A few weeks ago, I was in a local tavern with some friends—a few of them are professional illustrators. They were drinking overpriced mocktails and commiserating about the emails they get from aspiring authors asking them to illustrate picture books for free.
This is the biggest myth in children’s publishing: that the only way to get published is by first finding an illustrator to illustrate your picture book manuscript. What aspiring authors don’t realize is that if a publisher is interested in publishing their manuscript, the publisher will make the investment in finding, hiring and working with an illustrator. Bottom line: aspiring authors (who aren’t professional illustrators) are strongly encouraged to submit their manuscripts without illustrations.
So just to fit in with my illustrator friends, I said, “I know, right? It happens to me all the time.”
And my friends were like, “What? You’re not an illustrator, Naseem.”
And I was like, “Oh, yeah?” And then I drew a near-perfect rendering of Ziggy on a napkin. And that’s when I realized that my friends were right. And that’s when I also realized that I might not have many tangible skills—no one ever asks me to do anything for free.
Computer wizards, photographers, chefs and doctors—they get asked to do stuff for free all the time.
Fix my computer!
Take my headshot for my online dating profile!
Teach me how to make fried chicken!
Copyedit this column!
Tell me I’m not a narcissist!
(BTW, a huge thanks to Amelie for helping me with my computer, Connie for taking my headshots, Olga and Jen for the copyediting, Joshna for teaching me how to make fried chicken and my mom—a psychiatrist—for, mostly, reassuring me about that last thing.)
I asked my friends why being asked to illustrate someone’s picture book for free isn’t in fact a life-affirming act but a terrible way to devalue someone’s talents and profession. Here’s what they had to say:
"It is unfair to ask anyone to work for free. Even though you might think your story is the greatest thing ever written it still needs a professional editor. And by professional editor I don’t mean your English major friend from university. I mean a real children’s book editor. An editor may have ideas for the story that you haven’t considered and that could mean changes to the story—some minor, some possibly substantial. You cannot expect an illustrator to work on project knowing that the manuscript will likely undergo changes because that will mean that all their (free) work is just going to end up in the recycling bin." — Carey Sookocheff, author-illustrator of Solutions for Cold Feet and Other Little Problems and Wet
“It makes you look very unprofessional. If you wanna be in this business, you gotta know how this business works. If you’ve never been published before, you have nothing to show that you have what it takes to sell your book like hotcakes. It’s the publisher who decides which artist will illustrate your story (if it’s good enough). You gotta EARN your right to have a book published.” — Patricia Storms, author-illustrator of The Pirate and the Penguin and Never Let You Go
“Don’t EVER ask an illustrator to illustrate your picture book! UNLESS you’re 100% absolutely, without-a-doubt, POSITIVE that you know FOR CERTAIN that your picture book needs no editing WHATSOEVER, that the page breaks are PERFECT, the type size and placement is FLAWLESS, that the trim size and dimensions you’ve chosen are what the market is calling for and work within the book’s as-yet-unknown production budget, and that you, personally, have the clout, taste and contracting skills to hire the BEST illustrator for the job, one that can be a TRUE artistic collaborator who can elevate the book beyond your initial vision, and not just the first artist you could find that was willing to take a chance, and you can GUARANTEE a competitive advance, future royalties and sales figures worth the artist’s considerable time and effort, and you are CONFIDENT that your future publisher, who is going to LOVE this book AS-IS, will want to have ZERO input themselves into how the book will look. If you’re sure of all of this, then by all means, ask away!” — John Martz, author-illustrator of A Cat Named Tim and Other Stories, Burt’s Way Home and Evie and the Truth About Witches
There you have it: Don’t ask an illustrator to illustrate your picture book. Most illustrators don’t like it, publishers prefer that you don’t do it and guess what? Not having to get your manuscript illustrated before sending it to a publisher is a heck of a lot easier on you, too. And it’ll give you even more time to master the art of writing picture books and/or drawing Ziggy.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Naseem Hrab is the author of the picture books Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend and Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings, illustrated by Josh Holinaty. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Sometimes Naseem likes to get up on a stage and tell true stories. She loves improv and coffee ice cream.
She worked as a librarian for a time and currently works in children's publishing.