Advice for New Illustrators

Lisa J. Michaels, copyright 2011Today I’d like to have a serious talk with those of you who are new children’s lit illustrators. Authors need to listen up too, as this post will undoubtedly give you some insight regarding the illustrators that you may someday collaborate with.

I think it’s important to discuss something that you will most likely come up against as you begin your search for illustration projects…

Beware of the self-publishing author who offers to pay you “royalties-only” in exchange for the privilege of illustrating his/her wonderful children’s book. They will tell you that this will help you in getting your work “out there” in front of the public eye, where you can be “discovered”.

These offers are a dime-a-dozen and that’s about all they’re worth!

Through the ages this tactic has been used to lure desperate-for-publication, wanna-be illustrators into working for free. These ego-driven authors truly believe (or have been made to believe, by unscrupulous predators) that their work is so incredible that any illustrator would be honored by the opportunity to work with them. In fact, many think that their book is so FANTASTICALLY CLEVER, that the illustrators entire career will be launched into orbit just by association.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’m here to tell you that seldom has any illustrator’s career been launched by a single book. It usually takes a string of little successes to build a career as a professional, sought-after illustrator.

It amazes me how many wonderful illustrators are willing to work for royalties only, with no other type of compensation. There’s only a promise of possible income, based on a single author’s possible ability to sell his/her own book. It’s one big “IF”!

  • IF the publisher is willing to help with promotions (and most usually don’t), the book might sell.
  • IF the author knows how to promote the book (and most usually don’t), he/she might sell enough copies to compensate for his/her own investment.
  • IF the book does well, (which they usually don’t) you, the illustrator, might get paid back for your extraordinary efforts…but will you make any money? SELDOM do “royalty only” projects produce enough profits to pay the illustrator for his/her time, let alone talent. It’s just a fact. 

Value the work that you do, and expect to get paid for it. Royalties are NOT a guarantee of payment for months of work.

You should look for jobs that compensate you AND offer a small percentage (10-12%) of royalties.

It’s a fair price for bringing someone else’s book to life and making their dreams come true!

As an illustrator, you can help your author and yourself to make money through book promotions. Your incentive will be the royalties that you bring in AFTER you’ve been paid for all your hard work!  It’s a win-win for the author, because along with you, he/she makes money on every book YOU sell – without lifting a finger!

Don’t be afraid to ask for what your time and talent is worth, and refuse substandard offers. This is a business and you have bills to pay.  Books take months to produce, so don’t gamble on “ifs”. The promise of a POSSIBLE return is not enough and NO illustrator should take the bait with regards to “exposure for your work”. If you’re going to work for free, work on creating great images for your own portfolio. Re-illustrate your favorite old Picture Book from childhood, and use THOSE images to build your portfolio. You’ll have a great time doing it, you won’t be getting ripped off, and you wont be contributing to the currently ongoing degradation of children’s book illustrators everywhere!

Where to Begin if You’re a “Newbie”

There’s so many options available to authors today, that it can be rather confusing for the novice writer or illustrator. As I mentioned yesterday, I attended a conference last weekend for the Florida Authors and Publishers Association and although most of the attendees were well educated in the field, there were a few new authors. You could easily spot them by the look of total confusion on their faces!

I really felt for the “newbies” (as I fondly call them). I wanted to jump up and run around the table to hug each one, calming their fears and relieving their obvious anxiety. Their mere presence made me so grateful, as it reminded me of how far I’d come and all the talented people who helped to get where I am…confident, working, continually learning, and comfortable enough in my knowledge to blog about it!

I mentioned author options, so I think we should discuss what some of them are and why it’s so important to understand them.

  • Option 1: Submitting your work to “traditional” publishers.

If you would like to see your manuscript published and you do not have funds to invest, “traditional” publication may be the best route for you. Traditional publishers do everything necessary to get your book in print, at no cost to you. They purchase space on bookstore shelves, where your book will be available to the public for purchasing. You will most likely receive an advance on royalties, which means that you will get paid before the book is released, and once the book has earned enough in sales to compensate for your advanced payment, you will then begin receiving quarterly checks for the small amount of royalties agreed upon in your contract.

However, this is also the most difficult route for any author or illustrator because the odds of acceptance are slim. Competition is stiff, the number of publishing houses  grows smaller everyday, and you may spend years submitting your work before opportunity strikes.

If you do manage to sell your book to a traditional publisher, they will pick the illustrator and you will not have anything to do with the illustration process. You will have to trust in the fact that your publisher is all about making money, so he/she will pick the best illustrator for your book!

  • Option 2: Submitting your work to magazines.

Getting published in a magazine is a great way to generate multiple sales on a single manuscript, as most magazines as for “first rights” only. This means that after your story is published in their magazine,  and a specified time period passes (usually one year), all rights revert back to you and you are then free to send the same manuscript out to another magazine for repeat publication.

When you are published in a magazine and are compensated for your work, you receive publishing “credit”, meaning that you are recognized by the industry as a professional author. This looks impressive on your resume and such credits have been known to help many an author get their foot in the door when submitting manuscripts to traditional publishers.

  • Option 3: Submitting your work to small, independent publishers.

Independent publishers are often authors who have written several books themselves. Their entrepreneurial drive and the ability to fund it led them to opening their own publishing company. These publishers are often able to pay their authors a larger royalty percentage, but seldom do they pay authors an advance. Independent publishers do everything that is necessary for publication, but keep the majority of profits in exchange for their investment. Most are not able to get your book into bookstores due the high cost of buy backs and stocking fees.

