How to become a children's book illustrator
Ok, so… who wouldn’t want to illustrate children’s books for a living? Exactly!
Let’s start on a high: Ethicool is one of very few publishers openly encouraging illustrators to submit their folios. We’ve received lots and we want to receive even more. Here’s where we help you succeed…
One big caveat first, though: we’re not illustrators, but that is entirely the point. As in, this guide is meant to demonstrate to illustrators, how publishers undertake their reviews and what they look for along the way.
We’re not here to tell you how to undertake your craft, more how to pitch it and succeed.
This article will cover the following 10 topics:
Are my children’s book illustrations good enough?
How do I present my illustration folio?
What if I’ve never illustrated a children’s book before?
Do I need to “know” a children’s book author?
Do I need a children’s book agent to represent me?
How much will I earn an as a children’s illustrator?
Do I make royalties on sales of children’s books I’ve illustrated?
How do I know if my publisher is ripping me off?
Should I submit my folio to more than one children’s book publisher?
And… what if I don’t hear back?
And, so, let's begin...
1. Are my children’s book illustrations good enough?
This is, of course, rather subjective, but firstly, if you’re a professionally qualified illustrator, there is basically no doubt your work is “good enough”. It more comes down to how relevant your style is to the publisher you’re submitting to. All publishers have a relatively small handful of illustrative styles that immediately appeal to them. If you read several of their books, you can typically pick-up some consistent artistic traits between all of them. Be sure to note these down. This isn’t to say that working outside of these themes won’t be successful, but it does mean you should include some similar styles in your folio (alongside your other work) just to demonstrate that you’re flexible.
The other thing you should do is move beyond whimsically drawing things and practice outwardly applying your methods to a real children’s story. For example, find a children’s book you love and create your own illustrations for it. This can help with using illustration to steer and shape a visual narrative. Remember: one of the many functions of the illustrations in a children’s book is to tell the story as if the words were not even there. There are some exceptions to this, but really not that many.
This also means you need to have the capacity to really read into a story and evoke its themes, emotions and aspirations through your artwork. Think about what the story is trying to achieve – how it should make children feel – and ensure this resonates within your artwork.
What I’ve said so far speaks more to the method, though, not necessarily the question of “Am I good enough?”. To answer this well, you need to aim to remove the subjectivity: i.e. have your work reviewed by prolific readers of children’s books and ask them for feedback. This can be hard – sharing your creative pursuits with anyone makes a lot of us nervous – but it’s necessary. If you’ve obtained feedback from a handful of people and it’s all positive, chances are you’re onto something.
Conversely, if it’s clear they’re not really into it, you should seek another group of people before giving up!
If you’d rather obtain feedback more anonymously, you can also use platforms such as Format, Medium, Behance, Dribbble, Welovedaily, and of course, Instagram or Pinterest… amongst a squillion others.
Also, I’d be lying if I didn’t add that illustrators who have high profiles on any of the above platforms aren’t more likely to be considered. Why? Authors and/or illustrators with high profiles can help with marketing books and driving sales, for they have large engaged audiences already.
Of course, you don’t need to have an established social media profile to submit, but just know that it helps.
2. How do I present my illustration folio?
Further to the above point, it’s hard to beat social media. A good Instagram profile, showing a diverse range of work, is fantastic. Moreover, though, you really do need a website. For Ethicool as a digital brand, especially, we do prefer our illustrators to have some digital savviness. A clean, well-organised website, that contains a good amount of information on you and what makes you tick, is a great way to augment your illustrative talents with some personality and humanity.
Personally, we’re also more likely to show interest in illustrators whose values align with our own. Care about conservation and the environment? Awesome! Like Donald Trump? Maybe look elsewhere. You get it, right?
The process is a lot more personable than you probably expect, too. As in, the author you’re illustrating for really has to like you and what you stand for. You’ll be forming a creative partnership for months, or even years, so your folio should contain a lot of information about you, meaning both authors and publishers can begin to understand who they might be working with.
The other thing with your illustration portfolio is that it should show some diversity in style, medium and application. Also, don’t be afraid to show sketches, drafts, ideation and work in progress. There is only good to come from establishing that you like to play around with ideas and concepts.
3. What if I’ve never illustrated a children’s book before?
Oh, this doesn’t matter at all. Sure, it’s easier to be seen and noticed if you’re previously published, but a lack of outward experience shouldn’t prevent you from having a go.
