Sarah McIntyre (jabberworks) wrote,
Sarah McIntyre

writers and illustrators: what we REALLY do all day

In discussions about illustrator earnings, I've realised a lot of people have no idea what we actually do for a living. They think we create a book, then have a rest while we earn lots of money from the book.

From Twitter

From my blog

To be fair, I had no idea about what I'd be doing when I went into this job, either! So I thought I'd make a list of some of the things I do that aren't actually sitting at my desk, drawing a book. I wish I'd known some of these things earlier, I might have prepared better!

I have between two and three books published each year. But making a book isn't enough to make a living at it. If no one knows about my books, they won't sell and my publishers won't want any more books. I have to make my books stand out from all the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of books being published. This kind of work and admin probably takes at least 70% of my time. So what REALLY goes into this writing-illustrating job?

* Public speaking: Wow. I had NO IDEA how much time I'd be standing on stages, putting on actual shows to the public. I had a vague idea I might be doing the occasional story time reading, and maybe a couple times a year, talking to a group of illustrators about materials and drawing techniques. But it's been a lot more than that. When you're asked to go on stage and 'talk about your book' for an hour to a bunch of five-year-olds, they don't really mean just talk about your book. 200 fidgety kids won't happily sit for an hour in a room listening to an adult lecture them; I had to learn to make it interactive and put a lot of variety into it. My events occur in fits and starts (I might do three days of events and none the next week), but if you evened them out over a year, I probably do two hour-long events a week. I love doing events and meeting people, but I find the whole next day I'm often exhausted; I'm not a natural extrovert but I've learned how to adapt.

The tricky thing about events is that you don't get to line them all up at once and choose which ones you want to do. They come to you in dribs and drabs, and you don't know if you should accept one or wait for a better one to come along, if it does. And if you do commit, and an even better one comes along that you can't say no to, you can't pull out of the one you agreed to do first, so you find yourself being overbooked and struggling to meet book deadlines. But if you say no to everything, you might not earn enough money that year to pay the bills. A lot of authors make more money charging for events than they do making books, and events are the way they survive. And a one-hour event in, say, Leicester, doesn't mean one hour spent on that event. (See the next point.)

* E-mailing about events: I didn't realise how long this was going to take! Usually someone will start by sending me an e-mail, to ask if I can come to their school, festival, library, headquarters to judge a competition, etc. I write back, asking about dates and fees, they write back saying they didn't want to pay a fee, would I do it for free; I write back saying sorry, can't do it; they write back saying oh, okay, how about a fee, we could do that; I say, what would you like me to do; we negotiate what kind of programme I might provide; we e-mail back and forth about tech equipment and art supplies; we e-mail again about travel details and accommodation; we e-mail about the Powerpoint slideshow; they e-mail back saying they lost it; I e-mail it again; they e-mail back to say they can't get it to work on their school computer; we find another way to access the slideshow; they e-mail saying someone else is going to collect me at the station; we e-mail back and forth with mobile numbers. Afterward, we e-mail about how it went; I e-mail the invoice; sometimes I e-mail again when the relevant council forgets to pay, etc. That can easily be 20 e-mails. (Here's a guide for event hosts, to help simplify things.)

Schoolchildren's variations on one of my book characters

NOW... I know I could cut this way back if I join an event service such as Authors Aloud or Speaking of Books. I'm seriously thinking of doing this at some point, even though it means they charge the school a bit more to pay for their services. In the meantime, I'm trying to pin down event hosts to filling out my itinerary sheet with all the relevant details, all at once. But each festival has its own little quirks and ways of working. My publicists have been organising more events for me recently, but publicists have less incentive to get a good fee for me, since they're more interested in selling books. If I book my own events, I can usually earn a lot more up-front money. It takes more time but I earn more money, so it's a trade-off. Everything's about time and there's not enough of it.

