Getting Paid, or the Folly of Settling for Less

A man reading a newspaper while bathing in the Dead Sea

The first freelance job I had was for the cover of a local free weekly. When I got the call I was elated. My career had begun. You couldn’t walk a block in the city without running into a vending machine or coffee shop that carried it. But when I went to their offices to meet with the art director, it wasn’t what I expected.

After she greeted me, the first thing she did was show me this big box filled with self-promotional postcards from other illustrators, similar to the postcard I’d sent them.

“We get hundreds of these every week. And out of all of them we chose you,” and then she laughed like this was a big joke.

Clearly, I had been exploited by smirky face, but it turned out to be even more than I had suspected.

Her assistant laughed too, and said, “Yeah, you should be stoked,” and then, with ironic hipster seriousness, “but for real, dude, we really like your work.” And just in case I mistook this for sincerity, the art director gave me another little smirk as if to say, “You shouldn’t take the compliment too seriously, ‘cause, you know, we wouldn’t want you to get a swell head,” wink wink.

After we discussed what she wanted for the cover she asked me to follow her. She didn’t tell me where we were going or why. We took a circuitous path through the offices and past the presses until we ended up outside, on a loading dock.

She looked at me and made a sad face. She told me, “Our budget’s really low right now so all we’ll be able to pay you is $100.”

The whole loading dock thing was really creepy, and I didn’t know why this wasn’t something she could have told me inside, but I was relieved that this was all it was about. I was grateful to be doing the job at all, and so I said that this was fine.

Later, I began to get the picture. Why they didn’t choose any of those other postcards. Those guys were professionals, and I was cheap.

Working with hipster dude and smirky fake sad face was not fun. Every sketch I turned in she turned down, marking them up with circles and arrows and notes. All I could do—or all I thought I could do—was whatever she asked me to. I didn’t know how to explain or defend my work. I didn’t feel I had a right to. I thought this was just the way it was done.

Finally, she approved a sketch. I did the work and hand-delivered it on time on one of those gigantic zip disks they had back then, and there was more smirking and laughing and backhanded compliments. By then I was just glad to get the check and get out of there.

The miracle of making a picture one day and having it appear all over town the next was like nothing I had ever experienced. I wanted to tell everyone I saw that it was mine. Even so, it wasn’t an experience I was anxious to repeat. At least not with that particular art director.

Almost five years later I got a call out of the blue from the same free weekly, but from a different art director. The previous art director had moved on. The new one had my work on file and wanted me to do another cover. He said my payment would be the usual $500. I was pissed, but not at him. Clearly, I had been exploited by smirky face, but it turned out to be even more than I had suspected.

If the pay isn’t worth the effort, it’s better to say no, as long as you can afford to.

This time I had a little more experience. I had learned that I didn’t always need to acquiesce to the art director’s every whim. I had learned how to negotiate, but not argue. The final decision is always theirs, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute to that decision. I ended up doing two more covers for them.

Over the years I have learned that minor compromises on both ends are part of the process, one that good art directors welcome. That illustration is supposed to be a collaborative process, and the result of a good collaboration is a better illustration. Not that there aren’t nightmare art directors who have no interest in your opinions or feedback, but there are good ones, too.

I won’t lie—editorial illustration pays for shit. Magazine budgets remain low, which is one of many reasons I’ve been slowly making the move to children’s book illustration, where big publishers offer advances and royalties that far exceed anything I’m going to get from editorial. Now “we don’t have the budget” is no longer an excuse that I take lightly. Even when you’re excited about the job, if the pay isn’t worth the effort, it’s better to say no, as long as you can afford to. Because if you say yes it perpetuates the devaluation of illustration as a whole. And this doesn’t only hurt you. It hurts everyone who follows your example.

Photo by Milner Moshe.

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About Jed Alexander

Jed Alexander grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where he first discovered his love of books at his local public library. Jed went on to earn his degree in illustration at San Jose State University where he studied under veteran illustrators Barron Storey and John Clapp.

After working for more than ten years in the editorial field for such publications as LA WeeklyThe Sacramento News and Review, and The Santa Cruz Metro, Jed returned to his first love: Children’s literature. He has since done work for Nickelodeon and Cricket Magazine. He is currently represented by Abigail Samoun at Red Fox Literary. His first self-published book (Mostly) Wordless was financed by a successful fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.

He lives in Davis, California with his wife Regina, his best friend and favorite person in the world.


  1. Mariah Fox on July 11, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Great post, well said! Artists will all be there at one point or another. We should never undervalue our work, but it sure can be tricky to navigate when you want/need the project!

  2. Connie McLennan on July 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Sadly, you started out at a time when the illustration market already had greatly declined. The slide actually began in the 70’s. When I started in “81 (oblivious that the slide actually had begun in the 70’s), it was still in much better shape than it was by 1990. And there were no zip disks. It was tough then, tougher now, and editorial always paid the least.

    The art director’s snarkiness is even more annoying knowing where this small-town publication exists in the scheme of things (though I did “national” editorial work that paid only slightly better and was no more significant.) If it’s any consolation, all of the people there probably have long since been out of the business.

    There always have been and always will be people who will work for no more than the “accomplishment” of being published. And now there’s stock. And China…

  3. Jed Alexander on July 11, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    And to be clear: my work wasn’t very good.

    When you start out, most people aren’t very good, a reality you’re not always aware of at the time. The jobs you do are low paying to no paying, as you’re still developing your chops. Once you have those professional chops and truly know what you’re doing, then, unless it’s for a very good reason or cause, you should be paid and paid reasonably for professional work.

    While amateurs may compete with pros for jobs, the person who chooses the amateur over the pro because of cost is ultimately losing out. Professional work speaks for itself. Amateur work makes your publication or whatever else you’re trying to sell look bad.

    But you need to not only have a good sense of the quality of your work, but respect the value of your work. Sometimes holding fast on what the work is worth is the difference between getting paid and not getting paid, and once someones gets free or low paying work from one professional, that becomes the market value. At least it does in their eyes. So I think taking that job for free can hurt others that follow you who then will find themselves, at that point, in a weaker position of argument. “But so and so did this job for free–”

    Which doesn’t mean they have to take the job. Unless you really need the money. Thus, the qualifier “if you can afford it.”

    But don’t be afraid to negotiate.

    As for the current state of illustration: yes, print media is disappearing fast, but where most of the money is, where illustrators are thriving, is in video games and preproduction work for film, TV and animation. Previsualization is a very important part of all the media we’re seeing now. All that CGI has to be conceptualized before it can be animated. Somebody has to think it up, in two dimensions, whether digitally or otherwise, concepts have to be painted and drawn and storyboarded. No computer can do that for you. There were a long couple of decades when this new media didn’t exist, and illustrators were dead in the water, but fortunately times have changed.

    I’m going another route though.

  4. Connie McLennan on July 11, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Yep. I was too far out of the loop to catch that ship. And yes, most of us start out “not very good” and not insightful enough to realize it. Lacking that, IMO one of the biggest deficits is the shortage of great mentors willing to take on promising students and the failure or inability of many of us to find one early on.

  5. Elene on July 11, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    I hope you’ll have great success in your future route, Jed.
    It occurred to me that another reason Smirky Face hadn’t chosen any of those other postcards was that those guys had already met her or heard of her and they weren’t willing to work with such an unprofessional jerk. You’re still in the profession and she’s probably been repeatedly fired.

  6. Jed Alexander on July 12, 2014 at 7:59 am

    Thanks! Slow but sure…

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