Illustration Features editor John Shelley considers questions illustrators should ask when discussing flat fees. 

How Much Should I Charge?

This is a question that comes up so often, I thought I’d summarise a few basics about flat fee negotiations, that is, limited use, non-royalty flat fees for illustrations. 'Limited use' is where you hold onto the copyright of your work, and only grant to the client usage rights specified in the brief – royalty deals and copyright buy-outs are big contentious subjects for another article!

Some commissioners might reveal their budget straight away, but even then, it’s important to know whether the job is worth what they are offering.

First, something that might surprise the uninitiated …..

Illustrators are Not Paid to Draw & Paint

It’s true! Clients are not buying our time, they’re paying for the licence to reproduce our work, not for creating that work. Having an ‘hourly rate’ isn’t very useful when it comes to illustration, because unlike house decorators we’re not making something we walk away from, leaving it all with the client. We intrinsically hold all the reproduction rights to our work, it’s what rights we sell to the client and how the art is reproduced that sets the fee. So technically, a book cover price is a book cover price, regardless whether the artwork took us three days, three weeks, or just three hours to make.

Having said that, we’re not automatons, three weeks spent on one piece of artwork might make a bit of a difference to the fee – subject to negotiation! Also, any client who commissions art and then cancels during the production stage should pay a kill fee for any work created up to that point (including roughs) – these are accepted circumstances where the amount of time spent on a production comes into play.

How Long is a Piece of String?

To provide an estimate, there are four key factors you need to consider:

  1. The artwork brief – Number & size of images, the style of work, the subject matter, the complexity of the image/images (ask them what work they’ve seen of yours that prompted the enquiry).
  2. The published format – Is it for a book? What kind? Poster? Leaflets? Press? etc. Multiple uses? What size will it be reproduced? How big will your work be used on the page/design? Will it be in B/W or colour?
  3. The size of distribution – What’s the print-run? How wide a geographic area will it be circulated? What outlets?
  4. The period of use – How long will the work be used for? A week? A year? Until it sells out? Indefinitely?

The more of these details you know about a proposal, the more accurately you can form an estimate. Determine the 'eyeball factor' –  how big is the potential audience? The more eyes potentially exposed to your work, the higher the fee. Also, what is the size of the client – are they a corporate behemoth, or a local indie start-up? Big difference!

Pricing work for the web can be difficult, a website can potentially reach an audience of millions, but most don't! Consider the specialisation of the platform, is it high street or back room? Query the number of views it might attract, ask how prominently your images will be used.


Pricing our work can be very hard when you’re just starting out, and with constant industry evolution it doesn't get much easier even with experience, so keep records of past work fees. Although every job is different, comparisons give you a grounding, a starting point for consideration. I have a handwritten notebook where I list the fees & other basic details of recent work, and a database file summarising old jobs.

Database entry (in Filemaker Pro) for my first poster commission in Japan, a very long time ago! The database lists most of my illustration jobs from 1987, when I first moved to Tokyo, up to a few years ago. It's a useful, simple search index of past work, though I'm aware old fees don’t necessarily reflect the current state of the market, or the budget of clients in different countries!

If you’re just starting out you won’t have much to index, illustrator forums and discussion groups are helpful for an idea of industry rates, but if you’re sourcing the guidance of others, be sure to ask about the four factors mentioned above, everyone’s experience is different.

*Header illustration © John Shelley


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently The Boy in the Jam Jar for Bloomsbury. He's a four times nominee for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Instagram: @StudioNib Twitter: @StudioNib

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