Self-Publisher seeking Illustrator

The role of the picture book illustrator is often misunderstood. Not by the traditional publishing industry, but by authors who make the decision to self-publish. Sometimes authors choose this route because they have become frustrated with the submission process. They have family, trusted friends or loving grandchildren who are telling them how wonderful their story is, yet it has been rejected time and time again by publishers across the nation. 

Many inexperienced writers can only take so much of this conflicting scenario. After all, they’ve been told, “to be positive”, “never let them get you down”, “don’t give up”, and my personal favorite, “where there’s a will, there’s a way!” All of these are positive statements, if the person being cheered along can write really well and know’s what the industry expects.

But more often than not, the self-publishing picture book author is more in love with their own manuscript than any of the people that have read and applauded it. Instead of doing the work necessary to achieve a brilliant manuscript that is worthy of traditional publication, a lot of writers turn to self-publishing as a last resort. 

Potential self-publishers often think, If only I could find the right artist, someone who can illustrate what I envision, everyone will see how wonderful my book is! They imagine their cleverly constructed, beautifully illustrated book in the hands of rosy-cheeked children, gobbling it up as if it were a chocolate bunny on Easter morning. This picturesque notion leads them to conclude that they must do whatever it takes to make it happen, and there are many vanity presses just waiting to profit from them! 

As a professional children’s book illustrator, I can tell you with 100% certainty that only YOU can see the vision in your head! To believe otherwise is to set your self up for big disappointment. No amount of prodding or funding can make an illustrator create your books characters exactly as you see them.  

Not to mention the fact that beautifully rendered illustrations seldom have the ability to save a poorly written manuscript. Professional illustrators who value their own work, seldom associate themselves with a manuscript that is not up to industry standards and has little or no potential for sales. Would you (the writer) want to attach your name and reputation to a picture book that was poorly illustrated? Of course not, so why would an artist want to illustrate an unpolished story? 

Once a book has been published, it can come back to haunt you both!

Suppose one day your situation changes, and you find yourself traditionally published, speaking at a conference for up-and-coming children’s book writers. Nice dream, huh? Until someone in the audience stands up with your poorly written, self-published book (from the past) and says, “What were you thinking?”  

Suppose your newly published book with Random House is up for review, and although it receives praise, the reviewer mentions,”Yes, this author’s come a long way since the days of his amateurish, self-publishing ventures.” Not so nice now, is it?     

Before you begin your search for an illustrator, think with your head and not your heart. Find a group of professional children’s book writers who can help you to determine why your manuscript has received repeated rejections. Publishers reject manuscripts for a plethora of reasons. Often it’s because the writer did not follow simple submission guidelines, but in most cases, it’s because the manuscript needs work. 

Having your story illustrated in an attempt to make it more palatable and enticing to editors is considered a big no-no in the industry. Make it a point to learn the dos and don’ts. Polish your manuscript and try resubmitting.  It could save you thousands of dollars, months of aggravation, and it could land you a publishing contract!

There are many misconceptions about illustrators.

Often new authors think that professional illustrators will work for little or no compensation to have the honor of being “published”. This is false. Like many other professions, you get what you pay for and quality doesn’t come cheap. Your proposed incentive will only work on naive, inexperienced illustrators, or those who are financially hanging on by a thread.  

Should you decide to self-publish, don’t assume that the illustrator will do everything.

For example; 

  1. The illustrator should not be expected to construct the books layout. The author should decide where the page breaks would be. This means that he/she must determine what part of the text should be placed on each page to create flow, excitement, anticipation and symmetry. This information should be prepared in advance, and the illustrator should be granted permission to make changes if needed to enhance the perception of the illustrations.
  2. Illustrator’s should not be responsible for designing your book. “Designing” a picture book is all about determining the over-all look of the final product. What size will it be? How many pages will need to be illustrated? What type of digital files will your printer need in order to produce the pages of your book? Will you be using an interior illustration for your cover, or will your illustrator be preparing a special illustration that will entice potential buyers? All of these questions should be answered before the self-publisher approaches an illustrator for the project.
  3. Never assume that the illustrator will find an affordable printer for you. There are more printers than there are traditional publishers. Finding a printer is a very personal thing, determined by your budget, the desired quality of the final product, and the printer’s ability to accept digital image files. If original illustrations are to be used, this further complicates matters and increases your cost. 
  4. Don’t overlook contracts or provide a makeshift contract that is not in the best interests of both parties. The burden/cost of preparing a legally binding contract falls on the self-publisher, unless the illustrator wishes to provide one. If they do, read it carefully and/or take it to your attorney for review. Neither party should ever enter into a verbal agreement. 

All of the items mentioned above get in the way of the illustrator doing what he/she does best…ILLUSTRATING! If you find an illustrator who is willing and able to do these things, be prepared to pay for them as separate fees, separate from the illustration fees. 

One of the biggest gripes illustrators have is when self-publishers hire them based on their proven abilities and then do not trust them enough to let them do their job. Many authors attempt to be Art Directors, instructing the illustrator’s every move, demanding multiple changes as if suddenly the author had acquired a degree in composition, balance, color and artistic techniques.

Illustrators expect simple changes, but author’s should ask for no more than three per drawing so that the publication deadline isn’t delayed. Remember, your illustrator wants to make you happy!

Very few authors view illustrators as their creative equals because money is involved. They think because they are paying for the illustrations, it awards them the right to command every turn of the artist’s pencil. This only leads to frustration. It squelches the illustrator’s creativity. Try writing with your opposing hand. Unless you are ambidextrous, the level of frustration and difficulty you experience is the equivalent of what an illustrator feels when being told what and how to draw.  

Traditional publishers understand the need to keep authors out of the illustration process. When they accept a manuscript for publication, it is usually handed off to an educated, highly skilled Art Director. An illustrator is chosen that he/she and the editor believe will be best suited to bring the manuscript to life. The illustrator chosen comes from a large pool of talented professionals. Often they choose a successful artist they’ve worked with before. Then they turn the illustrator loose and let them interpret the manuscript with little interference. The author is seldom (if ever) consulted.

There is a lot of money on the line, as well as the reputation of the publisher and the illustrator. The final product must be highly marketable if it is to fair well in this competitive industry. 

Looking for an illustrator on your own limits your possibilities.

There are literally thousands of picture book artists. What are the odds (for example) that your sister’s friend is the perfect illustrator for your book? Has she illustrated a book before? Does she know what will be expected to deliver print-ready illustrations?

Look around before you hire someone. Make sure they are reputable by asking for references from other, happy authors that they’ve worked with. Look over their on-line portfolio (if they don’t have one…look for someone else!) Don’t let YOUR dream become an amateur’s “practice run”.

Dreams don’t come “cheap”!

If you are self-publishing, don’t ask for a “discount” on illustrations. Odds are good that you have already been quoted a substantial reduction based on the fact that you are self-publishing. You run the risk of insulting your prospective illustrator if you ask them to further reduce their fee. 

What’s you long-term goal?   

Finally, if you are thinking about submitting your illustrated book to publishers after it’s been self-published…think again! Most often, your chances for traditional publication plummet after self-publication, as many editors believe that self-publishing indicates an unwillingness to take criticism and make the necessary changes for improvement.

In addition, they don’t usually invest money in a book that has already been exposed to the public.  

Thank you for participating, and I wish you every success!

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