Breaking In as an Author/Illustrator

This comment came in from Priscilla via the blog:

I have heard that an author/illustrator needs to first “prove herself” as an author or an illustrator before being published as an author/illustrator. Is this the case? What is your advice for an author/illustrator on submitting a picture book when the text and images are dependent upon one another for meaning? As the Andrea Brown Literary Agency does not accept attachments with queries, a mock-up or dummy would be out of the question. But would an agent be interested in receiving written illustration ideas alongside a text query, or should the illustrations come later, only after an agent expresses interest in the project?

This is a great question, and one that might have a controversial answer. I am in the school of thought that picture books sell a bit more successfully these days, at least in my experience, if they come from an author/illustrator: one person trained to do both text and illustration.

Furthermore, most of my author/illustrator clients are trained illustrators first, then writers. I’ve done a lot more work with them on improving storytelling, structure, and writing. Because if the illustration quality isn’t there to begin with, there’s not a lot that I’ll be able to do, since my expertise is primarily in text.

A lot of the editors I talk to express interest in author/illustrators simply because the whole package is there: the text, the art, the interplay of word and image, the design of it. Some agents and editors are more talented than others at imagining what kind of illustrations to marry to text and vice versa. Picture book texts that sell (and many text-only sales are still made, every day) and illustration portfolios that land on an editor’s desk are incomplete. They need their mate in order to become a book. It’s up to the right editor and to chance to make the match between an author and an illustrator. Sometimes this alchemy doesn’t work. Sometimes texts or art bought separately take longer to get into production. It can get complicated. So if an editor buys a project from an author/illustrator, they have a tantalizing snapshot of what the finished book will be — right there in the dummy — and they know they’ll only have to work with and juggle one creator for the project instead of two.

This simplicity is, frankly, why I love working with a talented author/illustrator. They also tend to have the best understanding of how text and image can combine to become greater than the sum of their parts, how word and illustration enhance each other. For me, opening a dummy from a fantastic author/illustrator is like diving into a miraculous treasure trove. And that’s how it should feel. I’m extremely picky about author/illustrators, and do prefer to work with them over just illustrators or just authors, though I have those clients on my roster as well. This, of course, is just my personal preference.

Does, however, an author/illustrator need to get their start as an author illustrator? That depends. If they have a fantastic author/illustrator project that is very commercial, it will probably sell, even though they are a debut talent. If they extend themselves to land a text or an illustration deal (the latter being more common) first, then they can enter the marketplace with some illustration credits, then move on to an author/illustration combo. But I don’t think prior illustration credits are necessary to land an author/illustrator book.

One of my clients, Bethanie Murguia, was an experienced illustrator but had no book credits to her name until she landed BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER (out from Tricycle Press in May, 2011). That was her first book deal and her author/illustrator debut. As it happens, I have sold two more books for Bethanie, and both of them will be author/illustrator projects. One other client of mine is on the cusp of becoming an author/illustrator debut with a medium-sized publisher (more details after we finalize the deal!). He is an experienced illustrator, and we finessed the text and story.

Another client, Lindsay Ward, was a trained illustrator who got her start on her own by sending out postcards to editors and art directors. From there, she landed a cover and interior spot illustration project for Doubleday Canada, and two illustration projects: THE YELLOW BUTTERFLY from Bright Sky Press (2010) and A GARDEN FOR PIG from Kane/Miller (2010). I was on board at this point and we were able to work up to an author/illustrator project with a smaller house (PELLY AND MR. HARRISON VISIT THE MOON, out Spring 2011 from Kane/Miller), and then land her an author/illustrator deal with a larger house, the newly retitled WHEN BLUE MET EGG, out from Dutton/Penguin in Spring 2012.

So, you can break in to author/illustrator-hood either way. And I don’t think it’s out of the question to land an author/illustrator debut deal…at all.

Now, a lot of folks do have questions about our submission guidelines. We don’t accept attachments, so how do you send a dummy of your author/illustrator work? Simple. You copy and paste your query and the text of your picture book project (even if the text is dependent on illustration, we understand how that goes) and mention that you’re an author/illustrator. Then include a link to your online portfolio (every illustrator should have one, even those who are technically illiterate but could easily hire or ask someone, there’s really no excuse and you will get steamrolled by your competition if you don’t) where, ideally, we can see a few sample illustrations. If I like your art style, I will ask for the dummy, and then you can send the attachment!

