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I've been getting a lot of e-mails recently from people wanting me to illustrate their books. They tend to be people who have come up with their first story, tell me they love my work, and are keen to get things moving. That seems sensible and I applaud them taking initiative. I think it's awesome when people love books enough to want to create their own and I feel honoured that of all the thousands (tens of thousands?) of illustrators in Britain, they want to work with me.

This all sounds very positive. But there's a hitch: the strange thing is that, if I take time to write a thoughtful explanation of why I can't illustrate their book, and point them to helpful links, the best I usually get is a curt reply, almost never thanks for my time. Often I'll get a nasty response. It makes me think I've shattered their dreams and I ALONE am responsible for this and should feel guilty. (I never write a second reply to these.) But I wonder if it would be better not to reply in the first place; it's an awful feeling, putting time into trying to do something right, with the only result being that I annoy someone. Yikes!

I tend to hear from three different kinds of writers:

1. The Chancer penned a little ditty last night and read it to their kids, who loved it. They thought, 'Hey, that was easy, why not try getting it published? Get rich as JK Rowling?' You wouldn't believe the number of people who find out I'm an illustrator and immediately ask me to illustrate their book before they've even written a story or seen any of my work. I might illustrate medical textbooks for all they know.

2. The Life-Goals Hopeful has been fantasising about being an author for years and years and hasn't done much about it or done any research into the industry, but has been working on building up the sheer nerve to make a first move. It's such a big thing, getting over their lack of confidence that they put all their hopes into this one approach to the illustrator. These people can be quite scary, because anything I write to them will be taken on a profoundly personal level and they'll feel crushed by anything that isn't an enthusiastic YES to whatever they're asking. Once they decide to act, they act fast and recklessly (in case they lose their nerve) and almost never look at the things I've written for them on my website (the Contact page, the FAQs). They're so excited by their own bravery that they don't make any attempt to see their actions from another person's perspective and can come across as needy or aggressive. (It's not all about self-belief, think about other people, too.)

3. The Thoughtful Business Person is the most likely to get published and the most rare: a person who has been thinking about getting work published for quite some time, has researched the industry, has a good sense of the other new books on the market that are similar to the ones he or she wants to get published, has tried their best to get to know other people in publishing (often through the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators). This person understands the work's creative but also a business; they take any news from me professionally and express gratitude for any time, tips or constructive criticism I give them. I often run into these people later at events or book festivals when they're promoting their newly published books and it's a pleasure to hear how they're getting on.

So why am I writing this?

You might be a writer who's hoping to get into the business. As a writer, your job is empathy, writing things from other people's perspectives. What I want to point out is that, if you want to achieve any success, you need to apply this skill - having empathy - with the people you want to work with. I can empathise with you: I've been in that position of wanting to get into publishing but not quite knowing how to go about it and making mistakes. But sometimes people gave me advice that helped me not make too many mistakes. So here we go, I thought I'd better explain how the business works and maybe help you see a few things from an illustrator's perspective. If you've written to me, I might have sent you a link to this blog post.

To start with, there are several reasons why I probably can't illustrate your book:

1. You don't actually need me: if you're a good writer, you're in luck! There are fewer good writers than there are good illustrators. Unless you've started out with a partner who's integral to what you're making (like I did with David O'Connell and Jampires, or Philip Reeve and Oliver and the Seawigs), you don't need to find your own illustrator; your target publisher knows lots of them. (My agent will back me on this, and I've been successfully paired with Giles Andreae, Gillian Rogerson, Claire Freedman, Anne Cottringer and Alan MacDonald, none of whom I'd previously known.) Editors and art directors don't just take your book and print it; they're active in creating it with you. Part of their job, and what they pride themselves in doing, is matching you up with the illustrator who's perfect for your story. If they've never worked with you AND you're pulling along an illustrator they've never worked with, that's two unknowns for them, and that's a much bigger risk than taking you on and pairing you with an illustrator they know does good work and meets deadlines. Read the Writers & Artists Yearbook (updated annually, often available at public libraries) and learn how to put together a very professional looking manuscript and cover letter. SCBWI Conferences are packed with helpful seminars, and their quarterly magazine (which you get with your membership) has helpful articles. Having done your research, you'll know exactly which editor to send it to, by name. And yes, this does take time.

