Working as an Author and Illustrator Team Before Submission

Hey all, Robert recently wrote in to ask the following:

Is it ever possible for an author and illustrator to collaborate and then submit to agents/publishers? I know it’s not the norm and I know having my best friend illustrate my books makes me look amateur. Here’s the thing: we are true collaborators from the beginning of the project to the end. He helps me invent the characters and even comes up with plot elements and I dictate to him exactly how a picture should look at times. I know publishers have their own in-house illustrators and that it is unconventional to say the least. But I couldn’t ever publish without him. Do you have any advice as to how we should proceed?

I get this question a lot at conferences.

Here’s how the picture book pipeline usually works for authors:

  1. Get representation for a text or an offer from a publisher.
  2. Sell text to publisher.
  3. Have publisher match your text to an illustrator.
  4. See illustrations, have varying levels on input.
  5. Publish.

Here’s how it usually works for illustrators:

  1. Get representation for your illustrations or get interest from a publisher.
  2. Wait until a publishers has the right project for you.
  3. Sign a contract to work on the project and turn in sketches and finishes.
  4. Do revisions.
  5. Publish.

Now, Robert wants to know what happens if a publisher is approached with a project that has both text and illustrations already in place, but from two people. (If a project with both text and illustrations came from one person, that person would be called an author/illustrator, and, in my opinion, art and text from a single creator would be a more compelling sale if both the art and text were really strong. Most of my picture book sales have been for author/illustrators.)

Note one inaccuracy about Robert’s question: major publishing houses (and even small ones) hire out illustrators, they do not have in-house artists. Most have in-house designers and art directors, but designers do not do illustration work. They work on putting together a book’s cover and packaging (unless it’s a picture book, in which case the illustrator usually provides the cover image).

I say you run one big risk with this situation, whether you’re approaching an agent or a publisher: what if one component is better than the other? And since you have a close relationship with your co-creator and love the project as is, you may have trouble seeing that.

If you give somebody a package of text and art, that person will assume that this is how you want the book produced. They’ll see how you’ve executed the project and will have a bit more trouble imagining it any other way. So if you give an agent or an editor a complete picture book dummy with both text and art, and one or the other isn’t working, the agent or editor will think, “Gosh, I really wish the text (or art) was stronger, but I guess this is how the creators envision it, so I think I’ll reject.”

Of course, both text and art could be perfect, could work harmoniously together, etc., in which case the agent could offer representation to either or both of you and the publisher would issue each of you a publishing contract. And, of course, the project may not work as a whole, but a wonderful agent or editor with lots of vision could see each component part and imagine how it might work independently.

But I find, more often than not, that the situation Robert describes involves two people who may not be well-matched in terms of talent. And that’s the risk. If you’re dead set on publishing this project with your collaborator, that’s fine. But you could be cutting yourself off from the possibility of either selling the art or text separately — if you happened to be flexible. If you don’t happen to be flexible, it could mean not selling at all.

When I submit, I prefer to submit just text, just art, or an author/illustrator package by an author/illustrator client who has a great grasp of how their two mediums (art and text) play together. I would be reluctant, for the above reasons, to consider an author and illustrator team if the combination wasn’t perfect. I’d also be reluctant — again, unless I had a great match in mind — to pair a text with, say, one of my illustrators, and present both to the publisher.

The publisher has the final say in terms of which illustrator and which writer will compose a picture book. That decision has to do with the publisher’s own relationships, with the prestige of either creator, with how the publisher’s sales and marketing people react to either component, etc. In a market where picture books are not doing well and most titles are not getting picked up for distribution by the major chains, publishers often find themselves pairing a debut author with a name illustrator or vice versa to make the project viable. If you’re insisting on a debut text paired with a debut illustrator…you may not have the most compelling case.

My biggest bit of advice is: be flexible. If an agent or editor wants either text or illustrations from you, consider it. How willing you are to entertain other illustrators (or authors) for this project really could mean the difference between published and not.

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  1. Thomas’s avatar

    Excellent post! I’ve worked for over a decade as author/illustrator, just illustrator and more recently just author on picture books, and I can’t think of anything to add to the advice “be flexible”. Also, picture books tend to get very heavily rewritten/redrawn during editing, which is obviously going to be more complicated if there are two people with a hand in both the writing and the art. That alone might make a publisher nervous.

  2. KellieD’s avatar

    Interesting post. I’m really curious how #4 on your author list works in reality. I’ve heard varying things from other PB writers — ranging from no input at all to editors asking for an opinion when selecting the illustrator. From an aspiring PB author perspective, I’m well aware that illustrations make or break a book, so I think about this a lot. (This post makes me wonder if you heard my conversation with a certain author/illustrator last night over coffee. Hmmmm.)

  3. Cynthia Leitich Smith’s avatar

    In my years of doing author/illustrator interviews, the only successful example I’ve featured is author Kathi Appelt and illustrator Joy Fisher Hein on Miss Ladybird’s Wildflowers: http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2005/03/author-kathi-appelt-and-illustrator.html
    and you’ll see from the link, it was a bumpy journey, albeit with a happy ending and wonderful final book.

  4. Olleymae’s avatar

    This post is awesome. Definitely something I’ve always wondered about since I grew up dreaming about illustrating picture books.

