Self Publishing: What's An Artist Worth?
  • Self Publishing: What's An Artist Worth?


    If you're like many other folks who have recently delved into the foray of self-publishing 5E products, you've probably quickly realised that art is expensive (actually, I dislike using that term - it's not expensive for what it is). Some people are lucky enough to have artistic talent which lets them illustrate their own products; others need to rely on the hard work of other contributors to help bring their words to life. This short article covers a few basic ways you can get your product illustrated. Welcome to a well-established community of small and self-publishers in the RPG industry!

    Are You A Writer Or A Publisher?

    First things first, it's important that you start from the right perspective. If you're producing and selling products, and using artists to illustrate them (we'll leave out editors and layout/design people for now), you're not just a writer any more. You're a publisher. A small publisher, perhaps, but a publisher nonetheless. Being a publisher isn't the same thing as being a writer - it requires different skills; and as a publisher, albeit a small one, you have a new set of responsibilities. Publishing ain't always easy, but it can be rewarding.

    If you just want to be a writer, that's a different thing. As a writer, you don't need to worry about art, someone else can edit your work, someone else does the layout, someone handles the marketing, someone handles the accounting. If writing is the thing you really want to do, consider instead approaching a publisher and writing for them. They'll do all the (non-written) hard work, and you'll get paid for your writing.

    But if you're doing the whole shebang - using artists, selling the work, and so on - you're a publisher. You may prefer to think of yourself as a struggling writer, but you've taken a step beyond that; and as a small publisher you need to consider the hard work of others involved in bringing your words to life. You may be surprised to find that that can take as long or longer than your actual writing, and involve just as much hard work!

    Don't Work For Exposure

    Now, art isn't cheap. Or at least, it shouldn't be - it is possible to persuade artists to work for peanuts (or worse, for exposure) but doing so is exploiting them. A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of articles about how artists should not work for free or for exposure, and the reasons why, so I won't belabour the point here except to say that it is important. I even wrote a similar article (focused on writers, not artists) a while back.

    That might mean you can't afford art, at least at first. That's totally OK. It's OK to not be able to afford something, and to work towards being able to afford it, and books with little or no art are just fine! However, there are other options which mean that you can actually afford art and pay your artists a fair amount. Every small publisher has gone through this - if you look at DTRPG, you'll see thousands of small publishers who have gone through that very thing. Don't panic; it's not a new problem. If you keep producing quality stuff, you'll be able to start slowly improving the production values of that material. "But I can't afford it" is not a great reason to exploit somebody; it's a great reason to hone your craft and reputation and work towards being able to afford it. In the meantime, starting with little or no art is just fine; if your writing is solid, you have a great starting point.

    That said, in this day and age, there are some amazing resources which enable you to early circumvent these barriers. It's a pretty wonderful time for self-publishing!

    Some Solutions

    The most obvious one is Kickstarter. Let's say you need a thousand dollars to illustrate your short book (like I said, art is not cheap - I spent £20,000 of Kickstarter funds on art for my WOIN books). A Kickstarter campaign to raise that thousand dollars has a number of benefits. First, you find out in advance if folks want your book. Second, it has its own marketing value all of itself. Third, it means you can pay your artists a fair wage. Fourth, if you raise more than your thousand dollars, you start making profit before even putting the book on sale. Fifth, you can then sell the book.

    That's a win-win situation. Your book ends up looking good, everybody gets paid fairly, you make money. It's hard to find a good reason not to do that, especially when your back-up plan is to ask artists to work for free. Work out what art you need, work out how much it costs, and there's your Kickstarter goal. When your book gets funded, your artists' fair pay is built-in to the model.

    I would normally include Patreon as an option, but the logistics are a bit awkward there. Certainly it's very suited to lots of small items, but if you want to use DMs Guild (which I assume most folks reading this do) the exclusivity clause at DMs Guild makes it slightly tricky getting your product to your patrons. I'm hopeful that some loosening of the rules (or a much needed extra feature - comp copies for DMs Guild publishers) is in the future, as that would make for the ideal solution.

    What other options are there? The other obvious solution is stock art. There are stock art locations where you can buy art rights inexpensively, or even free public domain art. Those artists make their money by selling the same art to lots of people, rather than doing custom work just for you. There's the big places like Shutterstock, and there is tons of stock art available on DriveThruRPG. WotC has released some art to be used as stock art on DMs Guild (for free!) In fact, there are hundreds of places you can get stock art. Here's a quick list:



    Now, there are places you can get art done for next to nothing. I personally feel that doing so is unfair. Some artists may well be willing to work for peanuts because (a) they don't know better and think that's the only way to get started as an artist or (b) they don't need the money as they have a full time job and are just doing it for fun. The former, unfortunately, have their viewpoint reinforced by all those publishers who keep telling them that that is true, when it isn't; the latter undermine the former because they make it look like art is, indeed, a cheap commodity. For that reason, even if you don't need the money, if you're an artist I hope that you still charge a fair price for your art, because not doing so harms those that do need the money.

