How to work with artists

Or, Things I learned from Sam Flegal, Libertycon Artist Guest of Honor:

Just as we frequently say here that “It’s all in the contract!” and “You are not selling your book, you are licensing intellectual property!” Guess what? When dealing with artists, it’s all in the contract. And when you talk to them about using an image for a book cover, you’re not buying the work, you’re licensing intellectual property. Yep, that’s right: they’re just as concerned about licensing and IP rights when they talk to you as when you talk to a publisher… because in this case, they’re the IP creator, and you’re the publisher!

The shoe is now on the other foot. So, what terms should you offer the artist?

Do NOT start with Work For Hire

What is work for hire? It is, very simply, where you offer to pay the artist for the art, and then expect to keep the artwork and have all rights and usage, leaving the artist with nothing but money. You’ve seen this from sidewalk artists and beginning artists; they create something, you hand them cash and walk off with it.

If Penguin Random House asked you to sell your work for some cash up front, with no royalties ever coming, and they keep all the money for life + 70 years from audiobooks, video games, movie rights, foreign translations, as well as ebook and print…would you take it? Even the Star Trek franchise doesn’t offer that bad terms, so why would you?

Artists, professional ones, make money multiple times from different rights to the same work of art, just like you make money on the same story from print, ebook, and audio. There’s the initial buyer: magazines, publishing houses, card games, commissioned art for conventions, etc. Usually, the people who purchase initial right of publication do not purchase the actual painting, unless by separate agreement. Then there are the secondary buyers: when you go up to an artist booth at a stall and see five copies of the dragon image for sale, those are called prints. Most fine art gracing walls is from prints, from Bev Doolittle’s Pintos to Monet’s water lilies. The tertiary buyers are often on swag: from t-shirts with dragons fighting each other, to posters, mousepads, or coffee mugs. (Note: your royalty-free sites’ license specifically prohibits selling swag with the unaltered image precisely because that’s a valuable income source artists aren’t willing to license for the low cost of royalty-free.) Then there’s reselling the image for reproduction elsewhere, and finally, there’s selling the physical copy of the painting (if non-digital.)

This is where you get royalty, or royalty-free art sites. Just as you’d like to get paid every time someone downloads your book from Amazon, artists want to get paid every time their art is displayed by someone else. They either have royalty on art, so they get paid per use, every use, or they sell it under royalty-free license, where you pay once on download, and then can use it over and over.

Yes, every use. Just like trad pub authors expect 12-25% net on every ebook sale, an artist who licensed a work under royalty gets 2-4% from every sale. Obviously, you-the-publisher can see the gigantic headache looming. This is why you don’t want to do that, either.

Here’s a great example of a smart artist:

Luis de Royo painted an impressive fresco in a house in Russia. He then turned around and put out an art book showing it off. I seriously wanted it – and by buying it, he’s sold those paintings a second time to me. If he makes prints, t-shirts, posters, desktop backgrounds, mousepads… there’s his tertiary income. And I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he took sections of the whole and licensed them as book covers or magazine illustrations, for a fourth income from the same painting. (For the curious, it’s Dome, Warning! Not Safe For Work!)

If you walk in asking for work for hire terms, you’re taking all that potential income away from the artist. As Sam Flegal said, “It’s doable, but it’s like walking into a negotiation with your middle fingers raised.”

What terms do you want, then?

What do you want to do with the art? You want to alter the art to make a book cover. You want to sell that book cover in print, ebook, and audiobook cover, to sell or give away swag with the book cover on it, and to do so for as many customers as want to buy it, for the life of copyright. (Sometimes even that’s negotiable; how many covers still use original art 10 years after the fact, much less life of artist plus 70?) Don’t shortchange yourself on what may possibly be useful – but the less you ask for, the less bread you’re taking out of the artist’s mouth, and the more likely you can negotiate a price within your budget.

Don’t have a sample contract? Work with the artist, here. Chances are, they can point you to a contract they like that’ll leave you both happy. (After all, it may be your first time licensing cover art direct from the artist, but it’s their job. They’re helpful, as long as you don’t just expect them to do all the work.)

How much will it cost?

That depends on what you want, and who’s doing it. (Doesn’t everything?)

