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.
Making books these days isn't just writing and illustrating...
3. You didn't go through my agent. There's a reason on my website I ask people to go through my agent; one of the reasons Jodie takes a cut of my pay is that she has a good overall view of my book schedule and understands roughly what I can manage to do in a year. She knows which publishers I work best with and has a knack for identifying which writers are proper professionals, not Chancers or scary Life-Goal Hopefuls. She tries to keep my e-mail load to a minimum so I have more time to work on books.
4. If illustrators have any time outside of deadlines, we guard it fiercely. An annual three-book schedule leaves almost no time to do much research; I need to start each book as soon as I finish the last one. I need to take some time away to think about what kind of books I really want to be making, and put thought into them. I'd love to do a book where I go away and research something very interesting, and then create a story about it, but there's seldom time. I can only draw on what I know for so long. I need to stop filling up every single available gap with work, and then some.
My family live in on the west coast of the USA and it kills me that I can't just pop into my sister's bar for a drink at the evening. I need to schedule time to go visit them, at least once a year. And that's time away from work, but my husband doesn't want visiting in-laws to be our only annual holiday, as much as they love each other. If I have to choose between spending an evening talking with my husband or an evening filling out an illustration student's survey or answering e-mails to strangers, which do you expect me to choose? ...The sad thing is that I probably spend too much time doing the latter and I need to get better about that.
5. Illustrators (and writers) have to be careful about reading other people's manuscripts. For one thing, it takes a lot of time and this is a job people do professionally and get paid to do. Secondly, there have been instances where a writer-illustrator has turned down a manuscript, only to have that person come back years later and accuse them of stealing their ideas. Why take that risk when it could get us into so much tedious trouble? What if, by chance, I have just written a story not that different to yours? It happens; how awkward... I'll think, what am I supposed to do now?? I've critiqued people's stories only to have them get very angry with me. They pretend at first that they want honest criticism but it turns out that they just wanted me to say, 'You're a genius!' and pass it on to my editor. I won't do this, that's my reputation with my busy editor at stake. One writer-illustrator told me she wrote back a polite refusal, only to have the person post her reply message up on the Internet, complete with their own caustic commentary. That is shocking behaviour and ruins it for everyone.
6. If you've never been published, you won't understand how the whole system works and the illustrator would be taking a huge risk. Being a newbie is okay, everyone has to start somewhere. But it takes time to start up a career, develop a web presence, learn how to do stage events and publicity, build up a reputation that makes reviewers and booksellers want to stock your books. If an illustrator chooses to work with an unknown author, the story really has to be worth the extra effort that the illustrator will have to put into you, instead of working with someone who will bring along their own set of readers. Illustrators are almost never wealthy; they need to make every book count, so they can pay their rent. The only pension scheme I get is the one I set up myself.
Don't send an illustrator that little story you came up with last night. Join the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators; here's the website for the SCBWI British branch. (I did, and so much of what I know came through going to their events and meeting other people in publishing.) See how your story fits in to the current selection of books on offer in bookshops. If an illustrator is working with a publisher who doesn't publish the kind of book you want him or her to illustrate, it's asking a lot for them to leave the publisher who has been nurturing them to find another one with you. Don't be offended if we're more loyal to the editor who commissions our books than we are to a complete stranger approaching us. And if I've just sent my editor my own manuscript, you're asking me to tell her 'Hang on, stop, could you publish this other one instead of mine?' I get less money if I split it with a writer and if I'm excited about my story (I usually am) and not 100% about yours, that would be a silly choice both financially and artistically for me to make.
Nightmare newbie writer having no idea those 'sketchy' illustrations were the fifth versions after meetings that got postponed twice after the editor went on maternity leave and the designer came down with 'flu
7. Illustrators are wary of people who don't really understand what we do. We don't just push a button and make artwork come out; illustrating takes a lot of time, very likely much more time than it took you to write the book. Some writers see illustrators as a bit of final polish on what is essentially their own story, but illustrators don't see it this way; we pride ourselves in being a major part of the reading experience and our work tells the story as much as your words and, in the case of picture books, we may be telling more of the story than you are. If you don't understand this, you may be tempted to underplay the role of the illustrator when you talk about 'your' book (what we see as 'our' book). You may not even care if the illustrator's name gets printed on the book cover, you may show off their artwork and pretend it's yours, or forget to mention their name in interviews. New authors tend to be the worst at this, and that kind of ignorance kills illustrator careers... you'll start to be known among illustrators as poison to work with. Find out about the #PicturesMeanBusiness campaign to learn more about this, and how you can be the kind of supportive writer illustrators want to collaborate with, right from the start. Even before you're published, when you talk about books online, show you're supportive by mentioning the illustrators.
8. Another person isn't responsible for making your dreams happen, don't be like that. If an illustrator can't work with you, be kind, respect their decision, don't think less of them. It's not because they hate you or want to shatter your dreams. Quite the reverse, they may want to help you but have too many battle wounds from previous attempts to help people which have made them cautious. They'll be much more likely to help you in an event setting, such as a workshop where you've signed up to work with them; that has more defined boundaries and also helps the illustrator look good to event organisers who are worried they won't sell enough tickets.
Quick etiquette tips:
* Don't ask an illustrator on Twitter if they can follow you so you can send them a Direct Message. Why should they follow you? They don't know what you're on about and they probably try to keep down their follow numbers; it's awkward unfollowing you later, so you're beginning the encounter with an imposition on them. Research on their website to see if they give contact details and if they don't, contact their agent if they have one. (In fact, it might be better to go through an agent anyway.) If you can't find any contact details anywhere, there may be a good reason for that.
* Do your homework. Always look at and read everything on an illustrator's website before you contact them. If they've answered your question already and you didn't spot it, you'll instantly identify yourself as someone who thinks your time is more valuable than theirs. If you're contacting their agent with your manuscript, here are some useful tips from agent Carole Blake.
Research: here's a talk I went to by illustrator Lynn Chapman on picture books at the SCBWI Conference back in 2010.
* Always assume an illustrator needs payment. No matter how passionate you are about your book, it's too dangerous for career illustrators to spend great amounts of time doing jobs on the hope a book might get published and they might get paid. If you're presented with contracts for a picture book, assume the illustrator will earn more advance money than you will because they'll most likely need to spend a lot more time on it than you did. That advance is intended to help them survive during the time they're illustrating the book.
* Say thanks and mean it. Be sure to write back a short note to say thanks in an appreciative way (not a surly way) if the illustrator who contacted you writes back, even if they say no. Don't be so coldly formal with your thanks that it comes across as passive-aggressive annoyance. Illustators tend to be soft-hearted and this hurts. And if you stick with the business, you'll probably be running into them again fairly often; better to stay friendly.
Good luck! Making a living by creating books is very, very, very difficult; I won't lie to you. But if you're willing to devote yourself wholeheartedly to it, and put in the time (what is it, 10,000 hours to get good at something?), then I look forward to seeing your books displayed on the bookshelves and I hope to run into you and have a good chat about what you've been up to.