How much does a children's book illustrator cost?

From a publisher point of view, when commissioning an illustrator to work on a project there are a number of things that may be taken into consideration. Here, we discuss a few of the variables that come into play while also highlighting the basic things that illustrators are contractually entitled to as standard.

As standard, illustrators are entitled to . . .


Fair pay

Just as we have minimum wage and London Living Wage requirements here in the UK, it is very important to credible publishers that illustrators are paid fairly for their work. A picture book can take anything from three months to three years to produce. So, an illustrator's advance needs to be a fair representation of the work they will undertake, while also being enough for them to live off - but not necessarily for the period of time that they're working on the book, because payments are usually staggered and come after certain parts of the process have been completed (plus, invoice processing and payment takes time).


Contractual copies of their book

And - sidenote - I feel like I need to reiterate that it is "their" book. Every person who contributes to the creation of a book feels a sense of ownership and pride, and rightly so! But illustrators - who create entire visual worlds within books to seamlessly sit alongside, add to, and bring life to, an author's words - are entitled to call a book their own as much as an author is. Authors and illustrators are equal. This shouldn't need to be said, but there it is anyway.

So. In every publishing contract, whether a flat fee deal or an advance and royalty deal (which we touch on lightly in more detail further down), there is a clause stating that the illustrator will be sent copies of their book - often referred to in the contract as "illustrator copies", "contractual copies" or similar. This is standard.

How many copies? Well, that's up for negotiation but it could be five copies or ten copies, or even more, or something in between. The contract will normally cover every possible format - so hardback, paperback, board book, eBook, etc, and a quantity for each will be agreed.


Copies of their book purchased with a discount

There will also be a clause in every illustrator's contract saying that they are entitled to purchase copies of their book from their publisher at a discount. Again, this discount can vary but it will be considerable - sometimes it's 50% of the RRP.


Copyright

OK, there are exceptions to this but in most cases, whether we're talking about a flat fee or an advance and royalty deal, an illustrator will retain the copyright for their work and be able to showcase the artwork they create on their website, socials, etc. The only time an illustrator will need to seek permission for including artwork in their portfolio (or posting it on social media) is if the book hasn't yet published (because the publisher may be lining up a cover reveal or an email blast and won't want to share material publicly ahead of those going out). Outside of that, illustrators are of course entitled to promote their own work however they see fit.


Credit

Illustrators must be credited for their work. In most cases, this means including their name on the book's cover and spine as well as the imprint page and title page.

For illustrated fiction, the illustrator's name can sometimes appear on the back cover rather than the front - but front cover is considered best practice, industry-wide.


Right to PLR payment

As an aside, it's not widely known that for an illustrator of a flat fee project to claim PLR they need their name to be printed on the title page. Here's what it says on the British Library website:

"To qualify for PLR in a printed book the original owner should be named on the title page or be entitled to a royalty payment from the publisher."

The percentage of PLR paid to authors and illustrators needs to be agreed between the two, or their agents (rather than the publisher being involved), but for picture books this is widely accepted to be a 50/50 split straight down the middle.


Promotion by the publisher

Publishers promote the books they publish. This is, of course, standard and in the publisher's own best interests as well as the illustrator's. Everyone involved in a book's creation will do all they can to help that book be a success. After all, the book industry is a business first and foremost.


There are also some variables when an illustrator is offered payment for a project. . .


An illustrator's sales history... or lack of

It's true that established illustrators can command higher advances. Before commissioning an illustrator for a project, publishers think about a number of things, including the illustrator's art style, their availability and, yes, their sales history. Someone who has illustrated a book that has sold well of course has more negotiating power. But if you're an illustrator who's looking to work on their first children's book, then fear not - as a debut you still have some power in your corner, and we can tell you first hand that publishers are constantly on the look-out for debut illustrators they can break into the industry.


Schedule

If the book is a crash-in (on a very tight schedule) and the illustrator has agreed to artwork the book in a shorter amount of time, rather than reducing their fee/advance, this can sometimes push it up - after all, if you're asking someone to work on a project more intensively than they normally would, then you need to provide them with an incentive!


