Illustration

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If you are an illustrator, I highly recommend having a simple portfolio website that you can use to display your work. When you’re querying, instead of attaching images (most editors and agents don’t accept attachments anyway), you can just send a link to your collection. Add new things, change out images in your rotation, and keep it clean, simple, and maintained. That’s about it. And if you’re not tech savvy, you may be able to hire someone via Elance (a freelance marketplace I’ve used to find web designers, or contractors in any arena, in the past) or in your circle of friends to put your image files (scans or digital creations) online. Just make sure that if you use scans, they are of high quality and taken under good lighting that’s true to your intended color scheme.

Two sites that I see a lot of illustrators gravitating to are Wix and SquareSpace. They are built to be user friendly and easy on the wallet. You can use templates provided or get someone to customize your site. These options are modern, work well across multiple platforms, and are easy to link to your other online efforts. I haven’t used either but I’m coming up on a project in my personal life and seriously considering SquareSpace because I like the design and functionality of their sites. I’ve been on WordPress for years and years, so maybe it’s time to try something new, minimal, and graphics-focused!

If all of this is very scary to you, you can just start a free Flickr account and make a gallery of your images. This is the bare minimum, and allows you to host your image and a description (I would opt for one if you can). Send links to the entire gallery in your query so that visitors can click through the whole thing instead of landing on just one image.

Many people overthink this sort of stuff because sometimes computers can be scary and the demands of building a platform seem overwhelming. Don’t let that stop you from putting up a portfolio. Hosting one online has become quite necessary these days, and agents and editors except to see several examples of your work, with different composition, subject matter, tone, palette, etc. (if possible), before they can decide if they’re interested or not.

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This post is for all the author/illustrators out there, and the question comes from Siski:

I’d like to know more about agents and how they go about repping author/illustrators. I read an awful lot about query letters for authors but how does an author/illustrator query?

As we do with our authors, agents help author/illustrators develop their projects, work up a submission plan, and connect our clients with potential editors. The nature of the editorial work is a bit different, though. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not an artist. (Despite a very promising banana still life at age three that remains framed in my mother’s…closet. Ouch.) But my mom is actually a rather well-known fine art painter. I’ve spent my entire life around art and almost every fall, I go on tour with her and hang out in even more galleries. I may not know how to pull what’s in my mind and get it down on paper visually, but I do know what I like (and what’s good) when I see it.

With author/illustrators, I comment on issues of composition, image choice, character, expression, color, etc., but the art mastery has to be there before I sign an author/illustrator or illustrator. All of my illustrators came to books from being artists first, writers second. It is much easier to hone the picture book writing side of a creator’s craft (though it’s still very difficult to write a timeless, smash hit picture book) than it is to teach them art. That’s why I don’t recommend writers take up art and try to become illustrators. Unless you are gifted visually, it will be very difficult to compete with all the illustrators on shelves today or in BFA or MFA programs. Aspiring illustrators should spend a few hours in the picture book section of a bookstore and see what the professionals are doing. Even the most deceptively simple styles have a lot of artistry going on behind the scenes. Adding writing to an illustrator’s toolbox is a lot easier (and more feasible) than adding illustration to a writer’s.

So for me to take on an illustrator, I need to be wild about their illustration style and talent. They also need to have at least one really fun or commercial story idea that we can work with. If the writing isn’t stellar (yet), I know I can work with them just like I would my author clients in order to get things into shape.

Submissions work similarly with author/illustrators, except I’m often sending out a full sketch dummy, anywhere from two to five mock finishes (full color renderings of sketches), and the manuscript text. I will either send this in the form of a physical, mail submission, if the art works better when you can spread it out in front of you and really dive in, or as a digital PDF file.

The other part of how I work with an author/illustrator is trying to rustle up illustration work. This is very tough going for most agents, and most illustrators, because a lot of illustrator-project pairing is a matter of luck and timing. Not all editors are equally patient or talented when it comes to stretching their imaginations for either a text or an art sample. This isn’t a slam on editors…far from it. Matching text to art is quite a skill, and that’s why some children’s editors don’t even have a lot of picture books on their list, because working with art isn’t something they love to do.

Some will see an artist’s sample postcard and, if it features a dog, think of their text that also needs a great dog character. A match is made! Some editors will leave a text sitting unmatched until the last possible moment, then see a great postcard that crosses their desk and…again, art alchemy! Others will fall in love with an artist, keep their postcards on hand or a link to their online portfolio in their favorites, and hunt tirelessly for the right text.

Most illustrators and editors swear that it’s all about when an art sample crosses their eyes. The right sample at the right time will get hired. Others think it’s about consistency…if they see an artist a certain number of times, they will start to think about them for jobs.

My job is to work with my artists to create the perfect sample image, portfolio, and postcards and then get them out there. For some clients, my colleagues and I do postcard mailings. I also do digital art mailings, the ABLA Artists of the Month email blasts that go out every month and feature two artists the agency’s client lists. Editors love having both hard copy postcards and links to online portfolios, so we try to do everything we can to get illustration jobs as well as sell the client as an author/illustrator (get them a book deal where they do both and there’s no other name on the cover).

As far as query letters for author/illustrators go — and remember, we only accept online submissions — I prefer having a query, a link to your online portfolio mentioned in your query letter, then the text of the picture book copied and pasted in the body of an email.

Yes, you do need an online portfolio, absolutely. It can be simple and you can pay someone to do it, but make sure you can update it easily with new images. I’d say you need about ten to twenty really strong examples of your characters, some micro scenes that focus really closely on one or two things, some macro that get a wide scope of action in one picture, some setting, some animals…really show off your range.

If you have a physical dummy blocked out, mention that in your query. If I like what I see electronically, I’ll give you the mailing address to send it my way.

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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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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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