Creativity for cash: how do you know what to charge?

What’s an illustration worth? Obviously there’s not one answer to that question because every illustration is different, every client is different, but most of all every illustrator is different. How much time does it take you, how much detail do you put into it. How do you value yourself (too low, that’s for sure). How much money do you need to live?

But also: how will your illustration be used? Is it a one time thing or is it a commercial product – in other words will your client attract more business and thus more money because of your illustration? How long will it be used for and for what purposes? You get it: pricing is difficult!

There’s a balance between charging what you feel comfortable with, what is reasonable and what the client is willing to pay. You can say ‘My work is worth at least 3 figures!’ and you may be right, but if no client is willing to pay up you have no choice than to either adjust your prices or – worst case scenario – change your profession.

Like water / Illustration by Annemarie Gorissen

IT’S UP TO YOU
Being a freelancer setting your price is all up to you – but keep in mind you really don’t want to mess up the market for your fellow illustrators – and yourself. Even if you’re doing it just for fun, devaluing your work doesn’t do anyone any good in the long run. But you may choose to do something for a lower price at some point if you have another project that does pay well. 

The balance is key and so is how you feel about it. If you find yourself thinking ‘it’s not really enough, but it’s still better than nothing, right…?’ you may want to reconsider, because working on something without joy is a just a waste of your precious time. You can only spend it once.

THREE QUESTIONS
I apologize if I’m starting to sound like a guru by now, but… keeping yourself occupied with things that are not satisfying, will never leave any room for the opportunities that are. I think we are all familiar with the situation where you look back at a door that has closed and realize a little later that it was the exact thing that led to something better.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

There are three questions you can ask yourself to decide if something is worth it: does it pay well, does it make me happy and is it good for future business. If I answer yes to two of the three, I tend to say yes to the job unless it doesn’t pay and I am hungry. But I’m not happy when I am hungry either, so there goes that one out the window too. Fellow illustrator Marloes de Vries talks about something similar in this blogpost. It’s an interesting read on how to find the freelance job that fits you. She calls them price, pleasure and prestige, which is basically the same thing.

NO RESPONSE
I get quite a lot of email requests for (commercial) illustrations from potential new clients that want to know what a certain illustration would cost. I do my research, make a fair quotation, write a response and explain what the price includes. And usually I get NO RESPONSE. Other than being quite rude, it also says a lot about how little people really know about decent pricing and the amount of work that goes into something – or decency in general. 

By now you know I cannot say ‘an illustration this big should cost 500 euros’. It just isn’t that black and white. Side note: I believe that selling your time hour by hour is not the smartest thing to do, since time is limited. But sometimes we have no choice *end of side note and to have some sort of guideline hourly rates are a good starting point. You don’t have to share them with your client, but you can do the math and come up with a price for the illustration or project.

Here’s an example of time you need to consider (in my case for editorial illustration):

Communication: Understanding the project and writing an offer, sending emails, phone calls etc.
Research: read the briefing, research the subject, brainstorm
Sketches: first sketches, select and refine sketches
Corrections: adjust your sketches or make new ones
Finals: turn your sketches into proper illustrations ready for print or web
Corrections: If you’re lucky there are no corrections and you’re done!
Admin: Oh, wait! You still have to make your invoice and do your admin

If you can do all that in 2 hours, I think you’re lying good for you. 

Don’t forget that running a freelance business comes with other expenses than just paying rent and buying groceries for dinner. We have software that costs 50 euros each month and hardware that costs thousands, we pay taxes, we save for our pensions, we need insurance, we do admin, we need supplies and education to keep our pencils and our skills sharp. We also don’t get paid when we don’t make the hours – and that is if you actually get paid for all the hours you work. Spoiler: you don’t. Not even close…

So actually you may want to add an extra hour or two to that list. And also because things ALWAYS take longer than you calculated. Keep track of your time and learn from it (and get frustrated and then charge more).

Photo by Fabian Blank

CRUNCHING NUMBERS
Okay, you’ve come so far. I’ll give you some numbers to give you an idea: I sometimes draw 3 illustrations that take me 2 full days to complete and I get 400 euros. Another illustration can take me 10 hours and pays 1800. Sometimes I make one that takes about 6 hours and it pays 800. The recipe illustrations I sell via Etsy cost 100 euros and they usually take me about 4 hours to make.

See, I don’t have the answer either. With these examples my hourly rate varies between 25 and 180 euro. It’s not a perfect world and I have some negotiating skills to learn too. It depends on so many things and not in the last place: the client. I’m not always the one who gets to make an offer. There’s budgets and stuff involved as well. And competition.

HOW DOES IT FEEL?
Eventually the most important question is: does it feel right to you? Some of us want a big house, a car and two kids. Others want more free time, a tiny house and a vegetable garden (me!). Can you live the way you want with what you’re asking for your work? If so, keep it up and raise your prices a little every now and then. If not, raise your prices. Every new client is a new opportunity*.

*With returning clients it’s perfectly okay to say it took much more time than you anticipated and open up the conversation about adjusting the price accordingly. Is that a bit scary? Probably. Is it professional? Yes it is. You’re a one-(wo)manbusiness and it’s all part of the game. So play it.

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