I get a fair few enquiries from first-time children’s authors looking for a children’s book illustrator. Collaborating is something I’ve done a few times in the past, but, by and large, most enquiries come to nothing. When this happens it’s usually because the prospective author is completely unaware of the time and costs involved, and the publishing process in general.
There’s no reason why anyone would know the ins and outs of a process they’ve never had to consider before. Maybe, that person is you. If so, here are a few things that might help you shape your next move.
So you’ve got a great idea for a children’s picture book. Excellent. That’s an exciting moment, with all the potential possibilities laid out ahead of you. So now, naturally, you’re looking to contact a children’s book illustrator. Unfortunately, that’s probably not the first step you should be making. I’ll address working with an illustrator shortly, but in the meantime you’ve something else to consider.
If, ultimately, you intend to approach a publisher, then that should be your first move, not your second. Publishers like to pick an illustrator if they take on a book. That doesn’t mean they won’t look at a book with accompanying illustrations, but by joining forces with an illustrator you’re narrowing your options considerably, especially if the publisher likes the story but not the illustration style. Your best bet is to get in touch with publishers direct with your manuscript, and the best way to do that is to use a copy of the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, published by Bloomsbury. It’s a fantastic resource that lists all the publishers, what they’re looking for, and how they want you to approach them.
However, if you’re planning on approaching publishers with the manuscript (with or without the illustrations) then bear in mind that very few children’s books are published each year and increasingly they’re by celebrities, established names or in-house productions. That doesn’t mean you can’t break through, but it’s a long and disappointing process to get noticed. You’re very likely in for long waits followed by polite rejection letters. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen for you, but you should manage your expectations. There are thousands of people like you out there, trying to break in.
The alternative to the traditional publishing route is self-publishing and vanity publishing. Both are so much easier in today’s digital world. They’re slightly different, but the overall outcome is the same. You’re paying for it all, you’re stuck with the marketing and distribution challenges and you’ll not likely make much money, at least not quickly. For both of these routes you will need an illustrator on board, but which route do you take?
Vanity publishing is where you pay someone else to print your book. They’ll most likely offer a service to lay it out, sort an ISBN and organise a few other essential steps, and they may even offer to help with some PR. There are lots of firms out there doing this, making all sorts of promises in an attempt to extract your money from you. Some are very good at massaging egos and upselling the options, so you can find yourself with 3,000 beautifully printed hardbacks that will most likely spend the rest of their days in your loft or garage. Vanity publishers (some call themselves hybrid publishers) are not interested in your book or your story, they’re interested in your money. A traditional publisher invests in you and your story, whereas a vanity publisher is only interested in taking your dough. I’ve been shown a letter from a vanity publisher recently that uses flattery and charm to suggest the author has something special, and yet they still want the author to fork out and take all the risk. If the publisher is asking you to put your hand in your pocket at any stage, then that’s vanity publishing, and don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise. A promise to do a bit of PR isn’t likely to hold a candle to the might of the big publisher’s marketing machines. If all you want is to see your book in print, and you’re reasonably confident you can find routes to market to sell your print run, then you can go into vanity publishing with your eyes open and you won’t be disappointed. But do go in with your eyes open.
Then there’s self-publishing. This is slightly different in that you’re taking control of the whole process. Think of it like a micro-brewery, or your own record label. It’s all quite possible, you’re more in control of the costs, and you’re in control of your destiny. I self-publish a lot of my books and it’s worked very well for me, but there’s a lot of extra work involved for you as an individual. After all, you alone are going to be all the various departments of a publisher. The biggest downside is that the marketing and distribution is all down to you. I don’t have a marketing department or a big marketing budget, so getting my books noticed against the mighty publishing houses who have those resources is almost impossible. What is possible is visiting schools, doing talks and workshops, readings in libraries, attending shows and fairs, and stocking up local shops. You’ll shift books that way, but with one title it will be a slow burn (but you can get creative with it).
There is another self-publishing route, and that’s to use Amazon’s KDP service. They take a big chunk of children’s picture ebooks (30% plus a further percentage based on the file size of the ebook, and because picture books, by definition, have pictures, they have large files) and physical copies are printed on demand, so that’s expensive too. Also, you’ll be lost amongst the vast swathes of other things on Amazon, but if you’re willing to work at it, you could it make it happen.