I have to admit, I might have looked like a malamute watching bacon cooking when the guy who did the MHI handbook cover (see it here: ) mentioned that you may be able to license 4th-use works for as low as $100 – $300 for a cover. I know he gets around $3000 – $5000 for a custom cover painting from publishers. This means if it’s already created, you may be able to license an image for far, far less than getting a custom original. (Assuming the image hasn’t already had exclusive rights licensed to someone else! Chances you can license something painted for Warhammer or other very distinctive IP? Nada.)

On originals: are you commissioning the art? How specific are you being? How many details are there? If you want a wrap-around sized piece of art with a battle scene where each human, orc, and elf is drawn clearly in the cast of hundreds, that’s a whole lot more time-intensive than if you want one warrior walking away from some nice abstract flaming wreckage.

Check out Dan Dos Santos, to see “single character, abstract background.” You will be able to pick out the urban fantasy and scifi covers. (He’s one of the iconic painters of urban fantasy covers. If you know urban fantasy, you’ll recognize his art in a heartbeat.)

Remember this critical bit of advice: Covers are advertisement for your books, not representation. If you tell the artist “An orc and an elf fighting in a back alley under a neon bar sign.” Your orc might end up in a trench coat instead of the leather jacket you didn’t mention. Or have dreadlocks, instead of a shaved head. But! If it will show character, setting, genre and subgenre, and entice the reader to pick it up, it’s Good Enough.

On the other hand, preliminary sample sketches will save a lot of time, trouble, money, and heartache on all sides.

Artists tend to think in images, not words. Some artists will want a copy of your book to read before they paint, to get a feel for the characters and setting. Some won’t. Check first. However, even if you do give them the book, see if you can find a couple photos or magazines or even make some crude sketches so you can say “I want something like this, with a guy who looks like this, but dressed like that…” It’ll make getting what you want a whole lot easier. On the other hand, if you’re working with an experienced cover artist and he tells you “It’d be better if you..” or “You may want to consider…”, listen to him. The guy (or gal) thinks in pictures, and has much more experience than you in what looks good. You’re paying for that expertise; you don’t have to use it, but you should listen and learn why they made that recommendation!

Are you wondering why artists charge so much for custom cover art? Frankly, because it can take them up to 200 hours for the massive oil painting (counting research time and shooting reference photos with models.) If you take the hours at work you are actually working, not breaks or meetings or side projects or goofing off, 200 dedicated manhours runs 1.5-2 months on the timeclock. If they’re going to put 2 months of work in on your project, they want 2 month’s pay for it, especially if you want it on a 3-week turnaround.

On the other hand, if it’s an all-digital, relatively simpler work by a lesser-known artist, custom covers come in as low as 200 Euros (or dollars) for a couple digital artists, sometimes even less at the local convention, Instagram, or off Deviant Art. If you negotiate, you can also sometimes get price breaks for multiple orders, or if you license it non-exclusively, so they can make royalty-free site income afterward. Remember, artists have to eat, too, so the object is for both of you to come out of the deal happy.

In summary, art, like writing, is intellectual property. You are now the publishing house, not the author. Treat the artist with respect, license only what you need, and let them have the rest of the IP rights to sell elsewhere for food and mortgage. Avoid licensing for work-for-hire or for royalties. If the art is already created, you may be able to license it for far less than custom creation.

When commissioning art, the simpler the image, the less work it takes, and the lower the corresponding cost. Check if the artist wants to read the work, and have character details & reference sketches ready if you have an image in mind.

Be polite, be professional, and always have a contract.

And if you think you might need fantasy covers, or want to learn more about an artist at work, check out Sam Flegal’s blog here:

36 thoughts on “How to work with artists

  1. Good post. All of it is straight forward, but how often do new indie authors think about it?

    True story, with the serial numbers filed off:
    A small business contacted someone to write code for their product. For whatever reason there was not a clear understanding between the parties. The small business assumed it was work for hire, and who they contacted considered it like art, or a book, or any other intellectual property. They wound up in sharp disagreement over the nature of the agreement, and ended up in arbitration. The coders won.

