Every time we get an offer to do a book we feel super grateful and flattered that someone would want one of us to illustrate a book for them, but for many reasons we can’t say yes.
In this episode we get into the details of book publishing, including the economic, social, and career building reasons we take on certain book projects, and why we say no to others.
Here are Will’s 10 Reasons for why “I can’t illustrate your children’s book.” Some of them deal more with submitting a book with an author to a publisher or self publishing; they are all things to consider and reasons for why you may want to second guess saying yes to that lady you know who wants you to illustrate her book.
1. Bad Protocol [5:40]
This question, about, how to deal with people asking you to do their children’s book, is talked about often at SCWI.
The Most Asked Question: how do I find an illustrator?
Editor will tell the writer, you don’t need to find the illustrator, that’s our job.
They take pride in this, one of the publisher’s major roles is to find the right illustrator and match them with the right manuscript. They have resources and lots of connections to find the best match.
Some people jump to conclusions and think that just because someone can draw and someone has a children’s book idea that they should be paired to work together, without doing research beforehand to see if they would be a good match. You wouldn’t go around prescribing medication to people before learning what their symptoms are and so is the same with writing and illustrating children’s books.
Publishers don’t want to be in an awkward situation where they love the manuscript but they hate the art, then they have to tell you and it can be something they just would rather avoid.
They have more art and manuscripts than they can publish.
They oft times will dismiss you, just because you are filing jointly, and the art is already done. As with everything, there are exceptions.
There are many other reasons as to why they want to personally pair their artists and illustrators. They have marketing purposes, often they like to pair a more veteran author or illustrator with a newer author or illustrator. A new author with a new illustrator, or vice versa, is too much of a financial gamble.
As you have more experience and become more well known you may have more power and influence on who you are paired up with.
The Little Snowplow
2. Industry Perception [13:35]
Another reason Will would be hesitant to file jointly with an amateur is that it may look bad or affect publishers’ perception of him.
Even doing lots of things on Kickstarter can look amateur.
This is something that may be frowned upon merely because it’s a little more new.
Sometimes there are books that get picked up by publishers that started on Kickstarter.
Even your online followers on social media has an influence on how much of an advance you are allotted.
One book that may be an exception to this :
Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody
They filed their book jointly and then 3 different publishers got into a bidding war over it. However, this is different, because they were two pros working together. So it’s not really an exception. They can’t think of an example of two amateurs who got a book published together that did super well.
3. I Don’t Know You [19:10]
When an illustrator gets contacted to help with a book, the manuscript has gone through a lot of rewrites. This is hard work and takes a thick skin.
However, if you contact Will, he doesn’t know who you are and what you are like.
Manuscripts always have rewrites and iterations.
It often is a big task and can be tricky to figure out how to make edits and changes. And if they don’t know you, they don’t know if you are up to that task.
4. Award Submissions [22:32]
This is not super well known:
Publishers, at their own cost submit books for awards. I.e. the Caldecott, the Dr. Suess award, state awards, etc.
It is a lot of work, they have to fill out all of the paper work and ship a couple hundred books to the right person at the right time.
Getting these awards is what helps the book take off. It gets more publicity, and starts to get bought and recommended by librarians.
This is more for self publishing but is another reason that Will wouldn’t want to illustrate a book with an amateur.
Will has received 5-6 state awards. Jake has received a state reward. Lee received an ALA Award for a "I Lived On Butterfly Hill." And it made a huge difference.
I Lived On Butterfly Hill
5. Reviews [27:06]
Publishers have connections to get books reviewed. Which gets it on people’s radar.
This is why I wouldn’t want to illustrate someone’s self published book. This doesn’t mean that a self published book can’t
6. Opportunity Cost [28:13]
If you say yes to this children’s book is saying no to something else.
It takes months to finish a children’s book and in the end there might not be much
Average time to complete a children’s book: 6 Months. Jake, Lee, and Will can get a book done in less time but this is a good place to start.
If You’re Going to Partner or Work With Anyone, Be Clear About Who Owns the Rights to the Work. [33:16]
You need to go in with your eyes wide open.
Lee had an idea for a book that he brought an author on to help him write the story. He knew what the story was and was struggling with the words. So he brought this very very well known artist on. His assumption was that they would co-write the book and he would do the artwork. Her assumption, however, was that she was now the author and owned all the content, and that he was someone now illustrating her story. Long story short, It didn’t work out.
For any joint venture: have a clear expectation and maybe even a conference maybe even for a critique group. To protect yourself and them as well.
Ideas are not “copyright able.”
Be careful and go in with your eyes wide open.
