How to Find an Illustrator for Your Picture Book

Readingbook

This article is for those of you who have a great picture book idea, and are now looking for the perfect artist to help complete your vision.

I receive illustration inquiries from writers every month or so. Many times, they have questions about the book submission process and illustrators in general, so I thought I would address many of the common issues here, for both the writers and also the artists who receive similar requests.




So… how do you find an illustrator for your picture book?

You don’t.

And you don’t want to.

Here’s why…

Finding an illustrator is DIFFICULT.

Picture book illustration is a HIGHLY competitive field. Lots and lots of artists try to break into it, and that means lots and lots of those artists are, frankly, not very good.

Now, if you include art in a picture book submission, the publisher will judge it according to the standards of the industry. That means, if you want ANY chance of being published, the art has to be of professional quality, good enough to hold its own on a bookshelf next to tons of other big books being published.

So, do you know how to find picture book artists? Do you know how to sort out the good from the bad, and the great from the good? And do you know which of those would be a right fit for your manuscript?

It is very rare that a writer will have the resources or know-how to find an illustrator on his own. In fact publishers would be CRAZY if they expected them to. You, as a writer, do not need to worry about the art at all. Publishers have very experienced and knowledgeable people called art directors whose job it is to find the right artists and pair them with the right manuscript AFTER the story has been acquired.

Finding an illustrator is EXPENSIVE.

An artist with the kind of talent, knowledge, and experience you need will want to be paid, and rightfully so. Chances are, you will not be able to afford these kinds of fees. Even if you could, it is a very steep investment for a product with slim chances of being published in the first place.

You might think you can work around this by offering other benefits for their services like:

  • a percentage of your book’s profits, if and when it gets published
  • credit for the work and publicity
  • experience and/or practice
  • providing work for the artist’s portfolio

BUT… no self-respecting, professional artist is going to accept these things as a form of payment. If he does, I would seriously question his experience, skill, and knowledge of the industry. It is best to sell your manuscript first, and then let the publisher handle the compensation of your illustrator.

Finding an illustrator is UNNECESSARY.

I know, it seems logical to include pictures in a picture book submission, and it goes against all your inner impulses, impressions, and assumptions about the book-making process. However, let me assure you that illustrations in a book submission are neither NEEDED nor WANTED.

Even if you have the know-how and the financial means to hire an artist, you are doing all that work for NOTHING. Here’s why:

Art will not make your manuscript look better.

Picture book manuscripts are often short, and look weak and incomplete without the illustrations. At first, one tends to think that this will make for a weak and incomplete submission. Editors do not see it this way.

Editors live and breathe picture books every day. I guarantee you they will have the ability to see your story visually and will not care whether you include illustrations or not. They have plenty of experience to judge whether a story has potential as a picture book.

Manuscripts are judged by the writing quality alone. Editors will be very stringent and professional when evaluating your story, and art will not soften his/her heart a bit. If anything, it will only distract them, while also highlighting your ignorance of the book industry.

Don’t be tempted to seek out an illustrator simply to decorate your submission. It doesn’t help, and will reflect badly if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Including illustrations will not improve your chances of being published.

Including illustrations will only make your chances of publication slimmer, because the publisher has to 1) like the story, 2) like the art, and 3) like the story and the art put together. You will have a much better chance of publication if you submit the story alone.

I have also come across a few writers who are under the impression that hiring a reputable illustrator will give them an “in” into the industry. Most illustrators, in fact, don’t have much clout with industry insiders; artists, even the published ones, struggle to find work just as writers do. Either way, it doesn’t matter because again, art and writing are judged separately and often by different people.

It is not how the industry works.

Writers rarely, if at all, have any say in the process of finding an illustrator. If that worries you, and you are one of those people who likes having control over everything, you need to take a step back and be more realistic about the industry.

There is a good reason for this. Writers tend to be very protective of their stories. Illustrators work best when they are separated from this kind of pressure. In order to create the best picture book possible, the illustrator has to be free to add his own voice to the project, and that can’t be accomplished with someone looking over their shoulder.

So if you’re a writer you shouldn’t be worried about it too much. In most cases, keeping the writer and illustrator separate will help create a better picture book all around.

Exceptions?

You have the financial means to hire and pay for a professional illustrator.

You might be able to find an artist who is willing to work with you if you can pay them, but it still does not guarantee a publishing deal, because being wealthy doesn’t guarantee that you have the ability or knowledge to choose an illustrator who will work well for your story. Even if you do sell your story, your publisher may want to use a different artist altogether. In short, you will likely be spending your money for nothing.

You are self-publishing.

You still have to come up with the money to pay the artist. Provided you have that, you will have many other obstacles to face with self-publishing. You face the challenges of printing, marketing, and distributing the book all on your own; plus, self-published books are not considered legitimate in a lot of venues. Libraries, for example, will not purchase self-published books.

So, in general, self-publishing is not considered as the best way to break into the book industry. On the same token, you will be hard-pressed to find an experienced artist who will want to work with you, as it provides no marketable credit and takes time away from more valuable work.

You know an illustrator.

Say you have a friend, neighbor, or relative who is an artist, and you hope to collaborate with them.

First, let me say if your friend is a student, hobbyist, or only an occasional dabbler with paint, don’t even bother. You will most definitely not get published. Only seek to work with a professional artist who is experienced in the children’s industry.

Be aware that when you seek publication, you and your friend will still face the same challenges I’ve listed here. The publisher has to like both the art and the writing put together. By your collaboration, you will be significantly reducing your chances of publication.

I recommend writer/artist collaborations only if you really wish to work together. If, however, your number one goal is to get PUBLISHED, you are probably better off submitting your respective works separately.

Beginner’s Guide to the Children’s Book Industry

If you have read this article, and a lot of the info has been surprising to you, then you do NOT know enough about the industry yet to start sending out submissions. Here is a list of some recommended resources. Review them all as thoroughly as possible and read as much as you can before you take the next step toward publication.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books by Harold Underdown

This book is by far the best crash course for beginning children’s book author/illustrator wannabe’s that I have come across so far. Buy it, read it, and bookmark it for reference.

The Purple Crayon at Underdown.org

This site was created by the Idiot’s Guide author Harold Underdown. It features many articles and links, and is a good supplement to the book.

Editorial Anonymous

This is a blog written by a children’s book editor. Which editor? No one knows… However, because of the author’s anonymity, she is able to give some very honest and open insights into the picture book submission process by answering reader questions, recounting anecdotes from her personal experiences, and revealing the true and ugly nature of the Slush Monster. You will RARELY find such a goldmine of information.

SCBWI

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an organization based in Los Angeles especially for writers and illustrators of picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels. Its site offers some useful info and links, but you’ll get the greatest benefits by joining the group (requires an annual fee). Upon joining, you receive access to informative articles, discussion boards, monthly publications, and discounts to their conferences.

Final Advice

If you want to be a writer, be a writer. There is no need to worry about the illustration side of things at all. You will break into the industry faster if you concentrate on honing your craft and learning more about the industry.

Update!

Based on comments and feedback I’ve gotten on this post, plus the growing interest in self-publishing during recent years, I wrote a sequel to this article:

How to Find an Illustrator For Your Picture Book, Part 2: The Self-Publishing Edition