In just the last month, I was approached for advice by two different people who wanted to create their own children's book. In both instances, they were the conceptualizers – writers – not the illustrator, which is why they each reached out to me. Since I have gained a bit of experience in self-publishing my coloring book and working on the art/design of my first children’s book, which was also self-published, I'm happy to share a few things I learned along the way.
First and foremost, I want to communicate that creating a children's book – especially if it’s part of a series! – is a labor of love. I think a lot of people expect the work for a children's book to be easy to accomplish because it's for a younger audience, but in fact, it's quite the opposite. It takes a ton of time and planning before the execution. The expectation should be that it will take about a full year to complete one book (if sooner, great!) and, in all honesty, it gets done when it gets done. You don't want to rush any aspect of it when it should and can be as great as you envision it to be.
Children's Book Writing
As the writer and leader of your project, you will first have to write your book and refine it and refine it until it's perfect. Whether or not you already have a child yourself, I definitely suggest poring through and familiarizing yourself with published children's books to look at how the sentences are structured. In each book, look at the simplicity of the story – how it's succinctly told – and the author's ability to keep you "turning pages" by splitting up a sentence on one spread to another. In art school, as well as in a "Creating Children's Books" course I took at the School of Visual Arts, instructors always stress the LESS IS MORE principal. Take out as much as possible to tell the story after you’ve written your initial draft. Make sure it flows and it's not fluffed with anything unnecessary. The illustrations can always help "tell" the story, too...
Contracts & Working with Illustrators
Whether we’re starting with one book or you plan to have a series, you’re going to need a detailed written agreement, or contract, to begin working with your illustrator. If you want your book to become a series, you must let any illustrator know up-front because that will require a long-term commitment of working together. For instance, you want to be sure they won't bail in the middle of your series, as the illustrations should all be a cohesive body of work and story to tell. All in all, the written contract/agreement between illustrator and author will detail the terms and length of the project to secure each other’s commitment and set up expectations.
I don't know too much about where to start with a contract, but in my case, the author paid me a one-time fee for the artwork after I’d completed a majority of the book. We already knew each other, had been working together for close to a year, and the book was almost complete, so our situation was certainly atypical in that our official contract wasn’t written until later in the game. When she asked me what I was hoping to be paid, I had initially requested terms with a lower pay up-front for the artwork and receiving a small percentage of each book sale. This wasn't what the author wanted, so I agreed to a higher one-time payment. I personally would have loved to be paid less up-front and get a commission for each book sale because then there would be two of us promoting and marketing the book. It must be noted, though, that this would require an even stronger long-term relationship with someone you can really trust. So I understand that can be complex. My contract with the author detailed what I'd be paid and when, details about the book project itself, that she is in charge of selling and promoting the book, that I have no commissions from sales, and a clause stating that if the book was to be picked up by a publisher, I'd be in on the meeting. That was our agreement, but I think each situation will be different.
Illustration Timeline & Process
Since you'll be hiring the illustrator, you have every right to set a deadline and they should work to meet that requirement. They should communicate if they're not going to get something to you in time and you should have a little wiggle room and understanding in that as long as they're communicating with you adequately.
The process of book illustration consists of the artist creating drafts for each spread and running them by you before they go on to add color and/or special graphics and really finalize the artwork. As an artist, I wouldn't want to put so much work into an illustration to then hear from the author, "Can we just change X and Y and Z here?" Of course we can change it, but it's best to hear those changes earlier on rather than after I've spent so much time and have already presented a final image to you. Each "artwork" is truly completed in steps. When it came to the author I worked with, I'd send her pencil sketches before I added ink and color to my drawings, so I'd be able to literally erase and modify things she wanted. Seeing some of the work made her want to modify the text a bit, which improved the story and the overall flow of the page turns in the book.
All in all, setting a deadline is acceptable, but it has to be a reasonable one. It would take me a few weeks to just get a draft of a few pencil sketches done (note that I also work full-time and don’t get to spend all of my days illustrating or as a freelancer). But you CAN and should set a realistic timeline to review drafts and get final illustrations and the book design complete. The illustrator you work with will let you know what's reasonable and should be communicative about meeting those deadlines.
Finding an Illustrator: Local or Remote?
I'd like to say up-front that the illustrator you work with does not have to be local to you; be open to working with someone remotely. Ultimately the artist, whether you live here in New York or, say, Florida, will be emailing you drafts of the illustrations for you to review before they can proceed. In general, it's best to detail what you want to see modified, etc, in writing over email anyway. You can always hop on a phone or video call to ensure they really understand what your visions are for the book.
An illustrator is just like any other freelancer; meeting in-person is nice, and sure, I personally enjoy chit-chatting and grabbing coffee, but as freelancers our time is super super crucial to achieving those pressing deadlines and balancing clients and projects. If you find an artist's work online but see that they live in Ohio, I mean... is that the worst thing? They're probably going to charge a bit less because their cost of living is lower than in NYC or your city. Maybe one of your stipulations for hiring them is a scheduling a video chat on a monthly basis to review their most recent drafts.
Keep an open mind and hire the illustrator whose work truly brings your vision for the book to life, regardless of where they live.
Where to Find & Hire Illustrators
Here are some of my recommendations for finding illustrators:
It probably goes without saying that you can, and should, find your book illustrator on Instagram. Searching with hashtags #illustratorsofinstagram or #artistsofinstagram or even #childrensbookillustration is a great way to find artists who are actively putting their work out there. The link in the profile bio should usually link to their site or where you can find the best way to contact them. Before you send a DM, though, check out what I have to say in the next paragraph about approaching an illustrator you find online.
Approaching an Illustrator *Very Important*
Come correct. I have a lot of people approach me for various illustrated projects and, while I may love the enthusiasm, when they seem unorganized it's hard for me to take them and their project seriously. I love when people send me a professional email to request discussing my professional services. I don't need another text message or just a DM; approach me like you would a corporation or other business capacity, as freelancers receive many emails every day. I like to receive an email with full details, a strong story concept, complete book written, and their request to further discuss or learn more about my availability and stipulations I might require in order to work together. It's like applying for a job – is this a good match? Can we work well together and meet each other's needs? Be sure to approach carefully and professionally, with all of your own ducks in a row, so that the illustrator you work with knows you're not playing games and you're about your business. The casual sh*t really doesn't work when you have real money to make out here! If you come correct, I don't see why a busy illustrator wouldn't give you a decent response out of respect, whether or not they're available. If someone won’t be able to take on your project, definitely thank them but ask if they can recommend anyone you can be in touch with.
Remember: creating a children’s book is a labor of LOVE. The illustrations will take a long time, the refining will take even longer, and it will surely be a challenge to complete from start to finish. However, it’s truly special when it’s complete with all the heart and effort that went into it. The best part about a book is that it lasts forever, and readers will remember its pictures, words and lessons.
I hope this was helpful! Please feel free to leave a comment if I didn’t cover any questions you may have.