    The obvious problem was the “informal” approach, where all thought they were agreeing to the same deal, but both parties were, in effect, agreeing to different things. Specifying an exact contract might seem cold, but it eliminates costly confusion over what is expected.

    Had the small business owner went into the deal with a guide like the one here for cover art, he probably could have avoided litigation. Had there been a clear contract, there might not have been a misunderstanding in the first place.

    1. Heh, heh, heh…

      Back in the dawn days of pop-n-pop ISPs I got hired as a system administrator. While I was there I wrote a complete billing package, there not being much off-the-shelf for that at the time.

      The day after I told them it was done, I was fired. Not because I’d done or not done anything, but they had overspent their startup money and were starting to hurt; they’d already fired half their salesmen and some other techies.

      I’d seen it coming, so the source code sat comfortably on a floppy disk in my shirt pocket during the “exit interview.” I think it annoyed them when I walked out of the office afterward and took the remaining techies out for pizza instead of slinking out the door with my tail between my legs.

      Later that afternoon I got a frantic call. Where was the billing package? Oh, that. No binaries on the server, no source to compile. I told them the source was mine, and I’d be happy to license it to them if we could agree on a price.

      Technically it was a “work for hire” situation in my state and I didn’t have a leg to stand on, but either their lawyer didn’t know any better or never got around to sending me the “stand and deliver” demand, which I fully expected to get and comply with; “pain in the butt,” yes; “defendant”, no.

      The place went belly-up a few months later; your basic hopeless money management problems as far as I was concerned. (yes, you can shuffle money between business operations as much as you want, but eventually you need some of those “customer” types to balance out the “creditor” types… but hey, I wasn’t the one with the fancy accountant mojo, what did I know?)

  2. Excellent piece!

    I’d just add that some artists have different prices for e-only art vs. print. And some places/artists will provide files of bits of the cover art for you to use on swag, like a heraldic design from part of the cover. Will there be a fee for that (if you want it for marketing) or is that part of the package (use of the full artwork for print and electronic cover, separate data files for the villain’s shield and hero’s crown, and free-use rights for the image details but NOT for the cover art unless by additional agreement [for bookmarks or postcards but not as posters or framed prints]).

  3. Excellent post with a lot of useful information! Never offer anybody a percentage unless you’re comfortable making him a full partner.

    And considering the topic, I can’t help but plug my cover artist, Marcelo:

    He did the Latin American cover for Maze Runner: Death Cure and is a joy to work with. Highly recommended if you think his style is a good fit for the tone and mood of your material. His covers alone sell books.

    1. Thanks for sharing your artist, Brian! It’s always a pleasure to see people recommending good artists. We’re all in this to make good art, in our own way. 🙂

  4. Yes – very useful to know. I work with my younger brother, the graphic artist, for most of my covers, but I had entertained the notion of contracting with a local artist who does western scenes to use for my next book – rather than my usual dodge, which is to use my own photographs, heavily run through some artistic filters …

    1. Celia, I was disappointed to find you were not on KU. I had to skip over you in my wish list. You don’t find it works for you?

      1. KU? Not sure what you met – Kindle Unlimted? I am on Kindle, for what it’s worth. I didn’t want to go with the Kindle Select option, because I still get sales from Nook and smashwords, if that’s required to be on Kindle Unlimited.

        1. Yes, kindle unlimited. I’m very proud of my new membership, or rather budgeting for it. My wishlist is a mile deep, but you’re high on it.
          I understand. Is Western one of those genre that does well at Nook?
          They were saying romance does on a previous thread.

          1. I still have sales on Nook, so I don’t want to cut them out entirely. I suspect that Romance does very, very well in any format – readers consume them like boxes of chocolates, apparently.
            I haven’t done any comparisons on the Western genre (which is what my books tend to fall into, despite me saying, ‘Well really, they are historical novels set on the American frontier.’ 19th century setting, west of the Mississippi – Western, so might as well embrace it.)

              1. Hi, Mobius – some of my books touch briefly on matters to do with the Indian Nation – but just in passing: In Lone Star Sons, one of the heroes is a member of the Delaware/Lenni Lenape who gravitated into Texas in the 1840s, and in The Quivera Trail, some of the plot has to do with a criminally-inclined clan of Cherokee as antagonists…
                For a lovely and carefully researched historical set in the Oklahoma territory – I’d suggest Jack Shakely’s “The Confederate War Bonnet.” Jack was an early member of the IAG (an on-line group of historical writers who did a lot to support each other back in the Dark Ages of Indies.) We swapped books to review – and his was absolutely wonderful.