    I’m off to check out Cynthia Leitich Smith’s link!

  5. Franziska Green’s avatar

    This post reminds me of a discussion that came up on Verla Kay’s: what can you/should you do if you don’t like the illustrations for your first picture book? (By ‘don’t like’ I mean that you feel like bursting into tears of despair when you see them, not just that they’re not your cup of tea.) Is it worth jeopardizing your relationship with the editor/publishing house or should you just suck it up?

    I’ve bought books for my daughter just because we both love the illustrations so much – even when the story’s been so-so. I also imagine (correct me if I’m wrong) that a writer’s career can be dramatically affected by the first illustrator s/he gets published with.

  6. @4KidLit’s avatar

    At a conference I attended recently, this same exact advice was given. If you attempt the illustrations yourself or have an illustrator pre-selected, chances are you may be giving editors another reason to say no altogether. I think your advice to stay flexible is the best approach. Can we link you for our Friday blog round-up? Excellent advice for PB writers and illustrators!

    Thank you!
    Marissa

  7. Corinne’s avatar

    This is a great post! I’m wondering if the same applies to graphic novels; on one hand I don’t see why it wouldn’t, as there’s the same problem of the art maybe not living up to the writing or vice versa, but on the other hand, people who are solely artists or solely writers seem to have a much harder time gaining agent representation than writer/artists. They tend to want to see pages in advance, which pretty much dictates you ought to pair up if you can’t handle both sides of the process (which most can’t).

    So… do you happen to know more about how similar or dissimilar that situation might be? Or is this not your area of expertise?

  8. KatApel’s avatar

    There’s a Q that gets asked over and over again. Thanks for posting about it. Your response fits the Oz writing scene too.

    Flexibility, patience and persistence – seem to be key words in publishing. :)

  9. christine tripp’s avatar

    >Also, picture books tend to get very heavily rewritten/redrawn during editing, which is obviously going to be more complicated if there are two people with a hand in both the writing and the art. That alone might make a publisher nervous.<

    I know what your saying here Thomas, I realize your aiming the statement at that idea of an author and illustrator partnership. In reality though, publishers do deal with a seperate authors and illustrators on a daily basis. That’s why there are, most typically, an Editor and an Art Director at the publishing house:)
    I think the biggest problem with an author and illustrator team is, being an author does not qualify you as an art director, nor art critique. Now, I know art is in the eye of the beholder and we can all make an arguement for illustration that we may consider not the greatest (In our opinions of course) but has been published. Still, most times an Editor and/or Art Director knows what is good, what is appealing to kids, their parents (the buyer) what illustration will sell. They also might know which Illustrators are fun and easy to work with, which ones take direction well and meet deadlines. More then likely, it will be an illustrator they have worked with before.
    An author who is working with a “freind” may have a hard time being subjective about the art itself. They may be quiet impressed with illustration that would NOT impress an Editor who see’s the best of the best cross his/her desk each day. Rather then wanting control over both aspects of their book (I think this is the main reason authors look to find their own illustrator, aside from not knowing how PB publishing works of course) the author should just want the BEST for his/her book. The best is almost always a professional illustrator of the publishers choice, working with a professional AD not an author.
    All this aside, I do know personally of one incident where an author and illustrator team did get published. But…. the illustrator was working as an animator with a division of the publishers company and brought the finished project to them in person. It was a GOOD book but without that Illustrators “IN” I am not sure if it would have been published from the slush pile.

  10. christine tripp’s avatar

    Oops, Thomas I may have mistaken what you were saying here. Doh, should read and re read before posting. Are you saying that, because in this instance the author also had a hand in directing the illustrator, and the illustrator had a say in text, that this would make the situation more difficult for the publisher? Then yes, I see your point!!!:)

  11. Robert Kent’s avatar

    What a wonderful post! Thanks so much for answering my question, even if you didn’t say what I wanted to hear. I linked to you on my blog:

    http://middlegradeninja.blogspot.com/2010/06/authorillustrator-teams-and-online.html

    I hadn’t expected an answer so soon! You rock! I think yours is one of the best blogs for any writer to read and I’ll keep coming back for more!

    And also, now I have this post to show to my illustrator friend. If we should have to delay working together, having the advice of such a fantastic agent should make that conversation a lot easier. Thanks again.

  12. Thomas’s avatar

    Hi, Christine. Yes, I was just making the point that running editorial direction through two people over each aspect of a project is going to be much more daunting — especially if both are new to the experience of being edited — than dealing with a single writer over the text, and then a seperate illustrator over the art.

    Robert, you might be better off splitting your project firmly between you (at least in public) so that there’s a clear divide between author and illustrator. Then the author can go about trying to sell the text. If you succeed there’s no reason why you can’ t recommend an illustrator, though sadly there’s also no reason why the publisher would have to accept him/her. Good luck with it.

    I’m off to read your blog.

  13. christine tripp’s avatar

    Sorry Thomas and totally agree with you!!!

  14. Cynthia Kennedy’s avatar

    If a person is capable artistically to illustrate his own book, why can’t he do so? You’re stating that one must be professional in order to do it. I’m receptive to constructive criticism, but I think it would be fair if an editor, publisher, etc., would critique an author’s illustrations and advise them on how he could make it work.

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