2. Career illustrators can get scheduled tightly to book fair deadlines. We'll have a contract agreeing to have, say, a picture book ready for Bologna Children's Book Fair. We'll have another contract to have a picture book ready for Frankfurt Book Fair. Maybe we even have another illustrated chapter book due for Bologna. For the amount of time I take to illustrate, I can confidently do two books in a year; three books pushes me to the breaking point. Even if an illustrator wants to work with you, the scheduling means your book with them might not come out for three or four years. You can read this in-depth blog post about what career illustrators (and writers) actually do for a living. I estimate that I only get to spend about 30% of my working time actually illustrating books.

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( 66 comments — Leave a comment )
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May. 1st, 2016 07:50 pm (UTC)
Sums it up nicely
Great post. Have had to describe much of this at length to prospective writers recently who have approached me for illustration. One recently hadn't even written the text yet but wanted me to start illustrating anyway?!
May. 16th, 2016 07:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Sums it up nicely
Thanks! Yes, that's happened to me, too! Very odd.
May. 5th, 2016 03:29 am (UTC)
Thank you!
This is such a useful article, it's brilliant! Thank you for writing up your answers in such detail and thoughtfulness. This is a great resource for many writers out there.
May. 16th, 2016 07:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Thank you!
Thanks, and you're welcome! :)
Jackie Morris
May. 7th, 2016 02:57 pm (UTC)
Thank you
Thanks for this wonderful piece. I always feel a little hurt when people ask me to illustrate their text they wrote yesterday, last week, told their children and they liked it.
And it's always hard to know what to say, because I don't want to squash people's dreams.
That said, I did once reply to someone, "I've worked with Ted Hughes, Terry Pratchett, Vivian French. Is your writing as good as theirs?"
They said yes.
I told them I was busy.
Which I am.
Anyway, thanks.
Must go paint.
Oh, and you have made me look at how many hours I spend at my drawing board. Trying to redress the balance.
May. 16th, 2016 07:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Thank you
Thanks, Jackie! I never want to squash anyone's hope, but I do want prospective writers to see that they can simply submit their manuscripts to agents and publishers; it doesn't necessarily help them to pull an illustrator on board. And they have to get good at writing stories; their first manuscript might not be the one that gets published, and early rejection don't imply long-term failure.
Jun. 6th, 2016 10:47 am (UTC)
so so true thanks for posting
Thanks so much for posting. Its so hard isn't it, because you do feel like you are shattering someones dreams, but realistically they don't have any idea, because either they haven't done any research (I don't draw people) or because they think their story is perfect as it is. (there have been some lovely people who have really appreciated feedback too!)

I have taken and do still take so much time to answer questions in length, and with so much care and attention, only to be met by silence from writers and artists wanting to get published. Not even a reply let alone a thank you, but I guess they think we may be twiddling our thumbs in between making of cups of tea.

I have started giving them my published fee straight up, and normally never hear back.

