Friday, September 20, 2013

When Your Neighbor / Aunt / Dentist’s Sister-In-Law Wants You To Illustrate Their Children’s Book

Today’s post is inspired by a question I get pretty regularly, so I thought it would be good to cover it on the blog. Many illustrators have aspiring writers in their community, whether it’s a family member or someone in your town that hears about your talent through the grapevine.  

There are 2 scenarios to consider.

Scenario 1: “I’m writing a children’s book to send around to publishers. Can you illustrate it?”

First of all, if someone says this exact sentence to you, what they have really just said in 10 seconds is I have no idea how this children’s book thing works.  Why? Because publishers buy text for children’s books without the art.   It is the Art Director of a company that researches and reviews all the art submissions they get, and they will want control over which illustrator is paired up with a purchased text.  It’s like when a screenwriter goes to Hollywood to sell their script- they just have to sell the script, not make the film because the studio handles casting, finding a director, financing, marketing, etc. Therefore, authors don’t need to stress over the whole art issue- let them know they can submit their text/story without illustrations to publishers (Most publishers have submission policies on their website. You can also reference the book Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market. There is one printed every year with up-to-date info on each publisher's contact information and what they are looking for).

Now, Obviously I’m sure there are examples of an author/illustrator team who have submitted their work together and it was bought- it’s just rare, or usually there is someone of importance or notoriety involved (For instance, I know an artist who is illustrating a children’s book for someone else and they are pitching it with success, but that “someone else” is a pretty well-know TV actor). 

Also, illustrators who also write are welcome to submit text with art. Usually this is done with a rough B+W example of a book called a dummy, which shows the layout and sketches of the pages and a copy of one or two examples of completed illustrations to show what it looks like 100% done. Anyway, this post is more about authors coming to you as an illustrator. so let’s get back to that.

Scenario 2: “I’m self-publishing a children’s book. Can you illustrate it?”

Most of the time this author is doing a small-run for family or they plan to sell it themselves. They may try to convince you with lines like “it’ll be good exposure” or  “ You’ll get some portfolio pieces out of it”.  If they can pay you, it’s usually not very much, or at least not a lot considering the amount of work you are about to commit to such a project. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for these projects to fizzle out because of “life issues”, a lack of commitment from the author after they realize how much work it is, or other assorted problems down the road (you get fed up with the 835th revision or  maybe the author has changed the story 20 times while you’ve been working on illustrations).

Now, I have to admit that I approached some friends recently to do an album cover for free, but there were definitely benefits to this decision beyond “I got a portfolio piece out of it”. Plus I had complete control and it took a lot less time than a whole children’s book. But in the end I understand that you may still be interested in such a task because of the other person involved, or maybe you really just need a personal project, too. So let’s get into some points you should remember if you decide to do this.

Remember that many people who request this are doing a book as a side project.
They have jobs and other responsibilities that can transform a collaboration like this into a very lengthy project. Children’s books take roughly 8-12 months, and that’s with a publisher and art director who are both in it 24/7, full speed, so you can imagine how long something like this may take when it’s not someone’s main focus or job in life.

Make sure you have answers to basic questions before you begin.
I knew someone once who was working on a children’s book for a man’s grandchildren. By the time I was introduced to this artist, it had been almost two years since the project started. She wanted my advice, and to familiarize myself with where she was I asked for some information:  How many pages/illustrations will be in the book? What are the page dimensions? How much are you going to get paid? Do you have a rough due date in place? Her face went blank as I realized she could not answer these questions after almost two years. It’s no surprise that within a couple of months the man and artist decided to go their separate ways.

Also, It’s important to realize that if someone is self-publishing, different routes of manufacturing have different options. A place that can make your book from scratch may be able to do any amount of pages you want, although some page runs may be cheaper. Page sizes can be custom made at a printer, but once again standard pages sizes will be cheaper than some random funky page size that is selected. If the author is making books through a website like or, there are set page dimensions and page amounts you must pick from, so that decision should come early in the process.

Really consider a fair price for your time and effort.
Obviously most self-publishing authors can’t afford to pay what publishers do (anywhere from $7,000- $14,000 depending on the project, sometimes even more if you are a hot shot). Usually when people come to me with this question, someone has offered them $300-$500. This is INSANELY low when you consider how many illustrations are being made, any layout work, and revisions. For example, if there are 30 illustrations to make, you would be getting paid roughly $10-$16 PER IMAGE. Consider what you want to get per illustration, than multiply by how many images you need to get a ballpark amount (don’t forget the cover!). Most artists would give a discount to friends and family, sure, but just make sure you are taking care of yourself. Don’t get underpaid because you want to “be nice”.

Most importantly… do not “depend” on the situation in any way.
 If you’ll humor me with a tangent, my mother and I were once watching day time court TV (because we’re classy like that), and a person was going after another family member for a loan (of course). My mom turned to me and said “if you ever loan money to family, make sure you’re OK with never getting it back. Just think of it as a gift”. Now, she didn’t say this because my family is compiled of jerks and cheapskates. She was telling me if I ever made that decision, my emotional sanity would be healthier if I was at peace with whatever outcome may happen (and probably the relationship with said family member). Naturally, another point is don’t give away anything you absolutely need later, because you may not get it back and things will get ugly.

I feel like deciding to illustrate someone’s children’s book needs the same outlook, because you ARE giving your time, energy, and probably some money when it comes to supplies or resources (or forfeiting paid jobs to take on the project). Do not depend on the book being seen by the right person and being your “big break”. Do not depend on the book when it comes to paying your rent or bills. If you can honestly say that this is a fun labor of love and you’ll be ok if it fizzles out and you’re left with just a handful of illustrations, then you have the right mentality. Like I mentioned before, some benefits are beyond just dollar signs, and its up to you to decide if the risk or adventure of such a project is worth it.

When I decided to do my friends’ album art, this was the decision-making process behind it:

1)   I have a full-time design job and did not depend on any financial outcome from the project, nor did I   expect one.

 2)  I was looking for a pet project to try some new techniques, but I wanted it to be “real” so I would commit myself 100%.

      3)  Although these friends were given the invitation to provide input from the beginning, I had complete control over the final art and what I wanted to illustrate. They did not art direct me.

4) The collaboration with these friends has resulted in specific opportunities coming my way which would not be possible through other avenues of marketing- it was a highly specialized type of networking I was doing within the music community.

 5)   I did not have a strict deadline. Therefore, I could stop any time to work on paying jobs that popped up from clients.

Make a contract, OR at the very least “write up a summary”.
If you are working with someone who you know on a very personal level, I understand how the word “contract” might hurt your ears. Obviously, you do not want to offend family or friends with such a professional word that makes it sound like the two of you can’t trust each other. That’s why I say you should at least “write up a summary”, just to make sure everyone’s on the same page. With everything. Time. How many illustrations you’re doing. Important dates. Any money and how it will be paid. You and the author should sign it. If it’s a close family member, give a copy to another trusted person in your circle so that they can be a mediator in case any problems come up.  I can’t guarantee it will fix all problems, but it should help prevent and sort out any confusion that comes along during your journey.

Whatever you decide to do in such a scenario, I hope some of these points listed above help you navigate the process. Cheers!

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