                1. LOL Criminal Texas Cherokee? They won’t be happy to hear that. I won’t tell.
                  I’ll check Jack Shakely out, but the goal right now is to read and review for you guys and hope amazon doesn’t pull them because “connection.” Lone Star Sons and Quivera Trail. As good a place as any.

                  My G-Grandmother’s family went to Texas to ride out the civil war. It got a little rough in the Nations, I’m sure you’re aware. She brought my Grandfather back to Okmulgee at the time of the Dawes Commission. He was three. He died when I was three, 1962 @ 72.

                  I’ve read a lot of history, Debo, Hudson, and the like. Occasionally considered writing HF set then. Looking forward to reading yours.

                2. Okay: Is “Indian Territory” Oklahoma? The first thing that comes to mind there is that the Creeks were also there, along with some Seminoles, and the Seminoles often had kinship with the Creeks due to some joining up and maybe with the Oconee, but here it gets confusing. The Creeks are where that Okmulgee Creek, Oklahoma/Ocmulgee River, Georgia thing comes from.

                  I do not know the dynamic between the nations in Oklahoma, but in Georgia they didn’t always get along, particularly the Creeks and Cherokee. Some of the Red Sticks Creeks joined the Seminoles and haven’t a clue if they wound up in Oklahoma, too, but those had a habit of doing a little raiding in their old stomping grounds, and sometimes there were connections with Lower Creek towns and families, who did end up in Oklahoma.

                  Hope I’m not insulting anyone, and it’s un-PC to say it, but one translation of the name “Seminole” is from the Muskogean for “Thief,” which might say something of the Creek/Seminole dynamic in the East.

                  1. The Indian Nations became Oklahoma, originally Osage country until all the eastern tribes were forced there. Lot’s of fighting between the Osage and the new arrivals. Lots of stories about those evil Osage. :o)

                    The Creek and Cherokee did some sparring, mostly before the move and a lot of it instigated by Andrew Jackson, who was always a great friend to the Indian, while it suited him.

                    Seminole is Mvskoke for renegade, more like “rebels” and not necessarily pejorative, except to the English :o). They were those of the Creek, Shawnee and others who wanted to fight the English and Spanish. They played one against the other for arms. Who played whom in the end, is another story. Yes the Redsticks. It was holy war and lots of like minded folks joined in. Tribal membership was much more fluid and sensible than the ethnographers make out. Messy, like the families. I daresay the descendents of all those Redsticks are Seminole now, mostly.

                    Okmulgee yes, they brought the names with them. My family came out of Alabama by canoe in advance of the removal.

                    During the civil war the tribes were split internally with the traditionals opting to believe the promises of Washington (DC) These were mostly the Full bloods from the highlands in the old country. The mixed bloods, who had more contact and had adopted more of the way of the whites, put their trust in promises from the Confederates.

                    The internal battles were the most bloody of all, reciprocal assassinations, and continued long after the war, even to this day, to some extent. Now they just club each other with Federal perks, or lack thereof.

                    Unfortunately, NDN country is still being fooled and is almost uniformly aligned behind the foulprogs.

                  2. Yes – Oklahoma Territory was basically set up as an Indian reserve; various tribes had their little patch of it. Fun little factoid that I picked up ages ago was that in translation, the various names of tribes which the members of that tribe called themselves is usually some variant of “The People” — and the name that they used for other tribes translated as “Those Others” (or something uncomplimentary) The result is that most of the names for various tribes – is the name that their close and unfriendly neighbors called them …

                    1. My favorite example is “Hitchiti.” It can mean “Ash Heap” or the un-PC “Mean People.” The Hitchiti ended up in the Creeks and – I’d have to double-check some sources – wounded up with some forms of authority. Creek, of course, is the English name because they lived on the “creeks,” which could range all the way up to river-size. Not sure if they called themselves Muscogee or Achese, or if Achese was just one Creek town.

