Before You Sign | Author-Commissioned Illustrations

06 March 2019 Before

Members – particularly self-publishers – sometimes approach us asking about the terms on which they might commission an illustrator, and illustrators ask us what terms they can expect. The terms that are appropriate will vary considerably and need to be looked at on a case by case basis, so please do contact us for bespoke advice.

Our intention here is to outline a few key principles that must be considered to protect the interests of both parties.

Where do I begin?

Before you start, remember that publishers or producers will often want to be free to engage illustrators of their own choosing. If you are an author looking for a traditional deal (rather than commissioning with a view to self-publishing), are you at risk of spending a lot of money and taking up your own and an illustrator's time to no purpose?

If you do go ahead – do your research! To minimise the risk of misunderstanding or disappointment, the author should satisfy him/herself in advance that the illustrator's work is to their taste, based on the artwork included in the illustrator's portfolio. Once you have chosen an illustrator, what terms should an author try to negotiate with the illustrator (or their agent)?

If, as an author, you commission other creators, that effectively puts you in the role of publisher. Remember this golden rule: if you are commissioning the services of a fellow-creator, try to treat them as you would expect to be treated yourself.

What should I keep in mind?

Clarify at the outset exactly what work the author is asking for, by when, and what the author will pay the illustrator for meeting that brief. The schedule for payments must be set out. Will the illustrator also be entitled to a royalty or other ongoing payment?

If the author subsequently changes the brief, a fresh deadline and further fee must be agreed with the illustrator (subject to the illustrator’s availability).

It is very important to set out what rights the author is acquiring in the resulting material. The right to publish the illustrations and/or the right to sub-license the material to third parties? In what formats/editions can the author make use of the work, and for what duration?

The illustrator’s moral rights must not be overlooked. These include:

  • The moral right of integrity – will the illustrator have a right to approve changes the author might want to make to their material?
  • The moral right of paternity – the right to be identified as the illustrator. This right has to be ‘asserted in writing’, and the author and illustrator should discuss how and where the illustrator will be credited. Credit is a major concern for illustrators (as well as translators): all too often, their contribution is not recognised, something which the campaign Pictures Mean Business, headed by Sarah MacIntyre, seeks to address.

What if it doesn't work out?

Sadly, things can go awry, so always make sure everyone is clear about what would happen if either party breaches the agreement or wishes to walk away. Crucially, this must include what would happen regarding payment – or reimbursement – of the fees.

For commissioned artwork we would expect the author to pay the illustrator the agreed sum even if the author does not like what the illustrator produces, provided the illustrator meets the agreed brief and deadline. And if the illustrator fails to deliver according to the brief, the author is entitled to repayment of sums already remitted.

This blog is not an exhaustive list. Other points would need to be addressed, including, for example, appropriate warranties and indemnification, and a right to free copies of the published work. For full advice, please contact us.


This piece specifically relates to author-commissioned illustrators. Other forms of commissioning would involve different considerations. For more on authors commissioning translators, read our Guide. The warnings in that Guide would apply equally to an author considering commissioning a scriptwriter.

If the relationship is a collaboration or ghosting contract, see our blog Poacher Turned Gamekeeper. If you are commissioning writers to contribute text to a multi-author work, or a short story or poem for a collection, you are advised to contact us

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