Monday, September 23, 2013

Revenue Streams

-by Arnie Fenner

'Scrooge McDuck', by Carl Barks

I bring up the topic of "income" every so often. While we can talk about philosophy or technique or aesthetics or the purity of expression, the bottom line is that artists have to eat. Unless you're an heir of Bill Gates or have a significant other who is very supportive (and has a well-paying job), you have to make your art work for you if you want to pursue a career in art.

And let's be frank: these days it isn't easy. Competition is incredibly stiff and increases everyday. The internet, with its access to "free" content (whether legitimately offered or surreptitiously loaded), has contributed to a basic devaluation of the creative process while ironically increasing demand: people want more, they just don't want to have to pay for it. Changes in the marketplace—in publishing, in advertising, in manufacturing, in retail—has altered the economic landscape for artists, whether they're on staff or freelance. Assumptions and expectations based on how things "used to work" or "should be" can be pitfalls because the market changes quickly, popular styles are hot one minute and stone cold the next. Well-paying commissions come and go; the Flavor of the Month can go out of fashion in a heartbeat.

Clients tend to want more for less these days, some because they can get it, but others because of those marketplace changes I mentioned. Work For Hire is a common aspect of the entertainment and comics industries: that model is not going to change. Artists can legitimately complain about stagnate rates, but should also understand that with the growing shift to digital media and entertainment...stuff in general doesn't sell as much as it once did. And if stuff isn't selling like it used to  it's often pretty difficult for a client to justify rate increases. When I hire illustrators I routinely pay them the maximum amount the project budget allows (which doesn't necessarily make my boss happy): the amount hasn't changed in a decade though it probably should have.

It probably should have gone down, considering softening sales of various titles and the overall increase in operating expenses and in overall manufacturing and distribution costs. Many clients are in the same economic boat...which means that as much as we, as art directors, might like to pay more for commissioned work, in most circumstances the budget won't allow it. If a publisher approaches you to do a cover for the new Stephen King novel, you've got some negotiating room; if the commission is the cover for Joe Dokes' first book...the fee offered is most likely all that's allowed.

No one is irreplaceable: just as there are many qualified people who would be delighted to have my job, there are many qualified artists that will gladly take the jobs others turn down. I receive multiple samples from illustrators and reps every day looking for work and I can only use about 2% of them. Not because the art isn't good but only because there's only so much work I can assign.

And when it comes to the gallery/fine art's the same. The economy always has an impact on the arts as it does with any other "luxury" item. Sales wax and wane, galleries open and close, and even though there are regularly news stories about sales records being set for one artwork or another, they tend to be the exceptions when times are tight, not the rule.

It's important to try to understand the marketplace (as best anyone can) and be adaptable to change when it comes. Which means always exploring new opportunities, to network with your fellow artists and clients whenever possible, to promote your work aggressively and regularly.

You may primarily want to create book covers or draw comics or work in advertising or design for films or produce gallery art...why not be open to doing it all? People delight in compartmentalizing artists, but that doesn't mean you have to let them. Do not expect opportunities to fall into your lap: actively seek out new clients and new challenges. Work with a wide variety of businesses and try your hand with a host of subjects.

When it comes to the advertising arena, freelancers should consider signing on with an artist rep. Sure, they take their percentage (just as galleries do), but the benefit is that they have contacts with the most lucrative clients and can make the connections that translate into long-term and substantial earnings.

Likewise you can utilize an artist rep for gallery contacts. Click here for an interesting pros and cons article.

Above: Frank Frazetta's "Sea Witch" started out as a cover for Eerie magazine and continued to earn Frank an income through the years as a poster sold via his wife Ellie's business and as a licensed piece of stock art for book and album covers and as the basis of a collectible figurine. The funny thing about this is that Frank never really owned the copyright: James Warren always did. But Warren had such respect for Frazetta that he turned a blind eye to Frank's licensing the art. Another publisher might not have been quite so magnanimous.

If you retain the copyright to your art, create a digital archive and let visitors to your website know that you can license your work for secondary use applications as well as for stock art purchase. The argument can be (and often has been) made that stock art undermines original commissions, but it's here to stay. And again a sales rep can be an asset, not only in seeking out clients but in negotiating contracts and collecting fees and royalties.

But you can also create your own revenue stream by nurturing a fan base and offering original art, prints, and merchandise for sale. Have a store on your website with a secure gateway to take orders; establish an estsy or some other web store separate from your own site so that more people can find you.

