What should I earn?

This is (ironically) the million-dollar question. What should an illustrator earn a year? It’s an inflammatory, highly charged and emotional question – And while there is no right answer, there are some wrong answers.

Illustration by Cathal Duane

What are people earning?

There are two surveys out recently which look at earnings. The first is close to home – Ben the Illustrator’s, with Hire an Illustrator’s survey reported that 41% of respondents earned less that £10K a year.

The second is the Arts Pay survey – a broader survey which looks at the wider arts and cultural sector. It suggests that average freelancer earnings are around £16,000.

These are helpful up to a point. Having spent a fair bit of time in my professional life getting surveys completed it is worth remembering that people with time on their hands tend to complete them over people who are flat out working. (It’s also usual for more women than men to fill in questionnaires – and in this instance that opens up a whole other can of worms around pay and gender.) But what it means is, while these surveys ‘take the temperature’, they are not the full picture.

“The AOI did some scoping with agents around what their illustrators earned in a year. It was both heartening and confusing.  What was very clear is that, perhaps more than other freelance areas, an illustrators’ income is sporadic.”

One year you might work on numerous commissions over many days, and earn £15K, the next you might get a commission for £40K which takes a week. It’s not about time, it’s about the license.

Sharing the (anonymised) figures for agencies simply wasn’t going to be helpful. But what is helpful is that the figures, and our conversations with illustrators across the country, tell one story conclusively: That it is common to earn a satisfactory – and often times generous – annual income as an illustrator. This is true for represented and unrepresented illustrators.

Changing the Conversation

“So, what is important is this: We need to change the conversation.”

Focussing on unacceptable, and untenable figures (the £10K’s and the £16K’s) will only bring us down, and lower expectations in line with them. We need to look at what illustrators can, and should, be earning.

“The AOI would like professional, full time illustrators to earn between at the very least £20K and £35K annually depending on the industry they are primarily working in.”

As a broad-brush stroke, we know that Editorial commissions achieve lower fees than Advertising ones. We also know that many illustrators work across a range of industries: Editorial, Corporate, Advertising, Publishing, etc.

Not every illustrator will achieve this income – but many (who apparently don’t fill out surveys) will far exceed it. For some, who are not be full time illustrators, this might be what their average income over two years is. Some might be starting out in their business and balancing earned income with investment or secondary earnings. If you live in a big city your living costs will likely be higher, so you’ll need to cover that. Whatever income is right for you – is right for you. But what is not right is expecting a low income. You should note, it is achievable for an illustrator working across any or multiple areas to earn £40-£50,000 a year.

Reaching the benchmark

The AOI’s Business Empowerment Campaign is, ultimately, about supporting every illustrator to achieve annual earnings that are right for them and suited to their businesses. There is a way to go – but I am confident that, with us all working on this, we can get there.

“First off we need to value our work. If we don’t, what hope is there that commissioners will?”

And valuing the work means not working for free, or for low rates with no contract. It means not just saying no to an inappropriate copyright assignment and explaining why you are saying no. You can always come to the AOI – We can anonymously contact the client and politely discuss the challenges of their commissioning process.

We need to value our community. Each individual’s business decision affects other illustrators. If you work for free, the commissioners’ expectation is that the next illustrator will work for free too. If you are the next illustrator – get in touch with whoever came before you and let them know why it’s a problem.

We need to invest in the business of illustration. That means business planning, identifying and working towards goals. If things are not going to plan – look at why they aren’t and what support you can get to put you back on track. If you aren’t achieving the income you want, why aren’t you? Is your marketing wrong? Does your portfolio need a refresh? There are lots of ways the AOI (and other organisations and websites) can help. What is important is that you address it, and don’t just carry on hoping for the best.

“Illustrators who have been around for a while know all this, but we have to make sure those entering the industry do too.”

Colleges and Universities have a responsibility here, but we can all help. Chat to emerging illustrators at meet ups, share best practice on social media. We cannot let bad practice be the new normal.

I am confident that as an industry of creative, entrepreneurial, inspiring and highly skilled individuals we can change the conversation and thrive.





9th April 2019

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