*Preparing for events: Putting together Power Point slideshows can take awhile, particularly if the hosts want an event that's tailor-made to a certain topic. I also organise costumes for my events, because it makes kids pay WAY more attention when I dress up and then they get a lot more out of the experience. Putting together costumes takes awhile. And most of the stuff needs hand-washed after events. (I haven't done this for a couple weeks and our guest room is strewn with frocks that need washing and hats that need put away.) Sometimes Philip and I build props for our event. We've recently been writing a song to go with each book, and learning to play them. (No mean feat, since we didn't sing OR play instruments before we started working together!) You can see an archive here of a lot of the events I've done over the past few years.

*Creating promotional/educational material: I try to make a set of activity sheets to go on my website with each book, so teachers, librarians and parents can go beyond the story, having kids (or adults) make something of their own. (It might be drawing a Jampire, learning how to fold a mini book, running a Comics Jam, designing a Seawig, etc.) I don't usually get paid for these specifically, but I often it as part of my book-making package. There's also publisher catalogues that need artwork, or artwork approving. Sometimes it's really random stuff, like I hand-lettered some of the activity sheets in Dutch for our Dutch publisher. (It took so long that realised I couldn't do that for every publisher.)

*Little side illustration jobs that aren't actually the books: I write and draw the Shark & Unicorn comic strip for The Funday Times, do artwork for the London theatre Kids Week programme, various bits and jobs, usually for my friend Damian, who's kind of become my non-book agent by default. The Summer Reading Challenge turned out to be quite a big thing (involving nearly a million children!). Sometimes these projects help promote my books and sometimes I never hear that anyone's ever seen them.

*Promoting on social media: There's a fine line here, what's promotion and what's standing around the water cooler having a chat. The thing is, no one on social media wants a hard sell. And it really helps me to see what else is happening out there among my creative friends, who inspire me a lot. So I never know what's 'promo' and what's just hanging out on social media, there's no real distinction. I have to be careful I don't spend too much time doing this. Even when I'm not doing it, when I get involved in a work-focused debate or something, it can really rip my attention away from my work. But it helps me know what's going on, too. SUCH a fine line.

*Doing some work for charity but mostly fending off requests: I get so many people asking me to give them free artwork for various good causes. Very occasionally I'll do it, but I'm finding more and more that I need to pick my charity and stick with it, and only do this kind of artwork for people I work with very closely. Even answering all the requests just to say no can take a long time.

*Doing unpaid creative work for myself: I find that if I just fulfill work commissions, my artwork starts to look stiff and lifeless, and begins to take much longer to finish. I have to do practice work that no one judges to keep limber, like an athlete practices. This might look like goofing around, and it's often enjoyable, but it's still necessary for my work and it still takes time. This is the hardest thing to explain to, say, a spouse, when the house is messy and I haven't spend enough time with him, and sometimes it gets sacrificed because it looks too much like I'm just 'larking about'. Sometimes it's doing a morning sketch in the park (which I haven't done for AGES and really want to get back into). Sometimes it's making a comic book for a festival (such as the 24-Hour Comic Marathon) or taking part in an anthology.

* Blogging: I find I need to blog, to remind myself what I'm doing, what's important, and how I think about things. It's how I remember what I've done during the year, since I have a terrible memory. I might totally forget I did, say, the Kempston Library Festival, but if someone asks if I have, I can look it up on Google and think, oh yeah! I remember that, and now I remember all those people... I don't want to do all this stuff and then totally lose it all again in a fog of forgetfulness. My blog is basically my brain's hard drive. When I do it, I can spend anything from five minutes to two hours working on it, if I'm writing an article or adding lots of links.

* Supporting colleagues: Publishing just doesn't work for me if I only make my own stuff and shout about it. I need to find out what other people are doing, go along to their book launches, talk to people, show off what's good about their stuff, learn from them, bring people together, encourage others, etc. Britain's a small island in a huge global marketplace, and we can go much further working together to promote British books than if we only promote on our stuff. Besides, I trust someone much more if they say someone else's book is good, so we all take turns looking out for the good stuff and holding up the best things.

