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Pricing Your Illustration Work

Pricing your work is one of the most stressful things to do in the business of illustration. Asking for too much money may cause the client to walk away, but asking for too little will leave a lot of cash on the table that could have been yours. So, how does an illustrator determine an appropriate fee for each assignment? Let’s examine the criteria you can use to help decide a fair and honest payment.

Before delving into the nitty-gritty, I want to address a couple key points. Firstly, your value. There are clients out there who will try to deceive you into working for tiny (or nonexistent) budgets under the guise that art is fun and, therefore, shouldn’t be worth a lot. Or they’ll throw the word “exposure” at you, telling you that it will be great for your portfolio. That’s all garbage. As any illustrator will tell you, making art is hard work. It not only requires the skill, craft, and brainpower to accomplish each assignment, but it also takes years of experience to get to that point. If it was easy, clients could do it themselves. Since they can’t, recognize your value and never be scared to demand fees that are appropriate for your work and turn away others that aren’t.

Another point that needs to be addressed is that the illustration world is not a vacuum. The way you price jobs doesn’t just affect your fees, but every other illustrator’s fees as well. If you continually undercut other illustrators that will eventually just lead to a race to the bottom as clients look at your budgets as the new norm. So, it’s very important to charge a price that’s reflective of the effort and skill it takes to create an illustration for the vitality of the industry.

So, now that we’ve gotten that preamble out of the way, where do we begin with this confusing topic? Let’s talk about what actually is bought and sold when an illustration is commissioned and what factors come into play when considering pricing.

Pricing Criteria

The key thing to understand when pricing illustration work is that it’s not a service like painting a house or selling a widget. Illustration is all about rights and usages. What you’re trading isn’t actually your art, but the rights to reproduce it in various formats and media. As such, the more rights and usages a client wants, the more money your illustration is worth. I like to think of this as a direct correlation between eyeballs and dollars: the more eyeballs that could be potentially exposed to the work, the greater the dollar figure should be. With that in mind, the basic criteria that affect illustration pricing are:

Size and Location

Where is the work going to appear? Is it going to be on the cover of a magazine or the inside? How big will the illustration run? In order of highest fee to lowest fee, it should be:

  1. Full wraparound cover
  2. Front cover
  3. Back cover
  4. Spread
  5. Full page
  6. Half page
  7. Quarter page
  8. Spot

The same could also hold true for a website (above the fold, below the fold, full-width, etc.).

Usage

How will the work be used? As background art on a TV show? For a wine bottle label? For a CD cover? Different usages will command different fees. Remember the dollar to eyeballs ratio when pricing your art for a particular assignment.

Geography

In what geographical areas will the illustration run? Will it be hyper-local (like your small-town newspaper) or worldwide? Typically, you’ll start with national rights which should be cheapest (besides regional rights) and add more money for each country/language that the client wants to use the work. All world/all languages should be worth more than just North American English. With internet work, though, it’s tricky since the whole world can access it. Page views may be a better gage in that instance and you could adjust your rate depending on the popularity of the site that commissions you.

Time Limits

How long will the illustration run for? For editorial, this is normally the first printing. For books, it may be ten years or the entire life of the book until it goes out of print. Other clients may want your work to be used in perpetuity. The greater the time frame the client wants, the greater the fee.

Exclusivity

Are you allowed to resell this image to other clients either in different markets or even the same market? Reselling can be an additional revenue stream, so the more exclusivity a client wants, the higher your fee should be.

Black and White vs. Color

Color work takes more time than black and white work and, thusly, should be charged a higher fee.

Number of Copies

If it’s a book, what is the first printing run going to be? If it’s a magazine, how big is the circulation? If it’s merchandising, how many copies of the item will your illustration appear on? The more copies out in the world, the higher the fee should be.

Additional Rights

You may do an illustration for a book cover and the client may also request that they have additional rights to use it for marketing, to remove the illustration from the cover and use it separately to create an author website, to be able to pull pieces from it and use it on the interior, to have the option to use the same illustration on the paperback cover or international editions, etc. For each additional right the client is asking for when they commission you, you should be compensated accordingly. Occasionally, clients will also try to do an all-rights buyout where they get everything for one price. If that situation arises, you need to seriously consider a much higher fee, as the client will be able to use your work for any purpose they want and that could be a lot of lost income.

Work for Hire

Speaking of all-rights buyouts, we should also talk about Work for Hire. Some clients will try to commission you under a Work for Hire agreement. What this means is that they will own all the rights to the work, including the copyright and maybe even your original art in some circumstances. Your name may not even be associated with the image. In a Work for Hire agreement, your fee should be considerably higher to account for these things.

