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

This article is an addendum to a previous post I wrote called How to Find an Illustrator For Your Picture Book. It remains one of the most popular blog posts I’ve ever written; it’s also garnered a slight bit of controversy.

In that post, I pretty much said this: Writers do not need to find illustrators for their children’s books because the publisher will find and hire one for them. The only thing writers need to do is submit their manuscript. It’s not only simpler, but it’s also likely to increase their chances of getting published.

Some people felt I was discouraging collaboration between writers and artists. Some artists have gone so far as to say I am ruining potential jobs because the article discourages writers from contacting artists. Yet others say that I’m advocating publishers as tight-knit, locked-down industry gatekeepers.

In response to the critics

I had no agenda when I wrote the article. It is simply an explanation of the picture book submission process, in the traditional sense of submitting a manuscript to a print publisher. It came from info I’ve heard from fellow artists, read in books, and gained from personal experience. No matter what my opinions about the industry or big publishing or collaborations, it is the truth as far as I know.

Also keep in mind the article was written for a specific group of people – writers who contact illustrators wanting them to illustrate the story they have written so they can submit it to a publisher. These writers are mostly beginners and have never submitted a book before, and so are unaware of how the whole process works. The average person thinks you need to draw up the whole book as a completed project, and the publisher picks it up as-is and prints it; that’s simply untrue.

The fact is, these writers do not need illustrators. They might be willing to hire artists and give them money to pretty up their book submissions, but I think it would be unethical and un-smart for an artist to take that pay knowing full well the writer doesn’t need the art, and that it could potentially damage their chances of getting published.

I do not discourage collaboration between writers and artists. I approve of it. I just urge people to be smart about it. Be aware of your markets and clients and how things have worked in the past, and what applies to you. This is a highly subjective industry and there is no one set process that works every time. Just be aware of the rules before you break them. What matters most in the end is that you make a really good book.

So What About Self-Publishing?

Another class of people who tend to disagree with the article are self-publishers. That field is ripe for collaborators and the writers-hiring-artists set. I have mostly responded by pointing out that the original article is largely not about them. It is specifically about the traditional print publishing submission process. I had mentioned self-publishing briefly as a sidenote, saying that it’s a very difficult process and lots of illustrators won’t want to work on self-published books because they are unmarketable (and probably cheap) work that requires lots of time that could be better spent on other projects. That’s still kinda true, except…

That article was written in 2009. That’s pre-iPad, folks. The Kindle was just a baby. Now self-publishing has boomed. People are starting to think of it as a legitimate option. Writers are making money off of them. Illustrators are more willing to do the work. So I think it’s about time I addressed self-publishing more fully, and what it means for writers hiring artists.

First, I support self-publishing.

I’ve self-published some books myself, mostly because I fell in love with comics. Since 2009 (after the first article was written), I started a webcomic, wrote a few short stories, and printed several of my own books. I’ve also dabbled in ebooks and digital publishing. I’ve taken some of the strategies I used in my comics to my children’s books as well. I like experimenting with self-publishing and advocate others to try it out too. I think it’s a great form of business, promotion, and income.

What writers need to know (from this artist’s perspective)

As much as I love self-publishing, I am still very wary of illustrating other people’s projects and don’t do them as a rule. The fact is, a picture book or comic takes a lot of time, and I’d rather spend it on my own self-publishing ventures rather than working for someone else’s personal projects. I think there’s a lot of artists out there that feel the same. Writers should be aware of that.

So if you are a writer looking to hire an artist, you must keep in mind that you have be able to convince the artist that your book has value. They have personal projects and larger paying clients competing for their schedules. They are not going to drop everything because you just happen to have an amazing idea.

This is all a very new process, and yeah, I haven’t worked with any self-publishers yet. But I can offer advice based on the requests I’ve received in the past and what I’ve felt about them. So here it is:

How to Find an Illustrator For Your (Self-Published) Picture Book

1. Have money.

That is just the cold, hard truth. You must be willing to pay your artist. Do not offer profit shares, portfolio work, or experience as payment.

I’ve seen some people with the attitude that because digital publishing is cheap and easy to get into, that the illustration should be cheap and easy too. That’s flawed thinking. Digital publishing means you don’t have to pay to print books. That’s it. Believe me, that’s a great advantage in and of itself.