Thanks so much, it's brought up a few things to focus around!, THis also makes me feel less horrid and maybe a little more normal about feeling annoyed at the response you get after giving your time and receiving the curt back. At least there are people out there giving it a go and I live in hope that one day a story will come my way that has potential and that I can really imagine myself illustrating...: )
Jul. 4th, 2016 09:47 pm (UTC)
Re: so so true thanks for posting
Thank you! And yes, I hope you do find a good story! :)
Jul. 2nd, 2016 10:55 pm (UTC)
Tips on paying an illustrator
Hi, Sarah, I've written a young adult novel and I had an illustrator do a few illustrations for the book. I already paid him for each illustration. However, if I self-publish it and have a small section in the book where the illustrations are shown, do I continue to pay him royalties from book sales or do I give him an upfront payment and call it a day? Self-published books are not always expected to make great sales and it may not reach the grand exposure and popularity that I envision for it, so I don't want to promise him a grand amount of money. I was looking for information on this but I don't know where to go unless I purchase the Graphic Artists Guild Book for Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. I was thinking I need to write up a contract of some type but where do I start? Any advice on this?
Jul. 4th, 2016 09:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Tips on paying an illustrator
I don't have a lot of experience with this, but see the below comments! :)
Jul. 4th, 2016 04:54 pm (UTC)
Dear Anonymous,
This really is something which should have been agreed with the illustrator at the time you paid them. When you hand over the cash, you have to say what you're paying FOR. If you've agreed that it's a rights buy-out, it's a one-off payment and the illustrations are now yours. Or it could be a licensing agreement. The illustrations remain the illustrator's but they've licenced you to use them in your book but just for that. Or you're paying an advance against royalties (an agreed % on the sale of each copy of your book). They'll only receive a royalty once the advance has 'earned out' (their percentage has reached the amount of the original advance). So go back and talk to them. And get your agreement in writing.
Good luck!
Philip Ardagh
Children's Author
(Typing with one thumb!)
Jul. 4th, 2016 09:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Philip, this is a great reply! Hope they find it helpful!

I put it out to Twitter, here are a few responses:

@grasshoppiepie: 'It all depends on the contract. 1 time payment, 1st printing rights seems fair, but it all depends on what the artist agrees to'

@Aleneart: 'when I work for self-publishers I usually do so for a flat fee, and have that stated in the contract, but I retain the rights.'

@Grammmatologer: 'a good illustrator in my experience should have a clear contract of use, e.g. £150 per pic for 1,000 copies.'
Aug. 29th, 2016 12:39 pm (UTC)
Thank You!
Hi Sarah,
I found this wonderful article through Google and just wanted to say thank you for such fabulous clear information. I've been writing children's rhyming stories for about a year and a half. I've been researching self-publishing for a little while now, and have just started to research how to approach and employ an illustrator. The info here is fantastic for someone like me starting out, so I just wanted to say thank you. Right: I'm off to look at the SCBWI website you recommend!
Thank you again,
Mrs Baffled. x
Nov. 10th, 2016 05:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for this!
Its great to have well informed clients!
Jan. 16th, 2017 01:56 pm (UTC)
very good post
Thank you so much for this post. I am a writer and was so excited when a publishing company offered me a contract. My first book...I discovered a world I knew nothing about..I met the illustrator,the music director, (for it was a book with a CD), the editor, they even booked a meeting with a Television producer as they saw the potential of the project. It was over whelming at times, mainly because I was not prepared for it all. A few days before the contract was finalized they changed things around and wanted to put a big name on the book, instead of an unknown author like me....after negotiations my lawyer advised me not to sign....all that to say to new authors out there...don't give away your manuscripts without some type of protection....Sometimes even when we do the right thing and go through agents...things can go wrong...So get educated before contacting anyone about publishing or illustrating...Everything happens for a reason...and like Robert Munsch told me...ALWAYS protect your work ©2017...Thank you again for that post, because as first time writers, we do get excited and don't know where to start....

