I’ve had a writer ask me recently why he hasn’t found a lot of information on breaking into the market as an illustrator first, then trying to be an author/illustrator for his own projects. My first reaction is that this is a much tougher proposition than going in with an author/illustrator dummy. And I may be biased, since I worked primarily with author/illustrators as an agent. And it’s not helpful to those people who are illustrators, through and through, without really having an interest in writing.
So for the purposes of this answer, I’m talking to those people who possess some illustration skill and who are thinking that maybe they’ll pay the mortgage illustrating picture books while they put together their own author/illustrator dummies.
The basic rub with breaking in as an illustrator is that a lot of houses have hordes of illustrators that they already work with. So when a manuscript that needs an illustrator comes in (text only), an editor goes through the following thought process:
1) Did we pay enough for this manuscript and is it a big enough idea to give to one of our “famous” stable authors? We need to keep them happy with projects. If not…
2) Are there any other house illustrators that would be a good fit? Let me ask my colleagues about their stables, too. We want to keep these guys at our house. If not…
3) Here’s a stack of postcards for illustrators that I’ve been dying to work with but haven’t found a project for. Might this work for one of them? If not…
4) Maybe I’ll poke through the submission pile for any new postcards that have come in. Maybe there’s someone in there.
At this point, you’d be starting at the fourth (outermost) layer of consideration. Sure, you can definitely catch an editor’s attention, but her mind is gong to be in a million other places when considering an illustrator. It’s a very tough road. There are a few agencies that deal mostly with illustration, like KidShannon, but even they would prefer to launch you in front of editors with an author/illustrator full book project.
It’s a lot of work to get in front of editors as an illustrator, you need a strategy to get your work in front of editors (mailing or Internet-based? etc.), and the financial reward for an agent is very low compared to if they tried to sell your dummy. Not a lot of people are interested in going this route to start, unless you are committed to being an illustrator only and have no real interest in creating your own dummies. (In the list above, coming in with a dummy puts you even ahead of the text-only manuscript in the editor’s eyes.)
It’s also assuming that you can compete with the hundreds or thousands of MFA-level trained illustrators who are out there looking for projects. These are visual artists in the field of illustration who have oftentimes done years and years of study in just illustration. Illustration is highly competitive, it isn’t the easy secret backdoor to publishing that some might imagine in to be.
At least for your first project, focus on your strength. If that’s illustration, great, put together a portfolio. If it’s writing, put together some manuscripts. If you’re handy at both, put together a dummy. But all routes are quite difficult, and there’s no real shortcut, unfortunately.