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Pro illustrators: do you collaborate with authors?

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Worldbuilder
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I'm writing and illustrating and intending to self-publish a series of fantasy-adventure MG novels. One of the major reasons I decided to self-publish and illustrate myself was that I'd heard that traditional publishers choose illustrators without consulting authors, and that authors and illustrators don't collaborate. The publisher decides for themselves what the best art style and character styles are.

Now, I get why. Publishers know better than authors what kind of art is most appealing. And there are so many incredible illustrators out there, why would publishers chance it with an author's sub-par drawings? Unless they were already pro illustrators, of course.

But I was trained as a filmmaker and director. As a director I have a hand in every aspect of a film's production, and nothing creative or visual gets done without my approval. This is hard to give up! Too hard, in fact, and I decided I'd rather illustrate and self-publish than risk having an illustrator assigned to my work whose style felt wrong, or worse, a publisher who preferred "sellable" art over "good" art.

Anyway, I just wanted to get the illustrator's side of the story - have you been in situations where you collaborated with the author? Clearly in the self-publishing world you'd work a lot closer with them, right? What's your side of the story in all this? Am I being unreasonable, too untrusting of artists who are brilliant in their own right?
#1 - October 11, 2014, 01:43 AM
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Author/Illustrators can and do submit their illustrated works to traditional publishers and it does get published. The Wondla series is one such book in your genre. (of course, the author/artist is hugely famous already, so that helped.)

The reason a traditional publisher picks an illustrator without consulting the author has more to do with marketability than anything else. You are an unknown author. The publisher will try and pair your work with a known illustrator to give your book a leg up in the market. A known illustrator will have a fan base and a market following.

Another reason the relationship between the author and illustrator is usually kept separate is so the author won't influence the work of the artist. The production of a book is a team effort. Authors are generally too close to their work to allow the illustrator to bring their full vision and skills to the story. Illustrating a book includes a skill set that is more than just providing, as you say "good" art. An illustrator knows the technical needs of reproducible art as well as being able to infuse their illustrations with layers of story telling. Not every "good" artist is a good illustrator.

As far as collaboration with a self-publishing author, I have not had good experiences, so take this with a grain of salt. In my experience, the self-publishers have had no idea about the book production, marketing or promotion end of the book business. They picked me because I illustrate books, not because they liked my art style. All of them tried to get me to copy another artist's style or micromanaged what I put on the page. I do know other artists who have had better experiences, but even they felt as if they weren't really free to produce their best work and had to do a lot of education of the author on the more technical parts of their job. In general, self-publishing authors are either unable or unwilling to pay standard market rates for the illustrations. When an artist is spending months on a project, both of these points weigh hugely in their job satisfaction and whether they are even invested in the book's success.

I don't think your fears are unreasonable, in fact, I find them quite common with a self-publishing author. They do, however, mark you as a new to the book business. If you end up going the traditionally published route, you'll eventually learn to trust the publisher only wants to make the best book possible. And that established publishers have the business experience to do so.
#2 - October 11, 2014, 08:42 AM
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Well said, Wendy.

I write and illustrate and have no plans to do either separately. I have an agent and am published with Scholastic, so it hasn't hurt me that I only want to illustrate books I write. What I can say is that the books I have published have just my name on the covers, but I didn't do them by myself. My editor, art director, design team, and the countless others in the office it routed to that gave feedback that I don't even know, all helped to make my books the absolute best they can be. I am completely amazed at how dedicated everyone who worked on my books were, and how awesome it all turned out. Self-publishers who are the most successful are the ones who understand that, and hire editors, and designers, illustrators, etc. You can definitely illustrate your own work, but are you a book designer? They are not the same thing. You are a writer, but are you an editor? A copyeditor? One person is too close to their own work to be able to perform every role in a book's production in an objective way. An author is not a director, it's a completely different field. You can't really expect it to work the same way.
#3 - October 11, 2014, 10:30 AM
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Personally I have had good experiences working with self publishing authors. Certainly misunderstandings can occur and there is a good deal of education involved as far as copyright, equitable practices and technical issues required to successfully create a beautiful finished book.

