You’re too expensive, Sarah.

Here’s how a conversation went last week about a new book cover.

I’m posting it because it’s not the first of its type, and its tone bothered me.

It’s a neat encapsulation of the kind of conversation I’m having more and more, but I wonder if you, as reader, also see the client’s emphasis on me charging too much, rather than the client offering too little.

Friendly and professional, it’s message beneath the words that I’m concerned about.

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I was taught from the very beginning that the client approaches the illustrator (or photographer, or designer), outlines what they would like doing, and asks for a quote or estimate. The artist then generates a proposed figure, often with a scope of work and terms, which the client may accept, reject, or negotiate on.

I don’t remember me ever telling my builder what he should charge for the job I’ve asked him to do, told my accountancy firm they should actually halve their bill, nor listened to an estimate from my car mechanic and told him that no, actually £200 is all I’ve got, so.

But almost thirty years into this industry, am I out of date with this line of thinking?

In this climate is it a case of ‘take anything going’ and I should be grateful?

Are the days of determining your own fees gone, or am I right to adhere to a career-long policy of curating my own fee structure?

Could an AI system make this cover for zero pence instead, and should I therefore just be happy I was approached?

I want to know what you think!

The conversation is lightly edited for anonymity and brevity (and none of the books above are related to this conversation).

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Client:

We’d like you to do this book cover. You’ve already worked on some covers for this author.
We will have a think about what the cover art should include but perhaps this brief summary already gives you some ideas. As the book is publishing in June we’d like to send you the art brief in early December and have the artwork for January 2023: you can let us know what is possible on your end. We can offer a fee of £500.

I look forward to hearing from you and hope that we will have the opportunity to work together.

Note that there’s no mention of whether that £500 is expected to cover a buy-out, any particular set of usages or geographical applications— so it can’t be assessed as appropriate or not by the artist.

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Me:

Thanks very much for emailing. Nice to hear from you! I apologise for the delay as I was travelling for much of Wednesday and all day yesterday.

The book sounds wonderful and it would be great to keep the continuity by working on the cover for this author. I really enjoyed illustrating their previous books.

My fees for book covers however are much higher than the one you propose, particularly for a wraparound. Industry standard rates have admittedly not kept pace with inflation terribly well, but still sit around the £1000-£2000 mark and for the US, in the region of $2000-$4500.

Let me know if your fee is a suggested ‘starter for ten’ on which we can negotiate, or whether that is all you have available for this. I would love to do it!

All the best, Sarah.

Sounds positive and flexible — doesn’t it? Hm, maybe not!

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Client:

We appreciate that you charge a higher rate and we are sorry but we cannot match this.

Thanks for getting back to me so swiftly and again, thank you for creating fantastic covers for [publisher’s name].

I charge a higher rate than — than what? Their other artists? Than what they’re used to paying? Higher than the amount they think is fair?
OK; a little context might be required.

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Me:

Thanks for the reply!

Just to give context for my email, [publisher] paid $3000 for their cover for [title of book by the same author] in 2018, and the bill for title modifications to the cover for [another book by the same author] was £100 in 2019. It was the same for similar title modifications to turn the cover of [book] into [different edition].

So £500 for a full wraparound cover is not an appropriate fee, and although I’m fully aware that someone else (perhaps, but not necessarily, a less experienced illustrator) might eagerly take this on, I’m almost thirty years into the industry and know how long a good wraparound cover takes, and I also know the experience and expertise I bring to my covers.

I do understand that you are a smaller-sized publisher, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out on this one, as I feel quite strongly about cover continuity for author series and presumably this one will look completely different.

But I feel more strongly about fees being structured properly, and I always take the trouble to expand upon a fee if it is ever rejected, so my clients know I’m coming from a place of careful consideration and experience, not greed or arbitrary figures.

Thank you for reading!

With this reply I realised I’d leapt into defending my perfectly fair and appropriate fees (which I don’t need to) while also being rather firm in my stance. (The urge to defend or explain one’s fees is often something that needs to be kept in check!)

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Client:

[. . . . . .]

And that’s where it ended. Fair enough, as there’s not a lot more for the client to say.

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But I’m interested to know what you think. This upcoming 30-year anniversary has had me reviewing a LOT of practises and habits, and there are more articles about these coming up.

Because if I’m to spend another decade or two at the coalface, there are things that need reviewing, dismantling and, as a result, rebuilding, revamping or rejecting. And those things, along with the unavoidable creative review and reflection, will shape the next chapter of this long and busy career.

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Sarah J Coleman

Artist + illustrator of over 800 books and owner of the same amount of pens. Enough to write you a picture AND paint you a story. inkymole.com / inkstagram.ink