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A First-Time Author’s Guide to Engaging An Illustrator and Avoiding Potential Scams

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For a first-time author, publishing a book can feel like embarking on an exciting yet challenging adventure. A key part of this journey is partnering with an illustrator, someone who can bring your words to life through captivating artwork. So how should you go about engaging an illustrator and avoid potential scams?

My personal experience engaging an illustrator

I have engaged 2 illustrators for my self-published children’s picture books and have had interactions with many illustrators.

If I could provide you with 3 of my most important takeaways. They would be:


      • Take your time to search for the right illustrator

      • Work on a sample together

      • Agree on timelines and have a contract

    1. Take your time to search for the right illustrator

    If you decide to self-publish, choosing the right illustrator is the single most important decision in the process.

    The illustrations will make or break a book as it will be the first thing that will catch a parent’s eye when they are buying a book for their child.

    If you haven’t started the search, read my post on how to find the perfect illustrator for your children’s picture book.

    2. Work on a sample together

    Before you start a relationship, you would first go out with the person on a few dates to get to know them. Same with working on a sample illustration with your potential illustrator.

    What is a sample illustration?

    A sample illustration usually consists of a 1 spread of your children’s picture book (i.e 2 pages). I provide the illustrator with the text for 1 spread (it could be from your book or another manuscript) and ask them to draw it out based on the details that I will provide. For this sample, I usually offer to pay the illustrator ~USD$50.

    The sample lets us know 2 things:

    1. What is the illustrator’s communication style?

    Are they responsive to your questions and open to your ideas? The back-and-forth email exchanges will provide you with a clue on whether you can work with this illustrator long-term. I find that the key lies in the delicate balance of the illustrator being able to take your ideas on board, yet also at times tell you firmly that this is what is best for the scene.

    When you receive the 1st sample, ask the illustrator to change a few parts of it. For example, change the facial expression of a character, or ask the character to perform a different action. This would allow you to determine whether the illustrator is using clipart, or able to tailor the illustration to your needs.

    2. Is the illustrator able to produce an illustration according to your desired style

    Are they able to share the vision that you have for the book? When working on the sample, is the illustrator interested in your story, and does he/she ask the right questions? This I am afraid, is what we call chemistry. The ability to get you and understand what you are trying to convey.  

    So how do you as the author help the illustrator?

    1. Communicate with them what the story is about and about the main character

    Provide them with a few liners on what the book is about and the target audience. Describe the main character, and perhaps provide them with a photograph. That’s what I did when I asked the illustrator to base my second book I Love My Little Brother on my two children.

    2. Give them a few samples of the style of drawing you like

    Are there other illustrators or styles of drawing that you prefer? Provide it to the illustrator as a reference, as it gives the illustrator something to start with. Are there any color schemes that you prefer? Perhaps more pastel tones or colors pop out at you.

    3. Agree on timelines, and pricing and have a contract

    Usually, the most common reasons for not being able to engage your preferred illustrator comes down to timing. Typically illustrators are pre-booked many months down the road. So be prepared for many rejections when you start to look for your illustrator.

    One word of advice is to get your book edited first, as there may be times when the illustrator is available straight away.

    From personal experience, I was quite stressed when I had to engage an illustrator to provide a sample when my manuscript was not ready. I wasn’t able to tell the illustrator when the story would be ready, and that way she couldn’t plan her time.

    Another thing to agree on is pricing. Usually, I will ask the illustrator for their rates first to see if it fits within my budget. Some illustrators may ask you for your budget, as they prefer to quote you for the whole project rather than per spread.

    It helps to have an internal threshold on what is the maximum you will spend on illustrations. Take that figure and multiply it by 1.2, as there may be a need to buffer for a few extra pages.

    I faced that when working on my first book Mommy, Mommy, Where Is The Moon? I ended up having more spreads as I felt during the storyboarding phase that more illustrations were needed. As such, do also find out from your illustrator their rates for additional pages/spreads.

    One other important step is to sign a contract with your illustrator. Having a written agreement ensures that both you and the illustrator are on the same page and helps prevent misunderstandings or disputes down the line.


    Photo by Sam Lion from Pexels

    For my first book, I used a contract provided by my illustrator, which served its purpose adequately. However, when it came to my second book, I wanted to ensure that I had a comprehensive and professional contract that covered all the necessary aspects of the collaboration.

    I used a contract from April Cox’s self-publishing resources, which was a contract for hire. The template covers all the essential elements such as project scope, timeline, payment terms, rights, and ownership of the artwork, and you are able to edit any additional provisions specific to your project.

    Use my code SERENE10 for 10% of April’s self-publishing resource library and author workgroupHer 12-week author workgroup will teach you exactly how to self-publish your children’s book in 12 weeks.

    Knowing the Signs: How to Spot a Scam

    Before you engage your illustrator, beware of scammers lurking on Facebook groups who may DM you or post a Facebook post with beautiful “ripped off” illustrations and asking you to engage them.

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    Photo by Monstera Production from Pexels

    Here are some things to watch out for:

    1. Lack of Portfolio: A professional illustrator should have a diverse portfolio showcasing their talent and style. Be cautious of those who cannot or will not provide samples of their work.

