Sarah McIntyre (jabberworks) wrote,
Sarah McIntyre

invisible illustrators: why does this keep happening?

Do you recognise this picture book? The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler has sold millions and millions of copies and is a national treasure. So much so, that the Royal Mint has worked with its artist, Scheffler, to create a coin with his picture of the Gruffalo on it. It's wonderful to see a book, its central character and its creators being celebrated this way!

But when I heard about this a month or so ago, I worried that only Julia Donaldson was going to be credited for The Gruffalo. This morning, I saw a tweet from writer/author Philip Ardagh with these two images attached, of an article from the i Newspaper and his response letter:

My immediate thought was that this anonymous journalist may have been working at great speed and took the information straight off a Royal Mint press release that didn't credit Scheffler.

But even if the press release hadn't included Scheffler's name, it's still a picture book, and a famous one at that. Would the journalist not think to check that Donaldson didn't illustrate her own book?

I was very grateful to the Royal Mint for replying, and they assured me that Donaldson and Scheffler were both getting full credit from their end, and linked to the publicity on their website.

Coin image from the Royal Mint website

This reply was a great relief, and it made it more clear that the iNews journalist, or possibly a sub editor cutting text, was at fault. I've addressed them directly and whether they reply or not, I hope they'll publish an apology to Scheffler.

But WHY does this keep happening? And especially on a book that's famous enough to be a household name? Why are journalists constantly blind to Axel Scheffler's role in the creation of The Gruffalo? Without his work in creating the character and building his world, The Gruffalo would be a few lines of text on a piece of paper and no one would know about it. A few moments of research on The Gruffalo website would explain Scheffler's role:

Recently publishers of Donaldson Scheffler books have been good about crediting both creators. The Gruffalo is published by Macmillan, but Scholastic UK also publish their books and I saw this poster a few months ago in London's Charing Cross station:

So... Why does this keep happening? A few ideas of why this might be:

1. Journalists are rushed. With the squeeze that free online news has created for newspapers, journalists don't have a lot of time and aren't paid very well for it. They need to work as fast as they can to make enough money to survive and stay in the profession. Much like freelance illustrators, in fact; illustrators understand tight deadlines. When journalists run out of time, they tend to take the material printed on press releases at face value and not think hard about it or ask questions of it. If they're told a writer created a book, they'll print that instead of looking at the book and thinking, 'Hey wait, what's that second name on the cover about? What did that person do?' They also value things that generate money; books hardly generate news, but big business and its economic impact absolutely do. Which leads to the next point:

2. Poor sales data. Most people don't know this, but while any subscriber to Nielsen sales data can create an automatic bestseller list of authors/writers, there's no way to track the sales of illustrators without having to ask Nielsen to go away and do a manual search. The more I dig, the more I realise the profound impact this lack of sales data has on how illustrators are perceived by everyone, inside and outside the book industry. In the digital era, everything's about sales figures: if there's no easy way to access an illustrator's sales figures, journalists and anyone else using book data assumes the illustrators have no economic value.

This is nonsense.

Many of these highly illustrated books are appealing to children who aren't even literate yet; of COURSE the pictures have a massive impact on their success. The children are reading the pictures, not the words, and identifying these books by the pictures. Parents buy books their children love, and look out for books by the same creators. It would be ridiculous to say the illustrators' work has no impact on picture books' success in sales. Publishers know this intrinsically; if they didn't, they wouldn't bother getting books illustrated.

3. Snobbery. The media care about business, but if it's business connected with children (or possibly women, as children's books so often are), they seem less inclined to take it as seriously. They assume serious business people won't want to read about it, but... money is money, and children's books are doing better than books overall. Within the book industry, The Bookseller have made great strides forward in reporting how both writers and illustrators affect book sales. Here's an article on Donaldon & Scheffler's impact by Charlotte Eyre from 2015:

Here's another article by Alison Flood, where you can really see the way sales figures lean the focus of journalism toward the writer. This article's from back in 2014, Flood's a good journalist and this was industry standard practice, but the thrust of it is very telling, about the power of sales figures that give the writer all the real credit and publicity.

But... Why does this matter?

1. British book quality. Do you want to keep seeing good, up-to-date books put into the hands of children? Do you value one of our remaining British manufacturing industries? (Besides adding to Britain's cultural landscape, artists are turning raw materials into something far more valuable.) Do you want someone such as Axel Scheffler, who should be a national treasure, to feel constantly slighted and put down, despite paying enormous amounts of tax in the UK? It's bad enough that he's had to deal with all this fallout from Brexit and his uncertain status, but this adds insult to injury... and if you talk with him, oh boy, does he feel both these things. In illustration, we have something this country exports and that we can feel genuinely proud of, so why does our country constantly and thoughtlessly disrespect it?