Exhibit at conventions or art shows to help establish or maintain your "brand," grow your audience's awareness, and, yes, make money. I'll refer you back to my earlier post about working a show, but will also point out that shows are an investment or time and the pay-off isn't always immediate. And while no one can do them all (the art has to get done some time, right?), you should plan on doing more than one a year, again as a step toward increasing your audience. Anyone who insists that making a wad of cash at any particular show is a "sure thing" is either misinformed, naive, or a dirty fibber, I don't care which event they name. Regardless of the size or location, there are always good years and lean ones; there will always be those that make a lot and those that don't and there's no way to predict who will be who. But giving up after one or two or five disappointing shows is a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot: everything takes time. There certainly are benefits to setting up at shows, personally, professionally, and ultimately financially, especially if you think of it as an, again, long-term investment.

That's the key: working in multiple ways to sustain an art career by recognizing the challenges and devising ways to turn them to your advantage. And above all, to not put all of your eggs in one basket.


  1. This is the first time I have ever seen anyone outwardly encourage variation in subject matter and context from illustrators.

    Thank you.

    I've never felt a natural tie to anything specific and I've always received criticism from lecturers, creative peers, etc. for this. It's refreshing to see someone take notice that the world is changing and there's more than one way to skin a cat.

    Lovely post, I also especially liked your blunt, hard-hitting comment about how artists today should be being paid less in reality. Scary thought, but I'm grateful you've said it aloud. It's weirdly motivating.

    1. Thanks, Joseph. And I hope everyone understands that I'm not saying that I WANT fees to decrease, but only that the realities of the marketplace sometimes dictate what a job can pay. I once tried to purchase secondary rights to a piece of previously published art for a project and offered the artist the maximum amount I had in my budget; I was turned down flat. The artist wanted double what I could afford and that was that. So I found another illustrator happy to do a new piece for the same amount that I had offered the first. Now I appreciate that Artist #1 placed a certain value on their work, but it's undeniable that they could've added to their income without having to lift a brush—and possibly now, in the current climate, they might actually think the extra revenue would be kind of nice.

      And, most definitely, the more diverse your portfolio and interests, the more opportunities there are. Consider Greg Manchess and the Patron ad: if he was only known for his, say, Hard Case Crime covers he might not have gotten that assignment. Or if he was only known for his advertising work he might not have gotten the assignment to paint stamps for the USPS. He's able to blend his style seamlessly with any project: a pretty good model.

  2. While I agree that prices should/are going down, I dont agree on the why. I think it has to do with the ever increasing competition for the work out there. While you may be generous and sympathetic and pay as much as you can to artists, I assure you most companies that buy art are always looking for the cheapest possible price for the quality that they need. While the art directors may be on our side, the accountants and owners usually have the final say on cost.

    1. You're right, of course, Jose. Companies/clients try to maximize profits and it's the bean-counters who determine how much they're willing to pay for this or that (including art). My bosses would be delighted if I was able to commission illustration below the budget, but in the corporate world if you don't spend the budget in a given year, it doesn't stay the same, it shrinks. ("Well, you spent less money LAST year so obviously you don't need as much!")

      And, in publishing anyway, each project (or SKU) tends to have its own budget based on the profit-and-loss projections, rather than there being one huge budget well that applies equally to everything. Early in my art directing career I once hired an artist I really wanted to do four covers; he wanted about $200 more per cover than was in the budget. So I thought I'd be clever and do the cover for another project myself and divert the money saved to him and still save money at the end.

      When I submitted the invoices I found myself called on the carpet by the VP for exceeding the budget on those 4 titles. It didn't matter that I had saved the company money on another and that all the receipts were going into the same bank account at the end of the day. Live and learn. The funny thing was...the four covers I had "over paid for" went on to win some awards and generate some good publicity. So much so that the same VP that had given me a chewing asked me if I could commission the same artist to do more. "Only if we pay them what they want," was my response. And his was? "Oh. Then forget it."

    2. That is a crazy story, but probably far too common. Numbers and budgets are much less flexible than intangibles like awards and publicity.

      Great and sobering post.

  3. Yeah I agree with everyone here, this is very well informed and sobering post...though I wish now I had fell in love with maths instead of unicorns when I was a kid, I think life would have been so much easier!

  4. Mr. Fenner, thank you so much for this article. I think that it's one thing to tailor your portfolio toward the type of work you would like to get, but also it's important not to be a snob and say "I'll never do work for advertising agencies!" or whatever type of work you think is below you. Those kind of jobs could ultimately lead to something greater. Thanks again, this was really helpful to read!

  5. Thank you for posting this, its nice to have up to date information on good ways to get your art work out there. As you mentioned its hard to get work these days Illustrators need all the help they can get!

  6. Thanx for some much needed therapy and reality check!!! Can I send you a check? But it will have to wait until I get paid.

