% Royalties for Illustrating Children's Books?

  • Hi Guys!
    I need some help. I have been illustrating children's books for self-published authors for about 2 years now and I've always asked a flat rate. I am thinking of starting to ask for a % of royalties, but I have no clue what the going rate is and how the legal side of it works. Any info will be helpful 🙂
    Thank you x

  • @Gabby-Correia hello! First off, with self-publishing contracts, work out a deal that is fair and that works for you.

    My experience? I've been illustrating children's books for self-published authors and very small publishers for about 11 years -- in that time, I've only worked for a percentage of royalties once and it was a specific, unique case. All my other jobs have been flat rate and that's my preference (as well as most self-pubbed authors).

    Looking back, if I had asked for royalties for the 52 books I've illustrated so far, only about 2 of them would have earned royalties. Most would not have earned back the advance. For me, since this is my main source of income, I prefer to have guaranteed, fixed price payment so I know that I'll at least be able to cover my bills for the duration of a project.

    They say that a self-published book is considered successful if it sells 500 copies; most sell below that number, and that has been the case with the books that I've illustrated. (When the authors checked back in with me, that is. A lot don't.)

    So, for example, if you negotiate a gross royalty of 10% on a $17 book and it sells 500 copies, you'll be getting $850 -- and that's if you don't have to earn out an advance. That's a low compensation for a project that potentially takes hundreds of hours to complete -- and you would have to wait for royalty payments to come trickling in.

    That's the main reason why I ask for flat rate payments on projects. I want to be fairly compensated for my time. The other reason is wanting to keep things simple. How will sales we recorded and tracked? How often will royalties be paid? How will you be able to monitor, if you will be able to do so? For me, it would be too complicated to figure out royalties that might not garner much of a return.

    Of course, this is just my opinion and what has worked for me. And that could be (and probably is) different than what works for you. Hope this perspective has been helpful. ❤

  • As @Melissa-Bailey-0 said above, it would be difficult to track the sales of a self published book. You would be relying on their reporting of it. It's not that they might be dishonest; it's more likely the self publisher would be overwhelmed by the intricacies of publishing and might not be up to the additional paperwork, accounting and issuing of checks.

    Royalties are higher for hardcover books than for paperbacks. Depending on the printer the self publishers choose, a hardcover edition may not be an option (at this point of time, the majority of POD printers are paperback only).

    It's been several years, but I used to be an estimator for children's books at a traditional publisher (which has since been swallowed up multiple times by larger companies). The majority of advances never paid out (and the books never went into second printing). The royalties for the illustrator only was 5 to 7.5%. An author/illustrator would get ten to fifteen percent.

    At a traditional publisher, royalties are usually paid out twice a year, based on sales from at least six months before. And that's after waiting at least a year for the book to get through the publishing process. If you are working with a self publisher, the process may be quicker if only because you aren't having to deal with a large organization.

    If you decide to ask for royalties from a self publisher, you'd be best covered by asking for an advance as well...and make sure they understand the responsibility of the royalty process.

  • Pro

    @Gabby-Correia I usually give them a flat rate that includes permission to sell 1000 copies, with a possibility for them to license more copies later at $1-2 per copy if they exceed that number. I license them in batches of 200 minimum so they have to purchase the rights in advance. This is simple, ensures that I'm paid for my time (and in a timely manner), but also protects me and guarantees compensation in the unlikely event that their book becomes a bestseller. None of my authors have yet sold more than 1000 copies.

  • Hi @Melissa-Bailey-0, that’s great advice!

    You’ve illustrated 52 books??!!!! Wow! That’s an amazing accomplishment! It’s great that you offer your illustration services to independent authors with a dream of making their stories come to existence.

    With your experience, I’m surprised they can afford you.

  • SVS Instructor Pro

    @NessIllustration I like this as a solution for publishers (of any size) that don't like the idea of, or don't want to handle royalties on a per book basis. The result of licensing rights based on a print run has the same effect as licensing based on royalties.

    So going back to @Gabby-Correia initial question:
    It is typical for the illustrator to receive between 5 - 8% royalty on the list price (the cover price) of a book. Since the illustrator is taking a much bigger risk on a self publisher I would be comfortable asking for a 10% royalty on the list price.

    If you have a book selling for $10 that would mean $1 for each book.

    Using @NessIllustration example of licensing based on print run of 200 copies then it would be a $200 flat fee (but really a royalty).

    Essentially negotiate a "royalty" but in the form of a "flat fee".

