Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Paperback Cover Rates: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

In case I've left you with the impression that the end of the Golden Age of magazine illustration meant that there was no call for illustration after 1960 -- and that all the great magazine artists of the mid-20th century either moved out west or became photographers -- well, nothing could be further from the truth.

Signet 1110

Although their traditional market was never again the same, a new market for illustration - especially 'realistic' illustration - was growing by leaps and bounds: paperback cover art. And that market had an almost insatiable appetite for new illustrations.


Even in the early 1950s, the paperback publishers were putting 1,200 new titles on the stands each year, according to a 1953 Fortune magazine article. That's 1,200 new illustration assignments per year, and the numbers only got bigger a decade later.

Signet 921  ## James Avati ##

No surprise then that quite a few magazine illustrators had already made paperback cover art a regular part of their income during the '50s (and some even during the '40s).

Midwood 027

In "The Book of Paperbacks" author Piet Schreuders documents the pay rates for cover art over this period. "The normal fee for a single cover was $100 - 125 around 1945," writes Schreuders.

Pony Book 57

"In the '50s, prices ranges from $200 to $250, although the really big names (Avati at Signet, Tom Dunn at Pocket Books, Ben Stahl at Bantam) received $500 - $1,000."

Bantam 752 _ 2nd print

What's so interesting for me about that statement is that there were a few - not many, but a few - illustrators in the paperback market of the 1950s who could make as much per painting as they would doing mainstream magazine illustration.

For the others (the majority) the price Schreuders documents jibes well with what Mitchell Hooks described to me when I interviewed him a few years ago. Mitchell told me that covers went for about $300 when he began painting them in the early 50's...

1951 - Signet 854

... and that as a member of the Graphic Artists Guild he worked to encourage publishers to pay better rates. After a few years, the average cover was going for $800.

1962 - Gold Medal 1200

In a small press publication from 1988 called "Paperback Parade," Hooks told interviewer/editor Gary Lovisi, "I sure never got rich doing covers, but it paid the rent."

1956[1969] _ Popular Library 60-2379 _ Mitchell Hooks

Continued Hooks, "For about 15 or 20 years that's all I did. There wasn't much other work around."

1960 - Popular Library G399 _ Mitchell Hooks

When I asked Harry Borgman about his experience in paperback cover art he wrote back, "I did a few paperbacks from 1965 to 1973, probably a total of 12 or 15. For most of them I was paid $900, the first ones were a bit lower."


And Will Davies, with whom I shared studio space in Toronto, did over 500 covers for Harlequin Romance over the course of a quarter century. When Will began painting them in the early '70s "they started out at about $800 or $900 but gradually we got the price up to where it ought to have been: around $2,500 each."


Will did two or three covers a month - every month. That's not a bad gig if you can get regular assignments like Will did.


Original illustration art dealer, Mitch Itkowitz represents the work of many artists who did paperback covers. Mitch told me, "I think Max Ginsburg, back when he was still in the PB market, wanted to sell his cover paintings for what he was paid. At that time, in the late 80's/early 90's, it was in the $2000-2500 range."

Harlequin Art Exhibit, NYC, 5/29/09 - 56 of 145

And when I previously wrote about paperback cover rates in 2008, I asked my friend René Milot how much he has been paid in recent years for book covers.


René told me that he had received as much as $5,000 for a cover from a major publisher... but that price had actually dropped in recent years. As of that writing, $2,500 once again was more typical.

But here's the fascinating thing: if we take $2,500 and, with the help of our handy online calculator, reverse-adjust it for inflation into 1950s dollars, it comes to...


... Mitchell Hooks' $300 cover rate from 1952.

* Many thanks to Mitch Itkowitz for the Mitchell Hooks original art scan directly above. This piece is currently available at

* Many thanks to my Flickr friend, Uilke (AKA UK Vintage) for allowing me to use many of his cover scans in today's post. Visit Uilke's Flickr archives to see thousands of stunning vintage paperback covers


  1. Anonymous3:39 PM

    Look at all that gorgeous art--thanks for posting this. Your blog really is a source for inspiration.

    Tangentially, for the aspiring artist with stars in their eyes, do you have any idea what mediums any of these were done in? Has anyone done any sort of formal collection/tagging of covers or illustration ads that you know of? Is there any interest in creating a wiki-like cms or database for illustration artists of the mid 20th century?

  2. Weren't the mens sweat mags another source of potential income during the 60s? What about box art for model kits (Aurora etc)? Movie Posters?

  3. Yes, there were of course many other niche markets for illustration. Today, I'm just focusing on the paperback market. But thanks for your comment Remo.

  4. Another niche that created a fair amount of work was record album cover art, but from the anecdotal information I've managed to collect, it was pretty low paying work - around $300 - which is why, I suspect, the style and imagery tends to be fairly minimalistic. Mike Ludlow is a good example of someone who transitioned into a lot of album cover art and I think he found a manner of working that allowed him to paint album covers very quickly.

  5. Leif,

    Don't forget about foreign rights too. When I started doing covers in the mid eighties you could sell the image for secondary rights overseas and pick up a little more cash. I know people who were doubling their take on the cover doing this.

  6. That's a great point, Armand - thank you! Our guest author today mentions it in passing... I'll try to get his post published in the next hour or two - stay tuned!

  7. Your blog is a constant source of beautiful art, I appreciate the range of your tastes...your coverage of the later, more "designy" illustration of the sixties helps balance an online picture dominated by examples of 40s and 50s work (of which I am also a great fan).

    I haven't had time to scour all your posts; have you featured the inventive Italian paperback covers of Ferenc Pinter? I get the feeling you'd like his stuff. If I may be forgiven a plug, I posted some of my favorite Pinters at my blog:

    Thanks for hours of great reading and beautiful images.