For Illustrators Who Want to Know About Children’s Book Publishing
I get asked pretty frequently for information about how to be a children’s illustrator, or how book publishing works. I’ve compiled the most basic beginning info to share (which you can see, is a lot!) for anyone who’s looking for it. This is based on my personal knowledge and experience, but there are a lot of ways to skin the cat of book publishing, so see this as starter info.
*Note* The following information relates to traditional publishing. Self-publishing is another topic, (one of which I haven’t any expertise or advice on), but you can get some intro information for that here for free at: https://underdown.org/self-publishing.htm
I also recommend a guide by the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrator (SCBWI) for people pursuing self-publishing, but FYI, this is for paying members: https://www.scbwi.org/the-essential-guide-to-self-publishing-a-childrens-book/
*Note* I unfortunately don’t have the time and ability to give out personalized career advice or mentorships beyond my involvement with the SCBWI. But I’m hoping the information and my links to MORE information below will cover questions for people who are starting out. I’m rooting for you on your journey!
HOW DO ILLUSTRATORS AND WRITERS WORK WITH PUBLISHERS?
The two most common wrong assumptions people make about book-making:
- Writers and illustrators work together—they don’t! Writers write manuscripts and sell these to the publisher. Illustrators promote their illustration work to publishers, who hire them on a contract basis to illustrate the manuscripts they acquire. As always in publishing, there are exceptions to these rules (sometimes you see friends, spouses, siblings team up), but this is most traditionally how it works. There are a lot of reasons for this which I won’t go into here, but mainly the publisher wants to choose text and art to pair together that they believe will have the most successful outcome in finished form. Very well-known authors or illustrators are paid more (in the form of a book advance) for the project, so to balance their budget they might pair that well-known author with a newer illustrator (or vice versa). If you really want to try to work with a partner on your book idea, my advice would be for the author to write the manuscript, the illustrator create a book dummy for it (as explained in 2.) and submit that book dummy as a team to a publisher. Be prepared for the publisher to like the book idea but want to hire their own chosen illustrator for the book. It’s your choice to say yes or no to this arrangement.
- Writers and illustrators sell their book idea to a publisher by making it first—I remember thinking that in order to sell a book idea, I had to create a polished, finished version first. Not true! In fact, doing this could really hurt the sale-ability of the idea. Editors who work at publishing companies are the ones who acquire stories, and they have a lot of great feedback and opinions that will make your idea better. They will ask for revisions—sometimes huge ones! This is a normal part of the bookmaking process. Writers should submit their stories in the form of a Word Doc (no need to format and paginate it like a finished book), and illustrators who have their own story idea to pitch should create a book dummy. This is essentially a loosely pencil-sketched version of the book in PDF form. This gets your idea across and shows your skill with pacing, layouts, page turns, etc. A book dummy should be accompanied with 1-3 pieces of sample finished art, so the art director can get a sense of what the final book would look like.
The main people you’ll be working with at the publishing company are Editors and Art Directors. Writers work with the editor on the story and text, and illustrators work with art directors. If an illustrator is working on their own story, they’ll work with both the editor and art director as a team. Some art directors also have a separate designer working on the book who’s in charge of the book layout. Of course, there are many other people working in various roles at the publisher, but these are the first two to understand.
HOW DOES A BOOK PROJECT WORK?
After an illustrator is hired to make art for a book (more on that below), the illustrator creates sketches for the book to turn in and discuss with the art director and/or editor. They’ll give revision notes and you’ll go back to the drawing board to make a new draft. This might happen a few times, sometimes for the whole book, other times it’s certain pages that need more revising than others. Once you get approval on sketches, you’ll create the final artwork for the book. You’ll do this in your chosen medium, be that painting, drawing, or digital art. If you’re working traditionally (painting on paper), most commonly you’ll mail the art to the publisher for scanning (but you’ll discuss this with the art director if you prefer to scan on your own).
WHAT’S A SCHEDULE LIKE?
