1. Choose the Right Illustrator
You’ve probably heard that illustrations can either make or break what could otherwise be an amazing children’s book. And it’s true! How disappointing would it be to have written a beautiful story only to be accompanied by less-than-stellar artwork? That’s why choosing the right illustrator is paramount. But what determines who is and who isn’t the right fit for your book? As you search, keep in mind three things: style and quality, connection, and credibility/trustworthiness.
1. You may not be able to pick apart the reasons why an illustration looks good, but you can still recognize something that looks great from something that simply doesn’t. This is where sifting through portfolios comes into play. Think of this like window shopping for the perfect fit on sites like Artstation, Instagram, Facebook, etc. Assess how their work might translate in your story. If you’re having trouble envisioning this, it’s probably due to a lack of consistency in their portfolio, so try to find someone that has a consistent, quality style that you can feel confident in. “I work in a range of styles” is a red flag. We want consistent, not random.
2. Connection is the second factor. This might feel a little cosmic, but try to look for someone whose artwork you feel a connection with or pull towards when you see it. It’s one of those meant-to-be indicators! It should be someone that you communicate well with to form a positive working relationship and both the story and art feel valued.
3. The third factor is credibility and trustworthiness. Have they illustrated for previous clients? Were they happy with the work? You should be able to ask your illustrator anything and get a clear and transparent answer. You should also be able to openly communicate contract and payment terms and receive a knowledgeable response. Listen to your gut feeling.
Cost is another factor used when selecting an illustrator. We have to be cognizant of our budgets, but hopefully not allow that to be the ultimate determining factor in what will create a beautiful, memorable and profitable book you can be proud of. If you don’t have enough money, save up. I don’t think you’ll regret it. More on that in #5.
2. Initial Interaction Tips: A Template
When you’re reaching out to an illustrator, that initial interaction can set the tone for the entire project exchange. Overwhelmed with questions and not sure what to say? This would be a great start: “Hi (illustrator’s name)! I’ve written and edited a children’s book about ____ and think your illustration style might be a great fit. Does your current schedule allow room to accept any new projects? I’d love to go over my manuscript with you and learn about your pricing and process. Do you have a moment to chat?” This does a few things. It tells the illustrator what you’re looking for, and invites them to engage with you to determine early on whether or not working together is realistic based on their availability and their rates. If an illustrator is dancing around the investment conversation or seems overly willing to negotiate, walk away. Look for someone confident in their skills and pricing and you can decide if it works for you or not.​​​​​​​
3. Expectations and Spec Work
A common question I get is “What if I want a sample illustration to make sure it’s a good fit before hiring them for the entire book?” And to that I say ABSOLUTELY! Sample commissions are a great way to test the waters with your illustrator to see how well you work together. After all, they’re most likely a stranger you met online. However, the caveat here is to never expect this to be free. Most illustrators are willing to subtract the commission payment from the rest of the book’s fee as well, so if you do decide to move forward after the sample and it’s used in the book, no additional investment is lost. Remember that you selected an illustrator based on a beautiful, consistent portfolio you saw online, (see #1 on choosing the right illustrator) so if this illustrator is worth their salt, you’ll be able to gauge what kind of work to expect from them if hired. (A note directed to illustrators: Try to say no to unpaid sample work even with the promise of paid work later, as it sets the tone moving forward that you are willing to bend and sacrifice unpaid time, which is never a sustainable business model nor is it respectful to your hard-earned skills.)
4. Clarify the Deliverables
It’s up to you as the author to clarify what it is you want to pay for. Do you need an illustrator that will spend time designing and perfecting your characters before even starting the book? Do you need your illustrator to also design and format the book for print? Do you need your illustrator to help with marketing or other supplemental services? Illustrators, be clear on the deliverables clause in your contract and itemize each illustration and service (see #8 for contracts). Be transparent on what the deliverables are before payment and starting the project!
5. How Much Will It Cost?
Take a deep breath and say this with me: “Like any business plan, a children’s book involves investment and risk.” This is always the scariest part for authors to think about. This will likely be a future topic all on its own, but I’ll break down a few of the main points for the purposes of this list. I’ll say it plainly. Expect to spend a few to several thousand dollars plus royalties on quality illustrations. Some, like those in lower cost-of-living countries will do books much cheaper, and others command a higher fee just to take a look at a manuscript and then there’s everyone in between.  (High-risk, high-reward, and low-risk, low-reward) It’s simple: to create a desirable book and generate significant sales, you can’t have an ugly, lackluster-looking book. Typically you’ll pay a 50% deposit and the remaining 50% upon book completion then royalties later, though some illustrators don’t ask for a royalty at all. Always bring up investment early on when initially conversing with an illustrator. You don’t want to waste your time getting excited only to find out they’re outside of your budget.