Carole Valiquette
Feb. 6th, 2018 02:15 am (UTC)
Publisher not giving credit where credit is due.
I think quite a few of us would like to know who the publisher is who pulled this stunt -- so we can be extra careful of them.
May. 4th, 2017 04:45 am (UTC)
Artist advance
Hi Sarah, thanks for this thoughtful post!
I know it's been a while since this was written, but I thought this was worth a shot. I was wondering what you thought about illustrating a book without an advance offered. I am a professional artist, but from a different industry, and have not published any children's books. There is an opportunity for me to illustrate a book, but instead of being offered an advance, the royalties on sales would be higher than the norm. This seems like a large financial risk to me, but it would also get me published if I followed through. They are a small publisher, which is why they cannot afford an advance. But then, I wonder if they cannot afford an advance, what resources might they have to market a book in a competitive field? I was wondering if you had ever done a book under such an agreement, and if so, how did it work out for you? Any other advice appreciated as well. Thanks for your consideration!
May. 4th, 2017 05:09 pm (UTC)
Re: Artist advance
Hi, it's tricky to answer this one! I rely on advances to earn my living, so for my two or three book slots a year, I only do books where an advance is offered. Sometimes I'll do some comics or something smaller for an anthology that's published by, say, a festival or a comic publisher on a shoe-string budget, but I wouldn't do this for anything that was significantly going to eat into my advance-earning main book projects.

I guess you need to work out what you can afford to do, if the project is so exciting that it might be worth the risk, or if it's going to trap you and keep you from doing other paid work. I wouldn't bank on earning any significant royalties if it's a small publisher; be sure to have a backup plan if you're counting on this money to pay the rent. I generally find people who don't pay money up front don't put as much value on your work; if they haven't paid, they might not even bother printing it at the end since they won't be losing anything (except your goodwill). So I guess, be careful, think hard, but if something comes up with a proper advance, I'd take that job instead.
Re: Artist advance - (Anonymous) - May. 4th, 2017 06:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Artist advance - (Anonymous) - Aug. 11th, 2017 12:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 5th, 2018 11:50 pm (UTC)
You're the best
The best coverage of this topic I have ever seen. Thank you so much for the links and all the logical reasoning. I've been asked to illustrate and I'm not even close to professional. People just don't get it. I'm keeping this to point to next time I get a request. It is GREAT! Thank you, thank you, thank you - you very clever person.
Feb. 15th, 2018 01:53 am (UTC)
Thank you! That's fantastic 😁😁😁
Mar. 17th, 2018 11:03 am (UTC)
Great article
I fall into your business person category of writer. From my viewpoint the illustrator is as important as the writer. You are both creating a book together.

So do any illustrators agree to work with writers as joint partners in publishing books - where they both equally share the book income, copyright of book and images, and future marketing rights?

I understand it could be risky for the illustrator as they are not getting paid 'up front'and have to put a lot of time to create the illustrations - especially children's books but if they read the book draft and understand the vision of the writer?

Apr. 26th, 2018 03:17 am (UTC)
How much is too much on illustrator
Hello there! Just starting my first real illustration job for an author and wanted to make sure he's not asking to much of me and vice versa.

Here is what he is asking me to do:

1) Illustrate 12 pages plus covers (no problem here)
2) Arrange (not edit) his text one each page
3) Read each passage and illustrate based on the passage itself and not by specific illustration directions.(Okay here is where I get a bit hung up - I can understand wanting my input on this but to tell me to read-interpret - then illustrate seems like its a bit like mind reading - because if I just got to drawing with my own idea he may say - lets do it another way - which will lead me to say - why not just tell me in each passage what you would like - after all - I am being paid for my talent as an artist and not to semi - edit his work - am i right on this or is this the norm?)
4) We have agreed on $350 total for the work - however he will only give me $100 up front and that's after I have provided him with drafts of the first two illustrations and he likes it. - I was going to ask for 50% up front 50% upon completion - but because he had bad dealings with less than reputable illustrators in the past I agreed to take the $100 up front and not push the issue.

Does all this sound like I'm taking too much on or is this just the way it "goes" sometimes?

Thanks in advance for any advice - apologies for the length - I know its a lot to unpack!
Jul. 27th, 2018 10:48 am (UTC)
Helpful post
The single most helpful post. Thank you so much for sharing. It’s helped me as an aspiring and newbie author to not make basic rookie errors!!! Thank you!!!
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Sarah McIntyre

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