2. Diversity. Why are we making it so hard for illustrators to build their careers? Giving them credit for their work almost always costs us nothing but a little thought. Illustrators rely on name recognition to get more work, and denying them this is insulting and harmful. And it makes it more likely that only people who have family money and connections will be able to succeed. This cuts out a whole swathe of the population who have stories to tell that will resonate both with us and with the very people in our society who feel alienated. We don't only want books from rich/white/married people.

2. Our children. Do British people really believe that children only come to books through text? Do young children regularly feel inspired to become novelists? From having worked a lot with children, I can answer this... no. They love to draw dinosaurs, princesses, monsters, unicorns, sharks, trucks. They look at pictures, it's PICTURES that inspire them. If you put a blank piece of paper in front of them and tell them to write a story, very often they'll freeze up. But if you ask them to draw, say, a scene with sharks, as they draw the pictures, words and stories will pour out of them.

I often get children (and adults) asking me about becoming an illustrator. And it hurts to think that these people are going to face so many hurdles if they try to enter this profession. Can't we take away the unnecessary barriers?

What can we do?

1. Credit illustrators. It's so obvious, but so often it doesn't happen. Credit illustrators when you post their artwork, when you reveal a book cover for the first time with their artwork on it, when you review or write about a book, when you discuss the book with children. Don't pretend the writer made the pictures (unless they did). Don't just grudgingly credit them, celebrate their contributions, and see how linking to them and making people more aware of their work breathes new life into both your social media postings and the industry in general. People love to discover artists, and helping people find them makes you look good and shows illustrators you respect their work.

2. Publishers, we need to solve this sales data problem. It is absolutely ridiculous that you're leaving this job to illustrators (and translators), who don't even have access to Nielsen data. It's not only illustrator careers that suffer: YOU lose out by not having full data, and you could do something about this. If your company is a Nielsen subscriber, Nielsen wants to give you the best data it can. But it needs two things:

* For you to enter full illustrator (and translator) data. Nielsen can only give back what it's given. Unless they have enough illustrators sales data, they can't provide accurate sales data, and they don't want to provide bad data. It's complicated, the listings aren't done in an orderly way. But this is really something you need to sort out.

* For you to let Nielsen know that it's important to you, to have illustrator and translator sales data. They're not going to put in the work to give you something they don't think you even want. If enough of you tell them you want this data, they'll work with you to find a way to create it.

3. Writers and publishers, we need your support. Since illustrators are apparently invisible to journalists, they're not going to listen to us. But they still write about authors. We'll have your back if you'll have ours. Thank you, Philip Ardagh, for bringing up this article and writing to the newspaper! Publishers, please include illustrators in your publicity materials so journalists and bloggers don't have to spend extra time digging. This is basic stuff.

4. Agents, we need you. When you're helping illustrators with their contracts, please try to get written assurances from publishers that they will include your illustrators' names in their publicity and book data.

5. Illustrators, credit journalists. Let's strike a deal with journalists. If we want them to credit us, we'll do our best to credit them, too, since they're usually freelance, deadline-driven people just like we are. Instead of 'The Guardian said' we'll write 'Alison Flood said', etc, recognising journalists by name whenever possible. Name recognition gets them more work, too. (You can read about this on the Journalists page of

5. Men, get involved in selecting children's books. Don't leave this job to your wives, sisters, girlfriends, female teachers, daycare workers, etc. Take an active role in buying what your children, grandchildren, nephew, nieces and family friends read. Your kids will take reading more seriously if you show them it's important to you. And journalists & business will take more interest in illustrated books if they're not perceived as some 'women's thing'. (I know in an ideal world, this wouldn't happen, but I'm talking practicalities.) You don't have to buy or borrow from the library the same books that you think the children's mother would pick; let children see your own interests reflected in the books you share with them. They'll get a more well-rounded upbringing if you play a part in getting them books.

Get used to browsing in the children's sections of bookshops and libraries. It genuinely does NOT mean you're a paedophile if you're in the children's section (and yes, men do worry about this). It means you're taking an active interest in what your children are looking at and reading and being read, the books that will stay with them their whole lives. Many men do buy and borrow children's books, but we need more of you getting involved. (You might even find you enjoy it, both the books and the connection with your kids!)

Find out more at and follow the #PicturesMeanBusiness Twitter hashtag and our sister campaign, #NameTheTranslator.

. . .
PS As a final footnote, Philip Ardagh wrote that he's 'a children's author who can barely draw a bath' and I just wanted to let you know that this isn't actually true; recently he's been learning to draw and it's great watching his work develop!

. . .

UPDATE EDIT - Reply from iNews to Philip Ardagh:

Thanks so much to Philip Ardagh for taking the initiative to correspond with Managing Editor Ben Clissitt at iNews, and to Ben for his apology and for including Scheffler in the online version.
Tags: #namethetranslator, #picturesmeanbusiness, pictures_mean_business

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