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.  

Picture Books vs. Chapter Books – understanding the difference

Like every other freelancer on the planet, I’m always looking for projects to keep me employed. If you know me, then you know that (like many Gemini’s) I work at many different professions, sometimes all at once!

So it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that critiquing and content editing are among my many professional services. It often pulls me away from my beloved illustrating because I find it fascinating to read what other creative’s come up with. It’s one of those things that feeds my creative soul and more often than not, it gives me a great sense of accomplishment to know that I’ve contributed to making something good – even better…, possibly GREAT.

However, in my search for entrepreneurial bliss, I sometimes run into things that I find a little unsettling. Lately, it’s the number of new authors who don’t do any homework prior to sending out manuscripts.

Often I receive lengthy text pages that authors believe should be a picture book, or short manuscripts that they insist are chapter books! In addition to the unusual word count, the language used is often inappropriate for the targeted age group. In fact, it happens so frequently that I felt the need to talk about it and maybe clear a few things up. At the very least, posting my thoughts on the subject will give me a place to send confused newbies, awarding me more illustrating time!

Warning….possible boredom approaching! This is basic stuff that is all over the internet. If you have been studying children’s book publishing for any length of time, then I’m sure you’ve already heard this stuff! If not, then you NEED to join the SCBWI, seriously folks. What I’m about to share is talked about in almost every children’s publishing conference and critique group across the globe. Here we go….

Simply stated, Picture Books and Chapter Books were created for different age groups, and for different reasons.

1.) Picture Books contain illustrations. In most cases, the illustrations are in color and they assist the words by visually conveying the story to readers, ages 4-6.  The text should (ideally) contain less than 500 words – due to the belief that today’s youngsters have a very short attention span, but up to 1000 words are acceptable for manuscript submission to most publishing editors.

Picture book text should not be descriptive in nature. This keeps the word count low and allows the illustrations to do their part in showing what the words do not communicate. Words should be used sparingly to evoke emotion, move the story forward at all times, and invite a clear understanding of the action. If a sentence does not add something important or at least move the story forward, it should be removed.

Picture Books come in a variety of sizes, most commonly 8.5″ x 11″ in size, as it fits squarely and snugly on library and bookstore shelves without toppling over or getting lost between other books.

Traditionally, Picture Books are 24 or 32 pages. This harkens back to days before digital publication, when printing companies only printed books in increments of 8 pages (i.e., 8, 16, 24, 32, 48.) The first 3-4 pages are used for the Library of Congress and printing information, dedications, and a half-title page. The manuscript text and illustrations share the remaining pages. Authors should consider this information especially when self-publishing.

First-time authors should consider the subject matter being exposed to 4-6 year-olds. If you don’t want your own youngster reading about a subject, then don’t write it and expect other parents to want it either!

In addition, don’t preach to your readers. Children quickly lose interest if your book sounds too much like a “lesson”, and is not much fun.  Conceal what you’re trying to teach in unique, comical, or relatable characters and plots. Your “students” will learn without knowing what you’re up to!

Finally, if you’re planning to submit your manuscript to publishing editors, for goodness sake, write something fresh and new that they have never heard before! Even if it’s a new perspective on an old subject, it’ll have a better chance for acceptance than a story that’s been done before. Enough cats, dogs and teddy bear stories People! If you do write about your cat, it had better be one VERY unique, wonderful and irresistible feline!!!

2.) Chapter Books also contain illustrations. In most cases, they are in black and white and are used sparingly. There are two types of Chapter Books. “Early” Chapter Books and Middle-Grade Novels. For the sake of keeping the discussion brief, we will only address Early Chapter Books at this time.

Early Chapter Books target ages 7-10, children who feel they are too grown up for “babyish” picture books. They still need (and secretly want) the aid of illustrations for clear comprehension, but the illustrations are simpler with less detail.

Early Chapter Books contain well over 1500 words, often in the thousands. The words used are more difficult than those used in Picture Books, but authors should avoid overly complicated words. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to challenge your readers but don’t use words that require continual stopping to look them up! This can get tedious, causing readers to give up and walk away in search of a more enjoyable reading experience.

Again, don’t get too preachy! This age group will throw your book down and run for the hills if they think for one second that you are trying to sneak something by them. However, if you can think of a fun and clever way to get information across, they’ll be all in and teachers will love you and your book!

Chapter Books are usually 6″ x 9″ in size, fitting comfortably in hand and working well for traveling (backpacks). They are a great vehicle for authors who are looking to write a series, but that should NOT be your reason for choosing to write a Chapter Book. There are many terrific “stand alone” Early Chapter Books, and yours could be next.


In conclusion, no matter what you write, KNOW your audience! If you are writing a Picture Book, keep it short and simple, with ages 4-6 in mind. Most of them can’t read yet, but they want to badly. They are seeking independence and use the illustrations to assist themselves in reading books when parents aren’t available. Let your illustrations tell the story as well, by choosing your words wisely.

If you are writing an Early Chapter Book, remember that it’s for ages 7-10. It will be a small book, with sparse, small black and white illustrations that compliment the story.