I do agree with most of what Wendy has said. Traditional publishers are in business to make money. They invest heavily in the process and have a big interest in seeing quality marketable books produced.

I do work with traditional publishers and overall have great respect for the dedication and professionalism they bring to their projects. On the flip side, it can be creatively exhilarating to be able to discuss and pursue a direction with only the author's input and approval. I have found that the self publishing author's I have worked with contact me because they like the style and feel of my work, want a similar look for their book and for the most part respect and give a lot of credence to my opinions.

On self publishing authors not wanting or unable to pay sufficiently, I read this a lot and I'm sure it is true. Wouldn't we all like to pay less for everything?
The author presents the specifications of the project to the illustrator. The illustrator, as the expert artisan has a unique skill set. It is up to the illustrator to tell the author how much it will cost for the work requested, and to explain the additional matter of copyright and how that affects pricing. Those seeking cheap illustration will get what they pay for.
#4 - October 12, 2014, 10:29 AM

Worldbuilder
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Awesome answers, thanks everyone. I love these boards - I can get several professional opinions and advice in one organized place!

I think any time there's a collaboration, on just about anything, there are always those who micromanage and nitpick. As a film director the best advice I've heard with regard to collaborating is that the hardest part of the job is hiring talented, capable people. After that, your job is to get out of their way.

I imagine it'd be the same working with an illustrator, as a self-published author. Hire someone whose work you love and who can do the job. After that you let them do what they do best, providing guidance when necessary, but if you've hired the right person you shouldn't have to micromanage. I guess it just bums me out that being with a publisher would take away that collaboration entirely. I understand they want the best possible book, but I really enjoy working with talented people and creating something wonderful together.

Followup question - I don't really even want to illustrate my books, I just feel I have to. But if I were to find an illustrator who could do the style I wanted better than I could, I'd jump to hire them. If you were that illustrator (and I could pay you exactly what you wanted), would it be irritating to have to base your art on work that I had previously done? If I sent sketches and ideas for character looks or locations, as well as reference photos for certain things, would that be too hands-on, or would that be collaboration for you? Where's the line? Does it differ among illustrators?

Thanks! You guys rock, I have immense respect for what you do.
#5 - October 16, 2014, 01:51 AM
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The scenario you describe would not be appealing to me. But then again, my style is nowhere close to the one in your avatar. Part of a book illustrator's job is to create and envision characters and environments. However, there are many artist who are hired to work on licensed projects (eg - Muppets, Dora, Disney characters) who do have to copy existing characters exactly. I would jump at a chance to work on that kind of team. In that scenario, a professional illustration department has already developed a character guideline down to the exact colors and shapes of the images. That is a completely different kind of job, and not the same as what you are suggesting.

There are literally thousands of illustrators with an equal number of styles. Finding one to suit your requirements will only take some dedicated time and research. SCBWI has a portfolio section of all their illustrator members, and http://childrensillustrators.com/ is a web site with 100s of children's book illustrators, but by no means all. I am on another site called http://thatsmyfolio.com/ which is another place to find pro illustrators.
#6 - October 16, 2014, 05:43 AM
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The very real possibility does exist that a traditional publisher with their dedicated team of full time professionals will create a finished book that in the end is better than what a self publishing author would come up with. You might have to let go and trust others to take it to its full potential.

As to your follow up question - for me that line can be blurry. I don't ever mind taking a look into the thought process that has led up to that point. If I am asked to emulate someone else's style I will tell you to hire that illustrator. Between those extremes it all depends... Wendy's advice is right on - look at many illustrators portfolios, talk to a few and select one that you click with.

#7 - October 16, 2014, 09:51 AM

Worldbuilder
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That definitely seems like the best advice. If you pick someone whose style is similar to what you're looking for, they won't have to go too far outside of what they like to do, and what they're good at, to deliver what you want. Seems obvious, but I can imagine people falling into the trap of, "well, they can draw, so they can draw anything!" Not that you can't - just that there's more to it than that.

Thanks again, all.
#8 - October 23, 2014, 04:47 AM
The Voyages of the Merry Mariner - newly launched MG fantasy/adventure series!

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