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Before anyone says anything, I know ... design contests for a prize and the use of the design are usually spec work, and even though I'm no sort of design professional, I know the ethical problems of spec work. But I'm in an argument about one such contest and I need some better-informed opinions than mine.
The author is a social scientist who has written a textbook on research methods. Her info is not on the page, so you can't write her to chew her out if you think this is a bad idea. Please don't try to figure it out and email her anyway; this may be a teachable moment, and it certainly is not an invitation to a mobbing. She got the idea for a cover contest from a friend of hers who published what looks to be a book available in digital form only who did the same for his book's cover.
What it also doesn't appear to say on the page is that the publisher is the University of Michigan Press. (Please don't email them either.) The author explains that she gave the idea to the press, who agreed.
Her arguments in favor of the contest: that most methods texts have pretty badly designed covers, that she wants a cool cover, and that this process allows more people to contribute ideas. The winner gets $150, which she claims is fine given the budget for the book; publishers of academic books in her view/experience rarely pay much for a cover design anyway.
My arguments against her: getting a professional to do the job is a better way of getting a good design; spec work is unethical even if those who apply are happy to do it and want or need the cash; if budget was really an issue the press could have farmed the job to folks in the UM design program (or even in the design program at the author's school), where it can be part of the apprenticeship aspect of the program; and $150 is pretty meager pay for a cover design, even given the competition. (What I didn't say is that university presses can and do often have great cover designs and designers, and that there's no reason why UM Press shouldn;t have been able to find someone to do it well.)
For those inclined to chime in, here's what I want to know:
1. This is spec work, right? Or not?
2. If it is, does it matter--that is, is it on the level of spec work that, say, design students are at when one of their class assignments is to create a logo or an ad for a local company or nonprofit or their own school, one of which the organization in question will use? Is the personal nature of the contest--she wants her friends to suggest cover designs and has posted the link to the page on a blog to which she contributes--a mitigating factor? Then again, it is on Worth1000 ... but then again (again), does this sort of thing happen all the time, and no one cares?
3. What are the ethics of Michigan signing onto this? Why didn't they tap their in-house folks to do this, or their stable of freelancers? Why on earth would they think this is a good idea? Of course, if the answer to 1. or 2. above is 'no', then this question answers itself.
4. For a book cover as described in the contest rules (6 x 9 paperback, front-cover only), what (ballpark) do you think the average designer who does such work would charge? Does $150 fall inside that ballpark?