Size of the Client

Some companies are mom-and-pops; others are giant, soulless mega-corporations. I’m sure you can imagine which one has more money to spend on illustration and should be charged accordingly.

Location of the Client

America seems to have a much healthier illustration budget than other countries. If you find yourself doing a lot of international work, take into consideration that their budgets may not be as robust.

Man-hours

You should also consider the man-hours you’ll have to spend on any proposed assignment. It’s helpful to keep track of your hours to start with, just to get a handle on how long things typically take (keep in mind non-art related tasks too, like emailing back and forth with clients, looking for reference, going to meetings, etc.). Once you’ve figured out your man-hours, review the proposed budget and break it down into a projected hourly fee. Are you getting paid well enough or are you barely making minimum wage? If it’s not what you need to make the illustration worth doing, then you should suggest a more reasonable fee to make it worthwhile. While you don’t want to charge hourly for illustration (flat fees are typically preferable), you want to make sure that, at the minimum, you’re getting a breakdown that works for you.

Rush Fees

If a job comes in that requires a lot of work in a very short time frame (a rush job), you can also charge a rush fee for it. This would be a higher fee to compensate for the crazy late-night hours you’re going to have to put in to make the super tight deadline for the client.

Royalties

You may also be entitled to royalties on certain projects. Perhaps you’re illustrating a children’s book or providing art to be used as part of an app that your work will be based around? Most assignments won’t have royalties attached to them, but for the ones where it’s standard, you’ll want to have the highest royalties you can. Typically, in that instance, your “fee” will actually end up being an advance against those royalties. If that’s the case, it’s well worth noting that a lot of projects won’t ever make back their advances so you want to get the highest advance possible since you may never see another cent.

Applying This to the Real World

OK, so now that we’ve reviewed what factors go into an illustration fee, let’s discuss how to actually price a job. There are basically two ways to evaluate pricing:

  1. The client has a standard fee, which you may want to negotiate
  2. You have to invent your own fee

Clients’ Standard Fees

Many clients already have a standard fee for their assignments and will present that to you when commissioning work. In some cases, there’s a bit of leeway to negotiate higher rates, but it won’t be astronomically larger than what they initially offer. Client fees are a pretty good way to get a barometer on the rates that are out there. The more work you do, the greater exposure towards budgets you’ll get which will give you better insight into whether a prospective client is giving you a fair offer or trying to lowball you.

When a job comes in, compare the proposed fee and rights they’re looking to get to other assignments you may have done for similar-sized clients. If it matches up closely, that’s a solid indication that they’re within what’s typical of the market. If not, then you’ll want to negotiate for a higher rate. If you haven’t done a lot of client work yet, at least this will give you a good jumping off point and you can factor in everything that was discussed above to determine whether or not their offer is fair and, if not, what kind of fee it should be closer to.

This is, by far, the easiest way to figure out pricing. But, what do you do if the client wants you to provide them with a fee out of thin air or you have no idea whether or not the client’s budget is realistic?

Coming Up With Your Own Rates

If, instead of offering a fee, a client asks you to come up with your own rates, that’s a lot more difficult and nerve-wracking. The first thing I’d suggest is, rather than giving the client a number, see if you can get a little information about what their general budget is. The reason being, whomever puts out a number first is going to be at a disadvantage. It’s far better to know a client has $10,000 than to come up with your own number and say $3,000. That’s $7,000 that could have been yours! Clients know this when they’re asking you to create a figure. In their heads, they’ve already got a budget they’re looking to come in at and are hoping you’ll underbid yourself and they’ll save money. So try to push to get them to give you some indication or range of what they’re looking at. If they’re unable to, then you’ll have to come up with your own fee. Don’t feel too lost, though, if that’s the case as there are some good resources at your disposal:

The Graphic Artist's Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines is a great resource.

A must-have resource.

If you’re completely grasping at straws, The Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines is the go-to book for illustrators and designers. Inside, it lists most of the kinds of jobs a graphic artist might receive and offers a range of prices that the particular job has been known to pay. Sometimes these rates are extremely helpful. Other times, the range is so vast that it doesn’t do much good. Still, for a general idea, it’s a great resource and a must-have.

Another great resource, of course, is the illustration community. You can’t beat having a network of other professionals whom you can turn to for advice. Your friends will often be your biggest allies and will be able to give you insights on any areas that you fall short. If someone does a lot of work with books, for instance, and you’re mostly editorial, they’ll have a better grasp of what the going rates are should you get offered a cover.

Some Scenarios

OK, so let’s apply all this information to some scenarios that will give you a little more insight:

Scenario A

A small alt-weekly newspaper wants you to do a cover illustration for $300. They’re looking for first printing North American rights + internet. Their circulation is around 40,000.

