If you’ve written or are writing a picture book, you’re probably quite excited about the final product, about holding that published book in your hands. You’re probably already thinking about the other main component of the book—the illustrations. I have aimed here to include the least you need to know when working with an illustrator and navigating the pre-publishing process.
Perhaps you’ve already envisioned what your final product will look like and you know the kind of illustrations you’re looking for. Or perhaps you’re feeling anxious as you approach this stage and really have no idea what kind of illustrations you’d like.
Firstly, if you are intending to submit your text to a traditional publisher or literary agent (as opposed to publishing the book yourself), you do not need to have your text illustrated first. If your manuscript is acquired by a traditional publisher, they will choose the illustrator and liaise with her/him. Publishers tend to pair first-time authors with well-established illustrators because name-recognition, among other factors, is more likely to result in higher sales. (The same is true for you new illustrators—your first job in traditional publishing is likely to be illustrating the work of an established author.)
Remember, first and foremost, publishing is a business, and a publisher’s goal is to sell as many copies of a book as possible (and if you’re self-publishing, that’s likely your goal, too). A traditional publisher will choose an illustrator whose work and style best complement your text. As the writer, you generally have no power over this decision or what goes in the illustrations, nor will you have contact with the illustrator during the process. Just trust and hang on. Most authors are thrilled with the final product.
When submitting to a traditional publisher, the most you can do to communicate about the art is write a few art notes on your manuscript. If seeking traditional publication, only use art notes when they are absolutely vital for the editor, art director, illustrator, etc. to understand what’s happening in the text. Do not include matters of style, superfluous information, or state what is obvious. For example:
Wrong/no art note needed:
Sally was skipping along the path when she lost her balloon. “Oooops!” she said.
[Art note: Illustration should be in watercolor, and Sally is short with blonde hair and she is skipping along a woodland path, holding a red balloon, but the string slips through her fingers and the balloon floats away.]
Correct/art note probably needed:
Sally skipped happily along the path. “Oooops!” she said.
[Art note: Sally loses her balloon.]
When writing art notes, less is always more.
Engaging an illustrator:
If you are self-publishing, however, you will need to find an illustrator and very likely a book designer, too. I am not going to delve into the potential quagmire that is the world of self-publishing in this post, nor will I be exploring the possible deficits or benefits of taking that path.
I would encourage you to shop around for an actual professional children’s book illustrator, however, rather than choosing a publishing service that offers generic digital illustrations. Please note, many excellent professional children’s book illustrators use digital media, as do I, but the key word here is “generic”—those that are obviously digital with gaudy colors, bold lines of equal thickness throughout, and identical goofy smiles on every face.
Professional children’s book illustrators put many hours of work into creating even the simplest looking of illustrations. A drawing may look easy and fast because it seems to be just a few simple lines and color, but I can pretty much guarantee that the illustrator who created that very simple-looking drawing spent many hours:
- coming up with ideas and doing thumbnail sketches,
- finding reference material online and/or constructing/sculpting models to use as reference,
- developing the characters and playing with postures and expressions,
- sketching out settings and placing the characters successfully in them,
- and drawing, redrawing, redrawing, and redrawing, then painting and repainting…trying to get things just right.
A good illustrator doesn’t just lay down a few lines and add some color to create an exuberant puppy or a sad elephant or a believable child character, they breathe life and emotion into them through many attempts.
Also, consider this: before illustrating your book, most illustrators have spent much time and money and effort, blood, sweat, tears, and years to become professionals, just like any other professional. So we come to:
Thing # 1: Never ask an illustrator to work “on spec.” If you are shopping around, for example, and would like a few illustrators to sketch out characters to see whom would be best for your project, expect to compensate them for their time. (Some illustration students and illustrators in the early stages of establishing a portfolio and career may be willing to provide early sketches for free or low-cost in exchange for the experience and the portfolio pieces or to compete, but by no means should you expect to not compensate them for their time at all.)
The same goes for the entire project. You wouldn’t ask your hairdresser to give you a haircut on spec and then only pay if you like it the style. Never offer to have an illustrator illustrate your book because “It’ll be great exposure for you and your work” or for the promise of royalties when the book is published. We’re working on your project for many, many hours right now, and we have bills to pay, too.
Thing #2: Expect to pay a deposit and progress payments. I will discuss the stages of illustration below, and many illustrators like to be paid:
- a deposit,
- progress payments at one or more stages in the middle,
- and upon—or just prior to—delivery of the final artwork.
Thing #3: Choose an illustrator who offers you a contract with deadlines both for payment and deliverables. Illustrators, do not work with a client without a contract. This just protects you both.
