No matter where you land in the art world—a painter creating a unique body of work or an illustrator taking on commercial gigs—running a business is a learned skill that many artists aren’t naturally adept (or just plain uninterested) at. But the fact is, as a freelance creative, understanding the nuances and intricacies of running a healthy small enterprise is just as vital as producing consistent work in order to ensure career longevity.
Amongst the most complicated tasks for a freelance creative is valuing and pricing work. Pricing and selling is an often unclear formula with a complex set of variables including time, expertise, personal brand strength, overhead expenses, market demand and industry standards. Figuring it all out is difficult to grasp, even for the most seasoned creatives and freelance professionals.
And then comes the kicker: a client wants to negotiate the freelance rates you’ve struggled to arrive at. If the idea makes your eye twitch, you aren’t the only one.
Before understanding how to negotiate prices, it’s important to understand the market value of your work. A one-size fits all formula for valuing creative work doesn’t exist, as different mediums will dictate different market standards.
For painters, a common way to reach a price is by multiplying the square inches of a piece by an appropriate dollar amount before adding that to the doubled cost of materials. For artists like photographers, sculptors, and artisans, it makes more sense to track hours and multiply your freelance rates by an hourly rate plus the cost of materials. Commercial artists should pay particular attention to the intrinsic value of their work and specialized expertise. A graphic designer shouldn’t penalize themselves for efficiency and instead should set prices for specific services rendered based on market standards.
Arriving at Your Freelance Rates
So then how does one figure out appropriate hourly freelance rates or market standards?
For creatives that work on commercial gigs or more service-oriented projects, this can be slightly easier. In addition to reaching out to colleagues and being an active member of local meet-ups with fellow creative professionals, it is important to do some homework. There is a wealth of online resources at your fingertips. The personal blogs of freelance lettering artist Jessica Hische and writer Ash Ambridge offer motivation based on first-hand lived experiences. AIGA, a members club for professional designers with more than seventy chapters around the country and an extensive online resource, such as a freelance day rate calculator, can help you arrive at a clearer understanding of the value of your time and work.
For the creatives trying to sell non-commercial works, valuation can be a bit more arbitrary. It’s important to lean on your network of fellow artists, gallerists, and art dealers. Become a participant in your local art scene and show up to galleries, attend open studios and frequent fairs. Pay attention to art publications and social media and evaluate where your particular genre fits in. Follow the work of artists whose work shares similarities with yours. How much are they selling their work for? How much are galleries valuing other artists works at? Understanding the role your work plays within the larger market will give you the confidence when negotiating prices. Pay attention to what people are already paying for your work. If art collectors or gallerists aren’t trying to negotiate your prices, it may be time to raise your prices.
Negotiation Strategies for Artists and Creatives
No matter what area of the creative world that you work in, you will always run into clients that want to negotiate prices. It’s important to develop some negotiation strategies in order to ensure you’re confidently demanding what you want.
Once you have arrived at a price or freelance rates you feel comfortable with, ask potential clients for more. Be consistent with how much more you are asking. Figure out a percentage of the value of the work that you are willing to negotiate from and work with that percentage hike across works. For example, if you know you want to make at least $5,000 for a piece of work, ask for $5,400 – if the client accepts, it will be a welcome surprise; if they don’t, you’re still likely to get what you want.
Likewise, if you are an artist that sells work directly as well as through a gallery you should be careful not to undercut your gallery in the negotiation process. Open a dialogue with your gallery representative and figure out what percentage they are willing to negotiate your work down to, and negotiate in accordance with that.
Allowing room for negotiation and developing effective negotiation strategies could work in your favor in a few different ways. Worst case scenario, a client talks you down to the price you actually wanted to charge. Best case scenario, a client accepts the increased rate and you have boosted the perceived value of your time and product. Allowing room for implementing negotiation strategies is a powerful tool—letting clients walk away feeling good about the process and outcome of a negotiation will ultimately make them happier with the overall agreement.
During the actual negotiation process, try to maintain the upper hand. If a client requests a lower price, don’t immediately drop your offer. Instead, ask the client to make a counteroffer. A client doesn’t want to embarrass themselves or offend the artist by low-balling with a ridiculous number, and more often than not, a serious buyer is going to make an offer that falls within your built-in cushion.
Many galleries allow buyers to pay for artwork in installments. Australian art lender Art Money even offers interest-free loans used exclusively to buy artworks. Artists should consider adopting similar practices to facilitate sales to buyers that are on the fence. Put all the payment terms in writing and confirm with your buyer. Specify a payment schedule, amounts and payment methods as well as terms for non-payment. It’s a good idea to spring for a lawyer to help draft the agreement with the cost built into the overall sale.
Artists pour their heart and soul into their work. Our identities as creatives are interwoven into each and every piece of artwork. So when someone questions the value of that work, it can often feel like a kick to the gut. It is important to separate yourself from the work when entering into a negotiation and be able to approach it as a business transaction. Keep negotiating friendly and understand that most clients are looking for a perceived deal; they aren’t out to ruin your livelihood. Make sure that the other party is walking away with a positive interaction whether a deal was reached or not. The art world can be a small place. Keep your reputation in mind and stay professional, but don’t be afraid to implement negotiation strategies that help you maximize the sale of your work.