Illustration Pricing Survey 2019
When I first ventured into the wonderful and slightly precarious world of freelance illustration, I felt confident about most aspects of my work – I was skilled, experienced and had worked with a good range of clients. The only snag was that I now had to put a price on my work and, short of picking a number out of a hat, I knew I had to have a method that earned me a sustainable living. Having been previously employed in the creative industry for over a decade, I was roughly aware of design and artworking day rates, but were they comparable with illustration rates? Were day rates the best way to price work? What terms did I need to work to? I asked other illustrators about how they quoted and was met with either awkward squirms or overly confident replies (all of which were, of course. entirely different). How was I going to make sure I wasn’t underselling myself? How was I going to know how much value my work added commercially?
What ensued was not the epiphany I was hoping for, but one big fat learning curve. The same figures for comparable jobs and clients were met with varied responses – from,‘this sounds reasonable,’ to,‘we simply cannot fathom your costs.’’ One client would ask for a day rate, another would ask for a quote based on specific use. One client would ask for my usage terms, another would send me a contract asking me to sign over full copyright. It seemed that negotiating illustration fees and terms was a bit of a dark art. The problem, though, was that it was not just a dark art for me but for many enquirers too. Industry professionals were adament that all commissioning art directors should have an understanding of how to commission and budget for illustration, but this was not my experience. Was this down to them or me? How could my industry be better at this?
Why this survey?
Creativity is notoriously tricky to price – there are so many variables. How long will one illustration take compared to another? Will the work be used commercially? How many ideas or developments are needed? The list goes on. There can never be an all encompassing price list when jobs are so bespoke. However, working in this industry makes you all too aware of the extent of exploitation – the requests for free work, the use of images without permission or the small-print that may rob you of all rights to the work you’ve created. It’s all well and good telling illustrators to stick up for themselves, but how is this possible without knowing about unfair terms or minimum fees? On the flip side, how do clients know what to expect? Who is setting the boundaries for fees and terms? I wanted to gain insight into how we charge for our work and what factors influence fee expectations. I wanted to encourage better communication between illustrators and commissioners so that we can establish better working relationships.
Who contributed to this survey?
210 illustrators anonymously contributed to this survey in order to start the ball rolling with talking openly about pricing and terms. It also contains insight from art directors from different sized companies and sectors who have anonymously given feedback on working with illustrators*. This survey is not to dictate how illustrators should price their work, but to empower others through knowledge and insight. Please note I am not a statistician and I do not represent a body of illustrators. I have invested in this survey because I believe all illustrators need to have an overview of the industry in order to charge fairly and establish good working terms. This survey is far from exhaustive and will likely provoke further discussion and investigation.
* Feedback from art directors and commissioners of illustration is obviously hard to incentivise. My hope is that after seeing the results in this survey many will see the value in talking openly and creating better working relationships with illustrators. If any commissioners of illustration would like to add further feedback please feel free to respond below or fill out this survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/ZLBHPT9
Where are our clients based?
One of the benefits of being an illustrator is that most projects enable us to work remotely. We are not limited by location. For this reason, I asked where clients were based rather than illustrators due to the fact that most of us can work with clients around the world. Many illustrators from the UK, for example, worked with clients in the United States and across Europe, whereas some only worked with clients in their own location. This also enabled me to look at whether certain areas paid illustrators better than others.
What sectors do we work for?
Many go into an illustration career assuming they will get work from one particular sector, but the results showed that most illustrators work across a wide range. Some stated that their bigger projects were in design and advertising, but that these were complimented by more frequent, lower paid editorial jobs. Most of our jobs come from small to medium businesses – this category could cover a wide range of industries, many of which may not be used to commissioning illustrators or may have very different ways of working. This is an important factor to consider, especially as other sectors may have much clearer expectations when it comes to budgets and usage.
*The ‘Other’ category comprised of mainly private commissions for individuals.
What percentage of our income comes from illustration?
I asked individuals what percentage of their income came from illustration work and took an average of these figures which came to 61%. Interestingly, this does not change for more experienced illustrators. Many younger illustrators put the need for a ‘day job’ down to inexperience, whereas this is often a necessity no matter how long illustrators have worked in the industry. I hope this statistic takes the pressure off many who need an extra income stream to support their creative work.
How do we price our work?
Again, it’s easy to conclude that those with more experience would have a set method of pricing work, but this was not necessarily the case. All illustrators selected multiple methods of pricing no matter how many years’ experience they had. The only selection that was more popular with experienced illustrators was creating ‘own price list’ as obviously past jobs and quotations help to give more of an insight into what to charge. However, many experienced illustrators also selected ‘guesswork’ for pricing work, showing that there is still ambiguity surrounding pricing even as you go further into your career.
How long do clients use our work?
