Q: I am just starting my career as a freelance artist/illustrator. I just completed a project with a credit union for a character design that they used in their advertisements. When the obvious discussion of pricing came up, I wasn’t sure where to begin. We settled, quite quickly, without any problems. I was just curious if there is any method to the madness?
A: This is a question I get pretty frequently, so every once and a while I re-post this answer from a few years ago.. simply because it’s still as good an answer as I can come up with:
I get individual e-mails occasionally asking for advice on what to charge on this project or that kind of job, and the problem is that the question in basically unanswerable. It is always “that depends”.
By the letter of the law the discussion of how much to charge for the same kind of service or product between two competing sources of said service or product is called “price fixing”, and is quite illegal in the United States. Realistically there needs to be someplace to begin for illustrators just getting into the business. For those people I always recommend the Graphic Artists Guild’s “Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook”. This book has a plethora of information from typical trade practices to copyright considerations to actual comparative fee ranges for different kinds of graphics services including “Magazine Editorial Illustration”, which is broken down into B&W/1 color and color categories for national, medium or small circulations. It also contains very useful generic contract agreements for almost any kind of graphics job, including magazine illustration. The book is a must have for any professional illustrator that wants to know what they are getting into for the contacts alone.
Unfortunately, the very next thing I tell people after recommending the book is to basically forget about the comparative fees they list. My copy of the PaEGH is the 10th edition circa 2001, and most of the fees I’m able to get are just now in the low end of the range they quote. Maybe some magazines actually pay more in the midrange, or the mythical high end range, but I’ve never worked for any. Granted, I don’t have Time, Newsweek, People or Sports Illustrated in my resume, but I’d be surprised if even they paid the kind of rates the PaGEH quote for national circulation. My advice to those who get the book is not to expect to get those kinds of rates unless you have a long resume and are a known name in illustration (like a Payne, Brodner, Cowles or similar). Most of us are not. The lowest end of the rate ranges seem to be the most realistic rates to expect to get in most cases.
Sounds like pricing your illustrations is a guessing game, doesn’t it? The good news is that it rarely is. In fact, it’s my experience that most art directors that call looking for a job to be done have a budget already for the art, and they come clean with you on that budget right away. You either do it for that amount, or turn it down and they move to the next illustrator. This happens with 90% of the jobs I get these days. Art directors don’t want to dicker, or bother trying to hope you will lowball the rate if they ask you to give them a quote. They want the job done, they have X amount of money… interested or not? I will ask an art director what their budget is first, and if they ask me for a quote instead I give them a high one, perhaps the midrange of the PaEGH recommendation. However I find that if I get asked for a quote first one of two things will happen. Either they will say it’s out of their range or they will say it’s higher than they can pay and will I “take X amount instead?”. It’s also been my experience that clients that ask for a quote end up not being very good clients even if the job does come through. Publications that buy art frequently know what they can afford to pay and know what they are doing, and don’t mess around tying to play used car salesman games with freelancers.
If an illustrator gets told what they are going to get paid, then how can they work up to a higher rate and make more money? There are two ways to do this. The best is to become a famous illustrator who’s work is instantly recognizable and who can both dictate their fees and who are called by the biggest publications in the world on a regular basis… good luck with that and when you figure it out write me with your secret. For the rest of us grunts, the only way to raise our rates is to try and move up the food chain as far as the type of client we work for. Since an illustrator is just one person, there is a limit to the volume of work that artist can realistically do. Of course step one is to get to the point that you have more work than you can handle at most times (that doesn’t happen all the time, but to be busy MOST of the time is the goal). It follows then that the only way to get a “raise” is to get more money for the amount of work you can realistically produce, and that means working for larger magazines and publishers. How do you accomplish that? The only way is by working up the food chain, starting by taking jobs from smaller clients. By doing a great job, working hard and being professional, you will gain a reputation as a solid illustrator. Then by marketing yourself to bigger clients, you hopefully will start getting better paying jobs. When that happens you’ll have to start turning down the smaller clients so you have time to do the work for the bigger ones, and so forth.
That sounds easy but it is often the slow work of years to accomplish, unless you are one of the very lucky and skilled illustrators who break in with a bang. The artwork itself is a big factor, of course. You have to be realistic about the professionalism and quality of your work and it’s stylistic appeal to art directors. For example, my work is very cartoon orientated, and as such I probably will never get work from magazines like Time or People, which tend to like either a very painterly, realistic style, a graphic, design orientated style or an artsy, underground style at least in terms of caricature. Unless I alter my style I am probably never going to see my work in those types of magazines. Some illustrators “engineer” a style so what they do is appealing to the current tastes and trends, but they either have to continually reinvent themselves or see their jobs dry up when that flavor of art style becomes passe. The longtime successful illustrators develop a personal style they stick with, and it becomes timeless and remains appealing despite current trends and tastes. That’s the goal, but it’s a lofty one.
While there seems to be a long list of factors and extenuating circumstances, illustration pricing isn’t as complex as it might appear. Most of the time pricing is just a matter of what the client you are working for can afford to pay and what you can afford to do the work for.
Thanks to Chris Grant 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!
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