Thing #4: There shouldn’t be a need to bargain on price. Go into the process with a reasonable understanding of how much it is likely to cost and an appropriate budget. The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines provides the current industry rates for cover and interior book illustration and is used by the majority of illustrators to price their work.
Thing #5: While you are paying the illustrator for the artwork, don’t assume you’ll own the rights to it at the end. While some illustrators will negotiate on this point, in most cases the artist will retain the right to use their artwork in their own portfolios, self-promotion such as print and website, and more. Make sure both parties have a clear understanding of the boundaries and make sure they are written into the contract.
How does the illustration process work?
I’m sure the vast majority of illustrators will agree that we prefer to be presented with a full final text prior to starting the illustration process. That’s how we get a proper sense of the story and its characters.
I once worked with an art director who was confined to giving me a list of bullet points about each scene, instead of giving me the applicable text (let alone the full manuscript) to read. When I insisted on having the text, they gave me the actual scenes I’d be illustrating only, and I didn’t know if had missed depictions of character and setting earlier in the story that I needed to make my images true to the text. (Readers do note those discrepancies and are annoyed by them.) Indeed, I discovered that the “men fighting in hand-to-hand combat” was actually a boy with a knife who’s startled by an old friend and then greets him happily. Since I’d already spent many hours doing research into wrestling poses and drawing two boys engaged in combat, I had to scrap hours of work—on my dime. Frustrating to say the least and totally avoidable.
Thing #6: Give the illustrator access to the final text. Should go without saying, right? (The one caveat at to this is that character design can often begin before the text is finalized.)
You may find you need to revise your text when you work with an illustrator. An experienced illustrator may point out places your text is too long, descriptions that can be cut because the illustrations will do the work, or deeper problems such as a flaw in the narrative arc, or something else.
Thing #7: It’s never too late to work with a professional children’s book editor to help develop your text to the stage where it’s ready to be illustrated—but it’s even better to go through that process before you engage an illustrator. It helps prevent surprises and late changes that cost us time and you money.
Thing #8: Provided it’s respectfully and constructively given, listen to the illustrator’s feedback regarding both the words and your ideas for the illustrations. Don’t think of the illustrator as an employee hired to do your bidding but a professional collaborator with expertise in the field of creating illustrations that pair with other people’s words in a form that is appealing to kids and viable for the industry. On the other hand, you don’t need to work with any arrogant jerks, either, so make sure you’re working with an illustrator with whom you’re able to have a positive working relationship before either of you signs the contract.
The Illustration Process:
Stages of the illustration process are usually:
- Pagination of the text
- Thumbnail sketches of each double-page spread
- Character design and development
- Full sketches for each spread or illustration
- Color studies
- Final sketches/drawings
- Final artwork
As you can see, there are multiple stages at which the author can give feedback or request changes. Too many illustrators tell stories of being asked to change artwork or incorporate new ideas once the final artwork is already underway. (It’s like having your hairdresser give you a bright red pixie cut and then deciding you want it styled long, blonde, and flowing: it costs everyone time, money, and stress.)
Thing #9: Take advantage of opportunities to give feedback and request changes, but if you request late changes, be prepared to pay extra. (Illustrators, make sure you have a clause in your contract that covers this contingency.)
A good illustrator will take into account text placement and the overall design of each spread. Most modern picture books have creative text placement, often placing text over parts of the illustration.
As you’re writing and revising your text, try paginating your text along the way, thinking of suspenseful places for page turns. Try to think of each double-page spread as one unit, rather than thinking left page then right page, because kids visually experience a double-page spread as one unit as they’re read to. It’s very rare in modern picture books not to have a mix of both single page illustrations, full double-page illustrations, vignettes, and other variations. Think outside the rigid and boring.
There’s a lot more to successfully illustrating a kids’ book than just being able to draw. An illustrator has to: understand page design, overall book design, and narrative arc; consider Point of View, text placement, and pacing; and a lot more besides. They have to bring a story and its characters to life. Weak illustrations can ruin an otherwise terrific project—I’ve seen it happen over and over. And in such a competitive industry, filled with high-quality traditionally published books and a growing number of self-publishing authors, it’s only good sense to strive for superlative work all round. Give your project the best chances in a very competitive marketplace.
Thing #10: You tend to get what you pay for. Be aware of the standard industry rates going into it and, as my mother has always said, “Don’t spoil the ship for a halfpenny’s worth of tar.” Good illustrations will cost a number of halfpennies, but if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, and a professional will provide expertise that may save you time and money in the long run.
Thing #11 (Bonus!): Writing and revising a children’s book, collaborating with an illustrator, and the publishing process itself have their ups and downs, their moments of triumph and their frustrations. But it’s a very wonderful experience. We illustrators love what we do, and we want you to come out of the process with an incredible book. So relax, be inspired, and enjoy the journey!