Initially, this doesn’t seem like the greatest deal. You look at your hourly breakdown for this assignment and realize it’s going to take you probably 20 hours to do, which comes down to $15/hour. That’s not a lot for your skill. Additionally, it’s a cover and shouldn’t covers pay more? However, there are some trade-offs. Perhaps you haven’t done a lot of professional work before and this could get your foot in the door? Perhaps the art director is offering you a lot of freedom in exchange for their small budget? One other thing comes into play: you do a little digging around and realize that this is a pretty typical budget for an alt-weekly of this size. So they’re not trying to lowball you; it’s just a field with small budgets. Now taking all of this into account, it might not be the worst deal in the world for a young illustrator to take—particularly if you’re just starting out.

Scenario B

An ad agency comes to you for an illustration for their client, a huge shoe company that everyone knows. The agency wants one image that they’ll be able to use on bus stops, subways, billboards, magazines, online, etc. In fact, they want to be able to use it everywhere and for everything. It’s a Work for Hire agreement. Their budget is $4,000 and it will only take you a couple days to get it done as it’s relatively simple.

Wow, that sounds pretty great, right? $4,000 for a couple days work? That’s $2,000/day! You should be jumping at that! Well, not so fast. Remember, illustration isn’t about the man-hours, it’s about the rights and the usages and this client wants a lot of them. In fact, they want everything. You won’t even have your copyright anymore. Additionally, their client isn’t some unknown brand; they’re a huge corporation that’s extremely well-known and doing quite well. Reconsidering all of that now, does this offer seem good or does it seem like, perhaps, the client is trying to get a lot more from you than they’re actually offering to pay? This one may need some serious negotiating.

Scenario C

A small book publisher comes to you, looking for you to illustrate their cover. They’re going to have a first printing of 10,000 copies. They’re looking for North American, English language rights, plus digital so they can put it on e-readers. Time limit is ten years. Hardcover. Healthy deadline. They also want to be able to use the illustration for any marketing or sales-related purposes in regards to the book. However, they haven’t offered you a fee and are requesting that you give them an estimate.

This one’s a bit tougher, since you have to be the first to offer up a fee. Let’s examine a few things: Firstly, the rights that the publisher is asking for are typical of what most book publishers would want so they’re not trying to get anything over on you. In fact, they’re less rights-grabby than most who have been veering towards World, all languages. So, not bad. Also, the deadline is nice and long, which means you can squeeze it in here and there when you have time, which is always nice. But how do you figure out the fee? The first thing I’d consider is if you’d ever done any other work in that market and compare. Look at the rights and budgets for those previous assignments and start off by giving them something in that ballpark that you feel good about, but may be a little higher than you’d settle for. This way, you’ve got some room for negotiation. If you’ve never done any work in this market, though, that’s when you should ask friends or whip out your Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. That will help give you a number to submit. If the client balks, then you can negotiate a lower fee. If they jump on it, you might have come in a bit low. If they run away in terror, never to be heard from again, you may have come in way too high. But, at least it was a starting point.

So, as you can see with these scenarios, there are a lot of factors that go into pricing your work. For every job that comes in, you’ll want to review and decide what makes sense for you given all the criteria we’ve discussed.

Final Thoughts

If all this is stressing you out, don’t worry too much. The longer you do illustration, the more you’ll get to know the budgets that are out there as well as your own comfort level for doing certain kinds of work. Eventually, you’ll arrive at a place where you know you won’t even pick up a pencil for a certain amount. Once you’ve hit that part of your career, it’s a lot easier to price jobs because you’ll have set minimums and will feel more confident arguing for higher pay, knowing what the market will bear and what your value is within it. You’ll also learn from trial and experience. If you find that clients are too often rejecting your fees, that means you’re probably overbidding and need to adjust your horizons. If, instead, clients are eager to say yes right away without any negotiation, you’re probably underbidding and need to give yourself a raise. The best place to be is somewhere in-between.

The main thing to remember in this whole discussion is that rights are what you’re selling and you want to retain as many of them as possible. The more rights the client wants and the more exposure your work will have, the higher the fee should be in exchange. It’s all about that ratio of dollars to eyeballs. When in doubt, err on the side of asking for too much. The worst that can happen is the client comes back to you with a smaller offer. Or they run for the hills. And if that’s the case, maybe the job shouldn’t have happened anyway. You deserve to be compensated fairly for your work, the years you’ve spent learning how to create it, and the unique skill set you offer that makes you valuable to the marketplace.

Update: I’m glad that this post has helped so many people understand pricing better. However, I want it noted that I cannot help individual illustrators decide what fees to charge for their specific jobs. It’s complicated enough doing it for my own illustrations, let alone a complete stranger’s. So, please do not email me asking for assistance with regards to pricing your project. All such emails will be ignored. Thanks.

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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