  7. Thanks everyone. With some of the business-slanted posts I do I'm trying to shed a little light on how things work, which isn't necessarily the way any of us would like them to all the time. I realize that talking about money and art is like mixing oil with water for some, but finances are part of the game. People are understandably frustrated by some of the things going on with the market/culture, especially when it comes to fees, and frustration can lead to blaming the clients. And sometimes the clients ARE unfair tightwads...sometimes, but not always. The rapid influx of digital entertainment options can—and is—having a negative impact on other more traditional "delivery methods" even as there's a genuine price point resistance on the part of consumers to what they'll pay for digital content. While there are certainly no shortage of in-on-paper books, magazines, and comics available for sale, it is also unquestionable that they're selling fewer copies than they used to. So there numerous factors at play and why artists need to be able to identify and plug rapidly emerging markets as well as be aware of those that are facing challenges. Even as they're creating a market that is exclusively their own.

    The changes in the retail environment has an impact, too, particularly as mega retailers dominate where people purchase their stuff. The bigger they are, the more they're able to dictate terms to publishers or music providers (for CDs) or film studios (for BluRay, DVDs, etc.) to their advantage...which can translate into less money in the long run to the talent.

    Another story: some years back Publisher Y had the bestselling calendar in the world. Really. The world. Everybody loved it, retailers and customers alike. So the president of Y's sales made the pitch to the buyer of one of the country's biggest discount retailers, an account the company really wanted—and the retailer was happy to make a buy. As long as they got the calendar at something like a 10% deeper discount than offered, deeper than any other retailer was getting. The president protested, "You don't get it! This is X! Everybody wants X! It sells like gangbusters!" And the buyer leaned across the table and said matter-of-factly, "I could put a skid of dog food in the same amount of space your calendars would take up and make more money." You can guess what happened.

  8. Most of my income is from animation, and it is the same deal. Wages have been generally flat for over ten years, and more recently clients are paying less. Market forces are in play: supply and demand, outsourcing, and marginalizing of creative skills. It's sickening.

    Arnie, I find your side post about Frazetta interesting. I always wondered how Frank was able to print posters of previously published book and magazine art. Did the original publishers technically own copyright? Of course he did tend to keep the originals, maybe he also insisted on maintaining copyright?

    I always thought Frazetta's Sea Witch was one of his best paintings. Too bad he had to fiddle with it later in life, I think he "ruined" it with the alterations.

    1. Well the whole Frazetta story is...complicated. Mixed in with facts are a lot of myths and hooey and it can be difficult to tell one from the other. Frank worked at a time when the copyright laws were pretty rigid, clear-cut, and required formal registration and paperwork: prior to the revision of the copyright laws in 1976/77 the publishers were the copyright holders of record. In order for an artist or writer to regain copyright to their work there had to be a written resignation of rights filed with the U.S. Copyright Office: it's really not that much different now, though today when a freelancer is relinquishing their copyrights it has to be spelled out and agreed to.

      So Ace, Warren, Lancer, Doubleday, et al are all the copyright holders of record for Frank's published art prior to 1977. His alterations or repainting on one piece or another didn't change the copyright status: the law views those as "derivative works" still protected by the previous copyright filing, not new art. "Moon Maid" might be an exception since the changes for so extensive that it could be considered a "new" work independent of the original published cover, but that would be one of the very few.

      Anyway when it came to doing the posters or licensing...Frank and Ellie didn't bother to ask. They never tried to have the copyrights to his early cover art reassigned, he just added a © to his signature and called them his. And none of the former clients complained: publishing was a lot more casual, much less corporate and licensing-oriented in the 1970s when the Frazettas started selling posters. Honestly, with people coming and going, with publishers merging or closing, with records all being on paper and easily misplaced or lost or forgotten...none of them probably knew who actually owned what rights. And if they did know, they liked Frank, hoped to get more covers from him, and decided to ignore it. Which worked out well for Frank and Ellie...and all of us, really. Otherwise, we might not have grown up with those iconic posters hanging on our bedroom walls. :-)

      As for "Sea Witch," yes, I agree. I thought the original version was perfect and was disappointed that he felt compelled to rework it. The same for "Cat Girl" (I much prefer the EERIE cover to the pin-up he turned it into) and STRANGE CREATURES FROM TIME & SPACE (the State Trooper facing the monsters was great; the giant nude girl wasn't). When I tried talking to Frank about the repaints he could get pretty testy, once pointing a finger at me and growling, "They're mine and I can do whatever I want with them!" And, of course, he was right. But that's also the reason Ellie wouldn't give him a key to the museum or to the second floor closet where she'd lock art away. :-)

  9. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. I am so happy to hear that I no longer need to feel ashamed of wanting to do more than one thing with my art or one type of art. As for Art Reps, I was told years ago to not go that route...bad advice from well meaning people. And regarding fees, I would rather have two small fees than to have zero large fees, I could still pay the rent.

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