Confessions from a Children’s Book Illustrator
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.
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.
Have you written a children's book?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.