Me, as an artist, wants to see that the writer is viewing their book as a business. If you are willing to invest in that business and put money down for its production, that goes a long way in showing me that you have realistic expectations and plan to make money from your book. If you believe your book won’t make enough money to justify paying the artist a decent amount, that tells me that you are doing this simply for fun or for the self-satisfaction of it, and that is a project I do not care to work on.

I discourage profit-sharing (paying your artist from a percentage of book sales). The only situation I MIGHT agree to a deal like this is if the writer was a close friend or trusted partner. You should not offer this to a pro artist you have no connection with, but I might suggest an alternative: advance and royalty. Offer the artist a percentage of your profits, but provide a non-refundable fee up front. Then, once the book goes on sale, you would not have to pay the artist a percentage until they have earned over the advance you paid. A percentage of the profits gives the artist an incentive to invest in the success of the book; the fee in advance makes sure they are at least paid a set amount. This is how typical contracts work with traditional publishers.

Another piece of advice I would give is that writers should be aware of the going rates for illustration, and how they are paid. Do not expect an artist to be happy if you offer them $500. A $2000 book is still insanely low. I’m not going to go much more into specific numbers, but you can look them up in books like the GAG Pricing guide or the SCBWI resources. Also, children’s book illustrators typically don’t work by page count or by the hour (some might though). It’s usually a flat fee or the advance/royalty deal I explained above.

And if you are a writer looking for the cheapest illustrator possible, I would offer this: The riskiest move you can make for the success of your book (especially children’s books) is to hire a cheap illustrator. Illustration is often the first thing your audience sees about your book. People will judge the quality and investment put into the book based on the art. If you want to avoid risk, the art is not the place to make sacrifices. If you are able to find an illustrator who works for cheap, you will probably get what you pay for.

2. Have a plan.

Once you have the finances, put together all the info about your book and your plans for it. As the artist, I like to know these things when first contacted by a new client:

  • the subject matter and basic plot summary of your story

  • your intended audience

  • your budget

  • where the book will be distributed

  • your experience and reason for self-publishing

  • why you want me as your illustrator

What I don’t need to know on first contact: How much your family loves the idea, how the book is going to make us rich, or your life story. This is fluff. It doesn’t interest me. Keep it brief and to the point.

You should probably have additional details immediately on hand, in case I’m interested and inquire further:

  • a full manuscript

  • the size of your book, both page count and physical size

  • your production schedule and when you need the finished illustrations

  • how the book will be marketed

If the writer who contacts me hasn’t figured this out or has unrealistic expectations, that is a warning sign to me that this is a project not worth my time.

For example, be aware of how long it takes to illustrate a book. If you want to have your book up and published in a month, that’s not going to happen. Illustrators usually get several months to a year to draw a full picture book. It usually takes several more months to a year for you to get it designed, formatted, and ready for publication.

I also get a lot of requests from people who specifically say they don’t know much about making children’s books and want me to guide them through the process. Quite frankly, that is a turn off. It indicates lack of research and planning. Yes, if you are new to this, it is wise to get an artist who knows what they are doing and has experience with making books. They can be a great help. If I can see that you’ve learned as much as you can, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I wouldn’t help you out if you had questions. But if you expect me to hold your hand and be your gateway into the children’s book industry, that is not what I am here to do.

I also want to be able to see that you’ve given thought to me as an illustrator. If the subject matter of your book is way off base to what I have in my portfolio, I may see that as flawed planning on your part.

Self-publishing is still hard.

After all is said and done, self-publishing is still a very risky business. Publishing alone is a risky business, and there are few rocket successes. As much as I love self-publishing as a creative, promotional, and money-making tool, I still feel there are monumental challenges to overcome when it comes to children’s books.

They might be getting more media attention, but self-published children’s books are still very much an enigma in today’s market. Customers on the whole still aren’t buying them. Stores, buyers, and reviewers are confused by them. That’s not to say it’s not improving, but there’s a lot of innovation to be made and problems to figure out before they become mainstream.

If all this planning, research, and obstacles involved in making a book are getting you down, self-publishing might not be the right thing for you to do. If however, this sounds like a fun challenge and you are excited about what independent creators can do and the possibilities to come, I hope you find success. And if you’re going to hire an artist, be respectful of the skills they are bringing to the table. The publishing industry as a whole needs more people like you.