Travel: Besides the preparation involved in arranging travel, traveling itself takes time (sometimes nearly a full day) and can tire me out so badly I can't get straight back into work. I very rarely travel in fancy style, mostly it's carrying lots of bags and going through the tube and catching trains, etc, like anyone else would. At least with books, I don't usually have to carry ALL the books I plan to sell; comics people will often have to haul boxes of their own books to a convention, and that's exhausting. I do it very occasionally, but I try to avoid it as much as I can. (In those cases, usually I'll lose out on sales just so I can carry less books and feel all right when I arrive.)

* Invoicing: Usually this is straightforward but sometimes a event organiser or client will give me a huge stack of paperwork to fill out with random codes and numbers I've never heard of. I try to avoid this as much as I can, but it still happens. Occasionally I've missed out completely on getting paid because I couldn't get all the paperwork done on time, or I had no idea what to put in all the boxes. It's not as bad now that I have an agent; she deals with all the publisher invoices, but that still leaves all the event and non-book-artwork invoicing to do.

* Taxes: I have to file taxes in both the UK and USA. They have different tax years. I don't even want to go there, but they often try to charge me for taxes I don't owe and oh, headache, and huge piles of receipts. Also, earnings can vary wildly in this job; one year I might get lots of payments lumped together and the next year, very little. Don't even get me started on tax stuff, it's too depressing.

* Forms: Have I filled out my DACS form? Registered for this year's PLR? Dutch PLR? Irish PLR? (It's all to do with getting small amounts of money when people borrow my books from the library.) ACLS? Paid my SCBBWI & SoA membership? All those Internet things that I'm not even sure how they work? I usually forget to do one of these things.

* Working with my web designer to set things up for the website: I probably could have taught myself some basic Wordpress stuff but it's been more efficient having my friend Dan working on it. (I pay him a small retainer fee and he keeps up to date with website developments.)

* Campaigns: I've kind of fallen into various campaigns by accident, because they're so closely related to my work. One is all about saving libraries from government cuts. (For example, I helped kids from Budleigh Salterton make their video.) Another is the #PicturesMeanBusiness awareness campaign, to encourage people to credit illustrators along with writers of illustrated books. And I somehow got sucked last week into the #Copyright debates after I highlighted the Green Party policy document and my Twitter feed went into overdrive. I'm backing off from that one, but I want to keep supporting libraries and #PicturesMeansBusiness has achieved some things but still has a long way to go.

* Book launches: Sometimes my publicists organise these but often authors have to organise launches themselves. That involves finding a venue, deciding what to do at it, buying and transporting food and booze, sending out invitations, organising the book sales, trying to drum up some media interest, pestering people to come along.

* Award ceremonies: There are lots of small award ceremonies all around the country. Actually, Philip Reeve and I just made a video for an award we won in Switzerland! And I just heard about another award we won (yay!) but we're doing another event already that day and can't go to the ceremony so we'll probably make a video for that one, too. A lot of the award organisers want all the authors to come to the ceremony, like the Oscars, even though only one of them will win. To be honest, I wish they would just invite the winning author, keep them backstage, then call them forward when the award is announced. That would give more authors who haven't won time to work on their books. The authors who haven't won often get painfully under used, when they could have been doing full-on paid school events that day and inspiring lots of kids instead of sitting in a chair clapping for the winner. We don't ever want to seem ungrateful, but it is a whole day away from work, and not a day spent with our families.

* Big-time media: These invitations don't come very often, but if someone invites you to speak on Radio 4 or television, you WILL make time to do this, since it massively affects book sales. Writing articles for newspapers has less influence, but I'm pretty sure it's still worth doing.

* Serving on committees: I don't do this all the time, but occasionally it's the right thing to do, since I benefit from the work of a lot of committees. For the last three years, I've been a member of the Children's Writers & Illustrators Group committee at the Society of Authors. I'm retired now, but it was a good insight into how the SoA works. I went to meetings and helped plan the conference but I was always conscious that I was only putting in a tiny percentage of the work a lot of the members were doing; I tried to compensate by planning a few events for them. I have been on a couple other committees but at the end of the meetings, someone would look at me and say, 'Why are you the only person not going away and doing anything?' and I would get flustered (I just didn't have enough time to commit to anything!) and bow out of being on the committee. That's always embarrassing.

