price column so wide), and that’d make it easier to compare applications.
I also somewhat dislike that artists can’t bid higher than the your budget, but I might just be weird. Artists can tweak their price after conversing with a client about a slot, so why shouldn’t clients be able to talk it out with an artist and maybe agree to a higher price than they were originally looking to pay? Then again, I haven’t tested to see what happens after you accept an artist bid on a job — if it proceeds to a normal “slot” conversation thread, then the artist would be able to adjust their price higher from there anyway?
For the most part, commission listings on AnC are under $100. Artists undervaluing themselves is an oft-discussed topic in the community but even without getting into that, there are already a few regular outliers in the market, including adult-themed commissions, fursuit commissions, and plush/doll commissions. As such, I think it’s important for there to be a multi-payment system implemented for the more expensive commissions. It’s rare that you’ll find a client wanting to pay for a $1250 fursuit in a lump sum, and the fursuit builder will likely want access to a down payment outside an escrow system to procure materials.
A system where an artist and client can mutually decide on the number of payments, the work to be completed in conjunction with each payment, as well as deadlines, would be amazing. Essentially, it would be splitting a single commission into multiple transactions, each with an escrowed payment and a negotiable deadline (deadlines could also be implemented on their own, actually…).
An example scenario would go like this: a client and artist agree to multiple payments and the work needed for each payment. They agree to a deadline for the first part of the job and the client pays the first payment. This payment is held by AnC. The artist should upload something — the agreed upon portion of the work — prior to the deadline so the client can mark that first portion of the commission “complete.” The first payment is then released to the artist and the client is asked to pay the second payment, which is again held by AnC. And repeat until the commission is done!
Artists and clients should be able to re-negotiate deadlines as needed. If an artist fails to meet a deadline and a new one isn’t discussed and set within, say, fourteen days, AnC could default to refunding the client, similar to the dispute system. Even outside a multi-payment system, being able to set deadlines would be a great feature. As a client, I like to know when to expect things and when to check in for progress, and as an artist, I know we basically need deadlines to function anyway. <_<
The Artist’s Perspective
The artist side of AnC is similarly straightforward Artists can create listings — they’re called “slots” on the site, but I like “listing” better because then the terminology doesn’t conflict with the slot availability within each listing — for as many different types of commissions as they’d like, set an example image, set a price, etc. The platform is really pretty simple and intuitive as a result of that simplicity.
As an artist too, I dislike not being able to upload multiple examples. I also don’t like Markdown for text formatting over BBCode or limited HTML, but I guess that’s more of a personal preference than anything else? Markdown emphasizes default readability, which is well and good, but HTML and BBCode-styled syntax is much more widely used and therefore more familiar to most users. The comparative unfamiliarity with Markdown is enough to deter most artists, including myself, from using it at all. Pasted URLs beginning in http:// are auto-linked to their destinations in listings, but not elsewhere?
Tag management is another weak point at the moment. As mentioned, artists aren’t terribly consistent with how they choose to tag listings, which leads to a lot of duplicated tags like “colored”/”color,” “realistic”/”realism,” and “bust”/”headshot.” This means if I tag a thing as “color” but everyone else uses “colored,” then a client searching through “colored” will miss my listing. Having the site auto-suggest tags when an artist begins typing would be helpful, as would providing an alphabetized list of existing tags displayed in a dropdown alongside the option to create your own.
When payments are released to the artist after a successful commission, they remain in the artist’s AnC balance until withdrawn to their Paypal account.
Unfortunately, withdrawals are not automated; one of the site staff has to manually send you the amount via Paypal.
Correction: Withdrawals are apparently not manual, but are done on a schedule, so they aren’t immediate. That’s better than the previous thought, but still somewhat inconvenient. AnC’s Paypal account is operated under co-founder Jesse Hamilton’s name, so I assume it’s a less-than-ideal situation borne from either Paypal integration or difficulties with business incorporation with a geographically scattered staff…?
I kind of also wish there was an option to auto-withdraw the amount after each successful commission so I have a separate Paypal record for every commission automatically, but this is because of the way I manage my personal records and probably no one else cares.
Artists (and clients) have easy access to their commission history on the site and a separate list (above) of all the monetary transactions, which is exportable as a CSV file. I wish the two lists could be consolidated though, because the transaction log isn’t especially useful for record-keeping purposes. It really only gives you a date, an amount, and the ID of the commission, which you have to cross-reference with your commission history to figure out what it was. It would be better for the job to be listed outright, with the name of the commission listing and the client. At the very least, the list should link to record of the job, but that link wouldn’t carry over well once exported. I dislike each of the fees listed as separate entries and would prefer the fee amount be displayed in the same row as whatever job it was for, or not at all.
Again, some of my annoyance is based on the inconvenience of needing to consolidate my AnC records with my personal records, but the logs on the site could definitely stand to be a bit more sophisticated.
The biggest concern of many artists, will probably be the 10% fee. 10% is far better than deviantART’s absolutely absurd 20%, but I still think it’s too high. AnC does eat Paypal fees for you so you’re not losing anything additional there — if you charge $50 for a commission, you will get $45 — but I still want the fee to be 5%, or whereabouts. Nevertheless, AnC’s decision not to go for a subscription route means that artists only forfeit a fee upon a successful transaction, so AnC only gets paid when artists get paid — an assurance that their interests remain mutual.
