Self Publishing – How to Commission a Children’s Illustrator

Leo Hartas

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.

Traditional Publishing

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.

Finding Illustrators

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.

Freelance Illustrators

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.

Final Art

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.

I’m happy to help.

Contact Me

Detail is the Bane of my Illustration Life

Captain Bilgebell's Treasure Ship WEB - Leo Hartas


Captain Bilgebelly’s Space Pirate Ship

Another example from the children’s book I worked on during Brighton Polytechnic Illustration BA course back in the day. This was supposed to be the end paper design. The idea for a cut away went back to my love for cut aways in various Thunderbird albums I remember as a child. In fact as an 8 year old, or 10, I drew a huge submarine that had mechanical grabs, many floors of living accommodation and even a cinema. I dimly remember that it made it into an exhibition at a gallery near my school and I was photographed next to it for the local paper. If I come across the photo I’ll add it to the post!

The interesting thing about this drawing is that it was the start of the bane of my life as an illustrator. You see, you get paid the same however much or little detail you put into a commission. The problem is that the more detail you include the longer it takes to draw and the further south your earnings go. People love that I add a lot of detail, and I love detail too. As I draw I see more and more that I can add to the illustration, and at the back of my mind I guess I feel I am giving more value to the viewer. A quick sketch feels like I’m selling them short. I have tried many times to simplify my work, but to no avail. Below are a few enlarged details so you can see how crazy I am!

Captain Bilgebell's Treasure Ship Detail 4 WEB- Leo Hartas

Captain Bilgebell's Treasure Ship Detail 3 WEB- Leo Hartas

Captain Bilgebell's Treasure Ship Detail 2 WEB- Leo Hartas

Captain Bilgebell's Treasure Ship Detail 1 WEB- Leo Hartas

Right Royal Brat Super Puzzles

Here are a few pages from a book I wrote and illustrated a few years ago for Walker. It’s a small, cheap puzzle book, but one of my favourites because it’s silly and combined a simple story with puzzles. I don’t do puzzles myself, Sudoku just irritates me, but for some reason I love making them.

Sweet Pea in What to Wear

Sweet Pea in What to Wear

Here is a children’s book I developed for the iPhone about 4 years ago with Simon Cook. The idea was to do something quick and fun, and here it is!


The Phoenix Code

Pheonix Code


There hasn’t been a lot of news to post because I’ve been busy illustrating various books. For confidentiality reasons I can’t tell the world what I’ve been working on until the books are published. This is one such book I was illustrating before Christmas. The cover isn’t mine, but the interior black and white chapter motifs were. It’s a fabulous book by Helen Moss that is packed to the gunnels with action and adventure for 8 years upwards. Set in modern Egypt it follows the adventures of Ryan and Cleo as they unravel the secrets of the Valley of the Kings, reaching back through time  to try to solve the Phoenix Code.

It’s on Amazon here.

Find out more about Helen, The Phoenix Code and her other fantastic adventure books here.

I really enjoyed mixing modern images with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Here are just a selection of the 40+ illustrations from the book.