I constantly hear fellow illustrators, photographers, and graphic designers ask each other, “what's the going rate?" – a book cover– magazine spread– picture book- it seems that many artists want to know what you were paid so they can ask for the same amount. I think this is the wrong question. I think making art is very different than making a massed produced product such as a can of coke. A can of coke has a fixed cost and a fixed amount of time to produce. Your art varies in complexity and the time it takes to produce AND - it's very different than mine. Your art might take you longer to produce than mine. The project I'm being asked to illustrate might be more complex than yours. The conceptual energy you spend might be more taxing on you than me. My method might be more expensive to execute than yours and so on.
Individually we value our time differently. Your cost of living might be higher than mine. My work load may be greater than yours. The quality of your illustration might be higher than mine. My ambitions might be lower than yours. Your reputation might be better than mine. With all of these variables why would we seek for sameness? Why should we seek to price our work in lockstep. Why are we afraid to ask for what we want?
I think we should be asking different questions: How much time will this assignment take me? Can I complete this project given my current work load? Do I want to do this assignment? Do I believe in the message of this assignment? Will I enjoy working on this project? Am I capable of successfully completing this project? What is the opportunity cost of taking this assignment? How bad do I need money right now? Given all of these factors my motivation for a particular assignment is going to be different than yours. My need to land the project isn't going to be the same as yours. These factors can change from month to month as my workload fluctuates project to project. So a one size fits all price makes as much sense as expecting to buy Apple stock for the same price it was 15 years ago.
My formula for pricing assignments goes like this: 1) Will I have fun illustrating this project? If so I'll probably be willing to accept less but I'll need more money if it's going to be drudgery. 2) Will I have to work extremely long hours to complete the assignment or do I have plenty of time? My demands will vary accordingly. 3) How bad do I need the money right now? If my income has been high than my need to take the assignment is lower and I'll probably ask for more money.
After I consider all of these factors I try to figure out what my bottom line dollar amount is. Example: A client asks me to to illustrate a brochure for a national toy company and wants me to submit my bid. Work has been slow so I really want to take the assignment even though it doesn't look like much fun. I figure that given the work load I want to do it for no less than $2000 – lower than that and I'll be happy to lose it. If I can visualize being happy doing it for $1600 than that has to be my new bottom line and so on. So if $1600 is my bottom line then I can feel comfortable asking for $2500 - $3000. If the client agrees to $2700 I'll feel pretty good knowing I would have done it for less. If the client comes back saying they can't pay a penny more than $1300 I won't stress about turning it down because I've already had this crucial conversation with myself.
On the other hand let's say I'm asked to do the same assignment but I've been very busy with good paying work and I currently have a lot of assignments. Taking this new project will have me working weekends and very long days. Now when I go through my check list my bottom line is much higher. This is why you and I can NOT possibly expect to work for “the going rate”! In this case my bottom line might have increased to $4000 or even higher. I probably won't get the job when I am firm at this higher rate but if I do I'm still happy- if not – no sweat. The most important thing is avoiding regret. There's really nothing worse than landing the project and then wishing you had turned it down. You have to know what your bottom line is before you can expect to negotiate successfully.
Lets stop treating our work like common mass produced products and start treating it like art.