  • Pro

    @davidhohn Yes it's just simpler, everyone likes this. I don't know anyone that enjoys the royalty paperwork!

  • Hi @Gabby-Correia, I agree with others regarding the potential difficulties in receiving royalties from self-published authors.

  • In my experience working with self-published books, here's how the figures have turned out.

    I make between 2500-3500 on each book. A bit cheap yes, but I'm happy with the price, particularly from a self-published author in Central California (not exactly the rich part of the state...). The books sell on Amazon for $10, so that means we'd have to make 250-350 sales of each book to break even, let alone start thinking about it as a profit. The first book I published has had its price lowered to under $10, so that's an even longer wait for any profits.

    I agree with the others, especially Ness (I might start using that idea actually!). Set a limit for how many copies, probably also based on the initial fees you make and the price, then go from there. I wouldn't hold my breath for profits/royalties though, it's very rare.

    Hope this helps!

  • SVS Instructor Pro

    Hi @Gabby-Correia, I agree with the team here that royalties don’t really make sense for sel-published authors. I would stick to lump sum fee to avoid tying yourself to the authors for future payments you might never see.
    Maybe you can ask for a bonus term in the contract if the book becomes a best seller? Just a thought.

    @Jeremy-Ross I really do not agree with this.
    At least not the way you've worded it since at the end you mention " ask for a bonus" which seems to contradict "tying yourself to the authors for future payments you might never see."

    The bonus IS tying yourself to future payments. It makes your post a little confusing.

    Rather I will always recommend that illustrators avoid cutting of potential revenue streams from their work. This is simply because it is nearly impossible to know which project is going to take off. The best practice is to assume that any one of them could!

  • @Jeremy-Ross thanks! It's been great experience working for self-publishers and small publishers, and most clients have been a joy to work with.

    @NessIllustration -- interesting! Never heard of this approach before and it makes sense. It's something I'd definitely be willing to try. A few questions: So instead of granting reproduction rights for a set time (usually something like 'exclusive rights for __ years'), you grant reproduction rights for a set number of copies? Are you able to keep in touch with your clients and/or keep track of sales?

  • Thank you @davidhohn, I revised my comment to avoid confusion. Appreciate your input!

  • Pro

    @Melissa-Bailey-0 With self-published authors I have to trust what they tell me if they run out of copies and trust that they'll respect their legally binding contract. Not much else I can do, if I did royalties it would be a similar situation where I'd have to take their word for it on sales. I get paid the initial big flat rate and beyond that, have decided to be zen about it. So far my authors have made limited marketing efforts so I don't doubt their sales have been low 😅

  • SVS Instructor Pro

    @Jeremy-Ross No worries! Thought it might just be phrasing issue.

  • Thanks so much, everyone! This information has been really helpful and eye-opening. I like the idea of asking for a set amount per book after a certain amount of copies are sold. Really good idea!

  • Hi there. I hope you don’t mind me piggybacking because I have a very similar question. I was just approached by a woman who wrote a book who has a very sizable TikTok following (333k) who wants me to illustrate her book. She’ll be funding the book through Kickstarter. I expect she could sell over 1000 copies just based on her fan base size. Would your advice be different if you were going in thinking they will sell a lot of books?

  • SVS Instructor Pro

    @deboraht Pricing a Kickstarter project is actually really nice because your advance would be based on the number of backers. And that number is public!

    Pro Insight: The advance a publisher offers for a book is (largely) based on the royalty the illustrator would make over the course of the first printing.

    To turn that into numbers:
    If a publisher expects to sell 5,000 copies in the first print run of a $17 book -->
    and the royalty the illustrator would get is 8% of the list price ($1.36) -->
    Then the advance against royalties the publisher would offer is $6800 ($1.36 x 5000)

    So in this case you would take the sale price of the book -->
    Multiply by the percentage you feel is fair per book (I would suggest 10-15% -->)
    Multiply that by the number of eventual backers -->
    And you have the licensing fee for that first print run!

    If the book gains additional traction in the marketplace you can always license a second print run for an additional fee.

    For example, if the author decides to print another 2000 copies in a second print run.
    Use the price per book (established in the first print run) multiply it by 2000 and then charge the result as a single licensing fee for the 2000 copies in the second print run. Limited to the 2000 copies. If the author decides to do a 3rd print run you would simply license the images again for a 3rd fee, and on and on until the book is no longer selling.

  • @davidhohn thank you! This is really helpful information!

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