How Literary Agents Work on a Picture Book Illustration Project

This post is for my picture book illustration friends out there, and the question comes from Siski:

I’d like to know more about agents and how they go about representing picture book illustration clients who also write. 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 picture book illustration develop their projects, work up a submission plan, and connect our clients with potential editors.

picture book illustration
How literary agents represent picture book illustration, and what they bring to the table.

The Picture Book Author Illustration and Literary Agent Relationships

The nature of the editorial work is a bit different. 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 would 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 a picture book illustration client. 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.

Not Everyone Can Be An Illustrator

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. People aspiring to picture book illustration 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 picture book 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.

If you’re more of a writer, don’t worry. You can still focus on writing a picture book and submit a text only project.

How Picture Book Author Illustrator Projects Are Submitted to Publishers

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 kid’s editors don’t even have a lot of children’s 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.

Selling a Book Is All About Timing

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 picture book 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).

Build Your Picture Book Author Illustrator Online Portfolio

As for getting people exposed to your work: 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.

It can be difficult to break into the picture book illustration market, or it can be very easy. The takeaway is that agents and editors do prefer author illustrator projects by a wide margin. If you don’t have a dummy already, get to work!

I absolutely love working with author illustrators, and am happy to provide art notes. Hire me as your picture book editor.


16 Replies to “How Literary Agents Work on a Picture Book Illustration Project”

  1. Thanks Mary. Again a well-timed post. I’m planning on finishing my PB dummy over Christmas.

    I’m a magazine art director and work with illustrators all the time. It’s my job to read text and then match it to the right illustrator’s creative sensibility and style. I would hope that PB editors involve their ADs when finding the perfect illustrator for a manuscript. True, sometimes a perfect card comes across my desk at the same time as an article, but that’s rare. Usually, I know different illustrators’ strengths and find a match in my mental, physical, or online files. I’m always thrilled when a finished illustration arrives. Illustrators are da bomb.

  2. thanks for the great post, Mary!! it’s so much harder to find information specific to author/illustrators than if you do one or the other.

  3. Fascinating. There must be some agents, though, who know very little about art/illustration… although I guess those’ll be the ones who don’t rep PBs?

    It’s so true that words can be fixed but bad art can’t. I guess that’s partly because agents are literary agents, they’re not artists/illustrators, but they probably come from a writing or editing background. I also find that while I can enjoy a not-so-well written PB if it has great illustrations, I really struggle to enjoy a beautifully written book that has bad illos. A lot rests on those visuals!

  4. To me the writing is just as important as the art. I love to write, and I value the rhythm and musicality of the language just as much as the art making. 🙂

  5. I’m not an illustrator, and it is so true that it is hard (if not impossible) to improve the artwork of someone who is just not artistically inclined. However, I agree with Barbara that for me, the text is as important as the illustrations in a picture book – a wonderfully illustrated picture book with near-rhymes or poor meter or otherwise poorly written text really, really turns me off.

    Thank you for this insight – it’s interesting to see which elements of working with an author/illustrator fall within the mandate of the agent, and which fall to the editor.

  6. Really insightful article. Thank you!

    I’m deep in query-world right now and this really gives me a different take on it. Maybe I should adjust my focus to the illustrator aspect, then let the manuscript fall into place after that–instead of trying to query as a writer/illustrator. What do you think?

  7. Terry. Find the editors and ADs who love your art first. Send postcards, promo pieces and samples. If you can, go out and meet them. It is huge learning process. If you write pbs or graphic novels you must learn the art of visual story telling, pacing and emotional connection to your reader (age group).

    If you write, make dummies, but keep refining. Hold on to them and perfect with feedback.


  8. I am an illustrator who has been lucky enough to have an editor at a major publisher like my art and try to match my work with a story. No luck so far, but she has asked me to write a story to go with my illustrations. A friend of mine who is connected in the publishing field and teaches Writing for Children as a professor at a well-known college, has suggested that I send a query letter to a major agency that reps both writers and illustrators of Children’s Lit. I’m working on a manuscript but it’s far from finished and would like to see if they would consider taking me on and aiding in the process of creating a marketable story. Is this unrealistic?

  9. Does this author/illustrator combo work the same way with middle grade books as opposed to picture book projects? Send query with copy/pasted manuscript text, mention author/illustrator, include link to portfolio?

  10. Summer mckee porter says:

    Question: as I write my children’s picture books I like to sketch out my pictures only as a vision for the illustrator, will this be accepted by illustrator? Thank you

    1. Mary Kole says:

      Unfortunately, illustrators won’t really like to see this sort of micromanagement. It’s best to only convey what isn’t obvious in the text for illustrators, then let them do their own thing. There’s a reason publishers keep the writer and illustrator separate. The writer won’t see the art until it’s basically done. The illustrator is an artist in their own right, and an equal part of the project. They will bring their own craft to it. The writer is usually not allowed to dictate too much.

  11. Summer mckee porter says:

    Thank you for that information. So if I self publish, choose my own illustrator, could I send my sketches to them ? This is all new to me and I appreciate your help.

  12. Neiva Rawson says:

    I found this article very interesting, thank you!

    I was curious to know whether agents/ publishers accept submissions from writers and illustrators who have already collaborated, or would this do more harm to their chances of being published?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com