This varies so much from illustrator to illustrator, project to project, publisher to publisher. Deadlines can be quick and tight, which for picture books would be 3-6 months, or longer, like 1-2 years. As an illustrator, you need to learn how fast or slow you work and ask for time accordingly. It can also take weeks to months to get sketch feedback, depending on your publishing team. I won’t take on a picture book project schedule that’s less than a year, because I work more slowly. The art director is not in charge of time managing your work! This surprised me when I first started this work. The artist needs to do their own time management and communicate clearly to the art director when/if they need more time. Some book deadlines are flexible, others are not. You will want to ask about this when you start the project.
HOW DOES MONEY WORK?
Being an author and/or illustrator for books in traditional publishing is contract by contract work (also known as freelance). The project that you pitch to the publisher will be acquired, or bought, as a book contract. If your book does well enough, your publisher will likely want to publish more work with you! The publisher is your client, not your employer. (Though, there might be cases of in-house jobs for certain types of publishers as an employed illustrator). You have to take your own taxes out of the book payments. You’ll get paid in split payments, which vary from publisher to publisher, but common payments are on signing the contract, on sketch approval, on approval of final artwork. Sometimes a payment is left for “on publication”. Having a trustworthy literary agent helps to make sure you’re getting the best terms in the contract that you can.
Sad news: One book contract (unless you’re a well-known author with a great sales track record) will not cover your yearly salary needs. Advances for beginners will not even pay half your salary. Maybe a quarter. This was a bit of rude awakening for me when I first started—I realized I needed to be working on multiple books at once just to cover my basic expenses. A lot of authors joke “Don’t quit your day job”—a joke I sort of hate. But, this is why. And it’s true to a certain point. Although it’s not common, you can get enough work and books can do well enough that eventually you might be able to live off this work alone. I do. I know many illustrators who do. And less, but a few, authors who do.
HOW TO GET READY TO DO THIS WORK?
Guess what? It doesn’t matter what your previous employment was or what your grades were in school. I LOVE this about illustration! You don’t even have to have traditional art school training (though years of practice helps). You just need a quality body of work that you love to make that people also happen to like. That body of work is called your portfolio. This is a collection of your best work that you’ve built and curated over the years. You can put this work on your blog, website, instagram, flickr (do people still use that?). Wherever. Make it shareable and easy for people to navigate and quickly scroll through. You also may need to make a printed version if you plan on attending conferences (which I recommend, more on that below).
How do you build a body of work? It’s all about study and practice. Study illustrators working today and throughout history. Study books that are being made NOW. What are publishers releasing? This will help you see what they’re looking for. What styles are you most drawn to? Pull from several influences so your work isn’t too derivative of one well-known artist. Mix and match, experiment, play. Also, work in a style you enjoy—this will sustain you for the long run. Even if you’re good at it, if you hate your medium or technique it will just be like any other day job you hate. Seriously, I’ve been there. Illustration is an awesome job, but it’s also a TON of work. Like, a ton. Loving the actual making of the work will make or break your ability to stick with it. Luckily, you can learn and change as you go.
Keep practicing, studying, and growing. Create a creative practice—your own time and space to study, practice, and make illustration work.
Be clear with your work. It’s important to build a clear illustration voice, and your portfolio for book work needs to be specific to book work ONLY. Don’t put other work you’ve done in there—like fine art projects, technical illustration, advertising, design work, etc. Book illustration needs to have a narrative quality to it—it’s all about the storytelling. Show backgrounds, characters interacting, the same character in different scenes. You can have separate portfolios for different styles (as long as each style is cohesive and high quality), such as a colorful picture books portfolio, and one for black and white illustrations for middle grade novels. Have a sketch gallery if you want. Art directors don’t hire you on your potential to do good work, they hire you based on the actual good work you’ve made.
