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Crucial Tips for Hiring an Illustrator.


So you have an idea, or perhaps you’ve already got the text written, and you’re looking to get some talented artist to bring your story to life. Congratulations! Children’s books are iconic pieces of literature that transcend generations and give us a link back to our childhood when we grow up. They are beautiful not only in their aims but also in their simplicity. Unfortunately the process of getting a children’s book illustrated is anything but simple. Since children are new to language Illustration will be the primary way in which they interact with a book and can make or break a books future.

The wrong one for the job

Not only is quality and consistency in a portfolio important, style, personality and overall fit is crucial.

Not only is quality and consistency in a portfolio important, style, personality and overall fit is crucial.

All too often aspiring children’s book authors begin their search for an artist with too little information and set themselves up for failure. Illustration markets are intensely competitive arenas bound together by convoluted copyright laws and contracts that will both the author and the artist for years to come. Not only that but the more successful the book becomes, the more financial weight the initial contract will carry. Getting things right at the start is the best way to ensure that the brightest future for your project.

Learning Laws and Contracts

The worst thing you can do is hire somebody for a low fixed price and a handshake. What happens when a publisher picks up the book? They’ll need to know that they have the right to print and distribute it and you’ll need to secure that from your illustrator. Chances are, though that they won’t be willing to let it go cheap if it sounds like the project has been picked up by a publisher. Even if you bought the physical art from your illustrator you didn’t necessarily buy the rights to copy and distribute it. Should you go to print without copyright your illustrator will have every right to a considerable share of the profits, not to mention damages and attorney’s fees if it becomes a legal battle.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, are authors who use a contract but demand all of the rights to the artist’s work and the physical work itself be transferred permanently in order to avoid any copyright issues or having to pay royalties in the future. This is known as a “rights buyout” or a “work for hire contract.”The problem with work for hire is that it typically undermines the artist’s stake in the success of the project by giving up royalties and licensing rights in the future. Should the project even get completed and enjoy some success, you will find it quite difficult to get the same artist to work on the project again as they’ll feel cheated and will (hopefully) have learned that work for hire contracts are not in their best interest long term. This means you’ll be back where you are now, looking for an artist, except that at that point you’ll be limited to people who can match the first artist’s style, but still be different enough to avoid copying any of the new work they’ve done. A rights buyout that doesn’t cheat the illustrator is typically a very expensive and risky proposition as it has to assume that the project will see a certain level of success and compensate the artist up front without knowing if the project will even make it to print.

Instead, the best thing you can do is your homework. Pick up a copy of the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook, and study up on the industry. Familiarize yourself with the legal aspects and learn the copyright laws applicable to you. Figure out what rights you need right away and what you can trim to save money. Use the sample contracts that they provide to create your own contract. Then you’ll be ready not only to hire an illustrator, but to negotiate and get the right licensing for each stage of the project once you find one you like.

Where to Look

With Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Behance, DeviantArt and all of the other social networking sites, it is easier than ever before to browse portfolios and get in touch with an artist. Tumblr is a great resource because it sorts profiles by type (photograpy, art, illustration, etc.) and encourages artists to not only post their work but discuss their process. At your local book store you can find the resources that art directors have turned to for years; illustration annuals and other juried publications. Many of these publications will have sections featuring the work of students and emerging artists. My personal favorites are 3x3, CMYK and Society of IllustratorsThough they generally work with more well established illustrators commanding a higher price, art agencies like illozoo and directories like Altpick are also an excellent place to find talent. Generally an agency will have partnerships with a number of artists and will be able to help you find the right one for your project. Spending time looking through these resources will also help you figure out what you like, what you don't like and develop your own artistic taste.

That said, avoid dogpile sites like Freelancer, Elance and Crowdspring. The idea of posting your project and sitting back while the artists come to you is tempting but the approach is inherently flawed. Rather than take on the typical role of an agent, looking for work and managing the business end so that the artist is free to focus on art, these sites force the artist to do a great deal of promotion work and apply for each project like a full time job amid tens or hundreds of competitors. Some, like Crowdspring, even force the artist to do projects for free just to submit it in a competition with poor odds of seeing any kind of compensation for their work. Meanwhile the artists' focus is necessarily shifted away from creating great art to undercutting each other on price. All of this tends to foster an community of employers who are too busy or don't care much about the project and artists who either don't know the value of their work or devalue it to match the competition. Worse yet, depending on the terms of service, the site may legally own the relationship or even some part of the copyright, forcing you and the artist to do future projects through them.