Now that you know the clear distinctions between Picture Books and Chapter Books, what are you waiting for? An illustrator perhaps?




Growing and Changing Things Up

I’m always on high alert, looking for anything that will help me grow as an illustrator. That being said, you can imagine my thrill when I found out that Artist Agent, Christina A. Tugeau, was coming to a nearby college to speak…and it was free!

Alex's Honey

I had learned about the CAT Agency several years ago, and stalked her website, looking for clues as to how I might improve my work in order to catch her eye. Perusing the list of incredible illustrators she represented, I soon realized that it would be a while before I figured out the magic formula….if ever.

Flash forward…her lecture (this past Saturday) was amazing and eye-opening, even for a veteran like me. Among the things I learned was that it’s as much about how you handle the business at hand, as it is about the talent you possess.

When assembling your portfolio for an agent to view, it’s important that it convey the fact that you know the steps necessary to get the job done. Include a storyboard or a dummy book to show them that you are familiar with page flow, book assembly, text placement, etc.


Character continuity is where many illustrators flounder, so you must somehow include a range of positions, movements and emotions for at least one or two of your characters. This will show off your capabilities and prove that you have what it takes to successfully carry a single character through 32 pages. Oh, and I have to follow up with the fact that your characters need to be unique and your style different from those that the agent already represents.


I also want to share the fact that your agent will most likely expect you to be a team player. If they’re going to do a great job representing you, then you have to be worthy of representation by doing the things they ask of you. Too many of us share the false notion that once you sign with an agent, you sit back and wait for them to get work for you. The TRUTH is, you have to keep working! Good agents will need you to keep the sketches coming, as they will be sending out promotional materials to publishers on a regular basis. If your not producing, you’ll become a hard sell. Who would want to rep someone who isn’t willing to grow and change things up occasionally?

Let’s talk about your website and blog. Yep, it’s required if you want to work with a great agency like CAT’s. Let’s face it, they’re both simple, basic tools that show and tell agents and publishers who you are. Your website should be straight-forward and user friendly. Don’t make them search through a myriad of fancy graphic gadgets and buttons to find your illustrations…keep it simple. One click, and BOO-YA! There they are.

Your blog is a different story. It requires you to string words together into complete sentences that make sense to the average reader. Don’t laugh! You’d be surprised how many people can’t do it!  SO, if you’re not word savvy, what’s an illustrator to do…hummmm? My advice is to enlist a friend or relative and wrangle up those pesky prose. You don’t need to say much, as long as you post your illustration progress, experimentation, success and publications regularly. A blog shows everyone that you’re constantly working.

I have included at the top of this post, the illustration I created especially for CAT’s visit. It’s a bit different than my usual style, reflecting on the recent changes I’ve made in my life and my way of thinking about children’s book illustration.

I may never know what she thinks of it. 

As she turned to the page in my portfolio, the shrill voice of a fire alarmed screamed in the hallway, distracting everyone with it’s reminder that life can change in an instant. Confusion prompted another page turn, and unconsciously…another. She did not see it, but I dared not interrupt once she was able to refocus and continue on with the best portfolio review I’ve ever received. I am grateful for the opportunity that was given to me, and I’m determined to make it count!

Selling books on Amazon

I recently answered the question;

“What should I do to correct the fact that even though my book has been on the market since 2011 (, I haven’t sold many copies?”

I decided to take the time to go and look at her sales pitch on Amazon. Since most self-published books wind up there, I thought other self-publishing authors might be curious to know what I found. You’ll hear it in my answer, and I hope it helps when you decide to list your book there one day.

Hello, I think I can help you!

As a professional, traditionally published author/illustrator, I can tell you with great certainty that it has a lot to do with how your book is presented in the marketplace. I checked it out on Amazon (where most people buy books these days) and I must tell you that you missed the mark when it comes to a promotional sales pitch!

A.) The sample on Amazon only contains one image/illustration from the book, and it is a stagnant pose that stands there, staring at the reader blankly. It is not a lively character who shows emotion. It does not tell us anything about the fact, it’s message repeats what is found in the title, nothing more.

(It was a full frontal view of the main character, showing no emotion or action that might give us a clue as to what’s in store for us if we buy the book.)

B.) The pages included are too wordy, and only sell YOU, the author….not the book you have created for sale.

(The author went on and on about herself, and said very little about the book itself)

C.) The description does not tell your buyers what they will be getting for their money…i.e., what are some of the things that their child will identify with in the story? What is so special about it that will make the book a favorite, to be read over and over again?

(When you write your own book description, be sure to tell your potential buyer what their child will get out of the book, and why it will become the most cherished book they own.)

D.) Buyers are bombarded with personal facts about your life and what drove you to write the book, when in reality, buyers don’t care unless one, it pertains to the story -or- two, they are already a fan of your books!

E. ) You need more reviews! It is obvious to buyers that the one and only review was written by someone who knows you somehow, as their grandchild personally knows and interacts with a character in the book. This has a negative impact and would not make me want to purchase this book.

(The only reviewer admitted that she knew the author through a mutual source…could she not get any REAL reviews? This speaks volumes. After several years on the market, she’s only got one review from someone biased. How pathetic. (Sorry if that sounds mean…I’m a nice person, really I am.)

