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.
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.