Has that put you off? It shouldn’t. If you’re doing it for the love of the project, and you can afford to spend a little money on it, then the non-financial rewards are more than enough to make it worthwhile. So if you’re still keen, we can get on to the topic of finding an illustrator.
Many new authors look upon finding an illustrator as searching for a partner for their book. Indeed, some illustrators will be happy to illustrate a book for free in return for a cut of the profits at the other end. But, on the whole, it is not as simple at that.
Firstly, most children’s books don’t sell many copies, and of the copies they do sell, it can take a few years to shift the print run. It will probably take an illustrator two or three months to illustrate your book. Are you asking your illustrator to work unpaid for that time in return for their cut? And how will that cut work? You print 3000 copies of a book retailing at £6. The retailer gets £2, so you’re left with £4. It cost you approx £1 per copy to get the book printed, so you want to recover that, so now you’re splitting £3 with your illustrator. In the last month you sold 30 books, so your illustrator gets £45 this month in exchange for their three months’ work. Not many illustrators can afford to do that.
So as an alternative you decide to pay your illustrator the going rate instead of a cut of the sales. Now, imagine hiring a plasterer, or an electrician, or a plumber for two to three months. How much would that cost you? Are you willing to compromise on the complexity and detail of the illustrations, which take time but give the child lots to get absorbed in, in return for a plainer, less engaging illustration just because it’s cheaper? Or are you willing to go full out on beautiful pages at the risk your book will still only sell a small but steady amount each month? The answer to that will be based on how much you’re willing to risk for a potentially slow but gradual return.
In order to get a price you’ll need to share your manuscript with the potential illustrator, along with any thoughts you have on scenes, characters and the general structure of the book. The more complex, the more it will cost, and the longer it will take, but you’ll at least have a firmer understanding of the costs and the timeframes involved. Now you can decide if you want to go down the self-publishing route, the vanity route, or even go straight to a large publisher or literary agent.
In late 2019 Helen Griffiths approached me with a mock-up she’d had done of her children’s book idea about collective nouns for animals with an ecological message. She was just after advice at the time, and the mock-up was constructed around photography. I felt that route was not engaging for small children and suggested an illustrated approach instead. Helen lives in New Zealand, so our backwards and forwards discussions across half a world took a while as I shared pretty much what I’ve written above. In the end, Helen decided to bite the bullet and self-publish. She used me for the illustration, plus the graphic design, title/logo design, editing and proofreading (well, my journalist wife did that bit), as well as guidance on sourcing print. It was a large financial outlay for Helen, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across someone so single-mindedly determined, not to mention being utterly lovely with it. She set her mind on making a success of the distribution, travelling around New Zealand to get the book into bookshops, conducting readings through schools, and getting local businesses to sponsor copies to get them into classrooms. She got herself onto the radio and talked passionately about the book’s themes. She even sent a copy to Sir David Attenborough who hand wrote a wonderful letter back praising the book. Helen’s now looking at doing a reprint, with the aim of getting a proportion of the run to me to sell in the UK.
Helen’s passion and determination are what really made Treasure Beyond Measure a success. But part of that was her willingness to listen and take advice, and, to be blunt, her ability to afford to take the chance on her book. Helen hasn’t become wealthy off of her success, and for all the time and effort she’s put in she’s probably only just broken even, but what she has done has set some solid groundwork for a second print run, and, if she chooses, another book. Whether that’s self-published or she uses her momentum to approach a publisher will be down to her.
To return to the original point, looking for an illustrator for your book shouldn’t be your first thought. In fact, it shouldn’t really be your second. Take some time to understand the process and the industry. Be realistic, be prepared for disappointment, and stay alert to the perils of vanity publishing if you have to go down that route. If you’re anticipating becoming rich off of your book idea then remember that that is hugely unlikely, but if you’re doing it for the satisfaction of having done it – having created your own children’s picture book – then that can often be reward enough. Try to consider much of this before you approach an illustrator. Look for a style of illustration that you enjoy, and that engages with small children. Acknowledge that the illustrator is a skilled professional and will need paying accordingly. But, perhaps most of all, enjoy the process. Enjoy writing it, watching it grow, seeing the illustrations arrive for your approval, watching your book slowly come to life. Revel in the moment you actually hold a copy in your hands, and the first time you sit down and share it with a child. If you make a bit of money from it, too, then consider that a bonus.
If you want to discuss illustration, get in touch here.