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Negotiating for What It's Worth

By Mike Burns | 02/10/2014
Negotiating for what it’s worth

by Mike Burns

I’ve been a freelance illustrator for a little over 3 years now, and I want to share a recent experience of mine in order to illustrate the importance of negotiating when it comes to selling your artwork.

A few months ago I started a series of paintings based on one of my favorite novels with the intention of creating some high-quality portfolio pieces. I also hoped to get the image in front of the author as well as his fans as a way to promote myself and my artwork. I spent about a month working on the first painting, and after doing so I posted it on a few pages where it might get some recognition. The author of the book left a comment under my picture asking if I could email him the image as he was interested in using the painting on his website.

I was thrilled!

Before I even started the painting, I knew that as much as I wanted to create these images for my portfolio and my own enjoyment, I was really hoping that the author would see my work and like it enough to want to share it with his fans. When he emailed me, I knew I was in a really good place.

But I wasn’t all the way there yet. He informed me his intention was not to simply repost the image, instead he wanted to use the image to promote the book on his website in the form of a page header. Sounds pretty cool, right? Yet as happy as I was to hear this, I knew this changed how this would play out. I had no problem with him reposting the image in a blog post or something similar for free, but I knew that him using the image to actively promote his book by integrating it into his website would have to compensated for, which is exactly what he offered to do.

The author asked me how much something like this would cost him, which I didn’t know at the time (this was my first time dealing with this kind of exchange), so I asked some of my trusted freelance friends (always a good idea when you’re unsure of something). After hearing a few different suggestions I had a pretty good idea of how much my work in this case was worth, so I decided to start the negotiating at $850. I also knew in my head that I would be comfortable bringing the price down to as far as $500, if the author asked for a lower price. I went in with a strategy, and I knew I had to stick to it.

I sent the author the price of $850, and after a while I got a response back. The author explained to me that he had never commissioned artwork like this before so he wasn’t sure what to expect, and he told me that he honestly was expecting for the price to be somewhere in the $100-$200 range, though he made it clear that he was not going to try and argue me down to that level, but he couldn’t afford any more than that. I appreciated his honesty and him refusing to ask me to bring the price down that far, but I had to figure out how to move forward from here.

This was a critical moment in the negotiating process. I was now faced with a very tough decision to make. Being a huge fan of the author’s work, and knowing how happy I would be to see my artwork being used on his website, I was very tempted to give-in and just settle for $200 for the rights to the image. It was either that or nothing right?

Not always.

Negotiating isn’t just about saying yes or no, it’s about finding a level ground for both sides in the negotiation. If someone is going to walk away unsatisfied after a deal is made, the deal shouldn’t be made, and I knew if I sold the image for $200 I would walk away unsatisfied. Instead, I worked out another angle that might work better for both of us. I was upfront with him about my willingness to lower the price to $500, but I knew this was still way over the amount he responded back with so I made him this offer…

$500 – Rights to use the image indefinitely.
$200 – Rights to use the image for a year with the option to repurchase the rights for another year and another payment of $200.

If I had simply replied back “I’m sorry, no deal” the conversation would have ended right then and there. But instead, I chose to continue the conversation by letting him know “I’m willing to work this out with you, here are some examples of what I would be willing to do for you”.

Now the ball is in the author’s court. I have shown him my willingness to negotiate by making a sizeable reduction of my price, as well as telling him what I can offer him based on the budget he came to me with. I was feeling pretty good at this point, but I was still unsure of how everything would play out from here.

It was a long time before I heard from the author again, it had been so long that in the time I was waiting I finished up my 2nd painting for the series, and sent him that one as well. In this email I didn’t mention anything about our negotiating previously. I knew that if he really still wanted to use the work he would contact me back about it. It can be very stressful waiting back for a reply sometimes, but it’s very important to remain professional and courteous. You can never tell how busy someone else’s schedule is, or if they’re going through a hard time, or whatever might be happening. I sent a couple short reminder emails throughout the course of our 3 months of negotiating, but I made sure to keep them brief and friendly and also open to the fact that he may have changed his mind. You don’t want to scare someone away by hounding someone for a reply. It does take some restraint, but it’s always worth it to remain courteous if they do take a while.

After around 3 months of emails, I finally got a response back. He informed me that he received a check for the sequel book he wrote, and it was larger than expected, and that he was interested in revisiting my offer. He gave me this proposal:

“How about $500 for this one and $500 for the [other] one ($1,000 for both), under these terms:

1) I can use them forever.
2) I can use them in any ONLINE promotion - so not just putting them on the website but also on social media etc, like for my facebook header or whatever.
3) You're still free to use them in any capacity you wish, this comes with no exclusivity whatsoever on my end.
4) Any other uses in another medium - like if the publisher wants to include them in some print capacity or something - would have to be negotiated separately for a separate fee."

I took the offer. By standing my ground I was able to make $600-$800 more than I would have if I had brought my price down to the $100-$200 range the author was expecting it to be. It would have been very easy for me to give in to the pressure of not wanting to lose the agreement, but I took an honest look and assessed the quality of my work and knew that it was worth what I was originally asking for. It’s ok to bring your price down to accommodate the other side in an exchange, but only if you can honestly walk away happy afterwards. You never want to walk away angry and bitter after an exchange. Also, you don’t ever want to devalue your own work. If you’re not going to value your work then why would anyone else? So take a stand the next time you’re negotiating a deal with someone in regards to your art. Decide how much you think it’s worth and stand your ground. Your work is valuable, and if someone else is able to see the value in your work enough to want to use it for him or herself then they should have no problem paying a fair and decent amount to the person who created it.


Mike Burns

Mike Burns has been a freelance illustrator since 2011. Since then he's done work for tabletop gaming companies such as Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight and he's done humorous work for Cracked and CollegeHumor.

In his fantasy work, he specializes in painting horrifying creatures, implementing dramatic lighting schemes and unsettling details. You can learn more about Mike and his work by visiting his website at

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