Advice to Writers Part 2 – Should I get my book illustrated before submitting?
Hello all writers! This is my second page dedicated to those wordsmiths out there with a book shaped itch to scratch. Here writers can find some advice from an illustrator’s point of view. As it often takes a partnership between an author and an illustrator to create a picture book, it would be useful if there was a bit of information about it. Often there are some misconceptions on how it all works too so here I try to provide some clarity from my point of view. So when I am asked if an author should get their story illustrated before approaching an agent or publisher, the short answer is no! But why not?
To explain my answer and give you a more comprehensive reason as to why not I have listed my thoughts and opinions below. This is only drawn from my own experience and opinion, so should not be taken as an absolute.
1) To illustrate a book can take 2-3 months working 5 days a week 9-5. There is research, mood boards, character sketches, thumbing out the story, revising the thumbs, then drawing up full size in pencil then about 0-100 changes that drive you mad, then colour thumbs, revision to colour thumbs (or colour experiments), then tracing the approved drawings onto posh paper and finally actually painting the final art. An A3 image with 5 characters and lots of detail can take 2 days or more, especially if I accidentally spill coffee over it! … naturally that has never happened to me …. it was tea!
2) Now you have an idea of how long it takes then you have to consider that elephant in the room. Money! Yep that ugly beast has reared its head, but one that can not be ignored. Unfortunately illustrators are in the business of earning a living that can actually pay the bills. Plus illustrators are a somewhat more practical breed of arty farty. So think on the above as 3 months salary and you get the idea.
3) Once you have picked yourself up from the floor after the shock of the illustrator’s quote, there is the issue of contracts. Urgh, the idea makes my eyeballs hurt. I apologise to all lawyers out there but if you think an illustrator is expensive, hiring a lawyer is enough to give you nightmares. Though to proceed without a contract would be risky. Very risky, see point 4) for the reason why.
4) Copyright. Who owns the copyright of the images? This is the bit that is often misunderstood. The simple act of commissioning and paying an illustrator to do some work for you, on its own, does not mean you own anything. In fact you are likely to have zero rights if there is no contract. You may not even have the right to promote your story using the images you commissioned, unless you have a water tight contract that either assigns you the copyright or gives you specific publishing rights to use the work. Proceed with caution!
If you want to buy the copyright you can do that of course if the illustrator agrees and signs a contract saying so. BUT why would an illustrator sign away their rights? Why give up rights to royalties and future income? No illustrator with their head screwed on would do that for nothing. You have to compensate the illustrator for the loss of future earnings which takes even more money. Though you have no idea if your story will ever earn anything. That is crystal ball gazing and total guesswork. AVOID!
5) Then there are the publishers who simply love to fiddle about with your idea. That means every word and scribble comes under intense scrutiny. Which inevitably leads to changes and amendments. So the illustrations you have paid a kings ransom for, have to be redone as the story has been tweaked. Alternatively what if they do not fit the book format? Not forgetting that publishers have teams of art directors and designers dedicated to getting a book illustrated and designed. They may just not like your choice of illustrator or believe its just the wrong fit? Hitting on exactly the right formula and format is extremely unlikely.
6) Let’s entertain the idea that you have commissioned an illustrator and everything has gone marvellously well. You are ecstatically happy and so is the illustrator. Then lo and behold your book is taken up by a publisher. Yay! Let’s crack open the champagne. The publisher pays you your bit and pays the illustrator their bit too (if they still own the copyright). Hang on wait a minute, they paid you exactly the same amount as you paid the illustrator, so that means you have in actual fact been paid diddly squat! The publisher has no interest in what agreement you both had or who paid who what. That is your problem. Remind yourself why are you doing this. Is it a vanity project or are you trying to earn a living?
7) OK we have considered the idea of commissioning, and that is not practical. So your only option now is to tempt an illustrator in with a cracking story concept and approach a publisher together, i.e. working for free. That can work and does happen but more often than not the two people already have a relationship like husband and wife, sisters, childhood friends etc. If you live in the USA and your chosen illustrator is in the UK you have time, distance and two different legal systems to contend with. Even if they lived in the same town, you are still strangers to one another. It still takes a hefty chunk of an illustrator’s time to work on your idea. Without the financial incentive your story is going to be consistently shoved to the bottom of the heap in favour of paid work.
8) I have on occasion spoken to the odd editor and their advice is always concentrate on what you do best. For me it’s drawing and painting. For you it’s your writing skills. Don’t try to be editor, art director, designer and writer all rolled into one. Unless you have worked in the industry the chances of doing it better is tiny. They are not looking for art direction or design skills from you. They want excellent wordsmiths. That is simply all they care about. Also what does it say about you, are you a prima donna and want it like this or nothing? What they look for are people who are open, flexible and trust that the publisher actually knows what they are doing.
9) Despite the above there is one reason when it is essential to send in illustrations along with the story. If you are a ‘professional’ illustrator and a writer then you do need to show that you are the whole package. In that scenario you will not need me or any other illustrator as you are more than capable of doing it yourself. Though be warned if you are not a trained professional illustrator and just dabble occasionally be prepared that perhaps only one half of your concept may be accepted. Even professional illustrators might be told, love your art, love your story, but your writing style does not match your art. Odd, but I have heard of that happening.
Also when you see a book with one name it would be a mistake to think the author hired an illustrator and then bagged a publisher afterwards. It is almost always an illustrator that wrote the story in addition to doing all the illustrations.
10) If you are going down the self publishing route and you pull it off you get to keep most if not all the proceeds and royalties. Lovely! Possibly you make more than the conventional method of using an established publisher, though this is a whole different animal than just being a writer. In this event you have to think cold hard business. Though for the illustrator you commission you will have to prove not only that you can pay them the going rate, organise the relevant contracts but they will also want to know about royalties. A large part of an illustrator’s income is royalties from book sales. So you will have to prove that you can deliver that too. You have to give them a reason to accept you over and above a job from an established publisher. So you will have to go some way to do some confidence and trust building.
In summary the publisher always commissions the artist or writer, sorts out the contracts and pays all the relevant fees. The publisher’s contract with the writer is separate from the illustrator’s. The writer owns the copyright to the words and the illustrator owns the copyright to the pictures. So the writer and illustrator in a way own the picture book together 50/50. The publisher pays the royalties to the writer and the illustrator. The writer has no say over how much the illustrator gets paid and vice versa. If you don’t like the choice of illustrator that the publisher has made, then of course say so but you may just have to accept it. The writer is often shown drawings the illustrator does for the story and can make comments but is in no way in control of it or has final say. With picture books it is a mistake to think that the writer is somehow responsible for organising the illustrations. In picture books the writer and illustrator are equals as the book relies so heavily on both. It is actually more a trinity between three parties, writer, illustrator and publisher.
I wish you all the best of luck in whatever you decide to do and when you secure that publishing deal if you felt the need to request a certain illustrator to work with then I would not mind it at all 😉.