6. Workflow Process
In order, these are the steps from start to finish to illustrate a children’s book based on MY workflow process: (other illustrators may vary)
1. Initial Interaction between author and illustrator (see #2) 2. Manuscript is reviewed, and timeline and investment proposal is sent to the author outlining the project details: how long it will take, and how much it will cost. Author decides whether or not he/she wants to move forward. 3. Contract is written, sent to author, and both sign. 50% advance check is sent to illustrator. 4. Character design + author’s approval 5. Storyboard sketches + author’s approval 6. Color illustrations + author’s approval 7. Graphic design, text layout, formatting, and finishing touches/revisions. Author’s final approval on all deliverables.  8. Final files are sent and remaining 50% advance check is sent to illustrator. Royalty payment system set up. You can talk to your illustrator to determine what the right method of communication is for you, but I have found that emailing every few days or once a week with photo or written updates has been effective and allows for smooth productivity.
7. Art Directing Versus Creative Freedom
The author and illustrator, though working together to accomplish a mutual project, each have their own role in the process. If you find yourself with a very particular vision in mind, you’ll find that even the best illustrator will disappoint you, because that vision in your head is perfect and everything else is sub-par. Try to loosen your grip, and instead communicate an overall vision with your illustrator, and listen to their feedback and review their sketches. Trust your illustrator as the professional, though it’s not their place to change the spirit of the story, that’s YOURS. If you don’t feel a sense of trust with your illustrator, then that’s the fundamental problem here to begin with. (see #1 on choosing the right illustrator) Remember that you hired a professional to accomplish a specialized job because you believed in the quality of their portfolio. Communicate your vision, but remember that a truly great illustrator will be able to take your words and create something wonderful. (and hopefully be a joy for you to see what they come up with!) However, don’t settle for work that is not uplifting your story or veers too far off from your vision. That’s a lot of money you’re investing, so let’s do it right! Utilize revision rounds if needed, provided the book contract lists the illustrator’s revision policy. (see #8 for contracts)
8. Contracts + Copyright
Never, ever, ever, ever work without a contract (Maybe I should add another ever? Because I mean it) The majority of illustration-related scams happen when no contract is involved, and I can’t tell you how many authors have contacted me with horror stories from previous illustrators scamming them out of thousands and going MIA or sending stolen, copywritten artwork. If your illustrator does not present you with a contract after you’ve agreed to begin the project together, that’s a red flag. Typically the illustrator will present the author with a contract listing a few major clauses including but not limited to: deliverables, copyright transfer (or not to transfer), advance payment, royalties, project credit and permission to share online, warranty and indemnity, revisions, and modifications in writing. You can learn more about what to look for in these clauses by consulting with an attorney. In most cases an author asks to reserve copyright on the illustrations since they’re selling a commercial product (the book) and a copyright transfer fee is added into the total advance payment. There’s no one correct way to set up a contract, so long as all parties involved are protected and all benefit from the exchange and clearly understand WHAT is being exchanged. I’m no attorney, and you may find you benefit from hiring one prior to beginning a project to ensure your contract is crisp, clean, and insures you both from any problems down the road.
9. Advances + Royalties
There are two main components to financial compensation for your illustrator, the advance and royalties. The advance is the larger amount spent for the creation of the illustrations themselves. Half is paid in the beginning and half is paid upon completion. This is typically a few to several thousand dollars depending on your illustrator’s rates. Royalties don’t always come into play as some illustrators don’t ask for them and are comfortable with just one big lump-sum payment (the advance). Others ask for a royalty on book sales in addition to the advance. This is typically 3-5% and, if a book sells very well, it could escalate up to 7-10% or higher depending on the contract’s terms. Royalties are a great way to incentivize your illustrator to help with marketing and the overall longevity of the book’s published life and sales success. If they get a royalty check every quarter, they want the book to sell well too!
10. Affirmation and Encouragement- You Got This!
This is a scary and huge undertaking, but the best things in life worth doing aren’t always the easiest. They can be the most fun and fulfilling though! Don’t discount the joys of creative work and remember that the author-illustrator duo is a match made in heaven! The self-publishing world allows room for everyone, and that includes you. Choose the right illustrator, be clear and use a contract. You can do this!
Thanks for reading! I hope this was informative and added value to your children’s book illustration experience. Please use the “Contact” form on my website if you have any questions or comments- I’m always happy to talk illustration with you guys!
Peace and Love, Julie
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