                    2. Oh yeah. The only one I can think of at the moment is Chalaki (Cherokee) which menat cave people, iirc. Creeks were called that by whites, supposedly because they lived on creeks. Strikes me as stupid, everyone lived on creeks, of course. Mvskoke was a federation of dozens of loosely affiliated tribes, some related, some few Siouxian and others. The actually tribal names are still around as place names, Alabama being one, I believe.

                      The history page on the Nations site is pretty good, if brief.

  5. ” Even the Star Trek franchise doesn’t offer that bad terms, so why would you?”

    Oh really… want me to drag in my friends who have worked on the ‘Ships of the Line’ calendars? Pretty sure they were all Work For Hire.

    My work for White Wolf, both as an artist and a writers, was work for hire. As was my work for Decipher on the Jedi Knights CCG,

    (Though, technically, my work on Trek-related stuff was salaried)

    1. The few writers I know who’ve written ST novels and talked about it are still getting royalties. I’m sad to hear the artists got reamed, instead: hopefully they got a very nice paycheck up front in trade for losing all their rights.

      Would you agree with the general point, though, that if an indie author wouldn’t accept those terms (at least, not without a heck of an incentive up front), they shouldn’t be offering those terms to the artist, either?

      1. Yes, the writers for novels get royalties. The artists? Not so much. My point was that the author said that the Trek franchise doesn’t have (someone) do Work For Hire…. when they do, for artists. When I do artwork at this point i usually assume that its a work for hire and that i can’t re-use it. My paying writing work has all been Work For Hire. I don’t like it (now) because they are still selling PDF copies of the work for as much as the printed copies cost 15 years ago, but work is work, and some artists would rather have the work *now* than some invisible residual right that might pay for pizza ten years from now, or the other possibility, which is having no work because people expect it to be Work for Hire and you expect to retain some rights.

  6. First time I ever had my attention drawn to cover art was for a book by Isaac Asimov, ‘Murder at the ABA.’ The cover art was of a smoking gun and a screaming blonde. Neither of those had ANYTHING to do the book.
    An artist friend of mine was looking to branch out, and I mentioned a book I had just finished reviewing. He responded with a cartoon figure of a heroic character; not at ALL a match. If there ain’t a match between the visions, it’s just a failure from the start.
    I don’t often mention cover art when I review, but there are exceptions. Sabrina Chase has given me some great moments of reflection with some of her books, and Laura Montgomery’s covers done by Pete Smith, are consistently beautiful. Jack L Knapp’s “Darwin’s World” cover by Mia Darien is a real eye catcher, and I think that was done by art pulled off a website.
    There is something to be said for a recognizable theme, too; Amanda has had the same semi-nekkid woman on the cover of her ‘Nocturnal’ series, and she features nowhere in the book. BUT! you recognize it’s one of her works.

  7. Although I suspect most folks here are too sensible to do any such thing, another piece of advice when looking to hire/work with an artist: Never try to get them to work for the sake of “exposure.” It is entirely possible you will get stabbed with a palette knife or a stylus. No one wants to work for free, and “exposure” doesn’t put food on the table or pay the bills.

    1. “Exposure is what you die from when you don’t get paid for your work.” (paraphrased from various sources)

  8. Too early for me to be thinking of covers. It may be a mistake but I plan on starting out with a simple graphic. One that screams zombies, of course, but all that takes is the biohazard symbol. Great article though. I hope they add it into the writing wiki at the top, “Navigating,”
    So I can find it when I need it.

      1. I liked that cover, not so much the book. It was a ‘maybe later’ after 1/4 but not an ‘against the wall’. My cover will be even simpler.

        1. I loved it. I don’t generally go for zombie novels but this one worked for me. It also doesn’t hurt that the climactic action happens in my hometown.

          1. The premise was clever, even realistic, given zombies of course. I thought so at the time, so I’m not sure why it bored me. Maybe the popularity contest aspects.

  9. Wait, Sam Flegal? The l5r artist? *checks link* No way! I’ve met him in person (twice) and played him in a game before. Nation wide speaking we’re practically neighbors.

    Heh, now I’m like only 2 degrees from the mad genius club. 😀

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: