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Confessions from a Children’s Book Illustrator

Updated on September 24, 2015
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

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I've written a children's book...

Wherever I go I am asked what I do and I usually say I’m an artist or a children’s book illustrator. However, I have gotten to where I like to say artist instead of children’s book illustrator because invariably the person I’m talking to has written a book and could use an illustrator. That’s not bad. What is bad is that they don’t intend to PAY the illustrator. They usually want the illustrator to do the pictures for a “percentage” of the book proceeds or “exposure” IF it ever sells.

There are several things wrong with this assumption and just to save time I’d like to address them.

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First

First, publishers usually have their own in-house artists and illustrators, and if they are going to buy your book they will have their own artists illustrate it for you. Most authors do not get to pick the illustrator or even meet them. If by some chance they would be willing to buy your book with the illustrations it would only be because you WROTE and ILLUSTRATED the book and so they are getting a 2-for-1 deal on you and your book. That is pretty much how it is done today. Very, very few exceptions.

Some years ago, I was approached to illustrate a beautifully written children’s story in poem form. The author wanted to submit it to a publisher with illustrations to help sell it. I worked on the agreement that when it was published I would receive a percentage. I was happy to do this for my fiend because I really believed her book was lovely and well written, certainly publishable. So I spent 6 months working on about 48 watercolor illustrations. When she got a publisher to agree to publish her book, they didn’t want the illustrations I had done. Not because they weren’t good but because they had hired some in-house illustrators that needed the work. So for me that meant 6 months work that was basically thrown out. Although I was happy for my friend, I realized that the illustrator shouldn’t work for nothing or that’s exactly what she will end up with.

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Second

Second, if you plan on self-publishing, you may or may not realize that it means that you will get all the proceeds of the book and chances are it won’t be much. It will be just too tempting to “forget” to pay the artist. Even if it does sell well and you, the writer, remember to pay the artist, it really is much considering the months of work that went into the illustrations.

Also, I have to say, if you haven’t written a children’s book you probably have several ideas for one. I mean in our lives we probably have dozens of stories that would make great children’s books full of morals and characters and great endings. So I say, who hasn’t written a children’s book? The problem is getting it published.

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Third

Third, if you want your self-published book to do well, you must do all the advertising yourself, and this will cost money, time and effort. What little you make back from sales you may feel justified to keep. As an artist and someone who has self-published, I would be inclined to agree that what you put into it in the way of advertising and book store visitations, you should get back.

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Fourth

Fourth, do people really think an artist doesn’t need to eat and pay rent like everyone else? It seems like that. Art is so devalued that it is expected for nothing up front, yet I have bills like everyone else. I want to work but I do also want to pay my bills on time and live in something other than a cardboard box. This isn’t really an exaggeration. I have literally been homeless for a while, because I couldn’t get work, so don’t laugh.

I used to teach watercolor classes to senior citizens in my community for many years. During each class I would create a demo piece to show step-by-step, how to do the technique I was teaching. So at the end of each class I had a finished painting. More than once one of the seniors who were sitting nearby watching the demo would ask how much for my finished piece. Because it was watercolor and a demo piece done in about 1 hour, I would say $10. I personally think this is a dirt-cheap price for a professional artist, but the seniors would always balk at that price and look at me like I was stealing from the elderly to even ask such a price. One man told me he was on a fixed income and I should give the picture to him for $1. What he doesn’t know or care to know is that the paper cost me $1, so basically I would be giving my work away for that price. Not going to happen. I don’t care how much he thinks I’m stealing from the elderly to charge more, I have to eat and pay for supplies too. Whatever man.

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Fifth

Fifth, some people think by saying that giving the art to them free would be good exposure for me, makes it all better. Please. That’s like going into a grocery store and saying “Give me this meat, it will be great exposure for your store.” Right. Like that’s going to happen. They would literally call the cops and take you away for shoplifting. So why would people think that it’s okay to say that to an artist? I have to ask ya. If an artist is going to GIVE you something, it’s because it is their idea and they want to do it. They would say so upfront. I have found projects I thought worthy and writer-friends I found so helpful that I just don’t mind giving away my time and effort. But I usually lay out the parameters to them upfront, letting them know I don’t expect anything back for my work.

It would be better for artists and more ethical for the writers to just offer the illustrator a small pittance for the work, such at $300 to $500 for a body of work amounting to a book cover and 28 color interior illustrations. We would be willing, most of us, to work for that. Then the art belongs to you, to do with, as you will.

Book illustration roughs
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Sixth

Sixth, if you have reproduction in mind for the work and don’t tell the artist about it, it really is the same as fraud. Don’t go to an artist and say you want a couple illustrations to use in a classroom project and pay them a few dollars, when in truth you are going to reprint the final product and SELL it to the students, class after class. Being forthright is better than having an artist with hard feelings about how you handled a transaction.

I have been paid a small price to do illustrations for people only to find they are printing and selling them in bulk and I will never make another penny from them. Once I created some original line (black and white) illustrations for an economics instructor who had an ongoing class on cooking, meal planning and budgeting. She used my illustrations for a meal-planning calendar for her class. She would print the calendars in bulk and sell them to the class at a profit. Every class she taught, she made a profit. But she paid me a flat fee of $20. My problem was that I didn’t realize she would be mass-producing them. If I had known I would have quoted her a much higher price, knowing I would receive no royalties from her sales. Lesson learned.

Experiences

These experiences have taught me many things but mostly to honor my own time and craft. If I want to appear professional I need to charge like I am a professional. If I wanted to appear amateur I wouldn’t mind working for nothing, but then the consumer would get exactly what they pay for, less quality work, amateurish. I refuse to let my work go for nothing anymore. I am worth more and won’t part with it without more. If I die sitting on a house full of paintings that are suddenly worth a lot of money, I would much rather my family got the money!

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James McNeill Whistler

Artists unite! We are worthy of our wages and working for nothing is just not an option. It reminds me of a story about James McNeill Whistler (yes, the one who painted his mother), who sued John Ruskin, the art critic, for libel. Ruskin had published in the newspaper that the latest painting by Whistler was so bad that he should be ashamed for charging such a price to the English public for throwing paint at the canvas. (That of course, was before throwing paint on the canvas was popular). He said many more rude things in his published critique but that was enough. Whistler sued him; the first time ever an artist had the nerve to sue an art critic. The trial lasted weeks and was widely attended.

Ruskin’s defense attorney asked Whistler on the stand, how much time it took him to paint the painting in question. He said two days. Then the attorney asked how much he was charging for the painting, to which Whistler answered, 200 pounds. “So,” the attorney thought he had him, “what you are saying is that you are charging the English public 200 pounds for just 2 days work.” But Whistler was no fool. “No,” he replied. “I am charging the English public 200 pounds for a lifetime of experience in art.” That is a good answer. We all need to remember, we are not charging the public for one piece but for the lifetime of struggle and study, patience and practice that brought you up to this one piece. Never forget that.

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Whistler won... and lost.

By the way, Whistler won the case. The judge found Ruskin indeed, guilty of libel but he decided not to award the 1,000 pounds Whistler was asking for in the suit. The judge awarded Whistler one farthing! That’s like winning and loosing all at the same time. I would be so insulted… and so was Whistler.

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Illustrator's diatribe

I hope this diatribe has been of some help in dealing with artists in the future. I know it feels like a rant but I honestly think people don’t know what an artist has to go through to survive working at his/her craft.

Most people have a job where they clock in day after day, week after week, and get paid regularly per month like clockwork. An artist gets a “job” and only gets paid when the job is done, whether that takes weeks or months. Sometimes if the project is long, the artist can put into the contract to get a portion up front and the rest on completion. Sometimes, the work is completed, submitted, accepted and still the artist waits for pay; 30 days and even 60 days, while chewing fingernails and eating beans. I’m not sure why people don’t feel compelled to pay the artist earlier but they don’t. After the job is complete, the artist is again “looking for work” and must sometimes wait months till another job comes through. The looking for work part is so constant and scary, you literally feel one job away from homelessness, again. It is the reason many artists have to wait tables or take tickets at the theater when they would rather be home drawing. It is the cold harsh reality, and believe me, we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it more than eating.

For the artist there is no such thing as “free time” or “vacation” or “retirement”. Most of us feel we retire when they pry the paintbrush from our cold dead fingers. We will vacation then too.

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Illustrated Comments Welcomed

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 19 months ago from Fresno CA

      annejantz,

      Oh, how funny it that? It is a small world we live in now, isn't it?

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • annejantz profile image

      Anne Crary Jantz 19 months ago from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, U.S.A.

      I am happy to hear you like Createspace too. I couldn't believe how helpful their tech support is, and they were all in Costa Rica!!! How crazy is that!?!? My book is set in Costa Rica;)

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 19 months ago from Fresno CA

      annejantz,

      You are so right, Anne, some of us just can't be waiting around for the publishers to get their act together. I've published 6 of my books now with Create Space and like you, I'm very happy with them. I appreciate your solicitude. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • annejantz profile image

      Anne Crary Jantz 19 months ago from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, U.S.A.

      Nice Hub. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow when all those illustrations weren't used by the publisher. Bummer. I am a real Lone Ranger with my art, so I choose to write my children's book as well as illustrate them. I also chose to self publish because I'm up there in age (69), and I don't have time to wait around. (I met Ashley Bryan at an Illustrators' conference in Ohio, and he told me I'm just a kid. He's in his 90's). Nevertheless I used Createspace, and I am very happy with the quality of their printing. The only drawback is they don't do hardcovers. Nevertheless I plan to use them again for the sequel which I'm writing now. Thank you for all the good advice!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 23 months ago from Fresno CA

      Thank you, Lawrence, for joining me in my little world. I appreciate you taking the time to check out my opinions and experiences. Wishing you a glorious day.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 23 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Denise

      I was going to say "no" to children's books, then I remembered the 'Hobbit' was published as a children's book (along with the Narnia series) so while I don't think I've had any ideas that would work as a childrens book you just never know!

      I agree with you that the artist is worth their payment! As writers we like to get paid so we should expect to pay for the services if an illustrator!

      To me this was a fascinating insight into your world, thank you

      Lawrence

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 24 months ago from Fresno CA

      Deon,

      Thanks for catching that. I always appreciate a second pair of editing eyes. I will go hunt and change that. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

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      Deon 24 months ago

      Small spelling mistake on your very informative article above - Fourth not forth - Thanks for posting!!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 24 months ago from Fresno CA

      dsb8551,

      Yes, I know what you mean about being attached to your work. I had a kid ask me once what my favorite painting was and I told him they were all like my children. I sweated and labored and struggled with each one of them and loved them all. You can't choose your favorite child; you love them all. That's why selling art is so distasteful. It's like selling part of you or selling one of your children. All you can do is hope they go to a good and loving home. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • dsb8551 profile image

      The Artisan Tack 24 months ago from Charlotte, NC

      Years ago I had a friend ask me to illustrate a children's book she wrote. I wanted to help her out, but I was still in my undergrad and working anytime not in class. Luckily, I had zero time for it- I'm sure I would've ended up in a similar situation with no pay or anything!

      Handing out free art is almost painful, especially for an artist who becomes very attached to the things he/she creates (as I am).

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 24 months ago from Fresno CA

      denise.w.anderson,

      There is a learning curve to it but once you have done a couple it gets easier. Glad you went ahead and published it yourself. You know, that's what Beatrix Potter did with her first book, when all the publishers turned her down, and look what happened to her books! Thanks for persistence.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 24 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks for the question, Denise. Since then, I have self-published one of the books, and a handbook that I currently use for my classes. It has been a learning experience, for sure!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 24 months ago from Fresno CA

      denise.w.anderson,

      Oh that is just mean. I never heard of that happening before. You have to wonder if they sent you away on purpose. Just mean. Are you interested in self-publishing? It means you have all the work of advertising and marketing but you get all the profit. Something to think about as long as you have the work done already. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 24 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I love your perspective! It makes a lot of sense and speaks to the experiences many of us have had. I wrote a series of children's books and when I presented them to a publisher, he wanted me to do the illustrations as well. It took me so long to do them, that when I came to him with the finished product, he was no longer interested! Now, I cannot find anyone else who wants them. It is a sad state of affairs!

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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      AliciaC,

      Oh I believe you are right. We are visual story tellers. I know people aren't supposed to judge a book by it's cover but you know they do. Great art can make or break a good book. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Your art is beautiful, Denise. I've always admired the skill of children's book illustrators. The combination of a great story and great illustrations produces a wonderful result.

