Working with an Illustrator

A Guide for Self-Publishers

alligator teacher

by Jim Harris

Working with an illustrator / Hiring an illustrator

Hi there! I hear you’re thinking of self-publishing a book… and might be getting an illustrator involved in the project, sooner or later.

Well, first off, congratulations. I think self-publishing is the wave of the future and you have my hearty best wishes for an amazingly successful project!

I’m Jim Harris, by the way. I’ve been illustrating books, magazines, ads and collectibles for about 25 years. And I thought it might be helpful to give you a peek into the lingo, the standard procedures, and the fine points of the book-illustration process. That way, if you haven’t hired an illustrator before, you’ll get a feel for how the whole publisher-illustrator relationship works. (It’s the pits being a newbie… so hopefully, after reading this, you WON’T be one :-)

Working with an illustrator: FINDING that illustrator

OK. First thing that happens is an email. (Used to be, years ago, it was a phone call, but nowadays it’s 99% emails in the publishing business.) Something like…

Hi (Illustrator’s Name),

I’m Tricia Vine from Dothan, Texas. I’m a second-grade teacher and I am self-publishing a picture book about a puppy that gets lost in the Amazon jungle. I’ve seen your work in (wherever) and loved your (whatever specific book or pieces caught your attention). Could you give me a ballpark price for illustrating the cover and interior of a (32-page picture book or whatever you’re planning). I’m on a limited budget, so any thoughts you have about minimizing pricing would be greatly appreciated.

If you’d like to see my ms., I’ll be happy to send it over.


(Your Name)

Naturally, not every illustrator you approach will jump at the opportunity to illustrate your book. Some will be unenthused about your story idea… or your writing… or the idea of working with a self-publisher in the first place.

That’s OK. As we say in the publishing industry, “It only takes ONE.” (We illustrators have to live with this reality ourselves when we send our portfolios off to art directors at publishing houses. Out of all the people who see our artwork, only a small percentage actually spring for an order… It’s a numbers game, even for the top guns.

pirate dog

The truth is that if, as an author, you let rejection discourage you, you simply won’t survive life in the book-publishing world. So, stiff upper lip… courage mon ami… and on we go!)

Working with an illustrator: holding down costs

Once an illustrator responds positively, you might be taken aback by the price they throw out. Yeah, it astounds me too, even when I’m the one quoting it. It just takes a lot of time to illustrate a picture book… and illustrators’ kids have to eat, too, you know.

So what can you do if you just can’t afford the $5000 and up that a professional illustrator charges? (And that’s probably the up-front advance, with royalties per copy charged against that.) Well, here’s a few thoughts. Some things I often wish my big publishers would consider just for their artistic beauty… not to mention the cost-saving factors.

  1. Have a lot of white space. Your book can look beauuuuuuu-tiful with art on just one side of each spread. Or largish art on one side and a teeny-weeny spot illustration on the other side. The art director when I illustrated The Three Little Javelinas used this idea to good effect… and came up with a top seller!
  • Consider doing a percentage of your art in B&W. Pencil or pen-and-ink illustrations for, say, half of your art is (in my little illustrator opinion) absolutely stunning.
  • Print a smaller book. (Then the art can be rendered at a smaller size and still look fabulous. It does take longer for an artist to cover more canvas… so smaller art can mean a smaller price.)
  • Offer the illustrator some kind of publicity as part-payment. Maybe a blurb on your business web-site? Maybe a school visit at your school (if you’re a teacher)? Maybe a hundred of the printed books to use as advertising samples? How about a week’s vacation at your summer-house in the Alps? Hey, I’ll go for that!
  • Let the illustrator have two years to do your book… so he/she can fit it in around all his other higher-paying projects. Lots of illustrators would appreciate an assignment like this.

  • Working with an illustrator: getting it right

    By this time, you’ll have a bunch of emails back and forth between you and the illustrator. In the process, make sure you touch base on the following points:

    • Be sure to ask your printer or self-publishing facility for any artwork specifications they may have… and make sure the illustrator can meet these requirements.

    • Find out how long the illustrator will take to provide character sketches, provide cover and interior layout sketches, provide final cover art, and provide final interior art (get solid dates unless you’re opting for point 5 above).

    Please note:

    You’ll get the opportunity to order changes at the points where you view sketches. In my experience, traditional publishers have a lot of changes at the character sketch stage… we all want to get THAT right. Then a fair amount of changes at the interior-layout-sketch stage. And hardly any at the final-art stage.

    This is what you should aim for, too. And the way to achieve it is THINK CAREFULLY about what you like/don’t like in the early stages. Don’t say “I love it” if there are things you really question. Speak out nice and clear (and politely) about your desired changes. You can even change the same thing a couple times in a row.

    Having said that… you really need to trust the illustrator’s artistic vision. Especially if you’ve told him/her which of his illustrations you’re crazy about and he/she is styling this book along the same vein.

    bug-eyed puppy

    Does it sound like those last paragraphs just contradicted themselves???

    Well. Yes. It is a paradox. The very best publishers and art directors know when to insist on changes… and when to trust an illustrator who says “I’m sure it will look better my way!”

