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The Dough

Anyone interested in a career in commercial art — or any kind of freelancing — would do well to keep an eye on Tom Richmond's blog. Tom is a very successful cartoonist and illustrator and obviously, most of that is because he draws so gosh darned well. But some of it is because he is wise and pragmatic about the business end of his profession…an attribute that is sometimes sadly absent from those with artistic talent. Some of the best artists I've known have been utter ninnies when it came to the money end of what they do.

In this post, Tom addresses the constant question, "What do I charge for my work?" It's among the least exact of sciences and if you're a creative person, probably the part of the job you like least.

How do you get to a number? Every project is different, not only in terms of how much of your time and soul it will require but also because the perks will vary. One job might pay on the low end but have great value to you for reasons of education. That was the case when I was starting out and got to assist and apprentice with Jack Kirby for a couple of years. I didn't do it for the money — which was a good thing because there wasn't much of it. But I would have paid megabucks just to hang around that man. I can't begin to tell you how much I learned…and not just about comics.

So that's a good question to ask yourself: Will this job be educational? You can also ask Will this job have promotional value to me? and Will this job bring me honors and critical acclaim?

It's generally not a good idea to work for bad money. Publishers and producers tend not to treat your work (or you) well when you're underpriced. Sometimes, it's surprisingly a lot like if you have a shirt you bought at Ross Dress For Less for nine bucks and one you got at Brooks Brothers for eighty dollars. Which one are you not as worried about ruining?

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In a working relationship, you want "the boss" to regard you and what you do with respect. Well, that relationship often starts with making the deal and figuring out how much you're going to get. Agree to low money and you're often agreeing to low respect. My friend, the late artist Dave Stevens, was obsessed with the question of how his work was going to be reproduced. After several bad experiences, he realized a very simple principle: When he gave publishers a "bargain" deal on his work, he usually wound up with "bargain" printing. They didn't even handle his original artwork with as much care.

I know that sounds like a rationale for greed but believe me, it's not. Early in my career, an older writer told me, "If you want them to deal with you as a professional, you have to insist on being paid as a professional." I've learned how right he was. (It is also true that there are downsides to being overpaid. I'll write about them here soon.)

But how do you know what deal is the right deal? I love it when I can leave that up to an agent or a lawyer who knows that kind of thing. Alas, I at some point have to decide what I think is fair and proper. I ask myself the above italicized questions and I sometimes sneak in one other one: How much fun might this be? I must admit that in my youth, I took on at least one low-paying job because it would put me in close proximity with a woman with whom I wanted to be in even closer proximity. (When I told my agent why I was taking it, he asked, "Okay, so how do I get my ten percent of that?")

We look at what other folks have gotten for similar jobs. That can help but you have to be wary of what I call Desperation Outliers. There are people out there who, for what I rarely think are good reasons, will price themselves at "Pay me anything but give me the job." On the cartoon show I voice-direct, I've had wanna-be professionals offer to work for free just to get the credit. I would never take them up on it. In fact, if you want to convince me you're low on talent and high on emotional baggage, just make me that offer. But there are folks who price themselves on that basis and they should not be the precedents you consider in pricing yourself.

Most professional artists I know have a secret number. It's the minimum per hour they're willing to accept. Call it X. When a project is offered, they think, "Hmm. This should take me around 20 hours. I'll try to get as much money as I can for it but in no way will I take less than 20 times X." That's not a bad way to set your bottom line but it doesn't get you too near the top.

Usually, the top is not about your time. It's about how lucrative the project may be. Let's say you're writing a movie script that will take you 100 hours. If it's for a film that might at best make a few hundred thousand dollars, you should get one price. If it's the next James Bond movie, you should get more even if you spend the same 100 hours on it. Percentage deals can help but they also put you at the mercy of Creative Accounting. That's why anyone in demand always works for a non-refundable advance against or in addition to a specified percentage. It's so they get at least something.

I wish I had an easier way to gauge this kind of thing. I look back at all I've done and see times when I way underpriced myself. They were sometimes balanced a bit by those odd times when I may have gotten too rich a deal…but it's rare to come out even in the long run. Very rare.

And there's one other italicized question you need to ask yourself: How much do I need the money? Just about everyone has times when there's a Visa card accruing heavy finance charges and it's cost-efficient to work a little cheaper, just to get the job that can pay that card off or down. I once heard someone say of a top Hollywood agent, "He's great at non-precedential negotiations." Here's what they meant by that…

Let's say the client routinely gets a million dollars a movie. Let's say there's a period with no such offerings. Let's say the client has a need for cash and a need to work…and is offered a film for $600,000. The top agent finds a way to take the $600,000 but to justify it as a one-time-only deal: "Oh, he did that as a favor to a friend who'd helped him out when he was just starting." Or "Oh, he just did that because the subject matter was one of his pet personal issues. His established price is still a million dollars."

I know writers who say, "Never lower your price for any reason." That's great if you can do it. If they're about to turn off your electricity, you may not be able to do it. It's hard to write that next script without any.

I'm sorry I can't end this with a great solution to the problem. I'm going to write a little more here about this over the next few months and maybe I'll get closer to something wisely profound…but I doubt I'll get too close. As long as I've been writing professionally — this June will mark 44 years — I've wrestled with the question and I've erred in every possible direction. At times, I've almost envied those guys at the gas station who come up to you and offer to clean your windshield for a buck. It's hard, demeaning work but at least they don't have to spend a lot of time thinking about what to charge for it.