It is considered ‘industry standard’ by many illustration associations and professionals to specify a time period in which any illustrations created can be used commercially. This is down to the fact that the advertising potential of an image used repeatedly longterm has much higher value than one that is used only once. Many jobs are defined easily – such as painted mural work that can only be used in one location, or editorial work that can only be used in one magazine issue. However, there is often a grey area where clients are unsure. Many sectors, such as publishing or editorial, are usually clear on this. However, many smaller businesses may not have established clear objectives or may assume they own the work outright.
After asking a number of art directors how long on average they needed to use illustration work for, the answers correlated with the above data. It seems that most clients are either really specific on one-off use or request to use the work without time limitations. In fact, most art directors who specified they needed full copyright of the work went on to say that they only needed to use the work on one thing longterm. There seems to be a lack of understanding about copyright here, leaving some clients assuming they need full rights in order to have the freedom to use the work again. By finding out exactly what clients need to use the work for enables fairer terms – where these situations arise, there could be an agreement for the client to use the work in perpetuity (forever) but for only one purpose. Eg. Use an illustration longterm but only on the company website. Obviously fees would need to be negotiated accordingly.
Should we rely on clients to dictate terms and fees?
In the question about how we price our work, a large proportion selected that they relied on clients to dictate budgets. Interestingly, many art directors revealed that they do the same with us. Perhaps many would conclude that clients ask illustrators to give a price first in the hope that it’s a low cost, or that illustrators ask for clients’ budgets in the hope they are high. The reality is that both illustrators and clients often don’t know what to expect. Many professional illustrators have expressed that clients are only interested in squeezing them for their lowest price. Where this may be the case in some instances, data would suggest that there is a lack of communication about what to expect on both sides. I surveyed 209 art directors to ask if they understood licensing and usage terms. 41% anonymously said they needed more insight. In other words, clearer information is needed here. Only 12% expected to own full rights to any work created regardless. This means that the majority of art directors and commissioners of illustration just need to understand value of work and come to fair terms and budgets. Not everyone is trying to pull a fast one, most want to invest in building a good reputation.
The fact is that we are expected to understand licensing and usage rights. Expecting all clients to have an understanding is a bit like a plumber expecting customers to understand the exact criteria for becoming a gas safe engineer. We’re prepared to pay more for professionals who have invested in knowledge and good service, but that doesn’t mean they’re exempt from having to explain themselves or prove their professionalism. As the majority of work comes from small to medium businesses it is important that we provide clear expectations about how we price our work. If that’s not clear for us, how will we explain it to anyone else? How can we make sure we’re educated enough on these issues>
Are we confident with licensing and usage fees?
The lack of confidence in the industry is doing us no favours. Confidence comes from having knowledge and understanding and this needs to be invested in. How can we have access to annual reports about our industry? How can we discuss fees more openly with one another? Many illustrators are exploited because they are not armed with knowledge about fair fees or terms. This needs to change. Many jobs may be straightforward and are simple to quote for, but quoting for commercial work with multiple uses can become complicated. How are we going to address this issue better? What are the minimum fees we should be working to?
A number of illustrators expressed a vicious circle of undercharging. They felt unable to turn work down yet were too ashamed to speak openly about the ways in which they had been exploited. Many conclude what they think is obvious: ‘Just don’t undercharge!’ But what is undercharging when you have no understanding of a fair fee? How do you learn when the subject is still somewhat taboo? One illustrator may be able to afford to turn work down during quiet periods, another illustrator may not. One illustrator may be able to live on minimum wage, another may have a family to support. How do we ensure we pay our bills without damaging our industry? How can we speak more openly about fees and exploitation without being vilified?
What are we charging for our work?
Please note for the purpose of comparison, all figures were converted to British Pounds. There were illustrators who worked in other countries with different standards of living so this should be taken into account. A more extensive survey is needed here to look into illustrators’ fees, but this should give a good starting point for discussion. Given that the illustrators in this survey largely work for the UK, USA and Canada, fees should not be excessively low.
Why have I asked for average project fees? It’s all good asking for illustrators’ incomes, but this does not provide a true reflection of how well paid an illustrator is. One illustrator may earn below £10k a year from illustration but it may be the only job they work on for two months. Again, more extensive research is needed here: How many jobs does each illustrator take on each year? How quickly do they work? What are their overheads? What was the use of each project? Project fees are always going to be slightly ambiguous, but I am interested in the average budgets companies are spending on illustration in order to give us an idea of the state of our industry.
A project may include more than one illustration - eg. A children’s book, or ‘a set of posters’ and so on. The project fee is also an average of the work illustrators worked on in one year, so where one illustrator may frequently take on projects worth £400, having one large project for £10,000 would bring their average fee up.