Project specification

There are a number of things you need to be sure of before you commit to a project and before you confirm the project fee/advance. Here are a few of those things:


  • Schedule - this needs to be put in writing for your benefit but obviously also for the publisher/organisation/person you're commiting your time to. As an illustrator, it's vital that you think about how much time you will invest in a project. How many hours of work will you contribute? When you divide your proposed fee/advance by that number, are you happy with what will effectively be your hourly rate?

  • Book length - in the UK, a standard picture book is 32 pages plus a cover. But a picture book can also be 24 pages, or 48 pages - or anything, really. Knowing the extent will help you determine how much time a project will take - and help you decide whether the money being offered is acceptable to you

  • Design brief - the book may consist entirely of double-page spreads (that is, a whole, detailed scene covering two facing pages), or it could be a mixture of double-page spreads, single pages and vignettes (spot illustrations). If you're worried about the fee/advance being too small, you can talk to the publisher about the type of illustrations required and whether the level of detail can be pared back to allow you to complete the project more quickly


Flat fee or advance and royalty deal

If an illustrator is paid a flat fee, their earnings are capped at the level of that fee. If they have an advance and royalty deal, the illustrator is paid an advance, and when that "earns out" they earn royalties on books sold. So everyone should only do advance and royalty deals, right? Well, not exactly. There are times when a flat fee deal can make good business sense - if it's with a reputable publisher, if the oportunity will genuinely open doors and/or raise your profile moving forwards, and if the fee itself is one that you feel able/happy to accept. But the merits of every potential deal should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and the financials should obviously be weighed up before any commitment is made.

This leads us to . . .


How a deal is negotiated

Negotiation is easier if you have an agent. That is an unfortunate truth - unfortunate because it can of course be hard to get an agent. Negotiating for yourself can be intimidating, but here are a few pointers:


  1. Use The Society of Authors website as a point of reference. The SoA advises both authors and illustrators, and even reviews contracts

  2. As much as possible, keep emotion out of your negotiation. We've said this before but publishing is a business. Telling someone that you want more money because you need to pay rent will not get you more money. Telling them that you want more money because the fee they're offering is below industry standard is a more productive jumping-off point

  3. Consider the points we've mentioned in the project specification above - are there any levers you can pull to make the job work for you? Are there any concessions the publisher can make?

  4. If the publisher is offering a flat fee then you can make the point that the fee should be higher to allow for the fact that you won't earn royalties on books sold

  5. If the publisher is offering an advance that feels too low to you, you can ask to negotiate the royalties further to compensate for this

  6. Keep your negotiations polite, firm and focussed on the matter at hand. It's preferable to avoid burning bridges, and the children's book industry is a small one, so keep that in mind but it's OK to disagree and it's OK to say no


Money

So, how much does a children's book illustrator cost?

While we were writing this post, a number of illustrators got in contact to share what they have been paid for projects. For 32-page picture books, their advance and royalty deal payments ranged from £5,000 for new illustrators up to £18,000 per book for some more established illustrators, with most earning on average between £6,500 and £8,500 per book. Please note, this is currently a very small focus group! But, all of these illustrators are working with reputable, known publishers - whether small, medium or large. Numbers do vary, but hopefully this will give you some insight into what some people are earning right now, and continue the very important conversation of payment fairness and transparency for illustrators.



Lastly, remember: if a publisher has approached you about illustrating for them, it's because they like your work. They approached you. And, sure, the conversation may not work out but in the first instance it's very imortant to keep this in the forefront of your mind. They approached you because they need/want you. And that is no small thing.



UPDATE: After receiving feedback online - which we are always grateful for and value - we would like to highlight that advances of £5,000 for a 32-page picture book are indeed very low and in fact below industry standard. While this advance level is a reality for many illustrators, we want to work towards ensuring that illustrators earn more across the board so that advances meet and exceed the average shown above.