  • Option 4: Hiring a Vanity Press to publish your work.

Vanity Presses are companies that assist authors in getting their manuscripts published, in exchange for high fees (paid by the author), usually unfair contracts, and a high cost for printing. Authors must then buy books from them directly (in large quantities) and do all marketing and distribution themselves. Vanity press publications are seldom available in bookstores, but are usually available on the internet as “print on demand” books.

  • Option 5: Self Publishing.

When an author chooses to self publish, he/she must manage the production of their book as if it were a business. Although this awards them total control of the outcome, it can prove to be very costly.

In order to produce a book that is well-written (to industry standards), the self-publishing author should first pay for a professional critique. This will insure that the manuscript follows as many of the rules for children’s literature as possible. Afterwards, a professional editor should be hired to make sure that sentence structure, punctuation and spelling errors are corrected. When your manuscript is ready for production, it’s time to look for a professional printer.

You will need to find an affordable, professional printer BEFORE you look for an illustrator. Not every printer excepts all file types, and not all illustrators can create the files your printer will need. When you find your printer, ask them what file types they expect from your illustrator. You will need this information in your search for a professional illustrator.

When looking for an illustrator, expect to spend a substantial amount (between $2,500-$10,000). This will be where most of your production budget goes, because your illustrator will collaborate with you to make your book better than you can imagine it by yourself! Hire your illustrator based on what they have done in the past. Make sure that your illustrator has created and published picture books before. The more, the better. You’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money to get to this point…now is not the time to be cheap! Hire a professional and you will save yourself a lot of time and money, as they will bring all their experience and talent to the table.

An experienced illustrator should be able to do the layout and designing of your book. They should be capable of breaking down your manuscript into pages, determining how many illustrations are needed to enhance your text. They should provide you with a fair and legally binding contract that states what you are paying for and exactly when it will be delivered. They should also be able to create a stunning cover that will help in book sales.

Hint: A poorly designed cover can ruin the chances for a great book!

Don’t insult an illustrator by asking them to do free samples for you. Look at their portfolio and determine if their style is the type that will enhance your manuscript. If you simply MUST see how they will draw your main character beforehand, be prepared to pay a reasonable fee for their time and talent!

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The willingness of children’s book writers and illustrators to share information and encourage each other freely is a strange and wonderful phenomenon that I’m not sure exists in other fields. If you are new to children’s publishing, let me tell you that the mentoring I received early-on in my career made all the difference. I learned that no one can do this alone. If you surround yourself with people who are at least one step ahead of where you want to be, and pay close attention to what they’re doing now, when you’re finally ready to slip on their shoes – it will be a comfortable fit!

If you’re a new author or illustrator, stay tuned to this blog and prepare to work harder and longer than you could have ever imagined! As creators of children’s literature, we all must assume a responsibility to produce works that are worthy of our reader’s time and attention. We are teaching the adults of tomorrow and we are honor-bound to take it seriously, executing our works with as much education and professionalism as possible.

Until tomorrow my friends. Be creative, unique and JOYFUL!! ~ Lisa

A New Chapter Begins

Lisa J. Michaels:Reading Fairies

Welcome to my new blog!

I’ve recently been to a wonderful two-day conference with the Florida Authors and Publishers Association, at the beautiful Daytona Beach Resort Hotel.  During the many informative sessions, we were lectured on the art of blogging. One of the things that really stuck with me was when it was mentioned that ownership of your blog content is at risk if you use a “free” hosting site. I had never heard this before and it immediately set off alarms in my head!

Now I don’t know about you, but there are some risks I’m not willing to take. As an illustrator of children’s books, owning the rights to my own images is REALLY important. As an author, I want to be sure I’m getting paid for the use of my words!  This led me to seek out and switch over to a web hosting site that did not lay claim to my work, stating that I retained “complete ownership”.

You should only be granting your host the right to publish the content on your blog, or use the content to promote YOUR blog only. If you’re not sure about this, I suggest you do a little research. Make sure that you’re not giving up the rights to your cleverly written words or your beautifully illustrated images. They’re both worth something, and if someone else uses them, you should be well compensated.

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So, here I am at WordPress.com. I’ve paid them to host my content, just as I expect to be paid for the services I provide to my clients, such as professional critiques, illustrations that make manuscripts shine, and well-written, perfectly edited stories.

I decided it was time to get real and start practicing what I preach…professionalism.  

If you are just getting to know me, please know that my purpose for this blog is to help children’s book authors and illustrators, like myself, to find work and get published.  I’ve been at this since 2003, and I have a lot to share with you.

  • Although you may not always like what I have to say, I can guarantee you that I will give you my honest opinion.
  • Although I may not always be right, you can be sure that there is a valid reason for what I’ve shared, and I will do my best to make it clear.
  • Although it may not always seem so, everything I say will be intended in the spirit of kindness.

In the weeks to come, I will share with new authors and illustrators as much as I possibly can about getting started in children’s publishing and navigating the often shark-infested waters. I’ve fallen prey to several deviants along the way, and I hope to help you avoid the same fate. I’ve also had the delight and privilege of working with many fine people in the industry, and I look forward to passing along their sage advice and wisdom.

It is my sincere wish that this blog will help you along in your journey and give you the courage you need to be successful. A career in children’s publishing is difficult, but with the right tools, a great deal of stubborn persistence, the right attitude, and the ability to control your ego,…

you can rise to the top and stay there.

Reproduction of any content on this website is strictly prohibited. All text, photos, art & illustrations are the sole property of Lisa J. Michaels. Permission for use of materials must be obtained from Lisa J. Michaels.