    You can only learn which way to go by experience… so, all I can tell you (the first-time publisher) is… if the illustrator doesn’t want to make a change, he/she is probably right. (What did you expect me to say… I’m an illustrator!!!) Seriously, the illustrator probably has more art-experience than you… and a better sense of how the art will translate into printed matter. So that’s my reasoning there.

    Working with an illustrator: establishing terms

    • Nail down whether the illustrator will also be designing the book – i.e. arranging the text on the cover and interior pages. Alternatively, you’ll have to hire a book designer for this. Some illustrators will feel comfortable doing designing as well as illustrating… others, not.

    • What rights does the illustrator want to sell and what are the payment particulars? You’ll want to agree with the illustrator on whether you’re buying ALL rights to use the artwork for anything and everything, forever and ever, amen … or if you’re just buying the right to use the artwork for this one book (and its related advertising). Most illustrators will have a standard book-publishing contract they can show you… probably something they signed with a traditional publisher. Just remember it’s a template… and anything you mutually agree to change is A-OK.

    Payment terms can vary a lot. Here are some typical examples:

    • 100% paid up front (try to avoid this… but if an illustrator has been burned by another self-publishing author, it may be insisted upon)

    • 1/3 paid on signing contract, 1/3 paid on approval of interior sketches, 1/3 paid on delivery of final artwork (common terms)

    • 1/2 paid on signing contract, 1/2 paid on completion of final artwork (very common terms)

    Working with an illustrator: your new hire gets to work!

    Next step, once you’ve got the contract all signed, is for the illustrator to get underway on the character sketches. (Basically, before anything else happens, you have to like the illustrator’s vision for how your kid/puppy/kitten/dinosaur hero is going to look.)

    Naturally, the illustrator isn’t going to sketch out EVERY character in the book for you. Just the main two or three. This can be in B&W or color… whatever you’ve previously agreed on.

    It can take a few rounds to get the character sketches just right. And then, once you’ve approved the characters, you can plan to sit tight for a while. Because laying out the cover and interior illustrations is a LOT of work. The illustrator has to use a big wad of creativity… thinking up fun scenery and fun body positions and fun facial expressions and fun “extra stuff” to put in the artwork to bring it to life.

    So start your next manuscript, write your memoirs, take the kids to Acapulco, whatever… just don’t ring the illustrator every two days to ask “how’s it going???”

    Working with an illustrator: receiving the layout sketches

    Oh, I forgot to mention… Sketches of all sorts will go back and forth by email. The illustrator will scan in the sketches and hit SEND… as opposed to physically mailing them to you.

    Working with an illustrator: the back and forth

    Anyway, when you get the layouts, if you have lots of comments/suggestions (which is normal) you could go over them by phone. But I don’t recommend it.

    Illustrators (me included) are terrible at remembering every single criticism of their masterpieces. So experienced art directors put all their comments in an (often lengthy) email.

    Groans, wails, and gnashing of teeth is the standard response on the illustrator’s end. But our spouses eventually calm us down… and show us the reasonableness of the requests… and we make (most of) the changes… and it turns out to be a terrific book.

    By the way, it REALLY helps in these “comment” emails if you can throw in a nice ratio of POSITIVE comments to balance out the change requests. I have some art directors who are geniuses about this. Something like this works nicely:

    On spread 4, we absolutely LOVE the expression on Peter’s face. Soooo cute! And the pile of blocks overflowing out the window is a terrific touch. Could you turn Peter so he’s facing his Mother more? And it would be great if Mom could look a little more “motherly.” She seems a little grim-faced.

    Get the idea? 50/50 negative/positive is about right. Trust me, you will get WAY more co-operation out of your illustrator if you approach it this way.

    Working with an illustrator: lingo

    A couple of art terms you might run into about here:

    Gutter is the ditch between the two halves of a spread… where the pages dip down into the book’s binding. Illustrators try to keep important parts of the art OUT of the gutter, and will be frustrated if you ask for someone’s face to be positioned there.

    Bleed is when artwork goes sliding off the edge of the printed page. It’s often nice in a book to have some spreads with bleed and some without.

    Tight refers to art that’s more detailed. “Loose” refers to art that’s more blowsy. Within an illustrator’s own style, it’s often possible to render a specific subject more loosely or tightly. Tight is often more expensive… just because it takes more time.

    Working with an illustrator: finalizing the art

    cartoon raccoon

    Now let’s say you’ve gone a couple rounds of layout-sketches with the illustrator and you’re happy with the result. Next comes the final art rendering. Again, this takes a while. It’s common for the illustrator to do the final art for the cover FIRST. This allows you to use the cover to begin advertising the book, even before it’s actually ready for sale.

    Prepare for minor variations between the approved sketches and the final art. In the process of painting, the illustrator will see improvements that can be made… and think of even cuter details to add. This should be within reason. Any major changes should definitely be run past you before being put into action.

    Once the final artwork is done, the illustrator will usually send you email scans for your final approval. That done, delivery of the final art can be by email (if the illustrator has a print-quality scanner, as many do, and this meets your printer’s requirements) or by a courier like UPS or FedEx if you are having the artwork scanned by your printer or book producer.

    And it’s done!

    All that’s left is for you to write the illustrator a nice thank-you note and plan to throw simultaneous celebration parties. Believe me, by the time it’s all done… everybody’s ready for a party. I vote for pizza… how about you???

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