Fees for illustration commissions will usually be negotiated between the illustrator and the client – this is completely normal. For any negotiation, adopting the right frame of mind and manner will stand you in good stead. It’ll also help to have a few practical techniques and knowledge of the issues in different sectors of the market at your fingertips.
The right frame of mind
It can be easy for freelancers to feel overly grateful that someone is prepared to pay them to make an image. But remember, although you may need the work, the client also needs you. The client has chosen you because they think you’re the right person to do the job. You’re not being done a favour by being commissioned – you’re offering a service that has value.
The object of a good negotiation is to arrive at a point that is acceptable to both parties. To achieve this you need to know what the client needs, as well as what you need.
When faced with a copyright assignment (i.e. handing over (assigning) 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 below.)
Basically, never say ‘No’, always say ‘Yes, but…’
Take time out to find out the best practice for a range of jobs so that you have confidence in what you’re asking. This may mean joining a professional support organisation such as the AOI who offer advice, or ask those you know who have the relevant experience.
It helps to be familiar with different ways of licensing. If a client asks for copyright or some other right you don’t want to grant, you’ll be in a better position if you’re able to explain why you don’t want to grant it and what you could offer instead that might work for them.
The person you’re negotiating with may not be the ultimate decision-maker, and are unlikely to be responsible for the contract you are being offered.
If it’s a design or advertising job, the commissioner’s 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. Letting them know you’re aware of the problems and are open to finding a solution that they can present to their client, may get them on your side.
Lastly, you must know where your bottom line is and be prepared to lose the job if necessary. If it does fall through, it’s worth considering that clients who offer less satisfactory terms can sometimes turn out to be less satisfactory clients in other ways as well. They are probably best avoided.
The right manner
Being nice is a very effective negotiating tactic. But you should stick to your negotiating aims and be clear what’s acceptable to you and what’s not. ‘Being nice’ is all the more important when telling the client something they don’t want to hear.
It’s tempting to try to ignore bad contracts and awkward issues, hope for the best, or 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
When an enquiry comes through about a possible job, start by finding out as much as possible about the job and the client including;
- 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.
See Pricing Basics for more
It’s handy to have a few stock phrases ready for commission enquiries.
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 so ‘I can get back to you in 30 minutes?’ is clear but allows you some time. Meanwhile, if you need to, get advice from the AOI helpline. It’ll 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 it gives a point at which 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 like 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?’
When you receive a client’s contract you must read it, or get someone else who can advise to. The client will require you to sign and return the contract and it’s important to identify ‘red flags’ hidden it. Look out for words like ‘all rights’ and ‘buy-out’ which are ways of saying ‘copyright assignment’.
If there are details you don’t like, you need to deal with it.
Contact the commissioner and discuss your concerns. 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 beforehand.
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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