First Hand — Speak up! Illustrator Steph Coathupe on the importance of being open about your earnings
In December of 2018, Chester-based illustrator Steph Coathupe bravely revealed what she’d been paid for every single job in that year, inspired by a Twitter movement. The initiative had been sparked by online network Study Hall – initially aimed at writers in the US, but soon caught on further afield. After Steph announced her earnings, and the stomach-wrenching concoction of fear and imposter syndrome had passed, she realised she’d hit a nerve in the illustration community. Her transparency was met with an outpouring of support, with others following her example. She chatted to us about the decision to bare all, and why talking about money is vital – both for individuals and the industry at large.
Towards the end of last year, I started noticing the hashtag #MediaTransparency doing the rounds. The media industry had been plagued by layoffs and strikes, so freelancers called for better pay and labour conditions whilst sharing the reality of working as a writer in 2018. It encouraged everyone to speak out against unfair treatment from companies that depended on their labour and, with everyone doing it, it meant there was no fear of being singled out or blacklisted.
In the spirit of #MediaTransparency, I decided to share my own freelance rates for the work I did in 2018 on Twitter. Almost immediately after, I felt sick with the fear of finally being figured out as an impostor. I didn’t make enough money – I didn’t even make minimum wage! I hardly did any jobs in autumn and winter, and I may have undercharged for certain jobs, meaning that I’m the one devaluing the industry.
But as it turned out, people really appreciated my post. So far I’ve not had any angry clients telling me off for revealing how much they pay; I’ve just had lots of messages from illustrators who appreciate that I spoke out about it because it made them feel less lonely, less intimidated, and gave them a better idea of what certain jobs might pay.
“I felt sick with fear of finally being figured out as an impostor. I didn’t even make minimum wage!”
EDITORIAL— Steph Coathupe 🎨🗞️ (@StephCoathupe) January 8, 2019
The Guardian - Spot illustration for G2 - £250
Big Issue North - Cover that ended up being a 2 page spread instead but the price stayed the same - £200
The Daily Telegraph (Via MP Arts) - Spot illustration for Property section - £175, £123 after agency fees
Why do we fear talking about money?
I think we’re all a little scared that others might treat us differently when they know how much we earn. Will they look down on us? Or say we’ve got enough and are being greedy? Then there’s the worry that bigger clients will see the rates you share as an upper limit, or smaller clients might not even bother getting in touch if they can’t offer that much.
I struggle with pricing my work a lot. Imposter syndrome plays a big part in this, as being an illustrator and enjoying my work so much often means it doesn’t feel like a real job. I get mixed up in the dilemma of not wanting to overcharge or undercharge, which can be really tough when you don’t have any idea what the industry standard is, and I do feel this is an industry-wide issue.
When you’re feeling pretty desperate for work, the fear of scaring a client off with too big a quote can drive you to lower your rates. It sucks, because this devalues the industry as a whole. Without any idea of what their work could be worth, newer illustrators may price lower and lower to get their foot in the door and work with a big client that should be paying far more.
Getting a budget from a client can be like drawing blood from a stone sometimes, which can be really tough if you’re not taught those business negotiation skills. Of course you do get the odd lovely client who gives you a set initial price, or even demands you give them a higher quote if you’re not charging your worth, but these are few and far between.
“I know it can be scary, but we’re all in this together and we all just want to help each other.”
Transparency is good for the industry
Being transparent and open about what we get paid, for all the different gigs we do as creatives, gives evidence of the value of this industry. I also think there’s a lot to be said for calling out clients who don’t pay. We’ve got to look out for each other and have each other’s backs. There’s no point trying to be polite and save face with someone who won’t even pay you for your work in the first place.
If you’re unsure about fees, more than anything I’d recommend asking other creatives. I know it can be scary, but we’re all in this together and we all want to help each other. Shout out on Twitter asking for pricing advice, or send a DM to someone you’ve seen who has worked with the client before – just reach out to the community. Illustration is a pretty small industry and we’re generally pretty nice.
Let’s all work together to make pricing an open discussion, and show the world how valuable illustration really is!
Finding support and guidance with rates
Following her interview, Steph also shared her top-recommended resources that have helped her in building knowledge and confidence when it comes to charging, and understanding rates.
Let’s Talk Pricing was set up earlier this year, with the goal of building a community where people can ask for pricing advice from fellow artists who have experience in the industry. At the moment it’s a Twitter and a Facebook group, but I think it really has the potential to be a huge resource for illustrators and artists in the future.
The Association of Illustrators might not be able to give exact figures on recommended rates, but it’s an incredible resource that can help with licensing, contracts, and making sure you’re in the right ballpark with your rates.
Hire an Illustrator offers pricing advice to their members.
Study Hall is a newsletter and online support network for media workers (mostly journalists and writers). They have a Patreon where for £2 a month you get a weekly report on industry news. Higher tiers also give you access to their community forum, job listings, a blacklist of clients that don’t pay, pitch guides, FAQs, and other resources. Even though I’m not a writer, I joined since I do lots of editorial work so I like to keep up to date on the media industry.
I’ve also heard that the Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines is another good place to start.
Find it on Amazon
This article is part of a new series opening up conversation surrounding how the industry works in financial terms, and to encourage further transparency. You can read more about that here. And to see more of Steph’s work, visit stephcoathupe.com.