How to Find an Illustrator

I just got off the phone with someone who called because she had seen an image done by one of our artists, and she wanted to know how she could get him to illustrate her picture book for her. I spent some time trying to tell her that that isn’t really how it works, but she just wasn’t hearing me. And so I changed tacks, and ended up telling her it would be very, VERY expensive. That she heard. But I was left with the feeling that my point was not made.

Writers: You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

In nearly all cases (exceptions explained below) the publisher will hire an illustrator for you. Your job, as a writer, is to write. And you shouldn’t be spending money on an illustrator (or an agent, or making hard-copies of your work). You’re doing things out of order. Once your words have been sold to a publisher, they will work very hard to find exactly the right artist for the job. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator.

I know it seems like a smart idea to send out a full-package to potential agents or publishers. But agents, editors, and art-directors are very practiced at reading picture book texts without art. Part of the fun is imagining the pictures before they exist. By hiring an illustrator, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Here are a few reasons why you definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator:

  1. Your vision is not the agent or publisher’s vision. Your manuscript could be brilliant, but even the best professionals have a hard time separating text from art sometimes. And sub-par art could mean turning down a perfectly decent manuscript.
  2. The friend who you hired isn’t really as great an artist as you think, which can make you both look unprofessional.
  3. You end up spending money when you don’t need to. Let the publisher pay the illustrator for you.
  4. It would be nearly impossible for a picture book hopeful to hire, say, a New York Times bestselling illustrator, but it’s pretty easy for a publishing house to do so. Don’t you want a New York Times bestselling illustrator attached to your project?

But what are the exceptions? 

  1. The friend you paired up with has a few picture books under her belt already. Or is at least more than a weekend hobbyist-artist. You and she have been working hard together and attending conferences and understand that you are doing things in an unconventional way.
  2. You plan to self-publish
  3. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator

Here’s why it’s a good idea to trust the agents and publishers to hire an illustrator for you: 

  1. It’s their job to understand the entire industry, from what stories and styles are working in the current market, to who won which awards this year. We know people’s schedules and stuff, too. 
  2. It’s common practice to pair a new writer with a “known” illustrator to bring some name recognition to a debut. 
  3. The publisher may have an “open contract” with an illustrator, and they may be looking for just the right thing to fill it.

Please, please save yourself time, money, and the headache of art-directing someone who isn’t right for the job. Trust that your words are enough, and that the person in charge of finding you an illustrator will do so with aplomb.

You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 


Venturing Forth

Many queries tell me “this is my first attempt at writing” or “I’ve never written a word before this” or some such. And I always feel excited for people who’ve found the powerful magic of changing the world with words.

Like anything, though, one would never expect to become a professional at one’s first try. Imagine walking into an open tryout for the Brooklyn Cyclones, picking up a bat, and saying, I’ve never played this before, but I just love baseball. Or hanging a shingle on your front door advertising flu shots because you’d always wanted to be a doctor.

There are many steps between “I’d like to give this a go” and “I’m getting pretty good at this” and “a publisher might actually be interested in this”. And some of those steps can maybe be skipped, depending on circumstances, but it’s not the smart bet to walk in thinking they can ALL be skipped.

Don’t know what the steps are? That’s cool. The internet is the best place in the world* for finding things out. Like any profession, there are communities full of people who have advice for you. And like I always say, the SCBWI is a marvelous resource. So are webinars. So are blogs. And retreats. And books about writing books.

The path is a long one, but you’re on it, and you’ll find many people along the way to make sure you stay on it, show you appropriate shortcuts, and keep you from getting trampled. Your first attempt is a great start. But if you’ve never written a word before today, think about whether you’ve been at it long enough to be considered a professional. Don’t worry, books will be around a while, we can wait. And we’ll cheer you along as you go.


*take with a grain of salt, geez.