Wednesday, March 3, 2010

So, You Think You Need an Illustrator?

I love to draw. LOVE it! It’s therapeutic for me. There's a box full of paintings, sketches, doodles, and pastel drawings sitting in my cedar chest to prove it. And that’s where they’ll stay. In my cedar chest. You will never see my art in a picture book or on the cover of a children’s magazine. Why? Because it’s obvious that I’m NOT a professional illustrator! I’m self-taught and not good enough for today’s publishing standards. I’ve had no formal training and would never send pages of my artwork along with my manuscript submissions. That doesn’t bother me at all.

Want to know how to make an editor REALLY MAD? Ignore their Illustrator guidelines that say, “Send brochures, resumes, samples, tearsheets, promo sheet, or slides.” That means they are speaking to professional illustrators. If you are not a professional and you send your art anyway, it’s no different than completely disregarding the writer’s guidelines. You’re basically telling the publisher they don’t know what they’re talking about. That can be the kiss of death for your manuscript.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received manuscripts for critique with artwork included. Rarely were the authors or their illustrator friends or relatives true professionals. Eraser marks. Whiteout. Crayon shavings. Smudges. Disproportionate, stiff characters. No movement. No life. Not professional. Sort of like MY drawings!

A few of the drawings I’ve seen over the past few years were average to good---but not good enough for the high standards expected by book publishers. It’s always difficult for me to break the news to the writer/artist in my manuscript critique. It’s especially tough when the writer says something like this in the cover letter:

“These fantastic illustrations for my book were drawn by my 10 year old!” Okay, they were fantastic for a ten-year old! In fact, they will likely impress anyone looking at the refrigerator door, or even framed on a family room wall. They won’t impress a publishing house. The bar is set HIGH. The ten-year old will have his or her heart broken after I give the bad news to the writer-mom who sent them in. Please don't do that to a child! You are setting them up for great disappointment. Even tears )o;

If you are not a professional illustrator but insist that your art is good enough, here’s a suggestion---ask a professional illustrator at a writers conference to give you an honest evaluation. Don’t forget to look at all the portfolios on the table. How do your illustrations stack up? Be honest. Personally, I don't need to do this with my artwork because I'd embarrass myself. I KNOW my stuff isn't up to speed!

Here’s another suggestion. Compare your illustrations with at least 25 children’s books. How does your art compare? Again, be brutally honest. Unless you are a true professional your art will probably fall short.

I have a friend in our critique group who IS a true professional illustrator! Veronica Walsh illustrated a WONDERFUL picture book, Too Many Visitors for One Little House, by Susan Chodakiewitz. Look at the facial expressions of the characters! Drink in the color, the life, the movement, the emotions. To view samples of Veronica's artwork go to

In my humble opinion, 99% of the time your publisher knows just the artist to make your book come alive!

When it comes to picture books, illustrations make half the book.

So, if your best friend, Aunt Beatrice, your child (whose heart WILL be broken), or your spouse want to illustrate your book, please just say "No," but say it gently. Tell them it's nothing personal. It's just the way it is in publishing, and YOU as the writer need to follow the guidelines.


Janet said...

I like to draw, but would never think to send my drawings with my manuscript. Illustrations in picture books are beautiful and I bet illustrators have as hard a time as writers in getting their foot in the door.

Sheryl Crawford said...

Hey, Janet (o;
I LIKE hearing from you! Yes. It is as difficult (or so I hear) from actual illustrators. The competition is fierce just as it is in the writing field. Hey, have you submitted anything lately? Magazine piece, poem, puzzle, rebus? Do NOT quit. You know, I started with magazines and I STILL love writing for them on a regular basis. How about you?

Anonymous said...

This is great Sherri, and it can't be said often enough. I wish I had a dollar for everyone who has asked me "And where do you get your illustrators?" and "How much do you have to pay them?" They just don't understand! But, hopefully, you've made it clearer.