Since it’s the client that benefits more from the escrow system, I think it’s acceptable for artists to charge more for a listing on AnC than they might off-site, so AnC can be a very useful tool for an artist who hasn’t built a dependable reputation yet. If the multi-payment system is eventually implemented though, AnC will also be useful for artists with higher-priced offerings, since even artists with solid reps will encounter a client who would feel better with an escrow system to back them on a $250 commission. Higher-priced commissions leads me to think that there should be a maximum fee though ($10?), even if the percentage doesn’t change. 10%, or even 5%, off $1000 is a lot. AnC may only rarely encounter an artist offering a thousand dollar commission, but if the site wants to expand its market, then it certainly shouldn’t write anyone off.
Where escrow is the primary benefit of AnC for clients, commission management and organization is the primary benefit of AnC for artists. And yet, most of the things I can think of to suggest for the artist side of the platform seem like they might be “too much” for the artist AnC targets. I want better logs for record-keeping and maybe more tools for money management — auto-withdraw at a certain amount, maybe? Integration with platforms like Mint.com or Outright.com could also be useful. AnC lets artists plug in Google Analytics code so you can track traffic to your commission listings; I haven’t tested that out, but built-in analytics of some sort would be nice regardless. Being able to see some of the overall site stats on a personal basis would be interesting.
Do most of the other artists on the site care about that kind of stuff?
AnC targets the hobbyist, amateur, and semi-professional art market for personal, non-commercial commissions. The “fandom art market” is in desperate need of such a platform. The issues that come up every week on Artists Beware really need to stop, and the artists and clients involved need to have a better system to keep both sides honest. Elance and similar sites already exist for professionals, but I think it’s important for AnC to keep in mind that many of the artists in fandom are either seeking to become professionals, or already consider themselves professionals. In the business of drawing “cartoon characters,” there is a certain level of casualness that’s expected and accepted, and the Internet makes it easy for younger artists to partake, but that doesn’t make these commissions any lesser of a business transaction. There’s still money and time and effort involved. That makes it serious.
The problem is that there’s no one to educate these artists about business stuff. While beta testing, one of the things I pushed for was artists being able to set their own terms of service, but in reality, most artists don’t even have a terms of service. They don’t know that they should. I suppose AnC doesn’t exist to educate artists so much as to make up for and help them deal with some of their common shortcomings, but additional descriptions or explanations for things (like that terms of service) and tool tips, and maybe even off-site links to additional resources, might be nice things to add. Creating some kind of community element or discussion space for artists to share and learn from each other may also be something to think about.
ArtistsnClients.com still has a lot of growing to do, but one of the nice things about that is that it’s still a pretty malleable platform. There are only two developers, and the lead, Eugen Rochko, has been very open and responsive to suggestions both via email and Twitter. I suggested the dispute resolution thing a while back and it was turned around and implemented within a week or two. The original fee calculation algorithm was more complicated, but after some user feedback, it was changed to the flat 10%. The site’s a constant work-in-progress, but that isn’t a bad thing. It’s the best thing about startups, really: the company is still human, and you can actually talk to them.
To be perfectly honest, AnC doesn’t have nearly as much value to me personally as an artist as it does to me as a client. I’ve been taking commissions online for a long time and have rather an impeccable record, if I do say so myself. I’ve never not delivered what I said I would, and while not every commission has gone flawlessly, every commission has had a resolution that was acceptable to both parties. I obsess over record-keeping, so commission management/organization has never really been an issue for me. The artist discovery aspect of AnC remains a low highlight for now while the site is small, so I still get far more exposure through the regular avenues of advertisement.
Having $5 taken off a $50 commission (VS the $1.75 I’d lose to Paypal handling a $50 commission off-site) is also a significant deterrent for me. Still, for an artist who is new at taking commissions or who is bad at keeping track of and/or organizing their commissions or who does want/need more exposure, the simple interface AnC offers can prove very valuable. And maybe that will be worth the 10% to them.
But as a client, man! I wish every artist that’s ever posted about commissions on Tumblr would sign up because I would feel so much more comfortable commissioning them through the site. There are many less established artists on Tumblr, which means a great variety of work, but virtually no accountability whatsoever. Many artists don’t have separate websites or additional web presences at all, and Tumblr accounts are easy to rename and delete. The unknowns are many and the risks are great for the commissioner. And I mean, really. Taking commissions through Tumblr asks and fanmails? Are you kidding me? What a terrible system that was obviously not made for that!
I think I’ve contributed as much to AnC as is possible without actually being part of the team, and I like to think I’ve been helpful by being able to take both sides of the platform into consideration, as well as being able to consider multiple segments of the market (anime, furry, etc).
Admittedly, my want of commissioning more artists without the risk of losing money on the flaky ones is one of the main reasons I want AnC to thrive, but that’s as good a reason as any, really. It amazes me, too, that it took so long for something like AnC to get made. Artists Beware has been around for ages. Some of these solutions presented here are so obvious. What else are we overlooking? Hopefully spreading the word about the site will get more folks involved — more opinions and more suggestions will keep the devs busy and the site growing.
Artists want clients to give them money. Clients want artist to actually be reliable. Give them a platform where the latter is guaranteed for your money back and the former will happen naturally. Everybody wins?