Branding your bookshop: How to commission artwork

Rainy Day Paperback logo by Chris Goodwin
Rainy Day Paperback logo by Chris Goodwin

The problem with free clipart is its free.  It means it gets used by everybody and all blends together.  If you’re getting ready for a big advertising push in the downmarket, it is probably worth your time to actually commission your own one-of-a-kind artwork. It’s hard to establish a distinct presense if you look like everybody else.  So here’s some guidelines for how to commission art for your bookstore.

It’s not as expensive as you think!

Prices all depends on what you want.  If you want a simple black and white linework logo to use in print ads, you may be able to get it for $50.  If you want a logo that can be used both as a tiny internet icon, can be printed 6 foot tall on the side of your van, and you can sell on t-shirts, expect to pay a LOT more.

Be honest with the artist as what you are going to do with it.  This will affect the price.  The major price difference is in whether or not you want to produce goods (totebags, t-shirts, etc) for sale with the art on it.  If you do, you will need to pay the artist more for reproduction rights for commercial use. (or pay royalties)  If you intend only to use it in advertising and on your website, that is generally less expensive as you are not selling the artist’s work directly.  Also, the price will vary depending on whether the artist is giving you exclusive use or non-exclusive use.  Non-exclusive use basically means the artist may resell all or part of the image for use in a different context. Non-exclusive use also means the artist may sell prints of the artwork without the text related to your business.

I suggest making sure that you have exclusive use of the image and the artist will not resell it.  If you’re on a budget, I also suggest NOT buying the right to reproduce the image on goods right away.  You can go back and buy those later if you feel the need to.  (keep in mind that the price may rise if it’s been several years between initial commission and buying repro rights.)

If you want both a black and white and a color version of the same logo, keep in mind you can order the linework first, then come back and have the artist color it later!  Ditto if you want several similar versions of the artwork for different uses (black & white adcopy, website logo, bookmarks, buttons, etc).  If you want a simple version to start, than want to commission a larger more detailed variation later, you can do that!  Try out a small piece first, then you can take the plunge into a total brand makeover.

And keep in mind that you DO have a valuable resource you can trade.  Artists generally LIKE books and may be willing to work for a gift certificate instead of straight cash. Or some mix of books and cash.

How do I even FIND a reputable artist?

Look around town.  See a logo you like? Ask the business who did their logo.  Usually this will be someone local.  You can find out then if they recommend that artist or if they had problems working with them.

You can also check Craigslist for postings.  Ask for references on people they’ve worked with previously and give them a call.  Also check with the Better Business Bureau and make sure there aren’t any claims against the artist!

However, the internet is often your best bet.  I highly recommend a stop by Artist Recommend It just collects testimonials on GOOD artists.  You’ll see a finished commissioned piece with each entry and info on how the process went.  You’ll often also see a link to the artists commission rate so you can get a ballpark estimate of what that artist costs to hire.

If you find someone you like elsewhere, be sure to check Artists Beware to see if they’re listed as a bad artist.  Artists Beware lists both bad artists AND bad clients.  Don’t let Artists Beware scare you.  Remember, it is a space for people to specifically publicize bad transactions!  It’s a lot like reading the police blotter.  It is not representative of the larger community. Most artists work hard and will deliver your art in a timely fashion.  Be sure to read the info on bad commissioners too.  Don’t be them!

Pay in parts and keep records

For all but the smallest commission, it is standard for you to pay in two or more installments.  You are expected to pay some amount either up front OR when the initial concept sketch is done.  The balance will usually be due at the end.  For some small commissions, artists may request payment in full up front.  In general, unless it is an artist you have worked with before, I suggest selecting one that asks for a deposit and a final payment.  If they require all the money up front, instead ask for deposit and payment on completion.  This decreases likelihood that your art gets put on the backburner.

Make sure to keep records of how much you paid and when, in case there is some type of dispute. Make sure you have everything in writing so it is clear what you are paying for and when you expect it to be delivered.

Find out what the revision fee is

Not every artist will charge a fee for revisions.  Some will.  Usually you’ll get two-three revisions of the initial concept sketch included in the price.  This lets you dial in on what you want.  After a certain number of revisions, you’ll start getting charged for the extra work.  If your artist does NOT charge a fee for multiple revisions, you may want to write one into your contract anyway.  Why?  This forces you to FOCUS.  If there’s no cost, its often easy to waste a lot of time nitpicking over details and then end up back where you started in the first place.  If there’s a revision fee after X number of times, you will give your artist better directions and get your art faster!

Get REALISTIC completion dates

Be realistic.  Your artist probably cannot whip up your logo overnight.   Find out at the start when your artist will be doing your art and when it is expected to be done. (Remember, there may be other clients in line first.  Find out how long the line is.)  If there is a specific drop dead date you need the art by, make sure it is 100% clear to artist you need it by then.

