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Strange Horizons has a checkered history with art. Though in the past we’d had an art department, for the first couple of years of my time here, we didn’t anymore. Stories were not illustrated, and no one questioned this decision. But when C. S. E. Cooney sent us “Ten Cigars” in early 2013, I read it and immediately wanted it, and I wanted it to be illustrated. It had such fantastic imagery; I wanted to see those scenes in pictures.

I approached Cooney about this and said that I would pay out of my own pocket if we could find someone to do this for not too much money (working for an all volunteer magazine does not, alas, lead to bulging wallets). She loved the idea. She had a friend who was an artist, and we worked out a deal to pay her far too little for some illustrations to accompany the story.

Little did I know this would lead to our rebooting the art department.

It turned out that people loved the idea of illustrations. After that story went live someone even made a donation specifically in the hopes that we would do more. Niall Harrison had the idea to add illustrations as a goal in the fund drive, and we were off. The only thing was that none of us (in the fiction department at least) knew anything about acquiring art.

So it was that we found ourselves faced with the task of illustrating one story per month in 2014 with funds directly dedicated to that purpose, but with no dedicated art staff, and no previous experience (unless you count the one time I asked an author directly and got a hit). Our budget at the time allowed for $80 per originally illustrated story. I worked out a bit later that that rate was literally using the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” as a guideline. The problem is that’s not really professional pay for art. And when we pay pro rates for fiction, it seems only fair to treat our artists with the same respect.

That we weren’t hitting that pro rate bar became clear to us pretty quickly. One artist we approached replied with a clear and cutting note detailing hours of time needed to create one of their pieces, and said they couldn’t possibly do it for $80 when $500 would be the lowest end of minimum wage for them. This seemed extreme for us, and we were pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to budget that kind of money, but surely somewhere in between $80 and $500 there must be a threshold of professional rates?

In August of 2014, I resorted to publicly asking for help. I put out calls on Facebook and Twitter, and asked people to email me if they didn’t want to share info publicly. The responses trickled in, and I did indeed get a lot more private replies than public ones. Some other magazines reached out and offered to share some of their pay rates, but only if I would keep the information private—often, they said, at the request of their artists.

Why would artists want to keep this private? Surely having a standard of professional pay would benefit them, I thought. But that was me thinking like a writer and editor. Clearly more digging was necessary.

The reasons why many artists prefer not to have their pay rates be transparent are complicated and varied, but one of the main things that kept coming up in my correspondence was that artists (visual artists especially) are often told not to post public pricing so that they can have a chance of getting higher rates from people who can afford to pay them. This makes a certain amount of sense. If everyone knows you’ll do an illustration for $100, where’s the incentive for a corporate client with a big budget to pay $500 or more for that same type of work? And artists, like the rest of us, need to earn enough to eat and pay the bills and all that.

But as anyone who’s actually tried to sell short SF stories knows, there’s a push and pull between desire to earn a living wage and desire to create work and have people see it. And there’s also a satisfaction that comes with selling something for more than a token payment, even if it won’t actually pay the rent. Several artists told me they’d taken commissions for far lower rates than they would normally accept because they loved the market or believed in the project, and still others said they had done work for far less than they were worth because even a small paycheck can make a difference if money is tight.

A lot of my initial queries about fair rates got answers that amounted to, “If you want to treat an artist fairly, you have to ask them directly for the specific project you have in mind.” This is fine in theory, but in practice, Strange Horizons runs on a model of stockpiling funds in September and then apportioning them out over the next twelve months. All our fundraising is done with an eye toward making sure we have exactly as much as we will need to offer people. How could we figure out how much money to raise in the fund drive if we didn’t know what constituted a fair rate?

Though for writers there is a clear standard set by SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), there is no equivalent set by ASFA, the Association for Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists. In fact, when I queried them, the president, Mitchell Bentley said, “ASFA is less of a professional organization and more of a pro/fan voluntary collaboration. We are an open group with no real industry influence and made up of folks who appreciate arts of the fantastic. . . . Our main focus has been to assist artists and members who go to Worldcon and other conventions, and to fill the gap in art awards the Hugo Awards do not address.” In service of that last goal, the organization gives out the Chesley Awards for a variety of different kinds of artwork each year.

