Sunday Mailbag

June 27th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I was reading through your blog and came across a post about doing magazine illustration where you mentioned something called a “kill fee”. What is that, and have you ever had to deal with it?

A: A “Kill Fee” or “Reject Fee” is a clause in an illustration agreement between a publication and an illustrator that specifies a set amount of pay if the final illustration is rejected (i.e. “killed”). The kill fee clause used to be a standard part of any independent contractor agreement, but I see it less and less these days. Most old school publications still have the kill fee in their agreements, but some newer clients do not. Usually the kill fee is 25% of the agreed upon full fee of the project.

It doesn’t sound like a very good thing for an illustrator to agree to. Basically it gives the client the power to reject the final illustration and not to use it, and then only pay the artist a fraction of their invoice. It does seems like a pretty open ended death trap, especially since there are no criteria for reasons why a client might reject the work other than they decide they don’t want to use it. As an artist it’s hard to swallow the idea that you might spend a lot of your time doing a piece of art with the risk of getting paid only 25% of what you expected to get. The clause does make sense when you remember that what you are really selling to the client is not your time but the copyrights to use your illustration. If they decide not to use it, then they didn’t do what they were paying for the rights to do. It’s confusing but as I have said many times before you have to separate the physical time and skills it takes to produce your work with the commercial applications of that work. It’s quite possible the work still has commercial value if the image is not too specific and the rights could be sold to another party… in the real world that doesn’t happen too often as usually the illustration you do is tailored too closely with the specific job but the copyrights are still yours to sell to someone else. Of course you can do that anyway depending on the agreement’s other terms, but the idea is that the copyrights are not tied to your time in producing the work and neither is your payment for the copyrights.

The kill fee also puts the onus on the illustrator to deliver good work, which as a professional you should be working hard to do no matter what… but not everybody does. You also need to deliver something the client is expecting to get, and not something completely different. Likely Grant’s question is referring to a post I wrote about how an artist friend of mine ended up getting the kill fee for a job he did where he didn’t deliver what the client was expecting:

Art directors don’t like surprises, and if they hire an illustrator they need to have a pretty good idea of what they are getting before the make the call. I can tell a quick story to illustrate that. I had an artist working for me at Valleyfair many years ago, and he took his portfolio to a local publisher to try and get publication work. He had all manner of styles in is book, from park-like caricatures to some David Levine-ish crosshatch caricatures. These latter they liked, and he got a call to work up a caricature of then Minnesota Viking’s coach Dennis Green. He worked hard on the piece, and then brought it to me to show before turning it in. What he showed me was a theme park style airbrush caricature, not the crosshatch style. I told him they would not like it, and that he should have done it in the style they responded best to. He disagreed. As I expected, the piece was rejected and he got a kill fee, plus he never got another call from that publisher.

That’s an example of how the art directors got surprised by a different final illustration than they were expecting. Likely they saw pencil sketches and expected the rough caricature they approved to be rendered in the crosshatched style they liked. In this case the exercising of the kill fee it was mostly the illustrator’s fault. I can’t blame the client for wanting to protect themselves from being required to publish or pay for something they have essentially little control over the end result of, especially when they work with a new illustrator they are unfamiliar with. It’s my job to deliver them something they want to use so the kill fee never becomes an issue. Proper communication and hard work usually takes the kill fee clause out of the equation.

I have only once ever gotten paid a kill fee, and I partly blame myself for the problem. It was a cover illustration for the Minnesota Twins magazine in the early 1990’s, which I had done some caricature and humorous work for. The art directors of the magazine called me and asked if I could do a realistic portrait of baseball player Kirby Pucket for the cover. I had never showed them my realistic work as I hadn’t really done any since my college days a few years previous, but being a young kid and full of self confidence I said “sure I can!”. The pencil drawing turned out fine and they loved it, but IMO the airbrush rendering could have been better. They seemed to be fine with the final result but I was told later that the Minnesota Twins brass, who got final approval of the magazine before it went to press, didn’t want to use a portrait and went with a photo instead. Personally I think had the airbrush painting been more impressive they would have went with it, but instead I got the kill fee. I think I gave the original painting to one of my nephews, but regardless I don’t have it anymore.

So, there you have it… the “Kill Fee” explained. Hoo-hah.

Thanks to Grant Jonen for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Tom Breitling says:

    Hey Tom,
    Great info on Kill Fee’s. Thank you.

    Bad news on the Ken Burns film idea. I wrote Mr. Burns a couple of weeks ago. I heard back from his Assistant : Christopher Darling, today. He was receptive to the idea about a film on the “greats” in cartooning that are still with us, but he is booked up with production on six films and is fully committed for the next ten years.
    If you can think of another producer/film maker to appeal to, let everyone know. It would truly be a tragic loss to let time pass by and have no filmed record of those great cartoonists. They have added so much to all our lives. I would really enjoy seeing and hearing what Jack Davis would have to say and see his studio. Find out what he thinks about what is going on now in the art world and all around us.
    Thanks again.
    Tom Breitling


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