    Can you get art for dirt cheap, or free? Sure. Should you? The desire to get your awesome words out there and looking pretty is understandable and the temptation to do what you need to do to get that done right now is hard to resist, especially if you have no money to spend. I've been there! I asked Claudio Pozas, an artist I've known for 16 years, who started small and worked his way up:

    Why not just offer US$5 and use whatever artist takes the bait? There are several reasons for that:

    1) You'll get the art you paid for: probably rushed, from a starting, naive artist who is hurting his career more than helping.

    2) There's the ethical quandary of offering a payment that is unlikely to support the worker you're hiring. It's a matter of responsibility, when you have the power in the professional relationship (in this case, the job offer).

    3) for the publisher really scraping for money, there are several good artists out there that offer stock illustration. Sure, the art won't be uniquely yours, but it's better than to cheat an artist out of a living wage.


    OK, so now you're asking what a fair rate for art is? That depends on a number of things - colour, black-and-white, size, complexity, and so on. The range does, of course, vary - I'm not saying that beginning artists can charge as much as those who have spent years forging their reputation. A well-known artist may charge ten times or more than a new one; that's OK, as long as the new one is still charging a fair amount.

    The average rates I tend to see from artists are in the region of $30 for a quarter page piece, $100 for a full page piece, maybe double that if it's full-colour. For a well-known artist, you may have to pay much more than that, but for the average freelancer, that's about the average. I asked Claudio Pozas again:

    "Fair" depends on a lot of things: the artist's experience, the publisher's size, and the product's reach. At the very least, an artist -- like any other person -- should make a living wage out of his work. In the US, the minimum wage is US$7 (roughly) an hour, and there's talk of increasing that to US$15 (a minimum "living" wage).

    If an artist is expected to spend two days on an illustration (between sketching, composition, rendering, and handling alterations), that's about 16 hours of work. That artist, at the very least, should be paid US$240 for his time.

    Granted, the artist won't probably work for 8 hours per day, that can be spread out over more days, as the freelancer has to deal with his own workflow, his paperwork, and have time to hone his skills.

    The bottom line is that each publisher should be prepared to contribute to an artist's living wage, so we can end the all-too-real image of the "starving artist". I can see a small, quarter-page illustration that could theoretically be finished (sketch + composition + rendering + alteration) over the course of 8 hours (again, putting together the hours actually spent on the image over several days), and the publisher offering US$120 for it.

    BTW, those numbers I gave you can be adjusted for, as you said, non-work-for-hire, etc. A b/w quarter-page illustration that an artist can do in 3 hours can start at US$30, easily.

    Now, Claudio is an established artist with a solid, reliable, professional reputation. $120 for a quarter page item isn't necessarily what a brand new artist can command, but they can definitely command more than just "exposure".

    What about cartography? Dyson Logos offered this information when I asked: "As a cartographer, I charge $250 for a full page map, $175 for a half-page. This is for "work for hire", my rates are lower if we are dealing with licensed material instead (where I keep copyright and provide non-exclusive use licensing)."

    You'll notice that Claudio says that an artist should be paid a living wage for work. Now, there is a problem there; I know it well! You, the publisher are not making a living wage, so why should the artist? It's a good question. It's also not the right question. If your business model doesn't allow you to pay a fair wage for art, the answer isn't "exploit an artist", it's "revise your business model; it doesn't work". Don't pass the pain onto those who depend on you - it is, sadly, yours to bear. There are solutions; they take work or patience, but I've outlined several above (start smaller; use Kickstarter; etc.) It may be that you just can't have the art yet. Don't worry - you can, with time, get yourself to a place where you can have it all! Think of it like hiring a builder or other craftsman to work for you (though those types of people long, long ago realised the value of their labour - you won't get them doing it for a fiver!)

    You can do other things to make things fairer for artists, and maybe save some money. Consider letting them keep the rights to the art. When I publish, I no longer use work-for-hire art except for very occasional specific pieces which really need to be (and I pay more for them). Work-for-hire means you, the publisher, owns the copyright to the art. Instead, consider letting the artist keep the copyright (don't do that instead of paying them - do it as well as paying them, but you may be able to negotiate a lower rate). The artist can go on to make money by selling prints and the like; even WotC lets its cartographers do that these days. Hey, head over to my friend Claudio Pozas' art store and buy a print of this gorgeous cover he did for To Slay A Dragon. The odds are you don't really need it to be work-for-hire. If for some reason it does need to be work-for-hire, you can still give the artist permission to sell prints themself.



