Negotiating Pricing [Public]

Fees for illustration commissions often have to be negotiated between the illustrator and the client – this is completely normal. For any negotiation you’ll benefit from having the right frame of mind, the right manner, a few practical techniques and knowledge of the issues in different sectors of the market.

The right frame of mind

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Your client needs you

For freelancers it can be easy to feel at a disadvantage and overly grateful that someone is prepared to pay you to make an image for them. But remember that, though you may need the work, equally the client needs you. The client has chosen you because they have to get the job done and thinks you are the right person for it. You’re not being done a favour by being commissioned – you’re offering a service that has value.

‘It’s a win-win scenario’

The object of a good negotiation is to arrive at a point that is acceptable to both parties. To do that you need to know not only what you need, but also what the client needs.

Faced with a rights grab (copyright assignment, i.e. all rights in the work), for instance, simply saying ‘No I won’t assign you the copyright’ can close the door on further discussion. A more productive approach is to find out why the client wants the copyright and see if you can offer them an alternative that deals with their concerns and is acceptable to you (see Menu quotes)

Basically, never say ‘No’, always say ‘Yes, but…’

You are the professional

Take time out to find out the ‘going rate’ for a range of jobs so that you have confidence in what you are asking. This means joining a professional support organisation such as the AOI who offer advice, or ask those you know who have the relevant experienced.

It helps to be familiar with different ways of licensing, and be able to explain clearly to a client, if they are asking for copyright or some other right you don’t want to grant, why you don’t want to grant it and what you could offer instead that might work for them.

Who is commissioning you?

The person you are negotiating with may not be the ultimate decision-maker, and are unlikely to be responsible for the contract you are being offered weighted in the client’s favour, and may well be sympathetic to your concerns,

If it’s a design or advertising job then their client will have the last word. Designers tend to have short-term relationships with their clients and typically have to pitch for each job. This can make them wary of alienating clients, and so hard to negotiate with. Let them know you are aware of the problems and trying to find a solution that they can present to their client, and you may get them on your side.

Be prepared to lose the job

Lastly, you must know where your bottom line is and be prepared to lose the job if necessary. If it does, it’s worth considering that clients who offer rotten money or horrible terms (or both) often turn out to be impossible clients in just about every other way as well. They are probably best avoided.

The right manner

Be nice

Being nice is a very effective negotiating tactic. But you should stick to your negotiating aims and be clear what is acceptable to you and what is not. ‘Being nice’ is all the more important when telling the client something they don’t want to hear.

Be upfront

It is tempting to try to ignore bad contracts and awkward issues, to hope for the best, or to think it can all be ironed out later. This never works.

If you have an issue with some part of a commission you just have to be upfront about it – in a nice way, of course.

Some practical tips

Get as much information as possible

When an enquiry comes through with a possible job, start by finding out as much as possible about the job and the client. See Pricing Basics.

Usage of artwork

Territory of usage

Duration of licence for use

Deadline for roughs and artwork and technical specifications

Whether the client has a preconceived idea about what they want.

A few useful phrases

It’s handy to have a few stock phrases ready for commission enquiries.

‘I can get back to you in 30 minutes?’ The client may well need to get the job commissioned in a hurry, so it’s important to say when they can expect a decision. Meanwhile, if you need to, get advice from the AOI helpline. It will also help to jot down your bottom line, and any points or arguments you want to make when you ring the client back.

A stock phrase like ‘What’s the budget for this?’ may be less painful than asking ‘How much are you going to pay me?’ And gives a point to start negotiations if required.

It’s always a good idea to express enthusiasm for the job. If the client wants ‘All Rights’ for instance you might say ‘It sounds a really interesting job, but I only work on a licence basis’. Or if the fee is too low, ‘I’d love to do it, but it’s well below what I’d expect for that usage. Can you squeeze a bit more out of the budget?’

Menu quotes
Client contracts

When you receive a client’s contract you really must read it, or get someone else who can advise to. They generally require you to sign and return them and can contain bad news, sometimes hidden in the middle of the contract. Look out for words like ‘all rights’ and ‘buy-out’. They are ways of saying ‘copyright assignment’ or ‘rights grabs’.

If there are areas you don’t like, you need to deal with it. Contact the commissioner and discuss the matter. Not all details may be relevant, but if, for example, the job is a long and highly-priced project, it is very important to make sure rejection and cancellation fees are agreed.

This advice is adapted from The Illustrator’s Guide to Law and Business Practice by Simon Stern, which describes in easy terms how the law affects the business of illustration, and how to avoid pitfalls. As well as copyright, contract and agency law, it deals with business practice issues such as how to license illustrations, client negotiating techniques, and what to expect from an agent.


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