Thursday 20 October 2011

Let's have a frank talk about illustration royalties.

This is a conversation I think illustrators should have. My blog allows anonymous comments since I think that will let more of us have it. 

My experiences are still few and new in the field of illustration. I come from a science-inspired, fine art background, and since taking my artwork online almost 5 years ago, my fine art projects are usually asked into service illustrating science blogs, books and magazines (and occasionally skin with tattoo design).

The book work up until now has mainly been covers. However, after watching a couple of potential book contracts fall apart, one for a mid-size reputable publisher I will not name, I've been curious about one aspect of the illustration biz: royalties.

The experience I mention called for me to submit my originals, hand over all copyright and get paid a flat fee worth less than equivalent stock art images for my creations. No hope of royalties or re-negotiation if the book was a hit and re-printed.

At the time I was using the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines, 12th Edition (13th is out now).   Leaving out the details of the publisher's requirements, according to the Guide I should have been charging about $550 per drawing, and I was offering $300.  The publisher wanted to offer $150.

I know there are a lot of specific circumstances to any contract: we parted amicably I hope (they produce a lot of books I enjoy).  I thought it was just this case, for whatever reason.  After speaking to new illustration acquaintances on G+ over the last several weeks, from many different realms of illustration, I'm hearing that "no royalties" and prices below the GAG Guide are common.

What I wanted to discuss, is without details (I am not out to vilify any publishers here, that's not the point so no need to identify them) are illustrators:

  • getting royalties as part of a contract?
  • finding the GAG Guide prices accurate reflections of reality?
  • being offered more than work-for-hire?

Part of the 'long-tail' of illustration is licensing your own images after the copyright either reverts to you, or by retaining it. The other is royalties.

Let me know approximately how long you've been at the illustration biz, and whether you've found royalties common or uncommon. Again, I allow for anonymous comments and I'd prefer not to discuss specific publishers, just get more of a sense of what's happening out there.

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Anonymous said...

Are there different standards / expectations for scientific vs. non-scientific illustrating?

I'm not an artist, but a scientist who occasionally commission pieces to accompany press releases about my work. In the past (usually life reconstructions of dead prehistoric things), the deal has been to leave copyright with the artist and pay a flat fee for the commission itself (for rights to use illustration in press release and other publications related to the project, as well as museum exhibit). Royalties have never been brought up (although it's a little nebulous, because the news media kinda runs with stuff where they may).

Anonymous said...

I have been a freelance illustrator for over a decade. Over the course of my career, maybe 20% of my projects have been work-for-hire (or similar). In some cases I have found GAG prices to be accurate, but mostly they seem inflated. The illustrations to which I retain copyright (the bulk of my portfolio) are in books and other print formats, but the only times I've received royalties were when my illustrations are licensed for things like greeting cards or t-shirts. To be clear, the illustrations for books were not cases where the illustrator is considered a co-author or primary author. I was paid an upfront fee and my contract stated whether or not I'd receive additional payment for future editions of the books. I would prefer to have this upfront fee rather than royalties because I'd rather my income not be dependent upon book sales and I am not qualified to estimate how well a given title will sell.

Glendon Mellow said...

To #1 Anonymous, I think flat fees for one-off illustrations for scientific papers or museum exhibits is normal practice, and I wouldn't have a problem with it.

Most illustrators I know are very specific about the limits of use of the art in their contracts, and would include allowance for promotion of the art for the project in a variety of media, while perhaps retaining copyright to sell to non-rival clients, say a museum overseas.

BGriswold said...

I think Royalties are a more accepted practice when you are the full author/co-author of a work, not one of a number of contributors to a work. In the case of a collaborative work- like a book, it would be more common to purchase limited use for a specific time period, or edition, or distribution amount.

However, Publishers will always want as much as they can get for as little as they can pay when they are doing their own projects. I am sure it is a pain for them to track usage rights as much as it is for us to track usage. If they are getting the quality they want with work-for-hire, at a price they want, then all you can do is walk away.

If enough professional artists are willing to walk away, publishers will realize they need to pay more, and pay even more for work-for-hire or a buyout.

But the only tool the artist community has is education. There is no way you could get artists to tow a union line as far as I can see. The means of production are just too wide spread these days. The only thing that would work is the feared implementation of Copyright Reform that would only make it profitable for an artist to work for a larger corporation that manages copyrights. The larger, fewer entities could then hold the line on image pricing (or not- if they see art as cheap to acquire, they will sell it cheap and just commission more cheaply).

The best you can do is set your bottom line on what you need to live, then stick too it while you make sure you have other sources of income to see you through. Also having a niche specialty where you are clearly superior for a type of product that consistently makes money is a helpful as well...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing up this as a discussion point! I've been an illustrator for three years now, and in my experience I have not been offered royalties. I am often offered work for prices substantially below GAG recommendations, often with a line about, "how good it will look in my portfolio," or "how it will help me build my resume." I choose not to take those jobs. I am finding that there are enough illustrators willing to take those jobs, that I feel discouraged about creating higher paid work for us as a Guild cooperatively.

Glendon Mellow said...

Anonymous #2, good point about the flat fee being a safer bet than being dependent on royalty sales.

BGriswold, tons of good points there. Tracking usage rights for publishers must be a pain -I always liked to imagine big publishing houses with special software to manage their books when the reality is probably hard copy contracts in a filing cabinet somewhere. When you mention "make sure you have other sources of income to see you through", I think to is true for more illustrators than sometimes they let on.

Anonymous #3, agreed, the GAG Guide prices are not usually offered in my admittedly limited experience. As Anon#2 said, they seem to be inflated a bit from where I'm sitting.

Glendon Mellow said...

There's also some comments happening on Leif Peng's share of this post on G+.

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Posts over 14 days old have their comments held in moderation - I've been getting an unusual amount of spam for a guy who paints trilobites. I'll release it lickety-split though.

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