7. Professional Production [38:24]
Honestly, if it’s the authors first time doing this, they don’t know what they are doing. And that can be another red flag as to why you shouldn’t do their children’s book.
Authors usually don’t know how to art direct and don’t have the skills to give art direction.
Lee decided to help illustrate a self published book and he did some character sketches and showed them to the author. One of them was a anthropomorphic cow, and the lady said, “My mom would never wear that.” And then got into how the cow represented her mom and how it needed to look like her. Lee saw that there was all sorts of subtle things things like this and took it as a warning to get out of there and not do the book. Because it would be very hard to work with this author as an art director when they didn’t know what was important or how to art direct.
Then there are a whole bunch of things in the production side of things. Margins and type, etc.
Will will get these short emails from people telling him that they like his work and asking him if he will illustrate their book for them. And he wonders where their business proposal is.
8. Royalties [43:13]
In creating all the art for the book, the author and illustrator are creating intellectual property (IP.) And if the book takes off and becomes a big selling book, or a TV show, or a cartoon, or a movie, then the illustrator wants to go along for the ride and make money off of all of the things their IP is used for.
It’s hard to have a long career as an illustrator living off of just the advances received, you want to be getting royalties as well. You want to see books stick and generate royalties and income for the long term.
Lee was complaining about his small royalty check ($13), hoping to have company in misery. Then David Hohn told him how much his check was (4-5 figures) and Lee was blown away by how much he had made.
Then there are the Brett Helquists who have funded their own retirement and their kids retirement off of all he royalties he’s made through the A Series of Unfortunate Events books.
With self publishing there is a trust issue as to, how are you going to track sales and royalties. The publishers now have an online portal where you can login and monitor your book’s sales.
9. Distribution [46:53]
This is a lot of work and for Will, Lee, and Jake something they have all dealt with doing their Kickstarters.
Thousands of books take up space. They have had their basements and garages filled with books. Lee’s shipment of books was 2500 pounds, he literally had a ton of books. Now Lee and Jake have storage units to keep all their books. And 2-3 thousand books isn’t even a huge amount.
Jeff Smith, while self publishing “Bone”, ended up buying the house next door to house all of his book inventory.
Distribution is a ton of work! (no pun intended.)
Self Publishing authors are not distributors. They don’t have relationships with distributors. And so that’s one more downside.
One other side note:
Foreign rights. Lee has had books go into Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. Publishers know how to distribute in those markets.
10. Money [49:50]
People may think, “oh it’s just $500,” and don’t realize how much an illustrator needs to make from illustrating a book.
Will asks Lee and Jake to name their price, to do a self published book with a terrible manuscript.
Lee often gets 30K+ advances, Will is a little under that, and Jake has gotten both under and higher than that.
An advance is money publishers pay you in advance against the royalties. So you get money when you sign the contract, and then when you turn in sketches, and then when you submit the final work (1/3, 1/3, 1/3; or 1/2, 1/2). Then you don’t get money on royalties until that amount is reached, on what you would have got?from royalties if there wasn’t an advance, then once you reach that point, you start to make money off of royalties.
And Lee said he would do a self published book for $50,000 (and that is if he liked he book). Lee would charge this much because of opportunity costs, where
If he didn’t like it, they would have to pay up in the 6-figures range.
This conversation could be misconstrued to be three ar
Part of the problem is perpetuated with the publisher. Because there are some books like “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” that are super successful with very simple drawings, and so people think that anyone could do something like that and it would be easy.
What about for a family friend?
Jake might help illustrate a book for a family friend, but it wouldn’t be as detailed or
Will and Lee are against illustrating for a family member or friend.
You should love the project, and really like it.
When you set up your agreement, because you will set up a contract of course, make sure you don’t
They probably won’t pay you a ton. Go ahead and set up a big royalty. Do
How to answer this question, “Can you recommend someone?” [1:00:06]
That’s a hard question because you might not know what they want, or what they
Lee has a new technique for saying no to these offers. And one of the things he has learned is that you don’t always have to respond to every email.
Maybe for a high school student it could work out.
Neil Gaiman graduation commencement
He sees his goals and aspirations as a mountain in the distance, and as long as your going there then you are doing something good.
Make great art.
It might be different if you are in college or based on your circumstances.
Honestly, it comes down to: does it fit your needs, or does it point you in the right direction. Another thing is if you really feel that this will be something that will help someone, you can.
The reason creating art you don’t want to make is because your mind can’t escape it.
If you like this episode, please share it, subscribe, and we’d love it if you left a review! These podcasts live and die on reviews.
If you want to join in on this discussion log onto forum.svslearn.com, there is a forum for this episode you can comment on.