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  1. KDuBayGillis’s avatar

    I’m thinking about an art program. . . or hoping that stick figures become a popular illustration style in the near future.

    (Love the new title for Blue & Egg!!!)

  2. Jennifer Bower’s avatar

    Wonderfully informative. Thank you for taking the time to give such invaluable insight. You always give me so much to think about and work on!

  3. Cyndi’s avatar

    Great post, Mary! thanks!!

    Question: I’ve been creating a site (for submitting to agents, not for public consumption) that I’ll be able to have my dummy and a couple other storyboards available for viewing and possibly also have a PDF of the dummy on the site that the agents can download…is that cool too? Or do I need to wait until it’s requested and put up a few sample illustrations instead? I figure if they like the text enough to click on the link to see the art, it saves them a step. Also the agent would be able to see instantly how art and text work together.

  4. Jess Morrison’s avatar

    Hugely helpful post, Mary. Coming from the writing camp first, it’s nice to know that there are many great ways to break in. Of course, like Jen said – always so much to work on after reading a Mary-post…! Have a good one!

  5. MaryZ’s avatar

    I wrote and illustrated my one published picture book, submitting it as a package. In 2000, all submissions were by mail, so my dummy went with my manuscript. I was so worried that a publisher might pick up the story, but not my illustrations. It was important to me to do both, so I was thrilled when it worked out. I’m glad to hear that author/illustrator packages are desirable.

  6. Megan K. Bickel’s avatar

    I’m a writer only, but I adore author/illustrator books and I think the appeal is huge for them in the marketplace right now. I love to see this kind of post encouraging more of them!

  7. Priscilla Mizell’s avatar

    Thank you for your detailed answer, Mary! This post is incredibly helpful and encouraging. I will look forward to reading the finished version of “When Blue Met Egg.”

  8. Bonnie Adamson’s avatar

    Thank you for this. The subject came up last night in a live chat among illustrators–some of us had been wondering if perhaps the market would be more receptive to text/illustrations projects. Looks as if the answer is yes!

  9. Kristin Gray’s avatar

    As usual, very insightful post, Mary. As a writer primarily, I half read it with my heart in my throat. It’s been years since I had an art show, and I know I need time to develop an illustration style. That said, it is nice to know there’s not one way to go about it (meaning everyone’s career path is unique.)

    Also I love this: “They need their mate in order to become a book.”

  10. Beth’s avatar

    Thanks for your great post, Mary. While I worked in the art dept. for a publisher, even though I had an art degree, I hired illustrators for some of our publications. The thing about illustration is that when it is done well, it looks deceptively easy, but it really is an art in and of itself. I always looked forward to receiving the work that I had hired an illustrator to do because it was a little like opening presents at Christmas. I just couldn’t wait to see what he or she had come up with.

    Writers of picture books do need to remember that when they provide only the text, they must split the royalty with an illustrator. If they are able to do both writing and illustrating, they earn the entire royalty, but illustrations are so important to the success of the book, good illustrators are worth every penny!

  11. Ingrid Sundberg’s avatar

    Do you need to have a book dummy to submit to agents as a writer/illustrator? What if you have a portfolio, and some manuscripts, but no dummy yet?

  12. Michael Di Gesu’s avatar

    Great article.

    I wrote an m/g project and illustrated the cover and interiors. So this information is very useful to me. Now I have a better idea on how to present my work.

    Thank you,

    Michael

  13. Barbara Eveleth’s avatar

    Ingrid, dummy it (because editors and art directors want to know that you can think out a book, that you can carry characters throughout, and that you have good visual storytelling skills, and can show lots of emotion, and connect with your reader/listener — especially for a first book).

    And it may take a few stories/dummies before you get the right one.

    It is a ton of work but worth it!!

    Good luck, Barb

  14. Isabel’s avatar

    Mary, this post has been extremely helpful! Thanks for the insight, I found it encouraging. :)

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