Tips for Self Publishing -Commissioning Illustrations

Most of the illustration work I do is commissioned by established publishers, however I have completed some commissions for those who are looking to self publish books too.

Having spent over 13 years creating illustrations for publishers I am well versed in best practice for completing an illustration brief. Art directors working for publishers usually have a clear idea of the process of briefing an illustrator and what they expect at each stage, as well as an understanding of the market they are pitching to and what will help the book to sell. However, those who are looking to self publish often have never had the opportunity to commission an illustrator before so it is a totally new process.

Because I get a number of enquiries from self publishers I thought I would run through a few tips and explain what to expect when you commission an illustrator.

Research your market.
Have a think about what age group your book is suitable for and research the types of illustrations used. If it is a young picture book the illustrations are likely to be full colour and on every page. If the book is fiction for an older child or an early reader book (5 upwards) they will often have a colour cover but there may be black and white illustrations inside. For a child over 8 or 9 they may not have any illustrations inside, or just the odd ‘spot’ artwork at the start of each chapter. This research is a good process as it can cost a lot more to commission full page colour illustrations, than black and white half page illustrations. It will also help market your book towards your intended audience.

Finding an illustrator.
There are many online portfolio sites these days that can give you an over-view of different illustrators’ work. Checkout Hire an Illustrator, the Association of Illustrators portfolio section, Illustration Cloud and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators gallery. If you are wanting to meet your illustrator in person Freeindex is useful as you can search for someone located near by.
When looking for an illustrator it is important to consider the age group they have illustrated for previously, so that they can draw characters that fit with your story. Also, when looking at an illustrators’ work try to think about the tone of your book. Your book cover is basically an advert for your book (although it’s not advised to tell the whole story and cram lots onto the cover) so it is key to establish the tone of the story, to ensure happy readers. Is it emotional or sweet, adventurous, magical, girly, a mystery, a spooky story, or is it fun and quirky? Look for an illustrator who has work in their portfolio that reflects the tone you are after.

Budget and price of illustrations.
When approaching an illustrator for a quote it is really helpful to have a good idea about what work you want them to carry out. Asking to ‘quote for a children’s book’ is not going to get you very far. Ideally map out the book layout first and decide on the number of illustrations you need, their approximate size (see below), and if they are in full colour or black and white. As illustrations are often costed on size and whether they are in colour or black and white this is crucial for the illustrator to know. Some useful illustration size terminology is below.
Full bleed: An illustration that completely covers and bleeds off the edges of the page.
Double page spread: An illustration that spans two pages (often found in picture books)
Full page: An illustration that is on one single page.
Half page/quarter page etc: An illustration taking up a smaller area on the page.
Spot artwork: A small image usually a single character/object or decorative element.

Another thing to bear in mind is that an illustration for the front cover of the book often is priced higher than an illustration that appears inside the book. This is because the image usually has more time spent on it and goes through more amendments and consideration, as it is of more importance to the book.

It is advisable to have a contract or Acceptance of Commission form agreed and signed by both parties. I use a form supplied by the Association of Illustrators, the professional body of illustration of which I am a member. This will state time lines, payment terms, copyright ownership, work to be carried out, and a process for amendments, cancellation or rejection.

Briefing an illustrator and the illustration process.
It is great if the illustrator can read through the story themselves. They may have key ideas about what scenes would work best as illustrations, and also get a good idea of what could go on the front cover. It also helps with character design and continuity. Once a written brief is agreed on which images will be included and their size etc. then pencil sketches are started. The illustrator may submit a character sketch first of all to make sure they are on the right track, then move on to rough sketches for the images to illustrate. These sketches would be submitted to you for approval before the final artwork is started.

Front cover artwork.
As discussed earlier it is key that the cover captures the tone of your book. Generally you want your cover to be as direct and eye catching as possible to help draw attention to your book. The sales place for self published books has changed over the years and often the first time people will see your book is a tiny icon online. This has led to a trend to keep the cover artwork simple, bold and clear so that it is easily understood at this small size. Try and avoid cramming the whole story and every single character onto the cover. Think about the main element of the book. Choosing an image that is dramatic or energetic is great, especially if this suits your story, or think of the main focus -for instance if the story is about a lost kitten an emotive illustration of the kitten can be more effective, rather than an image which tries to explain why it is lost and what happens to it as well. Discuss with your illustrator the options, as they may have a good idea of what will work best.

Enjoy the process.
Finally enjoy it, it is an exciting process to see your stories coming to life with illustrations!