Over the past few years I have been increasingly approached by writers that wish to self-publish and want me (and other illustrators I know) to quote for the illustrations. This has corresponded to the emergence of a new type of publishing house. The model is similar to a traditional publishing house but with one massive shift. Instead of the publisher taking a financial risk to publish they are now asking the author to pay a fee to publish. This can be £2,000 – £3,000. This does not include the illustrations. They offer the usual editing, art direction, packaging warehousing, distribution etc. that a traditional publisher would have done. With this new business model the decision to publish is with the author not the publisher.
The idea is that the author will get a much larger slice of the profits, as you would expect if you are the one taking ‘all’ the financial risk. What I am not so clear on is who is responsible for sales and marketing. Some books are sold directly online on the publisher’s website. If they actively sell to book shops or exhibit at book fairs etc., I am unsure of but that could be my own ignorance. I would expect that for the self-publishing route to be successful a strong sales team would be essential to recoup costs. These would be key questions to ask if this is included in their fee and if it would incur further ongoing costs.
For the wannabe author this seems on the face of it a wonderful service that takes all the pain out of self-publishing. You can bypass the scrutiny of agents and traditional publishers that seem impossible to break into. Though there are some serious problems with this model. The main one being quality. I hate to say it, the vast majority of self-published picture books I have seen, and I have not seen them all by any means, the artwork is, in my opinion a bit amateurish (sorry if I have offended anyone I am just trying to be honest with my opinion). I cannot really comment on the stories as it is not my area of expertise. There are a few exceptions where they seem more professional but those are far and few between. So in my humble opinion there is more often than not a very good reason why books like this have been turned down by traditional publishers.
So why is the artwork of poor quality, why not just simply hire a professional illustrator? The fact is it costs far too much for most authors. To achieve art of any quality it takes far too much time. Creating a full colour A3 piece of art can take 1-2 days and some illustrators styles are so intricate that it can take considerably longer. This does not take into account all the research, full size preliminary drawings, numerous amendments and colour samples that have to be done before you go anywhere near a paintbrush. It takes an average of 3 months to illustrate a book. So the illustrator will expect to be paid the equivalent of 3 months salary just like anyone else working full time. Some may charge more if their style is particularly detailed and takes a long time. If an artist is very well known in the industry then they will charge even more. A self-publisher’s only hope is to bag an art student who will be considerably cheaper, but nevertheless should still be pricey if the student has any sense to consult their tutors.
In addition to that illustrators are usually offered royalties from traditional publishers and will expect that. Plus they will be keen to see evidence that you as a self-publisher can deliver those sales, or accept the risk. Royalties form a large part of an illustrator’s income so they will always be on the hunt for the job that will most likely give them that reliable steady income. A self-publisher will be looked upon as a risky unknown at best. Royalties are wonderful, you still get paid even if you have not worked for a year so as you can imagine it seriously helps to even out the feast and famine of freelancing.
The self-publisher’s knowledge on publishing deals, how it works, royalties, contracts, accounting and copyright are often questionable. All of which most established illustrator’s will be very aware of and somewhat twitchy that the self-publisher is still learning. Authors are sometimes not willing or able to offer royalties which is understandable but not something that can be easily waived. If an artist is working for you they will be unable to accept work for traditional publishers that are far more likely to deliver solid sales. Therefore they may not be keen to accept or worse bail out half way through.
Self-publishers and writers also need to get a thorough understanding of copyright too. The act of commissioning and paying for artwork does not mean you ‘own’ the art and have the right to publish. That right is not automatic. This is an area where it can go horribly wrong if you do not have a water tight contract that gives you all the publishing rights. Nor will you own the copyright of the images, that will always stay with the artist unless they assign it to you in a contract. They will not do this unless they are compensated for loss of future earnings (in addition to initial fee). Gauging how much to compensate is nearly impossible to guess at. Crystal ball gazing in the extreme. It will be without doubt even more expensive.
To fork out a small fortune of money on your story is not a small undertaking. An author should very seriously think about if they should pay for their story to be published especially if it has not passed that crucial test of being accepted by an agent or traditional publisher. It is unfortunately an industry thats foundation is built on opinion and creative judgement. Just by throwing money at it does not make a terrible story any better. This new breed of publisher is not going to tell you your story is not good enough because all they care about is your money. They are trawling the prospective writer market knowing full well the majority will never be published the traditional way. There is money to made in giving people false hope! So it is therefore vital that every self-publisher gets their story read by as many people as possible. Your granny or best friend is certainly a good start but they are not going to be in a position to tell you that you have talent or not. They will shy away from telling you things you may not want to hear. Showing your story to a professional writer’s agent or editor is altogether different and far more valuable. I would rather base a decision to self-publish on a professional saying its good. Otherwise your whole investment is based on very shaky ground indeed.
I know there is always the exception and I do wish you all the best success, unfortunately it is not something I have entertained doing yet and if I ever do the risk would be reflected in my price.
Tina Macnaughton Freelance Illustrator March 2020.