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Working with your children’s book illustrator

You’ve done your homework and perhaps you’ve already found some illustrators you’d love to work with. What now?

Let’s look at the timeframes you should expect, what the process could look like, and of course, contracts and payments – very important for both you and your illustrator!

To begin… timeframes!

By all means, start looking for an illustrator while you’re writing your manuscript – or even earlier. Often illustrators get booked up, so reserving your spot will allow you time to get your story edited and ready in time.

Waiting until you’ve finalised your manuscript before reaching out to your illustrator can mean a big wait if they are already booked up. Nobody wants to wait six months after finishing editing to start their illustrations!

It will be important to agree delivery times with your illustrator (and have this in the contract). Remember, you probably won’t be their only client, and they may be working on other projects. Your project might be detailed and time-consuming, or they may have deadlines approaching for other clients meaning yours won’t be started immediately.

Ultimately every project is different, but you need to discuss and agree this upfront. I’ve had illustrations take 4 months; I’ve had them take 9+. Just like getting your book and the words and story perfect on the page takes time, so will getting the artwork just right!

Do NOT start work on the illustrations though, until your final manuscript is ready – making changes later is a costly pain in the butt – trust me, I’ve been there.

Now, what will the illustration process look like?

At this point, I will usually put together a project brief and start storyboarding, i.e. planning the book layout by adding the text to each spread and adding any illustration notes. Yes, it’s best if YOU add the text where YOU want it – you want to optimize every page turn to build suspense and excitement. Be mindful that you don’t want too many things crammed into one page, give your words and images space to breathe and play on the page.

From this, your illustrator will be able to create sketches for each spread. You may find new ideas spring from these or you may find they are exactly as you imagined – remember, it’s a creative process so have some fun too! Give your illustrator as much creative freedom as possible – remember, you’ve hired them for their expertise so let them do their job! But it is also a two-way process, so feel free to make suggestions and request small changes as needed.

Once you’re both agreed on the sketches, you illustrator will begin to add colour, and the images will start to really come alive!

I like to work through one spread after the other… agreeing and tweaking them as we go. Sometimes ideas come up as you go along, which is fun and exciting. If the illustrator runs ahead of you, you miss the opportunity to discuss and implement these new ideas.

Something I wish someone had told me early on… In this process, you’re not just the author – you’re also the editor, art director – you’re the publisher – it’s your book, so don’t be afraid to offer feedback and ideas. You’ll be the one marketing it long after the illustrations are done – you need to be involved, and you need to be happy with it! In traditional publishing, as an author, you wouldn’t get this involved in the process, which is something I know I’d miss. So, this is your chance to make sure your book is exactly how you want it.

Once your illustrations are complete, you need to consider who will be formatting or laying out your book ready for print. Sometimes the illustrator can also do this – but if not, you’ll either need a designer or the ability to do it yourself. Sometimes I do it myself in Adobe InDesign (which I have spent lots of time learning), and sometimes I prefer to work with a designer – to free up some of my time.

The cover is obviously VERY important, as, like it or not, this is (in part) what will sell your book. I recommend hiring a designer to do this for you. Again, you will want to engage with them ahead of time (they can get very booked up too!), and you should collaborate with both them AND your illustrator to get the cover just right.

The legal bit… Contracts!

A good contract helps you both understand your agreement and obligations. It should cover the expectations of both parties, including pricing, timeframes for work to be completed, payments made, and who will own the copyright at the end. You might find your illustrator has a standard contract they use for all clients.

Make sure you read it thoroughly before you sign it, and make sure you both agree and sign it before work starts!

Now you have to pay for that work!

You should always agree the payment up front and make sure it’s detailed in your contract. Don’t pay it all up front! It’s usual to pay a deposit and then agree a payment plan for the remainder.

You may find that 2-3 milestone payments work well for both parties. For example, at completion of sketches, coloured illustrations and hand-over of print-ready images. Again, this should all be in the contact!

Pay them (and anyone else you work with, for that matter) on time! If you don’t, you may find the number of people willing to work with you diminishing. Or if they do take you on, you may not be their most important client at the time and fine yourself at the back of the line. Most people will work for the client that has paid over the one that hasn’t yet!

Fees vary greatly. Just remember, it takes an awful lot of work to illustrate a picture book, and you need to pay people fairly. We live in a global market, and illustrators in different locations will have a different rate – do your research.

I’ve worked with some truly brilliant illustrators – there’s nothing quite like seeing your story coming to life, and seeing it told in a new, magical way through the illustrations. When your story appears on the page, and it’s even better than you imagined it, it is a very special feeling indeed.

Are you ready to see your story come to life?

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