* Stock signing: Sometimes you just sit in a room and sign a lot of books. Which is cool, it means sales.

Stuff I'm not doing that I ought to be doing:

* Exercising properly: I KNOW that regular exercise is the key to keeping the brain working and the body healthy. And I am failing miserably at this. It didn't help that the studio was quite cold this winter and I was rewarding myself for hard work with snack treats.

* Domestic stuff: Our kitchen's falling apart. The cabinets are falling off the wall and the drawers are disintegrating. We need a new kitchen, but I just don't know when it's going to happen.

* Seeing friends: Argh, I really, REALLY need to get together more with friends.

* Relaxing: I almost never get a chance to watch telly or go to the cinema, and I'm not reading as many books as I'd like to. I'd really like to do more of that. I used to do a lot more cycling and hiking with my husband, and I miss that, too. A lot of festivals fall on the weekend.

* Thinking time: I used to have this but I forget what it is now.

Things other authors do that I don't do

* Sell original artwork: I know I could earn money doing this and I'm always having to turn down people who want to buy artwork. I just don't have the time to negotiate, track down the individual pieces, package them, and take them to the post office. I dream of hiring a manager who could do this for me.

* Deal in animation: I've had some requests from animators to work together, but I haven't had time to deal with it. Eek, slightly worried I haven't even answered some of the e-mails because I was so indecisive about how to respond.

* Legal disputes: Knock on wood, I haven't gotten into any big battles recently, mostly because I have a good agent who vets my contracts. But legal issues can take huge amounts of time, money and make it hard for people to work because they're so worried about them. Most illustrators I know who don't have agents (and even some who do) spend huge amounts of time chasing payments.

* Work in schools as a Patron of Reading: This involves several visits a year to a specific school, and working with the school. It's a good thing, I really ought to do it sometime.

Things I'd personally like to do but haven't yet found time yet to do

* A book based on in-depth research: I'd love to do a book based on a few months' research - I have some ideas in mind and one would involve staying in Nepal for a month or so - but they just don't fit into my book production schedule right now. (The production schedule is very much based around the two big annual book fairs, in Bologna and Frankfurt.)

* Make comic strips for The Phoenix Comic: I totally love what this comic is doing, it's just making full-colour comics takes me so long that I haven't been able to fit the work into my schedule.

* More comics workshops: I love doing workshops but they're tiring, take a lot of time and because of the small group numbers, they're not great for book sales. Since I'm running a business, I have to keep that in mind. But they're one of the most motivating ways to get kids writing and drawing that I've ever seen.

* Set up a template for schools running comics fairs, and help schools implement it. I think every school in the country could hugely benefit from running their own comics festival; every kid could self-publish a little stack of books, they could design a stall and promo material, and have a day when everyone runs a table and sells their books (possibly using money they design themselves). I'd love to try it out in a few schools, figure out what works best, then travel around helping school heads and teachers work out how to implement it. Each school could host a visiting author to inspire the kids and teach them how to make comics (or mini books), so it would give work to a lot of creators. Again, it would involve an enormous amount of time, and possibly need someone to write up a complicated funding proposal.

* Work in prisons: I think it would be amazing to do workshops with female prisoners, teaching them how to make little books and mini comics. They'd find ways of telling their own stories, and lots of them have kids; it would be great if they could make story books for their children. I think they'd get really into it.

* Set myself up as a travel-comic-for-hire creator. Get paid to make comics about interesting trips, how cool would that be?

Right... this list was a bit overwhelming! I absolutely love my job, but I find it overwhelming, too. I wish I could clone myself. I once wrote an article about my fleet of McIntyre clones, it was one of the most truthful essays I've ever written.

Don't forget, the job also involves making books! But I hope you can see that making books isn't just sitting around after that first book waiting for the money to come in. If it works that way for you, that's awesome, let me in on your secret!

You can read the earlier articles I wrote, concerning the Green Party Copyright debate here and here. Be sure to read the comments, especially writer Sophia McDougall's; I left a lot of the good arguing to these people.
Tags: pictures_mean_business

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