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Can an Illustrator Request Changes from the Author?

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Full disclosure: I am brand new to this and know nothing about the PB illustrating process. While this project is hardly the most professional or well-paid book illustration situation imaginable, it's still quite large and I'm terrified, to say the least. lol.

In June, I was referred by a colleague to illustrate a kid's PB for a large local non-profit as a fundraising piece. The manuscript author was the marketing director of the non-profit and my only contact for this job, and had never written a PB before. When I read through his 1400 word script at home, each line either "telling" the reader something (rather than showing) or awkwardly hammering the importance of how you shouldn't be afraid of people who are different (Think "Island of Misfit Toys", but with zoo animals), I was incredibly nervous about taking the gig. Twenty-twenty hindsight makes it clear I should have kindly rejected the offer, but the thunderpuppy in me took over and said, "OF COURSE I'll do it! This will be great experience!"

But now I'm stuck. I can't get emotionally engaged in the manuscript as is. Apparently it has already been edited, and since he already paid me in advance for the job two months ago, there's no turning back now. :gaah

Long story short, since this isn't an intensely corporate or large-scale job, how much leeway do I have as an illustrator to make manuscript suggestions to the author? As an amateur, I just kind of assumed I take what is written and make it work (because it'd already be edited and that's not my job.) However, there are spreads that would clearly be more enjoyable if the author chopped a couple exposition paragraphs and just let the pictures speak for themselves. Would a request to remove such paragraphs be fair recommendations?
#1 - September 08, 2014, 03:04 PM
« Last Edit: September 08, 2014, 03:09 PM by Erin DeGroot »

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Not on the same scale of request, but my first foray into publication had me asking the same question. In short, the answer is, yes. The goal is to make the book the best it can be. And if there are some passages in the text that could be better told through images, it would certainly help reduce the word count and convey the story the way a picture book should.  Gently telling the author your vision and how the artwork could illustrate the passage without being a redundancy of the text, and asking if some of the words could be eliminated, may be an option.

A book I illustrated had a verse that didn't quite fit with the rest of the text/story and the visual impact was affected. So I explained the dilemma to my Art Director and asked if a change could be considered. He turned the question over to the editor, who turned it over to the author. I had some ideas in my head, but thought better of making any suggestions. And the author came up with something fantastic which really worked for the story.

Even for my own author/illustrator works, I find myself editing the story intensely when I make the dummy. Text change requests aren't unheard of, but it needs to be upon a mutual understanding of the vision and diplomatically settled. I was lucky to be able to take my question to someone who understands coming up with visual story and could relay my request. If you sketched out the page spread, and show your ideas, it may help present how the storytelling could way on the side of the illustrations for the scenes you have in mind.

Best to you on this venture.
#2 - September 08, 2014, 06:14 PM
« Last Edit: September 08, 2014, 06:48 PM by Cynthia Kremsner »
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You can ask, but be prepared for a no answer or even to be met with hostility. Since you are not working with professional writers, they may be rather attached to things as they are and not open to change. I'd proceed with caution.

In the future, make sure you love the project before agreeing to do it. You'll be working on a picture book for months, being unhappy and uninspired for long periods of time can be very draining both emotionally and physically.

Since you're knee-deep in it now, try and find something about the project you like - even if it's only the cause you're helping to promote. Good luck.
#3 - September 08, 2014, 06:34 PM
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I think if you just focus on the redundancy and are very gentle and sandwich your suggestions with a lot of positive remarks, the author may end up appreciating the suggestion in the long run.  Having a rough dummy to show him will probably help. 
#4 - September 08, 2014, 06:48 PM
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That's a really tough one, but I think it's a big no-no.

I've worked on books where I know something is wrong, but when I'm commissioned to illustrate - that's what I do. However, I'm pretty confident that mistakes will be picked up by the proof-readers, editors etc.. In your situation, I wouldn't really know what to do. It's awkward when there's no 'traditional' set up, I suppose (where a team of people agree on every stage of the book).

Good luck with it - I think you maybe need to grit your teeth and get on with it and chalk it up as experience. :)

#5 - September 09, 2014, 01:17 AM
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If you do ask for changes, I highly recommend asking through the art director and/or editor, NOT directly to the author.

As a picture book author, I've been asked to change my text to better fit an image the illustrator had for the book - but the request came from my editor - NOT the illustrator.