What to Look for

You should be looking for an artist with a solid style. A good illustrator will have a certain method of working that they are most comfortable with and that will heavily influence the look of all of their work. Their pieces don’t all need to look the same, but you should be able to look at one of their pieces without knowing who did it and say “oh, hey, I bet so and so did that.” This is important for 2 reasons. First, as an art buyer, you need to be able to have some general idea of what the finished book will look like if completed by a given artist. Second, and even more importantly, you’ll need to be sure that the artist will be able to maintain a cohesive look from one spread to another throughout the book.

Some authors are uncomfortable trusting their own eye when it comes to art. After all, if an author were good with art stuff they wouldn’t need an illustrator right? Unfortunately, as the person hiring an illustrator, you will be acting as an art director and will need to have some familiarity with the subject in order to figure out what you want. Picking an illustrator without having an idea of what you want will only lead to wasted time, a lot of edits and more money for those extra edits. It will be helpful to understand things like color, lighting and composition and the tremendous effect they have on the story. Fortunately, there are excellent resources available to you. While somewhat more cinematic than a typical children’s book, Marcos Mateu-Mestre’s 127 page book “Framed Ink” is a must-read for any visual storyteller demonstrates how to create a mood and move the eye from one piece of the story to another step-by step.

Reading and writing.

Reading and writing.

Spend Some Money

As we discussed earlier, children are very visual creatures and being either new or entirely unfamiliar with reading and writing, it will be the illustrations that do it for them. Unfortunately there are a lot of talented students who would rather die than decline a chance at getting published even if it means doing a job for free. It won’t do either of you any good in the long run to under-pay your illustrator or let them sign up for a publication credit or royalty-only deal though. Despite the fact that so many young illustrators think they want to work for free, illustrators are contract professionals just like mechanics, computer technicians to carpenters. They are selling their time, effort and skill and it is valuable. The project needs to be worth their while to keep them invested. It would be great if contract work was done on a first-come-first-serve basis but that simply isn’t the case. The more talented a student is the faster a better paying contract will come along and snatch them away. Meanwhile your delightful children's book, prioritized by dollar value, will end up in inbox limbo until the artist finally gets around to it or someone pulls the plug, leaving you with a half finished book, art you can’t use. Of course one might argue that it's poor customer service to leave a project unfinished, but if the customer isn't paying, or is paying a very low rate, then they aren't a good customer and there's no reason to keep their business.

Most contracts typically include a flat fee as well as royalties and licensing agreements once the book catches on. Again, refer to the graphic artist’s guild handbook for a guide to rates. You may do a double take when you see the prices, or even reconsider the whole project, but for a book based heavily on its visual content it is a bad idea to cheap out. Again I must compare art to other skilled trades. Think about how much would you pay to get your car fixed or have a leaky pipe in the ceiling repaired. Next time you get an invoice from the mechanic take a look at the price per hour for labor. When selling a skill people have to charge what will allow them to survive. You may need to save up. You may need to do a fundraiser or get a Kickstarter going, or even get a loan from the bank. Great art is an investment, children's books are a business and there is no small amount of risk involved.

Remember, it's Business

Brad Holland, a well known illustrator who worked extensively with Playboy once described the difference between fine art and commercial art (in this case, illustration)"In commercial art, you find out how much they're going to pay you, then you do the work. In fine art, it's the other way around." At the end of the day, art is business, no matter how much society wants to pretend otherwise. As with any business much of it depends on who you know and who your partners are.

The illustrator you hire will be your business partner. They will be invested in the project just as much as you are. They will delight in its success and do and wither in its failure. the more invested they are, the more they will do to ensure its success. The project will become theirs as much as it is yours. Above all else you must look for a business partner who you can trust with your idea and allow them make it their own. There will likely be disagreements and disagreements of a piece of work that is very dear to you can be devastating. Maintaining professionalism and finding an illustrator who is also professional will help ensure the brightest future for your book.

Hopefully the project is successful leading to more successful projects and a business relationship that lasts for years to come.


Firoz from India on July 03, 2013:

Thanks for Crucial Tips. Voted up.

Andrew MacDonald (author) from Savannah, GA on July 02, 2013:

Thanks! my pleasure.

Bernadyn from Jacksonville, Florida on July 01, 2013:

Great article and tips from the illustrator's viewpoint. An artist's talent is valuable especially for books geared toward young children who focus on the pictures usually more than the texts. Thanks for sharing this!

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