Many an old joke is based on the notion that the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the pro says, “First, let’s settle on a price.”

To some extent that’s true. There are any number of scam artists about these days who try to get artwork for free. After an illustrator has been burnt a few times, he knows to first settle on price.

That said, settling on a price can also help out the buyer. Nothing is as frustrating as thinking you have an artist to create the book cover you’ve dreamed of having, only to discover that the asking price is out of the ballpark in terms of your budget.

Sometimes charges will be broken into two parts. The first part will be a fixed price for some sketches to get the basic design in place, plus a final illustration for the book cover. The second tier of charges will be an hourly rate for additional changes in the original, finished illustration, or for additional illustrations should the publisher decide the original concept doesn’t work.

This two tier system protects buyers who have a good notion of what they want going into a project (which gives them the lower fixed price), while allowing for those souls who aren’t so sure to eventually get what they want, albeit at a slightly higher price. (Obviously if a publisher has a good cover concept going into the project, they’re going to save money.)

The Magical Contact by Duncan Long

The other mark of a pro illustrator is that he’ll use a contract. Contracts protect all parties involved. And remember that contracts are never written in stone; if there’s something you don’t like in a contract, you can always negotiate to have it changed.

The big plus with a contract is that it spells out who gets what and for how much. The publisher knows just what rights he’s getting and for how much.

In the US at least, the creator of art (or other copyrightable work) is in the catbird seat when no contract has been written. In the courtroom, all rights are assumed to belong to the artist. If you’re publishing and the artist you’re hiring doesn’t offer you a contract, ask for it. Otherwise you may find that the rights you thought you purchased are in doubt. That can get expensive in today’s lawsuit-enabling society.

What prices are reasonable?

Well, generally you get what you pay for. And sadly many self-publishers try to cut corners with a cheap cover – and never sell many books because of the cheap appearance of the cover.

If someone is offering cover artwork for very little, chances are it will be stock art or something that will look less than professional on your book cover. And it will hurt your sales.

That said, here are some good ballpark costs when looking for quality illustrators (these numbers are based on the average going rates paid by major publishers in the USA, as of 2009):

Full-color cover illustration: $1,000-$3,000 US
Black and White cover or interior illustration: $1,500-$4,000 US
Illustrations for a children’s book: $3,000-$12,000 US

These prices will generally be flat fees – but with books by established authors, they may sometimes may be paid as an advance on royalties, (that is, the artist will get the fee but may be due additional money should the book become a run-away best seller, the additional money being a percentage of the amount made on the sale of each copy of the title). If the book fails to make enough sales to counter-balance the advance paid to the artist, the illustrator gets to keep the entire advance without returning any money to the publisher.

In my experience, not many book cover projects sink in the harbor. But on occasion a cover just doesn’t work out, the publisher runs out of cash, or other misfortunes occur and the project crumbles apart halfway through. In such a case, the artist will generally keep half the amount he was to be paid as his “kill fee” for the project, and all the rights to the artwork produced will revert back to the artist. Traditionally the kill fee is half the total payment that was to be made to the artist. However it is better to outline the amount in the contract to prevent any misunderstandings.

A professional book cover artist can give a publisher a big edge on the competition. People do judge a book by its cover, and a professional-looking cover can be very important, especially for self publishing authors, or small presses competing against large, established publishing houses.

OK… Now I’m hoping you’ll take a look at my my book cover illustrations portfolio. Then we can talk prices.