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    Comments 99 Comments
    1. Acr0ssTh3P0nd's Avatar
      Acr0ssTh3P0nd -
      As an artist just venturing out into the world of commissions, it's really great to see a post here about this stuff. I know I have the luxury of illustrating my own work, but other DM's Guild writers will have to get artists on board for custom illustrations, and it's good to see one of the big names in D&D forums heading off the "yo can you do free art?" question early.

      I've got no problems with artists volunteering their own time for free projects without being asked, but it's kinda insulting for someone to not offer payment for a skilled service.
    1. Halivar's Avatar
      Halivar -
      I don't know. While I agree that artists should not be cheated (and they are, by people that have the money and should know better), there are the exigencies that come with being a poor (sometimes literally!) self-pub trying to scrape together the best product you can offer for $2 on DTRPG.com. I remember the lively Twitter debate you had last week (with Sly Flourish I think?) and tended to side more with the folks saying that underpaid artists and low-cost self-pubs are really kind of in the same boat. Underpaid artists are the only kind of artists many underpaid (underearning?) self-pubs can afford.

      Here on EnWorld I've seen artists pleading for work, and publishers unable to pay them more than a pittance. I don't think anyone's actively trying to screw anyone over; it's just a really crappy market to try to make money in. If the lesson we give self-pubs is, "ethically, you should not use art at all" rather than using an artist desperate for commissions of any sort, then I don't know that we have served anyone. I certainly don't see how we have served the starving artist. We may have done well by the higher-tier, established artists by not polluting the market; I don't know.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Halivar View Post
      If the lesson we give self-pubs is, "ethically, you should not use art at all" rather than using an artist desperate for commissions of any sort, then I don't know that we have served anyone.
      That's not the message. The message is "find another way to pay for it". Kickstarter is an excellent resource, and many people avail themselves of it. It's a wonderful way to ensure that all contributors get paid.

      Start a Kickstarter, then hire the desperate artist for a fair wage! It's more work, sure, but publishing is a lot of work. And your starving artist comes out of that a whole lot better.

      Stock art, too, is a great solution. It lets artists use a different model (selling the same art to lots of people) and make their money that way; at the same time it lets the publisher pay very low prices.

      There are solutions!
    1. Halivar's Avatar
      Halivar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      That's not the message. The message is "find another way to pay for it". Kickstarter is an excellent resource, and many people avail themselves of it. It's a wonderful way to ensure that all contributors get paid.

      Start a Kickstarter, then hire the desperate artist for a fair wage! It's more work, sure, but publishing is a lot of work. And your starving artist comes out of that a whole lot better.
      If a self-pub has the means for paying a fair price for something, for instance via KickStarter, they absolutely should, no questions asked. Now running a KickStarter, as you very well know, is a full-time job. I fear many self-pubs won't be able to do that and hold down their day job. I would be interested to know how many self-pubs still need to be bi-vocational; for my part, the most successful publisher I personally know is a group of three guys that still have to work day jobs. Maybe it's different if you're only doing digital? You would know better than me. But it's still a lot of work on top of the work on top of the other work. It looks like a high barrier from the outside.

      EDIT: I had actually considered trying my hand at some KS'd RPG tools, until I read your article on the work required for WOIN just for the KS side, and I was like, "Oh, heck no!"
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Halivar View Post
      If a self-pub has the means for paying a fair price for something, for instance via KickStarter, they absolutely should, no questions asked. Now running a KickStarter, as you very well know, is a full-time job. I fear many self-pubs won't be able to do that and hold down their day job. I would be interested to know how many self-pubs still need to be bi-vocational; for my part, the most successful publisher I personally know is a group of three guys that still have to work day jobs. Maybe it's different if you're only doing digital? You would know better than me. But it's still a lot of work on top of the work on top of the other work. It looks like a high barrier from the outside.
      Well, I can't get on board an escalation from "I can't afford it" to "it's too much effort". Yup, it means work!
    1. SerHogan's Avatar
      SerHogan -
      Was really looking forward to this piece and hoping it had some great tips and links to resources. Instead I got an ethics lecture.
    1. Xethreau's Avatar
      Xethreau -
      As someone experimenting with self-publishing (with not disappointing results!) this advice is really useful. I didn't think about my role evolving from writer to publisher. Looking forward to reading this more thoroughly later!

