So you’re finally done with that children’s book manuscript. You’ve worked hard on it. Maybe you’ve hired a professional to edit. You’ve researched your market and you have an unbeatable marketing plan (NOTE: if you have NOT done these things, go back and do them). You’ve committed to the major and courageous step of self-publishing your book. Bravo! Now you’re wondering how you’ll find an illustrator.
If you’re submitting your book to publishers, you don’t need to look any further—the publisher will take on this task. But if you’re self-publishing, you will need to find an illustrator.
So where do you start?
1. Choose a “style” for your book
Think about the tone of your book. Write down a few words to describe it. Is it realistic? Humorous? Nostalgic? Edgy? Quiet? How do you want readers to feel?
If you’re writing a book that helps kids go to sleep, you won’t want bright, loud colors. If your story is about wisecracking aliens, you don’t want soft, calming images. If your book is for very young children, simple art is best, as busy images can confuse them.
Visit libraries, bookstores, and websites to find books similar to yours. Certain types of stories are often paired with certain types of illustration. Find five books like yours and snap some photos of the art to remember it.
2. Start searching online and locally
A simple online search is one way to start. Another way is approaching a local art school or contacting instructors online. You can also try freelancer sites. If you post a job, you may get many responses.
Some articles suggest you’re better off picking someone close to home, so you can meet with them periodically. Though it’s not a necessity, there are some advantages. If they’re nearby, you could ask the illustrator if they’d like to join in your marketing activities, such as book signings and school visits.
If you’re on a budget, you may connect online with an artist who lives in a country less costly to live in than the one you’re in, in which case the fees might be quite low. If you pick one of these, you want to make sure there are no language and communication barriers in talking to them or in their getting the nuances of your writing.
You could also use a full-service vanity publishing outfit. These will take you through the whole process from start to finish, including the artwork and promotion. But it’s pricey.
What about free clip art? Um, no. You may see articles that encourage you to use free public-domain art to illustrate your book. Or, there could be software where you can build your own cartoony characters. I don’t recommend these approaches. The end result won’t be as professional or desirable as art made by an illustrator.
3. Network with art groups
Consider asking people who teach illustration, and illustrators’ organizations if there are any students they know of who might be interested. Some students just want the experience and will work inexpensively.
Write a short description of your book for them to post to their groups. Remember that this is a pitch to get people interested, and the more appealing your project sounds, the more potential interest it will get. If you have a marketing plan, this is appealing because then the artist knows that people will actually see the book after it comes out.
Publishers will use a book designer and art director in addition to an illustrator. With self-publishing, it’s just the two of you. Find out if the illustrator can do the layout for your book on the computer, or if you’ll need to upload the images and place the text using an online program.
4. Go through each illustrator’s portfolio
Most illustrators have a signature style that they work in. Some have more than one. If you see more than one style in their portfolio, make sure they have enough samples of each style to assure you they can carry through with that style.
Look for expertise in how the artist handles characters. Do they draw engaging facial expressions that convey emotions? What about gesture and action? Are they good at drawing characters from different angles? A book artist should show some samples of a series of at least three scenes showing a continuing narrative.
Another important trait is the ability to keep a book interesting, for instance, through varying compositions and angles, as long as these suit the content of the book and appeal to the target age group. If the illustrator doesn’t show a book or book dummy (book mockup) in their online portfolio, you can ask if they might have one to show you.
Artists don’t always literally draw what they see on a page. They may insert fun little extra stories in the page that relate to the main story, or pick a moment before or after the scene. These techniques may make the book more creative and impactful.
Be sure you have good communication with your illustrator and that they are reliable and have a positive attitude. You might want to test them by asking them to draw a sample or two. You should always pay them for these samples.
5. Negotiate an agreement (and avoid the following!)
DON’T ask artists to work in exchange for royalties, or even partly in exchange. Self-published books are hard to sell enough copies to make a significant income. Ninety-nine percent of traditionally published books do not earn back their advance.
DON’T ask artists to provide free sketches.
DON’T ask for “work for hire.” The artist should always own the copyright without conflict and keep the original art. They should be allowed to sell the art as original art if they wish and to show it in their portfolio.
6. Write up a contract
You or the illustrator should present a contract with an agreed-upon schedules, fees, and rights. These will include things like how many revisions you can ask for before getting charged more. There are some freelance illustration contracts available online that you can find and modify.
For a frame of reference, publishers usually give illustrators a year to illustrate a book, or at least 6 months. Different illustrators work at different speeds, and simpler styles are usually faster. The goal is to set a schedule that works for both of you, yet ensures that the illustrations are completed on time.
An author and illustrator are a couple but often they never meet. Your text and their art are wed, and this relationship may end up lasting to future books as well. In traditional publishing, the publisher actually does not want them to have any contact, since the publisher wants to call the shots with the book.
Self-publishing is different. You and your artist are going to get to know each other. You get a say in the art. But remember that art is creative and to respect the artist. Some may be fine doing whatever you want, while others may feel their way is better. That could be a good thing if you don’t really know what you want. If you do know exactly what you have in mind, then you might start out looking for someone who is open to following your instructions. Most people are in the middle, and most illustrators can both take direction and provide visual creativity—after all, that’s their job.
If you start your search off right, and find the perfect creative teammate, it could become a long and rewarding relationship.
Special thanks to Vicky Rubin, author, illustrator, and freelance editor and critiquer, for sharing this article! Need more resources for finding an illustrator? Here are three:
Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
Children’s Book Illustrators Group
Mark Mitchell’s Illustrator Matchup Service
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