ASFA sounds like a friendly organization, and Bentley was very helpful and quick to respond to my questions. He even pointed me to some useful sites like PACT (Professional Artist Client Toolkit) and the Society of Illustrators for artists who might want to join professional organizations and learn more about how to get a living wage from their work. Alas, none of this gave me any better idea of how much to pay artists for original work as a respectable semiprozine without a major budget, but with a desire to pay fairly.

My next step was to ask all of the artists who were willing to talk to me privately if they could share some rates that they might do a commission for and not feel bad about undervaluing their work. A lot of them couldn’t share that information with me, even privately, because they felt that each piece of artwork might have a different value. Some directed me to The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethics instead of answering me directly. Of those who did answer with a number, the variance was pretty wide, but no one mentioned any number under $100. Which certainly confirmed my suspicion that $80 was far too low.

In the end, by looking at what artists and other magazines were willing to share privately, looking at the publicly stated commission rates from artists who advertised their work for hire on places like Tumblr and Deviant Art, and taking into account the various aims of the art commissions and the rights being sold, we settled on $200 for original commissions appearing in Strange Horizons in 2015. This is a big jump up from our 2014 rates of $80 per original commission, but still low compared to industry standard professional rates.

How do those break down exactly? Well, the Graphic Artists Guild suggests $500-$1500 for full page illustrations and $100-$500 for quarter page illustrations. It’s hard to say exactly what kind of illustration Strange Horizons is buying since we don’t actually have pages the way print magazines do, but I think we usually look for a larger than quarter page piece. Cover art is a whole different ballpark, with professional rates for small presses starting at $1,200, but since we don’t have traditional covers, for the sake of this search, that can be set aside.

We also tried to apply the logic of pricing suggested by Neil Swaab, which goes into some detail about considering venues and budgets. There’s a big gap between things like fan art and professional book illustration, for instance, as this discussion in a furry fandom forum points out. We’re in the middle somewhere. We want to pay more than the token payment often given for fan art, but we can’t afford to pay as much as the professional book rates.

Swaab mentions something else important, too: rights. One of the things we’ve done from the start to try to offset our low budget is to make sure we’re not grabbing rights. We ask for the right to display the art with the story, but from the moment the story goes live, the artist is allowed to display and resell it wherever they like. We also let artists choose whether or not to grant us permission to use the art for non-commercial promotional items (flyers or postcards to advertise the magazine at conventions, for instance), and while we do ask to keep the art in the archives, as with fiction, if the creator asks us to take it down after six months, we will.

This was a giant learning curve for me, a person with zero previous art acquisition experience, and I know that there are others out there who have been or will be in similar positions. That’s why I chose to lay this out in such great detail. Hopefully it helps someone.

I’m very glad to have handed over the reins to our new art directors, Heather McDougal and Tory Hoke. I look forward to seeing how the art department flourishes in their care. Of course all of this didn't happen by itself. Many thanks to Samantha Haney Press, who helped us in our search for an art director, and to SF3, which gave us a grant so that we could pay the new higher rate without stretching our fund drive past the breaking point. Finally, I want to thank all the artists who worked with the fiction department in 2014 and the beginning of 2015, and everyone who helped me with this quest to figure out how to do better. There are a lot of people out there who gave me their thoughts and advice, but I want to give extra special thanks to Kay Holt of Crossed Genres, Kyell Gold of Sofawolf Press, Mitchell Bentley, and Galen Dara, all of whom were particularly helpful. 

Julia Rios is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose writing has appeared in Latin American Literature Today, Lightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Formerly a fiction editor for Strange Horizons, their editing work has won multiple awards, including the Hugo Award. Julia is a co-host of This is Why We're Like This, a podcast about how the movies we watch in childhood shape our lives, for better or for worse. They've narrated stories for Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders. Find them on Twitter as @omgjulia.
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17 Jan 2022

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