      Thanks for your business perspective as always @Morrus. Its been indispensable for me.
    1. Xethreau's Avatar
      Xethreau -
      Quote Originally Posted by SerHogan View Post
      Was really looking forward to this piece and hoping it had some great tips and links to resources. Instead I got an ethics lecture.
      I skimmed this article and found this. :/

      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      The most obvious [solution] is Kickstarter. Let's say you need a thousand dollars to illustrate your short boo... A Kickstarter campaign to raise that thousand dollars has a number of benefits. First, you find out in advance if folks want your book. Second, it has its own marketing value all of itself. Third, it means you can pay your artists a fair wage. Fourth, if you raise more than your thousand dollars, you start making profit before even putting the book on sale. Fifth, you can then sell the book.

    1. Halivar's Avatar
      Halivar -
      Quote Originally Posted by SerHogan View Post
      Was really looking forward to this piece and hoping it had some great tips and links to resources. Instead I got an ethics lecture.
      I did not know about stock RPG art before this article. That's a big one.
      http://www.rpgnow.com/browse.php?filters=0_0_2893_0_0
      https://www.patreon.com/jestockart?ty=h <-- This guy is using the patronage model to provide low-cost stock art.

      There are others available via Google search. I just didn't know it existed before.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Patreon is also a great option. You can set per-article milestones based on art levels. The only disadvantage there is that it's difficult to get your product to the customers if you want to be on DMs Guild due to that exclusivity clause. I'm hopeful that OBS will relax that a little for products like that.
    1. Halivar's Avatar
      Halivar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      Patreon is also a great option. You can set per-article milestones based on art levels. The only disadvantage there is that it's difficult to get your product to the customers if you want to be on DMs Guild due to that exclusivity clause. I'm hopeful that OBS will relax that a little for products like that.
      Yikes. Does that mean for DMsG you can only use work-for-hire art?
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Halivar View Post
      Yikes. Does that mean for DMsG you can only use work-for-hire art?
      No, the usage terms have an exception for art.
    1. nogrod's Avatar
      nogrod -
      I am a small publisher that has purchased at least 100 pieces of art since 2012. My working on margins that are amazing only because there are not in the red is a choice. It is certainly not a reason to complain about the expense of an input I knNow that I have seen the artists processes repeatedly it is not only their time you are buying, but their experience, judgement and professionalism. I can also now, thanks to getting to know them socially a bit, appreciate how much time artists spend doing non-art things- a big one is chasing down late payments from publishers. Which is why the first few pieces for a publisher are hard to secure.

      Not every project can justify art based on sales projections, mine didnt, but I wanted it to look a certain way. So I began buying a lot of pieces before I launched the Kickstarter to hedge against not getting funded. I recommend the same because you get a chance to work with an artist and focus on what to expect as the project nears completion. Those early commissions establish reputations and set expectations. Even if some art goes unused it isn't wasted, especially if the artist had a good overall experience. Reputations go both ways and a good one with artists is priceless when time is a commodity.

      Same thing applies to any for- hire creative (cartographer and sculptors are the other big ones in my case)

      Mileage varies but I don't regret the direction I chose, not even the large sums of money spent in the process. I look at it as much cheaper than a golf habit- especially given the dollar to hour ratio
    1. Will Doyle's Avatar
      Will Doyle -
      Saying that artists who provide content for free are undermining their profession is a little harsh.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Will Doyle View Post
      Saying that artists who provide content for free are undermining their profession is a little harsh.
      Maybe so; but then I've heard from new artists who say that it's tough getting a decent wage when publishers have been conditioned to think art to be of little or no value. It's not that people are deliberately trying to hurt other people, but things have a ripple effect, and if enough people are doing the things, the effects can add up. It's certainly worth thinking twice before undervaluing your own work, although of course an artist is free to value their own work in any way they wish.
    1. Greg K's Avatar
      Greg K -
      I am not sure where Claudio got his information. As someone living in LA, $7 is not a living wage. It is true, that the Federal Minimum Wage is $7.25/hr, but that was established seven years ago and at the time was below the minimum wage of several states including CA (which was $8/hr). Current California minimum wage is $10/hr (and that is not a living wage in most large cities).

      Back when I studied illustration before injuring my arm, my teacher told us our work should not be below $10/hr an hour. That rate was taking into account having to pay for materials, income tax (both state and federal) and other work related expenses something many starting artists do not consider as minimum wage is based on being an employee whom will cover materials and contribute half of social security tax payment (as a freelancer/contractor in the US you pay both portions) . At the time, that was the late 1990s. A well known rpg illustrator in the early 2000's told me that the rpg rates being paid at the time by some of the major companies was good if you were living in your parents' basement. Many companies do not seem to have increased their rates much since then.