Keep in mind that due dates also depend on YOU.  If the artist sends you a sketch to approve and you take two weeks to get back to them, that may totally screw up the timeline.  If you will be unavailable at some time during the process, make sure the artist knows that so they can get you things to approve before you leave. You want them to send you the sketch to approve before you leave on that two week vacation, not have it arrive one day in and leave them hanging for two weeks waiting to hear back from you.  It’s a two way street on getting your art done.

Be specific on what you want but allow the artist some room for creativity

Rainy Day logo #2 by Ursula Vernon
Rainy Day logo #2 by Ursula Vernon

The artist cannot read your mind.  BE SPECIFIC.  Even if you only have a vague idea of what you want, give them some specific items to base the concept around.  Tell that what colors you want, how big, what you will be using it for, and what elements you would like to include.  Send reference photos or existing art if you have it. To use an example, I commissioned art that incorporated the name of the store (Rainy Day Paperback) and the book store dog.  I gave the artist the vague spec I wanted the dog, with an umbrella, in the rain, splashing in some puddles with some books.  I sent along pictures of the dog.  The artist sent back a couple different sketches showingseveral different layouts and I picked the one I liked most.  I hadn’t originallay specified the hat, slicker, or boots, but it worked.  I also hadn’t specified how to include the books, so the book strap was suggested by artist. Once the general sketch was approved, more details were added.  We went through one more round of revisions and then finalized this design.

Let the artist do the art

Hire an artist because you like their style.  Do NOT hire an artist and then ask them to draw in a totally different style!  You would not hire Van Gogh and then say “hey, could you paint more like that Picasso guy…”  Guide the artist in the direction you want, but if they say “perhaps it would work better this way…” pay attention.  You may be asking them to do something anatomically impossible, use colors that just don’t look together, will reproduce badly, or make the text unreadable.  Let the professional guide you… but if you feel you want to go a different direction, ask WHY they don’t want to do it your way.  They should be able to articulate why they can’t do it that way (example: “If I put the leg there, they would have to have a second knee joint to be in that position”).

Credit the artist

Stick it on your website somewhere as to who did the art and a link to their website.  It will also save you time down the road if you need to go back and get a variation on your art or negotiate reproduction rights if you include it there.  Plus it makes it easier for other businesses to find info on the artist and whether they’re reputable or not. Remember, artists get the majority of their business through word of mouth.  (and you should know by now how important word of mouth is to YOUR business) The two artists shown here are Boston area artist Chris Goodwin (color logo) and North Carolina based Ursula Vernon (black & white logo).  Both come highly recommended.

Enjoy your art!

Make sure to get a both a hard copyand a digital file of the art.  Now go promote your brand with some memorable art!

12 thoughts on “Branding your bookshop: How to commission artwork”

  1. This is great! Thank you for writing that. I think a lot of people who haven’t commissioned art before don’t know some of these things.

  2. I think you are right that having a some original artwork can make a big difference and you have some great tips. “Artists Beware” looks like a great resource.

    One of my friends, who is an artist, was always trying to get me to let him paint a mural at my old workplace. He said he would do it for free if I would pay for the paint and give him some free advertising/recommendations.

    Unfortunately he moved before I got a chance to take him up on his offer, but I am sure there are some artists out there who would be willing to make a similar kind of deal, so it might be worth exploring.

  3. I really liked this article. I’d like to add that if you live in an area near a college with a big art program, you could also find some great artists there. (I know because I was in art school and one of my very first freelance jobs was from a flyer posted on the job board at school, and my husband got most of his first freelance jobs while we were still in school))

  4. These are some good tips. I’ve been a graphic designer for years, and it really helps the process if both the designer and client have an idea of how the process is suppose to work.
    Thanks for sharing!

  5. I would have to agree. Clipart images never will look as good as some original art work. My friend actually designs logos and what not it always makes the difference!

  6. This is great! Thank you for writing that. I think a lot of people who haven’t commissioned art before don’t know some of these things.

  7. This is some great advice and of course it extends not just to branding your bookshop but to branding any type of business. A great logo is versatile, like you said, it can be a small icon on your webpage or a large image on a vehicle or shirt. It’s true though, that this can get quite expensive. Adrienne had a good idea with using college students and I think that could be very effective. Also there are some freelancer-for-hire websites where you could describe the project and various talented people will bid on it with an offer to receive a certain amount of money as payment. That’s a good way to utilize price competition to your advantage, as they can see what the others have bid as payment.

  8. I would second the suggestion to use the talents from a local arts college. You could turn this into a ‘win-win’ situation. Speak to a tutor and run a competition at the college. This will give exposure to your store and you will be able to choose form a range of good designs. The benefit to the student is that they will get paid and will have a great addition to their portfolio.

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