It would, however, be naïve to think that a newcomer doesn’t have to work harder to land their first publishing deal. I think the best way to handle this concern is to table the reasons most publishers would be nervous about working with you – here are some to think about:
- Your folio contains very few examples of work, suggesting you’re a hobby illustrator, more than one who wants to make a living out of their talents;
- Your folio shows no obvious bent towards children’s illustrations and their associated styles;
- Your folio shows just one or two styles, implying you’re not flexible with the mediums you use or the themes and characters you draw;
- Everything in your folio looks incomplete or in a state of flux, implying that you’re a bit of a creative vagrant;
- You don’t put a face or a profile to your work, meaning you come across as somewhat “invisible”.
Of course, these items are all a bit subjective, but they should help to provide a level of guidance around “what not to do”. The point is – and, yes, it’s a bit cliché – that everyone has to start their illustration career somewhere.
The idea is to look as accomplished as you can, despite actually being a newcomer. Demonstrating a solid breadth and depth of work, and showing confidence in the way you articulate your value proposition and capabilities in your profile, will go a very long way.
4. Do I need to “know” a children’s book author?
It certainly helps if you can team up with someone from day one, but frankly, this is generally both rare and unlikely for new illustrators. It’s more the publisher’s job to connect you with an appropriate author. This being said, joining the many groups or societies for children’s authors and illustrators is a wonderful way to meet people, as well as to showcase your work and gain some attention.
Where should you look to collaborate? Here are some good places to start (especially for Australian illustrators):
- The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators;
- The Children’s Book Council of Australia;
- The Style File;
- Australian Society of Authors;
- Format Magazine.
If you’re lucky enough to catch the attention of a capable author, you might be able to band together, but the more likely outcome is that you successfully gain the attention of a publisher, and that they do the legwork for you.
5. Do I need a children’s book agent to represent me?
Many very high-profile children’s book illustrators have an agent representing them, but this is more to manage the high volume of contact they receive than it is to support them in landing work (because the second point isn’t really a problem for them!).
As to whether you need an agent to front you in reaching out to publishers, we can confidently say that you don’t. In fact, this entire legacy operating construct, whereby the publisher is so arrogant that they knock back submissions directly from the artist, is completely absurd.
If you find you’re getting no attention and/or you’re told you need to go through an agent, you’re speaking to the wrong publisher.
6. How much will I earn an as a children’s illustrator?
Anything from about $1000 AUD per book, to tens of thousands of dollars per book, and more. Unlike authors’ royalties, which are somewhat easier to calculate, illustrators’ royalties can be rather convoluted. Here are a few ways earnings tend to be structured (and these will “illustrate” why it is so hard to provide earnings estimates):
- Fixed fee basis: “I’m going to charge you ‘x’ amount to illustrate the entire children’s book and that includes ‘y’ number of revisions”;
- Per hour or per day basis: “My rates are ‘this much’ and I’ll just keep billing you until you’re happy or determine that we’re finished”;
- Per page basis: “It’ll cost ‘x’ per page and ‘y’ for the cover”;
- Royalty model: “I’ll be paid ‘x’ per copy of the book sold and you might even pay me an advance against these royalties at the time I sign the contract. In most cases, then, I'll split the royalties 50/50 with the author”;
- Combination: “I’ll charge some fixed fees for my work, as well as earn royalties”.
Any or all of these fee structures are not uncommon. As a first-timer, you want to give some confidence to the publisher, so working on a fixed-fee basis is often preferred. This helps remove the risk on the publisher’s side: they know the exact fee structure and they can be confident about what they’re getting. Just be careful on the revisions: you don’t want to wind up in an endless cycle of rework, so putting a cap on revisions (and then determining your set charges for revisions beyond the cap) is a sensible thing to do.
Bear in mind, too, that some children’s publishers won’t offer any flexibility in their fee payment model. Should this be the case, the list of potential fee structures is less relevant, and you’ll ultimately have less room to negotiate. As a rule of thumb, the larger the publisher, the less flexible they’ll be on terms.
So, then, can you actually make a living illustrating children’s books?
Definitely! But, probably not straight away. You would need to be completing at least 1-2+ books a month to achieve a fairly stable earnings profile, and this takes time. It also takes some established relationships. As in, once you’ve successfully completed work for a couple of children’s authors and publishers alike, you’re very likely to organically land more and more jobs from them.