      Another issue to consider is the purchasing of all rights. Outside of rpgs and, possibly, comics, freelance artwork and photography is sold for a specific term of use. It might be a weekend, week, or month for an ad in a newspaper taking account circulation size (and getting into more specifics of use) , a specific issue of a magazine, a first print run of a book. Other uses are charged separately or at additional cost under their terms. After the specified term of usage is over, payment for additional usage falls under a new contract. So this is another thing to consider when discussing payment and desire for many companies wanting full rights.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Greg K View Post

      Another issue to consider is the purchasing of all rights. Outside of rpgs and, possibly, comics, freelance artwork and photography is sold for a specific term of use. It might be a weekend, week, or month for an ad in a newspaper taking account circulation size (and getting into more specifics of use) , a specific issue of a magazine, a first print run of a book. Other uses are charged separately or at additional cost under their terms. After the specified term of usage is over, payment for additional usage falls under a new contract. So this is another thing to consider when discussing payment and desire for many companies wanting full rights.
      Yep. Not requiring work-for-hire pieces is definitely something to consider.
    1. smiteworks's Avatar
      smiteworks -
      Great article.

      For another perspective, I would like to throw out the concept of shared publishing. Many people in this industry do work as a labor of love. The work and all proceeds *could* be divided out among all participating parties based on the percentage of work it takes to create the final product. All revenues could then be divided out by that same calculation. This could result in each participant getting paid less than a living wage for their work, but it also means they have a fair stake in whatever upside potential is in the finished work. This requires a large amount of trust in all parties to carry their predetermined load and for the person receiving the funds to provide accurate reporting and payment. Nobody gets taken advantage of here since everyone goes into it with their eyes open. There should be a binding agreement with all terms to determine how much advertising is spent, how much the author(s) receives, the artist(s) receives, the editor, publisher, etc.

      With enough projects like this, you won't always see a large upfront payment, but you will often see a spike of revenue immediately after launch, followed by residual sales on all past work. It is very similar to the model employed by artists selling their art as stock art. They get their money in small, but hopefully frequent chunks that will hopefully pay them more money over time if the market is big enough to bear it.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Quote Originally Posted by SerHogan View Post
      Was really looking forward to this piece and hoping it had some great tips and links to resources. Instead I got an ethics lecture.
      Drive Thru stock art

      Now that I've paid for the attention with a resource link, I can tell you that one lesson many small business owners need is ethics.

      After 20 years as a creative, it seems that once someone becomes a small business owner, they'll turn a blind to a lot of things once they say "I can't afford you" or "I need to make as much profit as I can as fast as I can."

      Suddenly, a practice that someone would never agree to, or put up, with looks tempting.

      Remember the big guys started with monograph machines and staples. To go a step further, you'll need credit cards, friends with funds, a new mortgage, been in the biz for years or a combo of all of the above.

      Regardless, you'll also be missing out on a lot of sleep. A lot of sleep.

      Btw, my usual fee for advice like this is either $20 or an expensive lunch.
    1. dave2008's Avatar
      dave2008 -
      I'm working on my first publishing effort to submit to the DM's Guild and I decided I wanted to commission some art. So I thought I would share my experience thus far:

      What I needed:
      I was looking for seven humanoid (mostly) full-color illustrations approx. 1/4 page in size.

      Where I found the artist:
      I browsed deviantArt (http://www.deviantart.com) and found some artist I liked and sent them a note (you may have to sign-up to do this, I'm already a member so I'm not sure). I sent notes to 5 artist with the basic parameters of what I wanted. I petitioned artist from a range of talent/skill as I assumed I wouldn't be able to afford top-end talent (there are a lot of pros on DA). I got a response from 2 artist who where interested within 12hrs.

      What I paid:
      The bids ranged from $75 - $500 per piece. Though I really liked the style and feel of the more expensive artist, I chose the lower cost artist and paid about $495 for my art (7 pieces). I paid through pay-pal.

      What I got:
      We are two weeks in and he has submit at least one draft of each piece and as many as 4 drafts on some (based on my comments/feedback). I should be getting the final pieces next week, if not this week, about 4 weeks after I commissioned the art (non-exclusive btw). Thus far I have been very happy with the results and working with the artist.

      Was it worth it?:
      As a first time publisher, probably not financially as I don't expect to make an money on this product. Personally, I think the value the art adds was worth every penny. Ultimately time will tell. If I end up making some money I bet a big part of that will be because of the art.
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