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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Dearest, MsDora, thanks so much. I appreciate the affirmation. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

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      Dora Isaac Weithers 2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Great education for writers and artists. Thanks for sharing from your experience and wishing you fair deals and prosperity going forward.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Thank you, Rachel, that's sweet of you. I am working on three right now and hope to be able to say they are published within the year. Other than that, I have published some craft books (8 of them) with illustrations. Thanks as always, for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 2 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Hi Denise, I have to admit that I know nothing about this subject, but I would think that if someone asked you to make the illustrations for their book, friend or not, they should offer to pay you for your work. That is what I would do, anyhow. I wish you luck on your endeavors and if you do write a children's book and do the illustrations, I would love to see it.

      Blessings to you.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Larry Rankin,

      Thanks, Larry, nice of you to say so. I appreciate your affirmation too. Thanks for coming by and looking at my humble art.

      Blessings,

      Denise

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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Jodah,

      That is so kind of you to say. I appreciate affirmation. I hear you about the royalties and never hearing from a client again. They can and will conveniently forget about you because, well, what are you going to do about it? It is an unethical world we live in, my friend. However, as creativearts2006 mentioned above, maybe you could get a few line drawing or sketches of ideas and concepts to work for you. Wouldn't you be able to publish with line art you paid for from places like Veer or iStock or Getty Images? That's what they sell art for, isn't it? People like me desperate for work, sell our images to them and they in turn give us a teeny percent royalty fee for each time that work is purchased for use by people like advertisers and authors. It couldn't hurt to look into the possibilities. Thanks for commenting. I always appreciate your point of view.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Beautiful art work.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      I can see your point here Denise and do agree with you. A lifetime of practice and experience needs to be taken into account. I have 'ghostwritten" the entire text (both poetry and prose) for two children's books.paid $50 for one and $60 for the other. That doesn't sound much but it worked out at $5.00 per each page of about ten lines or 50 words. The proviso was that I would get co-author accreditation and 2% of sales, but have never seen evidence of the books being published or had any further contact from the person who hired me.

      I have written my own children's stories but not published them..thinking maybe I would one day get around to illustrating them myself. That hasn't happened either. The only book I have published was an unillustrated poetry ebook but I have only sold five copies and made $38. As you say most publishers employ their own illustrators so it wouldn't be viable for me to pay for an illustrator unless I was already an established author and was certain my book would sell. I feel artists deserve to be valued more too. Your artwork is great.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      phoenix2327,

      Well that is very kind of you to say. I was beginning to feel guilty for putting it all out there and thinking maybe I should take this one down. I don't want to appear offensive. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      This is not a rant but a statement of fact. And you stated this fact most eloquently. Nicely done.

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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      creativearts2009,

      Hmm, you make a very good point. I need to sit down and do that. I would think based on the hours needed for simple line drawings and charcoal drawings, I wouldn't charge more than $20, but the more complex line drawings done digitally need more time and maybe a little more compensation like $35. Still, I need to look up what's being charged by my peers and see if I'm in the ballpark or not. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Blessings,

      Denise

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      Cecelia 2 years ago from Australia

      Have you considered working up a price-list based on type of sketch and approx hours you expect to spend on them? (I understand perfect, coulored illustrations could take any number of hours - but don't offer those unless you are personally inspired and on a solid contract.) Say the author wanted to choose between line drawings, charcoal with shading or simplified water colour?

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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      creativearts2009,

      I agree with you that I would want more control over how my book looked in the end too. But from what I hear most publisher don't allow the author to dictate what the illustrations or the illustrator will be. I'm happy I'm an illustrator and author so I won't have to be controlled in that way. I surely understand wanting some roughs of how you would want your book to be laid out. That's where paying an illustrator at least a little would be worth it. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • creativearts2009 profile image

      Cecelia 2 years ago from Australia

      From the Author's point of view: if I was marketing a children's book I would at least want some concept sketches to go with it.

      I agree that the artist should not spend hours on work that might not get published if the text is not published - in that situation the artist's risk is double what the author's risk is.

      However, a few line drawings for a flat rate would be a good investment for the author so the publisher knew where they were heading with the idea.

      Also there are picture books out there with great text but low quality scratchy illustrations, or very monotone illustrations (when everyone knows kids love bright colours) I would want some control over style any in-house illustrator chose to use on my book.