I wanted to see if there was any specific criteria behind whether one illustrators’ average was higher than another’s. Of course, working in advertising should pay well, but is there enough work here for everybody? As the majority of our work comes from small to medium businesses, can we expect to earn a sustainable income? In a recent survey by Ben the illustrator, 41% of illustrators earnt below £10k per year. This is alarming, but most of these illustrators would need additional income support. Is the problem with low fees or with the availability of work? I also looked into the average fees in London compared to the rest of the UK which were over three times higher than the average for the rest of the UK. With many larger advertising agencies and design firms in London, budgets are much higher. illustrators represented by agents may also have much higher project fees, given that most are in London and work with international clients. (Though there was evidence of this in the survey there was not enough data to conclude.). Is it realistic for all illustrators to seek work from bigger cities such as London or NYC? The creative industry needs to evolve to be sustainable in other areas. Project fees stated by those with clients in South Yorkshire, for example, were very low compared to other areas, even in the north. Is this reflective of how much funding cities have for arts and culture? Again, this would be worth looking into. Many illustrators also expressed the lack of fee increases with inflation, stating that many editorial jobs paid the same as they did in the 1980s.
For illustrators with an average project fee of well under £200, how many jobs would they need to take on for this to be sustainable? Obviously this would depend on a number of factors. Lower fees may be fine for odd jobs, but as an average does this account for the time it takes to promote work, liaise with clients, build in changes and account for materials or software? Does this account for the fact that freelancers don’t have paid leave or other job benefits? As professional illustrators we need to account for these things in our fees, as well as the time invested into learning skills to date.
Does experience effect the average project fee?
I was interested to know if those who had more experience working as an illustrator could command higher fees. Although there was some evidence for this, it was more the case that those with less than 5 years’ experience were potentially undercharging. Still, there were plenty with over ten years’ experience who still had an average of under £200 per project. In fact, there were a number of very experienced illustrators who had an average of £40! Why was this? There had to be another factor at play…
Instead, I decided to look at whether having an additional income had any influence on project fee. My thinking behind this was that having an additional job may provide a safety net for being able to turn down low paid jobs. The reality was, in fact, the opposite. Of course it’s easy to conclude that those who have part-time work are less experienced and therefore need extra support, but, as we have already discovered, the need for additional sources of income do not lessen with experience.
The conclusion then, is that those who earn less than 25% of their income from illustration struggle to command higher fees, despite experience. Perhaps illustrators that work fewer hours on illustrative work are less invested into developing a sustainable freelance income because they don’t need to? Perhaps not having to account for as many overheads, sick pay or holidays may mean they are less likely to account for the cost of running a business? illustrators who earn less than 25% also tend to work more on private commissions for individuals which obviously brings in less money than commercial work. Those who earn 100% from illustration are able to command higher fees. With this not being to do with experience, what are the contributing factors? Is it commitment? skill? A good education? Are they just well connected people? Either way, they have had to learn business and negotiation skills in order to sustain themselves. Clearly this needs looking into further but it’s worth thinking about how we clarify hobbies from professional practise so that we are able to avoid expectations of low fees from those who need to make a sustainable living out of their work. Similarly, artists who work for fun should not be vilified for doing so if they are honest and upfront and are not undercutting where commercial work is concerned.
More work needs to be done here to conclude why we charge what we do but I hope this survey opens discussion on how to better price illustration work and establish fair terms. We need to challenge ourselves as illustrators and commissioners of illustration in order for this to be a sustainable career. If clients continually demand low fees, there will be more generic and less skilled illustration in place, bringing less value to clients and in turn bringing in less budget – it’s a downward spiral. We all need to work together to build a strong creative industry that has lasting impact. No-one wants a boring product, campaign or brand identity and illustration plays a huge and vital role in bringing something fresh that adds value.
Areas of discussion:
• How do we have better pricing guidance when jobs are so bespoke? Do we need case studies of pricing examples for illustrations with different usage, verified by established illustrators or agents?
• How do we differentiate between hobbyists and professionals? How can we help those with less confidence to learn better negotiation and entrepreneurial skills? Should there be a business certification or various levels for illustrators? How would this work?
• How can we get regular insight into our industry? Can we gain insight into how much money is spent on illustration each year across different sectors and different cities?
• How can we communicate better with clients and build better relationships? How do we make it easier for clients to commission us and talk about money?
I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments with positive ideas for change or ways in which you have build successful working relationships, budgets and terms.
Art Directors and commissioners of illustration, more insight is needed into the ways in which we can communicate more effectively with one another. Are there things you’d like to see change? How can we establish clearer expectations? Please leave your comments below of fill in this anonymous survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/ZLBHPT9
Thank you to all of you who contributed to surveys and feedback. I hope you’ve found this useful.