And this can sometimes work the other way around, too. I twice had illustrators do finished artwork that was historically incorrect. I requested each time that it be corrected (through the editor) and both times the artist refused to do it over. The first book went out of print almost as fast as it came out. The second time I went to my local librarian and asked her what would happen if the book were printed with the errors in it. She said, "We won't carry (buy) a book that isn't historically correct." I passed that info along to my editor and, surprise! The artwork was redone. That book is still in print. :)
#6 - September 09, 2014, 08:39 AM
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Verla, unfortunately, there is no art director or editor. It's just him and me, and neither of us know what we're doing. lol.
#7 - September 09, 2014, 10:24 AM

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Verla, in this case the author is self publishing and it's their first work. So it's very unclear how they will take the request.

I will say that 1400 words is pretty much unheard of these days for a picture book. Traditional publishers want picture books around 500 words or less, maybe you can get away with more if there is a REALLY good reason for it, or the book is brilliant, or you are a huge name. No parent is going to want to read 1400 badly written words to their child, though, no matter how good the cause.

When you say the book has been edited, who was it edited by? A professional? Or just someone else involved in the fundraising? I have never used a freelance editor, but from what I hear they edit according to the author's wishes. It's tricky. They have to edit the piece, without alienating a future client. They aren't going to tell someone that they need to cut half their book, and if they do, the person certainly doesn't have to heed the advice. It's not really the same as editing done by a publisher. In this case it might even be closer to proofreading. (Editing focuses mostly on content and structure, etc, proofreading or copyediting is basically grammar)

If you don't plan to ever work with this person on another project, I'd say you have nothing to lose by asking to make the book better. Are there some traditionally published books with a similar theme that you might offer as examples and point out how few words a pb should have? Oh, and how many pages is this book going to be? A standard picture book usually has either 32 or 40 pages. (look through your local library and count pages, noting where the story starts, etc) 1400 words is going to have pretty big blocks of text depending on the page count, and will limit your room for the art.

Good luck with this.
#8 - September 09, 2014, 10:37 AM
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OK, I'm jumping in to say that from my perspective, as an editor who has worked on many picture books in-house, you have more latititude in this situation than you do if you were working with a publisher. And more responsibility! You are the experienced person here, at least in terms of understanding what a picture book IS. And you want to make this be the best book possible, right, since it will have your name on it and you'll be using it as a portfolio piece?

So, as others have said, be gentle, be thoughtful, but do not hesitate to show your partner in this process ways in which the book could be better. If you want to cut a paragraph of exposition because you show it in the illustration, for example, say to the writer: "Look, you gave me some great art direction here, and I've incorporated it into the picture, so now we can remove that text and let your story run more freely...." See what I mean? Have a discussion. Keep the focus on making the best possible book.

Good luck!
#9 - September 09, 2014, 05:11 PM
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When you say the book has been edited, who was it edited by? A professional? Or just someone else involved in the fundraising?
From the brief discussion we had about editors, he said he sent it to a "big children's book editor" in the UK. He said they had him cut it down a lot, but it sure feels like it was probably more grammar/technical than content editing, even though I still see random grammatical things that feel...iffy.

While I wish I didn't have to request edits, I do think you guys have the right of it. Asked nicely, the requests will make the book much better, and that is the most important thing. So, yeah. I think I'll do exactly like you mentioned, Harold. That's a lovely way of putting it.

And seriously, you guys give such terrific feedback; you don't know what a relief this is to hear rational, knowledgable voices where once I had nothing. In the end, I realize that this is one of those SP books that gets sold in the "Local Author" section next to "Grandma Ethel's Favorite Jello Recipes" and "The Day Old Blue Went to Doggie Heaven" in the checkout line at Kroger. But thank you for taking it seriously anyway. It means a lot.



#10 - September 10, 2014, 08:44 AM

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Erin, if you are like most of us, you want ANYTHING that is published and "out there" with your name on it to be something you can be proud of - not something you will cringe over when someone says, "Hey! I saw your book the other day."  So yeah, anything you can suggest and/or do that will improve the book so it meets your standards is a good thing. And remember, if it looks like the end result is going to be something you honestly do NOT want your name on, you can always use a pseudonym on that book, and chalk it up to experience.
#11 - September 10, 2014, 07:47 PM
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