I usually work for established publishers, but over the years I have successfully worked with private self-publishers to bring their writing to life with illustrations. Most self-publishers have never commissioned a freelance illustrator before, and they often approach it with little knowledge, and some misconceptions about how illustrators provide their services. In this post I hope to pass on some useful guidance that will give you a realistic idea of what to expect, and how it all works, so that both parties can enjoy a fruitful relationship.
Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing routes
When commissioning an illustrator there are the two distinct routes to getting your children’s illustrated book into the world. They require different approaches, that understanding will potentially avoid wasting time and effort.
Many writers hope to have their book published in the traditional way, by an established publisher. They approach me thinking that they need to commission some illustrations, and then take their project to a publisher. Or sometimes expect me to find the publisher. Publishers do not work in this way, because they want to match an artist with a writer in a combination they know will work in a particular market. Instead you must find a publisher interested in your manuscript first, and they will then find, commission and fund the illustrations. You may suggest an illustrator you would like, but eventually it will always be the publisher who decides.
Self-publishing is somewhat different. Once known as “vanity” publishing because the writer pays to have their own book published, it had a rather tarnished image. If the book’s good enough surely a publisher will give it the green light? Things have changed with the advent of the internet, which has reduced the cost of getting your work into the world, and it bypasses the traditional publishers who are reluctant to take on new writers. It is definitely new a route to market, with some self-published titles finding success and subsequently being chased with publishing deals. However, with the barriers to entry down the market is now flooded with millions of titles and self-publishers are looking to find a way for their book to stand out. Having professional illustrations adorn your writing, particularly in children’s books, elevates the title as a quality book, and could garner the attention of the reading public on the road to success.
Going back to the notion of vanity publishing for a moment. There is nothing wrong with having your book illustrated and printed on demand simply as a keepsake or gift for your family or friends.
Figuring out What You Want
This is where self-publishers can struggle. Different texts suit different styles of book which vary a lot depending on the age of the target audience. My advice, even before you put pen to paper is to spend many, many, hours in your local bookshop or library studying the type of books for each age group. Typically infants 0-3 years have board and rag books, ages 3-7 picture books, 7-10 starter chapter books, 10-13 chapter books and 13 onwards teen and young adult. Each age group has varying amounts of illustration, and then there are books for boys and girls, which can then be fragmented into further diversifying categories. It can be a big help to the illustrator, and yourself, if you find a handful of example books that you feel are similar to your project.
The internet now provides access to a cornucopia of talented illustrators the world over all just an email away. There are many websites provided by individual artists, agents and multiple portfolio sites such as Children’s Illustrators and the AOI (Association of Illustrators). After riffling a mind-dizzying choice you will eventually settle on an individual artist’s style you like and think is appropriate for your project.
To begin with let’s consider how the industry works and how individual illustrators operate within it. Since forever illustrators typically work freelance as lone self employed workers. It’s difficult to make comparisons with other industries but it’s fairly close to say employing a builder to remodel your bathroom. You have a bespoke job, something you cannot buy off the shelf, that you need someone to produce a custom outcome. There is one major difference however, the job is not interchangeable. If things don’t work out with your builder halfway through the job, you can pretty easily find another who can take up where it was left off and complete it. This is not the case in art as styles are not interchangeable, so it demands that you find an artist you can trust to make you project a reality right to the end. Therefore the relationship with the artist is critical.
What makes choosing your Illustrator particularly difficult is that they work in as many different ways as there are different people. Apart from their style of work, artists can be experienced, inexperienced, famous, fast, slow, talented, and sometimes less so. Some can draw anything in ink line, but not colour, while others are outstanding at fish, but hopeless at drawing a motorbike. Generally when you look at a portfolio you can tell how broad the artist’s ability is, and from their list of clients and projects how experienced they are. Don’t be put off if you cannot see a specific element that you want in an artist’s portfolio. You may see horses, cats and geese, but not a dog? Chances are, if they can draw all those other animals, dogs will no problem. On the other hand, you may like the colours an artist uses in their portfolio full of paintings of architecture, but they will most likely be not appropriate for your story about the adventures of four children and dog. For children’s illustration take particular note of how they draw characters, expressions and posture, as well as environment and the sense of place.
Being sole traders illustrators are individuals that have to be self sufficient in all areas of their business not just making the art. They have to keep track of their accounts, market themselves, interact with clients, keep up with technology, schedule, learn new techniques, source materials, as well as running their home life.
There are many artist’s agencies, some large operations with many illustrators on their books, others a one-man band representing just a handful. A good agent after securing the job and checking contracts will stand aside and let the client and illustrator work together, only stepping in to resolve any problems. Agents should negotiate as high a fee as possible and charge the illustrator around 33% commission.
Although some illustrators have rate cards the fee for a job is always a product of negotiation. This is because there are so many variables to consider for the artist starting with quantity, size, colour or black and white. Other factors such as complexity of the images, relative fame of the illustrator, experience, schedule and type of client.
To some the cost may seem high. A myth persists that artists should live as paupers and work for next to nothing, even free, because it’s their “hobby”, or that they might enjoy their work. Like you artists have families, bills to pay, homes to upkeep, and they may well aspire to a decent quality of living. You are not just paying for the time a drawing takes to come out of the illustrator’s pen, you are paying for thousands of hours of practice and perfecting that came before.
Once you and the illustrator have decided on a price terms should be agreed and formalised in a contract. There are plenty online that work as a starting point, and most of the clauses will be obvious, such as timing, fees, quantity of work, etc. The area that can cause confusion is copyright. The creator, the illustrator, owns copyright unless he or she has signed an agreement to pass the copyright to another party. Moral rights can also be signed away. Usually the artist retains copyright while licensing the other party to make use of the images within agreed boundries, such as a set length of time, in different territories, etc. Contracts are beyond the scope of this post, my advice would be read up some more elsewhere, and if in doubt consult a legal adviser.
Illustrators work in different ways but the process I use is below and common for most projects. The story throughout is good communication helps things flow easily.
I study the text and make notes about anything I need to query. It helps me a lot if the writer can supply anything not obvious in the text, for example photo references of the kind of setting the writer has in mind. Sometimes I will do some preliminary work with character sketches, discussion about setting etc. Anything that needs agreeing on before drawing the roughs.
For a children’s book this should include the text, size and extent, and be planned out by a professional designer. For self publishers I offer this service myself. It is setting out the book and text as a coherent design, with the text distributed logically throughout. Fonts, colour styles and cover design all have to be taken into account, so that I know what spaces are available to work in.
Once everyone is happy with the design I start drawing the entire book out as rough sketches, and present it with the text for your comments.
If we are working together for the first time I will probably produce one image to final first and check with you that it is on track before completing the rest of the book. I will then supply all the art in whatever format you require by digital download.
A Final Word
Keep in mind that an illustrator will do their best work if you respect their ability, and give them the freedom to express their take on your text.
An excellent video by Will Terry that helps to explain the job of the illustrator and their relationship to the client:
Edit: Also, read this brilliant post by Sarah McIntyre who gives a whole lot more useful information.
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