    2. Resistance to Change: As in my case, if an illustrator can’t make minor changes to the artwork, it might be because they didn’t create it. A genuine artist will be able to modify their work. To validate my concerns, I requested minor changes to the illustrations. To my surprise, the illustrator couldn’t accommodate the changes, providing a vague excuse about the difficulty of modifying the original designs. This was my first red flag.

    3. Too-Good-To-Be-True Pricing: If an illustrator’s rates are significantly lower than the industry average, it could be a sign that their work is not original.

    4. No Contract or Agreement: A professional illustrator will typically work under a contract or agreement. This document protects both parties and outlines specifics about the project, such as deadlines, payment, and rights to the artwork.

    5. Unusual Payment Methods: Be wary of illustrators who insist on unconventional payment methods or upfront full payment.

    The Steps to Engaging an Illustrator: A Roadmap to Success

    I have put together a road map to engaging an illustrator based on my own experience. Hope it’s helpful for you when it’s your turn:

    1. Initial Contact: Your first interaction with the illustrator should be professional and concise. Briefly introduce your project and ask if they’re available for freelance work.

    2. Discussion on Deliverables: Clearly communicate your vision, deadlines, and the number of illustrations required. Be sure to discuss the style and mood of the illustrations and how they should relate to your text.

    3. Pricing: Once you have outlined your requirements, discuss the illustrator’s fee. Remember, high-quality illustrations are a significant investment and can greatly enhance the appeal of your book.

    4. Requesting a Sample: If the illustrator’s portfolio aligns with your vision, consider asking for a sample illustration. This will provide a tangible idea of what to expect for your project.

    5. Sample Price: It’s common for illustrators to charge a fee for creating a sample. This compensates them for their time and talent, even if you decide not to proceed with them.

    6. Amendments to the Sample: If the sample isn’t quite what you envisioned, it’s okay to request changes. However, do so respectfully—remember, this is a collaborative process.

    7. Signing the Contract: Once you’re happy with the sample and wish to proceed, it’s time to sign a contract. This document should detail the terms of the project, including payment schedule, deliverables, deadlines, and who holds the rights to the illustrations.

    8. Start of the Project: With the contract signed, your exciting collaboration can truly begin. Maintain open lines of communication, provide constructive feedback, and remember to respect your illustrator’s creative process.

    Understanding the Illustrator’s Process: A Journey from Sketch to Final Art

    One of the keys to a successful author-illustrator partnership is understanding each other’s creative process. When you have a clearer picture of what goes into creating an illustration, you’ll be better equipped to communicate effectively with your illustrator and appreciate the time and effort involved. Here’s a simplified overview of the typical process an illustrator follows:

    1. Concept Development: After reading your manuscript, the illustrator will design the main character and other characters for your approval, carefully considering their traits and personality. Additionally, the illustrator may develop the overall artistic style, setting, and key visual elements that enhance the storytelling experience.

    2. Storyboarding: During storyboarding, the illustrator sketches out the entire story, page by page, after the concept approval. This phase allows for reviewing the composition, pacing, and narrative coherence of the book. It’s the best time to make substantial changes or additions to the illustrations before proceeding to coloring. Addressing modifications during storyboarding saves time and effort by taking advantage of the stage where adjustments are relatively easier to make.

    3. Revisions: Based on your feedback, the illustrator will make adjustments to the sketches. This is your chance to ensure the visuals align with your vision before color is added.

    4. Color and Detailing: Once the sketches are approved, the illustrator will begin adding color and details. This stage brings the illustrations to life and adds depth to the images.

    5. Final Revisions: After the color and detailing are complete, there will be another round of revisions to finalize the artwork.

    6. Delivery: Finally, the illustrator will deliver the final, high-resolution files ready for print.

    This process can take considerable time, especially for a full-length book. It’s essential to factor in this timeline when planning your book’s publication. Remember, good illustrations are worth the wait.

    Trust Your Instincts: When It Doesn’t Feel Right

    Publishing a book is a significant endeavor. Each step of the process should align with your vision and your values. This is particularly true when it comes to engaging an illustrator.

    As you navigate this collaboration, there may come a point where something doesn’t feel quite right. Perhaps communication with the illustrator becomes strained, or you find their work is straying too far from your vision. Maybe you’ve discovered discrepancies in their work or their professional conduct leaves you uneasy.

    In such situations, it’s essential to take a step back and assess. Open communication is always a good first step; discuss your concerns with the illustrator, and it’s possible that any issues can be resolved. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, you might find that the partnership is not working.

    Remember, it’s okay to walk away. It’s your book, your project, and you want to be proud of every aspect of it. If your gut feeling says something’s off, listen to it. It’s not worth compromising on the quality of your book or your peace of mind.

    After all, there are numerous talented illustrators out there who might be a better fit for your project. Don’t be disheartened if the first one doesn’t work out. Trust your instincts, remain patient, and the right collaboration will come along.

    It’s worth the wait…

    Embarking on the journey of publishing a book as a first-time author is both exciting and challenging. A crucial part of this adventure is finding the right illustrator who can bring your words to life with captivating artwork.

    To engage an illustrator and avoid potential scams, take your time to search for the perfect illustrator, work on a sample together to assess compatibility and style, and agree on timelines and pricing with a written contract.

    By being cautious and trusting your instincts, you can find a talented illustrator who will help turn your book into a masterpiece that you can be proud of.

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