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Finding Illustrators: The Art Will Make or Break Your Picture Book

Finding illustrators is a key task when you publish a children’s picture book. Picture book, by definition, include art. Let me say upfront, that this is the most expensive part of the process. But you must have great art or the book will fail. Do not think you can get by with clip art or by going to a cheap place like Fivver. Oh, it can be done. But the quality will be awful and no teacher or parent will buy that book for their kids. Or if you sucker them in once, they’ll never trust your work again.

Set a Budget and Other Decisions

First, you need to know your budget. What are you willing and able to spend on the art? The topic of a developing a budget is worthy of its own post, so I’m just going to make some assumptions here for the purpose of talking about illustrators.

Let’s say that over the first three years, you expect an net income of $6000. How do you want to portion that out considering the other expenses you expect? Let’s be optimistic and say you can devote $2500 to the art.

Next, you need to decide if you want to pay royalties to the illustrator or if you’ll do a work-for-hire contract. (See Circular 9, U.S. Copyright office. For other questions about copyrights, the circulars are usually a great place to start. I am not a literary lawyer and am not giving legal advice. The circulars are just good information.) Paying royalties means you’ll keep track of how many books sold and pay the illustrator a percentage of the income from the book (which should be considered when setting up your budget!). Work for hire means you’ll make one payment which includes the purchase of the copyright and you won’t pay again. This is a huge topic outside the scope of this article, but you’ll need to think about and decide these things first.

Also decide your payment schedule. I usually try 25% on signing the contract, 25% on approval of sketches, and 50% on approval of final art.

When I'm finding illustrators for a children's picture book, it becomes a treasure hunt. Here's some roadmaps that make the search for great art and artists much easier. | IndieKidsBooks.com

Decide on Specs for Your Indie Book Project

Now, you’ll need to know something about your project. Where will you have it printed? What size will it be? How many pages will there be and will you use double-spread art or single-page art? (Most picture books are 32 pages. Here’s why. Or why not.)

Here’s what you’ll need to know before you approach an illustrator.

  • Number of illustrations needed
  • Color or b/w or combination
  • Size of illustrations, either in inches, cm, or pixels
  • Format – Do you need tiffs, jpegs, png or other photo format
  • Quality – most printing is done at 300 dpi
  • Do you need the original files? Photoshop (psd) or InDesign (Indd) or other. I ask for this so I can reformat from paper to digital without having to go back to the artist. Or if I add an audiobook or other unexpected format, I can make the needed adjustments.
  • Schedule – when do you want the rough sketches and the final art
  • Will you provide templates for the book and/or cover? For example, Ingram Spark will generate the files and send to you.
  • The edited manuscript to be illustrated
  • How payment can be made? Check, credit card, Paypal, or Western Union (for overseas).
  • Will you do the design and layout, or do you want the illustrator to do that, too? That means deciding on page size, fonts, page breaks, etc. Most illustrators will charge more for this.

Finally, you should have some idea of what sort of art you want. Do you want it to be comic, realistic, surreal, warm and cozy, family-friendly? Think of how you might describe the style you want. For most illustrators, you shouldn’t dictate the color of the kids’ clothing, for example. However, you will be acting as the art director, so you should have an opinion on the overall look of the book, as well as specifics on how each page looks.

Finding Illustrators for Your Indie Book

Friends and Family. When finding illustrators, most people turn to this source first, and it’s a mistake. Unless that person is a professional illustrator and is working regularly selling his/her work, their art probably will flop in the market place. Ask to see a portfolio of their work, which a professional artist can readily do.

Professional organizations. Many professional organizations provide ways to look up their members. Membership in the organizations is a point in favor of the illustrator because they are pursuing a professional career. Here’s a couple places to start:

Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Association of Illustrators
Society of Illustrators

Social Media for Illustrators. My favorite place for finding illustrators is Adobe’s social media site for illustrators, Behance.net. Illustrators from world-wide post their portfolios on the site. Be warned: it can be overwhelming! Most illustrators here do NOT focus on children’s books, so you will need to be firm about what you want, and offer help if needed to understand the picture book format. Some illustrators are fantastic at their art, but they don’t know how to tell a story with their art. I’ve had to cancel a contract for one such illustrator who created amazing art, but couldn’t sequence it correctly into a story.

On the other hand, I’ve found some exciting illustrators world-wide. Take a look!

Contacting the Illustrator

Since you’ve got your specs in hand, now it’s time to contact the illustrator. You make an offer and negotiate any details needed.

Can you ask for a sample illustration? Sure. But some illustrators want to be paid a small amount for art produced on speculation. If you don’t like it, the piece has no use except to fill out a portfolio, and they want some compensation. That’s fair. It may not fit your budget, so you’ll have to decide if you can do it or not.

Unfortunatley, contracts are outside the scope of this article, but that would be the next step. Offer a contract, get it signed and get the project rolling.

How have you found your illustrator?