Here’s what I suggest. You redo your amazon listing to include three-four illustrated interior pages of the book, (there is currently only one…the book’s cover) so that buyers can fall in love with your characters and the settings they live in. You should eliminate 90% of the personal info about you…it makes you look like an ego driven newbie author. Only when you have several books and a following is it necessary to provide fans with personal information, and THAT should be done on your author website that you should have created before the book was released. (assuming that you don’t have one?)

After you have created a lively promotion on Amazon, that represents your BOOK instead of YOU, then you need to get off your tushie and get promoting! Tell all your friends, ask author/illustrator bloggers to feature your story (about how you published) on their blog site. Go to book Fairs and writing conferences, where you can “talk up” and show off your accomplishment. Ask everyone you know to “tweet ” about your book. Enter your book in publishing contests, and sell it anywhere and everywhere you go…always having several copies with you. Go to your local library and offer to do a free one hour workshop on “How to publish a Picture Book”, and be sure to take as many books as possible to sell afterwards (you have to do your selling quietly as if it is not your sole reason for being there).

All these things will help to increase your sales and will build your confidence. You have to be tenacious, driven, and intent on making a profit if you hope to succeed in this saturated market! Best of luck to you!

Most sincerely and respectfully, Lisa J. Michaels

People who complain about poor book sales when they clearly have no one to blame but themselves irritate the snot out of me.

Cashing in by Compromising

Sadly for this author/illustrator, the Christmas holiday is over and it’s time to reorganize and dig my heels into 2014 by thinking six months ahead. What will YOU be doing in June of 2014??? More on that later.

First I must morn the passing of what I discovered (just this year, after a decade in the biz) to be a gold mine of opportunity…last minute shoppers! Now I’m not talking about mall hoppers or Black Friday frenzies. I’m talking about shoppers who decide two weeks before Christmas that they need something REALLY special, and they’re willing to pay for it if they can find an illustrator who’s quick on the draw (no pun intended).

Just as I was wrapping up my last picture book for the 2013, and preparing promotional plans for the birth of my new “baby”, due to arrive on book store shelves in January,

WMGC- Front Cover 9-6

I discovered that perhaps I might not be quite finished with 2013 after all. Much to my surprise, last minute gift seekers began popping up all over  my radar!

My first reaction was to laugh a wicked “Wha-ha-ha!”, thinking, who do they think they’re kidding?  These people actually BELIEVE they can find someone to sketch, perfect, color and complete a project in time for the internet Santa to deliver it for Christmas? Impossible!!!

Then a little voice from conferences past whispered in my ear…

“Always find a way. NEVER turn down an opportunity. Cash in with a compromise!”

I thought about it for about 2 minutes, and then I did it. I changed my point of view and quickly contacted every one of those creatively-crazed gift hunters and proposed a deal that they couldn’t refuse.

I cut my prices 20%, offered simple (less detailed) illustrations that I could easily and joyfully produce, and accepted half payment on approval of sketches and the remainder due on final delivery. I wound up with three fun and fast illustration projects and no time to lose!

I was so happy when the money came pouring in. People who are gift-giving and grateful for your last-minute compromises pay quickly and without argument. By Christmas Eve I’d easily made the money I needed to make things merry! I made six people VERY happy (the givers and the receivers), and I learned a great many lessons in the process about compromise, timing, and illustrating for the shear joy of it (something we illustrators often forget when projects are all we have to pay the mortgage).

Today I’m settling in to start anew. For me and my family, 2013 was a year of shedding the past, clearing out cobwebs, sickness and mourning for what (and who) has been lost, and finding a way to finally, once and for all…put it behind us.

The new year brings a promise of healing and the hope that all will be well again. In every way possible it will be a new chapter for us and we welcome the change with open arms!

The only way I know of to make it in this business is to think six months ahead. Last June, I knew I’d have wrapped up all the book projects I’d been working on by December. I planned it that way and did everything to ensure it would happen.

In July, I planned for promotions on the book (pictured above) to be released in January of 2014, and I acquired two new book illustration contracts to work on as well, so that I would have the income to carry me through to February 2014 and so on.

So, I’ll ask you again. What will you be doing in June of 2014? I know I’ll be thinking about December compromises and those last-minute shoppers that will fund my holiday happiness. ;o)

Seven Little Books in the Box

ImageWell, It’s day seven of “PiBoIdMo”, and I’m right on schedule. I’m proud to say I have six Picture Book ideas and one Chapter Book idea (it started off as a PB idea and morphed…tee-hee!) that would knock your socks off!

In addition, I’ve entered into all the drawings for prizes that have been offered, and I’m learning a lot about many of the wonderful authors and illustrators I hope to work with someday. They’ve been very inspiring to say the least!

If you missed the date to sign up for this years Picture Book Idea Month challenge, you don’t have to miss out altogether. I hope that you’ll join me in the countdown by coming up with Picture Book ideas of your own. Jump in today and by the end of November, you’ll have twenty-three Picture Book ideas to work on in 2014. You won’t be able to blame your lack of manuscripts on a “dry spell”!