In reality, most children’s illustrators need a couple of years under their belt to reach the point of exclusively working on kids’ books. They’ll have a lot of fun in the interim, though!
7. Do I make royalties on sales of children’s books I’ve illustrated?
Maybe. Maybe not. Established illustrators tend to earn royalties, as well as fixed fees for their illustrations. Point six details this further.
8. How do I know if my publisher is ripping me off?
For authors, this is much easier to determine, as authors’ commissions are more well-known (they hover around 10% of RRP, as you can read in my other article on getting your children’s book published). Illustrators’ rates for children’s books vary greatly, based on how they’re structured and how well-established the artist is.
The simplest way to put this one to bed is to articulate it this way: if you’re happy with how much you’ll earn, relative to how time you’ll be investing, then you’re not really being ripped off.
Per some of my earlier comments, though, just be careful with managing revisions. This tends to be where so many designers and illustrators fall over, and often end up working on something for much longer than they planned.
9. Should I submit my folio to more than one children’s book publisher?
Yes, definitely. If only to get a broad understanding of rates, shopping around is very useful. As mentioned earlier, rates for anything artistic – especially design and illustration – vary SO much, so the best way to ensure your skills are being appropriately valued is to shop them around to multiple sources.
The other benefit of this is feedback. If you’re lucky enough to get feedback on why your submission was/wasn’t successful, this can be really useful in refining future submissions.
If you received negative feedback on your folio, don’t be offended. Firstly, be glad you got feedback at all. In some cases, you won’t even get a response! If a publishing house takes the time to tell you where they think you went wrong, this potentially means two key things: your submission must have been good enough for them to want to help you; and, you might be in with a shot to submit again, once you’ve addressed their concerns.
The only other thing to be aware of is the general “courtesy rule”. I.e. if you’ve submitted to more than one publisher, you should be transparent about this. You don’t necessarily have to share the details (the “who and when”), but this level of openness is typically well-received.
10. And… what if I don’t hear back?
Children’s book illustrators are less likely to receive a response when submitting through publishers’ usual submissions queues. This is generally because authors get the most priority. It sucks, but it’s typically true.
If you don’t hear back within three months, I still wouldn’t assume that you’ve no chance. Often times, your folio has been filed somewhere in a “When the Right Book Comes Up, This Illustrator Could be Great” folder (!) and someone has just neglected to tell you this.
Should you resubmit? This is generally frowned upon and so is calling up to chase down your submission. A subtle email follow-up if you’ve not heard anything for a couple of months will suffice. And if this still yields nothing, you should just move on, and take it in your stride.
The good news is that there is no shortage of children’s book publishers and certainly no shortage of children’s authors, so you have a nearly-endless list of options!
Hmm, so that took me a couple of hours to write, and it doesn’t even cover the entirety of the process. I do hope it serves to provide some useful guidance, though, as well as answers many of the common requests we receive from aspiring children’s book illustrators. If you want to learn even more, check back in to our blog often and I’ll share more and more pieces of honesty about this very enigmatic industry.
Want to read some of Stuart French's children's books? They're right here.
Also want to read about how children’s authors get published? Here’s our similar blog on this topic.
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Loved this article.
Hey Ethicool, just wanted to drop a line thanking you for the advice. As an aspiring children’s book illustrator it can be a tough world out there sometimes! This info makes me feel motivated and inspired. Cheers!!
Hi Elspeth, we generally pay a flat fee to illustrators, but we’re also open to artists who’d like to work on a commission basis 😊
So, can you tell me if Ethicool pays a flat fee or royalties for illustration work for your books? Or does this depend on the illustrator and how experienced they are, or other factors? I am considering submitting my portfolio to you because your ethical approach and emphasis on conservation themes really appeals to me. However, in the future I would prefer to work for royalties.
We’re glad you liked the article, Madison! Thanks so much for your feedback.
This was so wonderful and helpful to read. I left TAFE with the intention and inspiration to become a children’s picture book illustrator and author. It’s still my dream, but the ‘starving, suffering artist’ lifestyle scared me a bit so now I’m trying my hand an art print e-commerce business. Reading this has inspired me to start considering going back into kids illustrations and seeing how doing both goes! Thank you 😊