If you’d like to see an evolution of my early portfolio, before I was getting professional book work, check out this post: http://wheelerstudio.com/2011/08/22/portfolio-comparison-what-made-an-scbwi-winner/
Here’s another good one about portfolios on KidLitArtists.com: http://kidlitartists.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-few-thoughts-on-editing-your-portfolio.html
HOW TO GET WORK
Once you have a professional quality body of work to promote to publishers, start the process of sharing it. A few different ways to do this:
Post it online: This is probably the easiest, free-est way to get your work out there. Put this work on your blog, website, instagram, wherever. Make sure it’s easy to scroll through. Keep adding more content to it, you never know if an art director is following you and keeping you in mind for when a good fit comes in. Make sure to have a clear way for them to contact you.
Promos: Artists create promotional material in a format that’s meant to be sent to art directors at publishers. Before the 2019 pandemic, these would be mailed in the form of postcards or “tear-sheets” (8.5×11” sheet of 5 or so sample art pieces) to art directors and editors you want to work with. Now, you might have to track down the art director’s info online to share your work with them. This requires a bit of research and knowing who works where. Start paying attention to publishing companies and compiling a contact list with emails and addresses so that you can send low resolution tear-sheets or sample images attached to an email. You can promote to them a few times a year with new work.
*Note* Promoting your work to art directors is not a “submission”. A submission refers to a specific project idea that you’re pitching to the publisher. A submission includes a query letter, and is usually sent to just one editor at a time. Illustrator promotions are just about promoting the type of work you do in the hopes you’ll get hired by the publisher — you can send these to as many publishers, editors, art directors as you wish (though make sure they publish the kind of work you do. Ex. Don’t send graphic novel samples to a publisher of Baby Board Books).
Smaller jobs: Keep an eye on publications or websites that can use your work, smaller educational publishing companies to promote to — experience is good to have and can lead you to more work. Educational publishing pay can be somewhat decent, though it’s usually in the form of work-for-hire pay, meaning you don’t get royalties. They also usually own the rights to the work you do, though you should negotiate that you should be allowed to display the work in your portfolio.
Community and Conferences: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, The Society of Illustrators, and the ICON conference hold regional and national conferences, workshops, and events where you can learn more about the craft and business of publishing. They often have portfolio critiques and displays you can pay and sign up for, and there are often many publishing pros who attend these conferences. They’re always looking for new illustrators. Bring your promo cards to share. Connecting with this community is a great thing even if you’re not getting work yet, you can make friends and form critique groups who will support your growth.
Agent: If your work is ready, you might be able to get a literary agent to work with. They’ll help promote your work and submit projects to all the big publishers (and small ones), and help you negotiate fair terms on contracts. You’ll still need to promote yourself, but it helps to have someone advocating for you along the way. Literary agents take 15% of your commissions. Art Agencies (not limited to the publishing industry) can take up to 30%.
The info in this post scratches the surface of all the possibilities of publishing! To explore a ton more info for free, here are some good links:
Start by reading the entirety of this info-packed site: http://www.underdown.org/
Starting here: https://www.underdown.org/basic-articles.htm
Another similarly deep info site is: http://www.kidlit411.com/
Pat Z Miller’s description of all the steps involved to get her first book published: https://emusdebuts.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/it-takes-a-village-to-write-a-book
Read Debbie Ohi’s steps on how she got published as an author/illustrator: http://inkygirl.com/inkygirl-main/2012/5/15/writing-illustrating-a-picture-book-for-simon-schuster-books.html
“I’ve Always Wanted to Write A Children’s Book: https://emusdebuts.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/ive-always-wanted-to-write-a-picture-book-getting-started/
If you’re feeling ready to make the first steps into professional bookmaking, I can’t recommend more becoming a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. This is truly where my career began and grew.
Download their members-only guide to publishing called THE BOOK. It has expanded info plus way more for writers, as well as a yearly updated contact info guide for publishers. That resource is worth the price of the year membership. https://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book
If there are any topics you have questions or would want me to expand on, let me know in the comments. I might be able to include it in another FAQ post, or can add updated info here.
Best of luck to you!