Do Illustrators Get Royalties? (And How Does it Work?)


There are many ways an illustrator can get paid: This could be a licensing fee, a once-off flat fee, a dodgy cash-under-the-table deal, “experience” (please avoid this) or royalties. Royalties are usually paid to illustrators who work on picture books.

Illustrators get paid royalties if they have signed a contract stating that they will receive a percentage of each sale of the product they were hired to create. The percentage of royalties is typically between 5% and 10% and start being paid to the illustrator once their advance has been ‘earned out’.

In this article, we will take a look at how an illustrator earns royalties, how royalties relate to an illustrator’s advance and what happens to their royalties if sales of their book (or other product) are low.

Put on your royalty pants and let’s dive in…

What Are Royalties in Publishing?

Royalties is the percentage paid to the illustrator for each book sold. If the illustrator is also the author of the book, then royalties will range between 5% and 10%.

Generally, royalties for hardback cover books will be on the higher end of the range, whereas paperback covers will be on the lower end.

What is the Royalty Split Between Author and Illustrator?

If an illustrator and an author are working on the same book together, then the royalties will be shared 50:50 between them.

Hardback Royalties vs Paperback Royalties

Hardbacks cost more to print and also cost more to purchase. A higher royalty percentage multiplied by a higher list price, means the illustrator will receive more royalties per sale of book.

Conversely, Paperbacks are cheaper to print and cheaper to purchase. Unlike hardbacks, royalties on (the lower priced) paperbacks will be calculated on a lower royalty percentage. While the illustrator will receive less money per sale of paperbacks, the advantage of paperback royalties is that the volume of books sold will be much higher than that of hardback sales.

What about Royalties on eBooks?

eBook royalties will typically be higher than 10%. Given ebooks are not physical items, they will cost much less for customers to buy. Which justifies the higher royalty percentage for the illustrator.

What is an Advance?

An “advance against royalties” is an upfront payment that is paid to the illustrator at the start of a contract.

How is the Advance Calculated?

When calculating the advance for the illustrator, the publisher will estimate how many sales the product will make in the first year of the book being sold. This sales volume will then be multiplied by the illustrator’s royalty percentage multiplied by the price of the book.

What Does ‘Earned Out’ Mean?

Earned out is when the number of units sold has exceeded the number of sales the advance was calculated on

When Does the Illustrator Start Receiving Royalties?

An illustrator will first receive an advance for their work, based off sales projections. If or when the sales have exceeded the advance (when the advance has been earned out) then the illustrator will start receiving royalties.

When are Royalties Not Paid to the Illustrator?

If the sales of the book do not meet the projections of the publisher, then the advance does not reach the earned out threshold. The illustrator will keep their advance (yay!) but no royalties will be paid out to them.

How Long Do Royalties Last For?

Royalties will keep being paid out to the creator as long as the book is in print. Unfortunately, many books only print for one run – so once the books are all sold, that is the end of your royalties.

If the book keeps consistently selling at an exceptional rate, then reprints will likely follow. And if reprints keep coming, then you will keep on receiving royalty payments.

Are there any other payment methods for book illustrators?

There is another, not nearly as enticing, payment method called a ‘flat rate’. This is an agreed, upfront payment that remains the same regardless of how well or how badly the book sells.

Let’s say you charge a flat fee of $5,000. Your book is an absolute disaster and goes on to sell a whopping 10 copies. Good news is you’ve just kept your five grand, which has equated to $500 per book sold. Phwoar!

Conversely, your book is an unprecedented hit and it goes on to sell a bazillion copies! Well, your flat rate is still your flat rate. $5,000 for you and the publisher is raking in the rest of the money.

I highly recommend you push for royalties and the advance. It’s the best of both worlds – cash paid upfront with a potential for a bit of future passive income.

People Who Made Megabucks from Royalties

When creating your illustrations, it is good practice to imagine that each picture you make may very well be part of something great down the line. This is not to give yourself false hopes, but to hold yourself to high standards. And this may result in a book (or whatever you’re working on) becoming a massive success.

Just think of some of the great children’s books out there. Where the Wild Things Are, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Green Eggs and Ham…

All the writing is great and the illustrations are iconic. And because of such high quality (and original work), these books appealed to both the young and the old.

I know it’s not the popular thing for artists to focus so much on money, but being able to pay the bills on time will no doubt help with keeping the mind clear to focus on your craft more.

At one time or another, all of your favorite children’s book legends had made zero dollars from their illustrations and their writing. Please keep that in mind when you are creating your illustrations!

Granted, I don’t think people really look at book creators and think “hot dang, they are rich”. People just focus on the quality of the story and artwork. But if you have made a quality book, then sales will follow, and so will the royalties.

Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak was most widely known for writing and illustrating 1962’s Where the Wild Thing Are. But it was a book in 1952 called A Hole is To Dig (written by Ruth Krauss) which skyrocketed his illustration career.

I’d never heard of A Hole is To Dig until I started writing this article, but we have a lot to thank Krauss and her book for!  

Sendak made so much flippin’ moolah from the royalties from Krauss’ book, that he was able to become a full-time illustrator. And it is thanks to this solid effort over a decade prior that freed Sendak up to be able to create Where the Wild Things Are (and of course his other works, too).

Dr. Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel, definitely one of the children’s literature big boys, created such favorites as the Cat in the Hat, Fox in Sox, the Sneetches, Green Eggs and… oh you know them already! I don’t need to tell ya.

I was reading a fantastic article about him on The New Yorker’s website. It said that he has sold three million copies of his books to date. I thought… shouldn’t it be more!?

I scrolled up to check the date of the original publishing date of the article.

December 10, 1960.

Okay, that’s mighty impressive.

Dr. Seuss, although having never really cared about money, sure did make a lot of it from royalties. The article goes on to say that his royalties were nearly $200,000 in 1959. Which, if you factor in inflation, equates to a buttload of dollars nowadays.

Jeff Kinney

Jeff Kinney seems like a good dude. He first came up with the idea for Diary of a Wimpy Kid in 1998 when he was in his late twenties. It started out as an online webcomic – and Kinney only showed it to publishers after eight years of working on the book. That is a patient man.

His first royalty check was for £35,000… which to be honest, is a lot of money. But not for Jeff Kinney – his annual royalties ever since have been in the tens of millions.

Good on ya, Jeff.

In Conclusion!

Illustrators getting paid in royalties is a great way for them to keep making residual, passive income, long after their work is done.

Book illustrators typically earn between 5% and 10% of each book’s list price.

Most books only have one print run, which means the royalties will often run out quite quickly, this is why it is important that the illustrator gets paid an ‘advance against royalties’.

Remember to always make sure that you are being paid what you are worth! Make sure you get an advance against royalties – that way, you can get some of the money upfront, and if the book sells well, you can keep receiving royalty checks long after your advance has been earned out.

Whether illustration is your full-time job or your side gig, remember to always pay your bills, keep on creating, and maybe one day you might also think £35,000 is cute.

Best of luck!

Malcolm

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