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Whether we are writers, photographers, illustrators or cartoonists, we all like to pick up new clients. When we first begin to deal with someone new, that’s the time to make sure both parties understand the ground rules so there won’t be any surprises later.
If you are an illustrator and have been in this business a while, you may encounter rookie editors or art directors who have little or no experience dealing with freelancers. In fact, the titles “editor” and “art director” can have many different meanings. At one time, I had a freelance contract to write and illustrate humorous greeting cards for a large card company. In this case, the editors and art directors were usually 20-somethings, just out of college. Their job was to bundle up the stuff other freelancers and I turned in and take it to the office of the person who actually made the decisions. You may occasionally find yourself dealing with a person at a publication or ad agency who functions the same way.
A few years ago, I received a phone call from a magazine editor with whom I had never worked. He introduced himself, told me a little about his publication and said he needed illustrations for an upcoming article. I asked him all the usual questions and when I got around to the big one about money he said, “Send me the drawings and after I look at them I’ll tell you what I want to pay you.”
I explained to him that freelancers can’t work that way and that we should establish a mutually agreed upon price. After some grumbling, he conceded, we established a price and things went smoothly from there.
Cutting the guy some slack, I assumed it was just ignorance on his part. In fact, he later admitted that he had never worked with a freelancer before. We eventually developed a working business relationship that lasted several years.
I’m fortunate to now be dealing with editors and art directors that I have worked with for some time. They are all knowledgeable, fair-minded professionals who are good at what they do. But situations change, and people retire, move to another publication or more to other fields.
From an illustrator’s standpoint, here are the things that should be settled before you start to work with an unfamiliar editor. (For the purpose of brevity all editors and art directors will be referred to as he).
Does he have a pre-set budget for this piece, and if so, what is it? If you can’t work for that amount, tell him. At this point he may launch into the “nobody is making much money in outdoor publications” spiel. Don’t believe it. If this were true there would be no outdoor publication field. He may not make much money, and he may not be able to pay you much, but somebody is doing OK.
Does he already have ideas in mind for illustrations or will he rely on you to choose the parts you think lend themselves to visual interpretation?
How many illustrations does he need?
Does he want the lead illustration to span two pages? One full page? A half-page? Some editors will email you the page layouts. I find this helpful because then I know the sizes and shapes I’ll be working with.
Does he want to see pencil roughs first or should you go straight to the final product?
When does he need the finished art?
Does he need hard copy or will emailed images do?
Personally, I like to do pencil roughs first, then email them to the editor or art director for his approval. These are not stick figures or loose sketches. They are accurate pencil versions of what I intend the finished product to look like. You should make it clear that this is the time to make changes if necessary. That’s what roughs are for. Later, after you’ve submitted the finished illustrations, you have every right to ask for more money than the previously agreed upon price if he changes his mind and wants some alterations.
I’m convinced some editors like to play a game of “Stump The Illustrator.” He’ll tell you he wants seven deer standing in a cornfield with a house, a barn, a silo and a combine in the background, and four hunters getting out of an SUV. And of course he wants all this in a vertical 2-by-4-inch space, and he needs it tomorrow.
When this happens you should gently remind him that you are an illustrator, not a magician. Sometimes you can convince him that it would be better to eliminate a couple of the deer and one or two of the hunters. If not, consider it a challenge. You may find that you actually can get seven deer, a house, a barn, a silo, a combine, four hunters, and an SUV into a 2-by-4-inch vertical space.
And you’ll be a better person for it. ♦
A member since 1996, Bruce Cochran hails from Prairie Village, Kan. He is a freelance cartoonist and illustrator, and humor writer. Contact him at

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