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Sell New Picture Book Series with or without Illustrator

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Hello everyone!  I'm hoping for some voices of experience here when it comes to selling a picture book as a new author.  I've written 3 books--the start of a series--with the intention of pursuing traditional publication.  I am not an illustrator and have read in many places online that publishers tend to prefer getting their own illustrators.

Even the welcome message I got from this very SCBWI board indicated that publishers prefer using their own illustrators.

However, when I discussed with a book packager colleague about this project, she advised that it is very difficult to sell a text-only picture book (implying that it would be best to have text and illustrations ready to go).  Thus, I have been communicating with potential illustrators and getting quotes.  I feel I might be near to picking one that I like...

...but then I continue to see these suggestions out there that hiring your own illustrator will NOT help you sell your manuscript.

I'm trying to work my way through the weeds here and to practical, real-life experiences from anyone on this board.  Is it better for me to try and sell only the text to an agent/publisher, or would it be better if I presented a finished product with text AND illustrations?  (My default personal sense is that it's best to try and sell a finished product...but, again, that seems to be against some conventional wisdom out there.  The idea the of selling this unfinished drives me a little nuts.)

Similarly...and I'll understand if I'm told to ask this in a separate post...but I wonder if it's best for me to pursue publishers that claim to accept unagented submissions or to pursue agents first for this sort of thing.  It all boils down to me figuring out the most practical and effective ways to navigate this industry.

Thanks and I really appreciate your valuable insights!
#1 - January 22, 2020, 12:16 PM

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The initial advice you received is sound. Do not seek out an illustrator. This is the way this business works, and to hire an illustrator will scream uninformed newbie. Also, do not pitch it as a series. The first book must stand on its own and sell really well before a publisher will consider trying it as a series.
Agent vs. publisher is a personal choice. If your goal is to work with an agent, than follow that path and do not sub to publishers (or only a very small # of carefully targeted subs). Agents are not interested in manuscripts that have been widely shopped. Either path requires a ton of patience, persistence, and practice.
There is a wealth of great information here. It takes a long time and countless hours of reading, writing, and research to become well versed in the kidlit industry. Very much worth it though!!! Best of luck!
#2 - January 22, 2020, 03:26 PM
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This has been my experience:
Packagers come from a different angle. They commission the whole book (pictures and illustrations) and sell the whole package to a publisher. Traditional publishing is what you are talking about, with authors selling their work directly to a publisher and then an illustrator being assigned to work by the publisher.
Packagers generally sell to educational publishers. You are seeking a trade publisher.
Please, set me straight if I am wrong in this. (Also, I am in Australia, where things are sometimes a little different.)
#3 - January 22, 2020, 04:33 PM
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What Julie says is accurate for the US too, though there are some packagers who work in trade. Packagers do their thing. You are an author, not a packager. Unless you want to BE a packager, which means learning how to be a packager and setting yourself up as a business, don't try to do what packagers do.
#4 - January 22, 2020, 04:39 PM
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Publishers do like author/illustrators, assuming they are sufficiently skilled in both talents. 

If you're an author/illustrator, that's great.  Sell text and illustrations together. 

If not, don't seek out an illustrator. 

Publishers and packagers both will seek out illustrators if the author is not one.   

The only time you, as a non-illustrator author should seek out an illustrator yourself is if you are self-publishing.  And, even then, only if you are really sure about the marketability of your book.  Because an illustrator is going to want just as much from you for illustrating your self-published book as they would from a traditional publisher because it's going to be the same amount of work.  If you're not going to get sufficient sales, especially on an image-heavy project like a picture book or graphic novel, you'll lose money on it the project. 
#5 - January 22, 2020, 06:01 PM
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I'm betting you've seen the advice without reasons, so here are reasons.

You are a new author. Readers won't recognize your name. A publisher may select an illustrator with a following for your book. That following translates to sales. The publisher may also select someone newer because that person will bring something to the manuscript they believe it needs. (Perhaps they've seen art styles heading in that direction in the marketplace.) In any case, the key is that the publisher believes the combination will sell well. Publishing is a business.

Submitting with an illustrator gives the impression you are committed to each other. What if they love the art but hate the text or vice versa? They'll reject both of you together. Your manuscript, when it's ready to submit, is your finished product. The art you buy isn't yours in the same way. Consider what happens if the book does very well and you are asked for a sequel but your illustrator isn't interested. The publisher would either decide not to do book two or have to pay to repackage book one to match the new illustration style or find an illustrator who could mimic the first. The manuscript is the part that came from you and that you control. It's your finished product. (The book is the publishing team's product and you'll be part of that team.)

As far as agents go, they like to see three completed manuscripts (for PBs) that are in similar styles, but not necessarily in a series. As Jayca said, if book one doesn't do well, book two in the series won't happen. But another book one may.

Also, agents cannot sell your work to an editor who has already rejected it. The more you submit, the less they can. So the general advice is to target agents first. You can always try editors if no agent will take you on, but the opposite isn't true. (That said, if you attend a first pages session with an editor who loves your work, by all means, submit to that one editor.)

I hope this helps you understand the industry better. Many of the stickies on the Blueboard explain things like this, so I very much recommend reading those before you proceed. Good luck.

#6 - January 22, 2020, 06:02 PM
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Thank you, everyone, for the thoughtful and useful responses.

Today my copyright attorney had one interesting thought about this: "I think there are lots of advantages hiring your own illustrator, among them that you would have much more control over the product."

Throughout the day I was thinking about this, and considering that perhaps I would continue with an illustrator if 1) s/he signs an agreement that clearly makes me the copyright holder, 2) s/he also agrees to remain the illustrator throughout at least X number of books (based, I suppose, on how many books I get in the publishing deal) without requiring me to guarantee that many, and 3) I give the publisher the option of using either the illustrations we did or their own.  The illustrator I'm looking to select will only run me about $1,000 flat fee per book, which to me seems pretty reasonable for 22-24 illustrated pages.

Certainly I could abandon that strategy and try to sell text-only.  But, then, is it not excessively difficult for a new author to sell text-only to an agent/publisher?  I mean, I believe wholeheartedly in these stories, which also have an altruistic element for endangered animals (the main character is a pangolin), but it just really feels like I'm selling a half-finished work.  Perhaps that's just the wrong mindset for this.

Oh, and this is really only a "series" in the sense that Berenstain Bears or Little Critter or Curious George are series.  Each book actually stands alone, with the same characters across multiple books.  That sort of thing.  There's not a "Book 1" per se.

But I really see your points, Debbie (and everyone).  I see the merit in getting assigned a well-known illustrator.  Still, I suppose one publisher would see the artistic needs one way, another publisher a different way, and then me possibly yet another.
And I see the point about being rejected together.  But would giving them the option of either using that or their own illustrator alleviate that?
I also wonder if I couldn't get a better cut of the proceeds if they happen to like both the illustrations and text.

On agents, I just assume I will get less of the proceeds if one is involved.  To me it seems prudent to try the handful of publishers that accept unagented submissions, and then I wouldn't have that 15-or-so% to give up to an agent.  But, if you're saying that submitting to this handful of publishers first and then trying to get an agent would be very difficult, that's something I may have to consider.  I just wonder, in some cases, if an agent is really worth it.  I have a NY literary/copyright attorney and otherwise business experience, so I'm generally comfortable negotiating deals.  I'm just not experienced in THIS industry.

And, Debbie, when you say "first pages session," do you mean like if I visit editors someplace like a writing conference?

Appreciate the advice, everyone!  Great stuff!
#7 - January 22, 2020, 09:06 PM
« Last Edit: January 22, 2020, 09:08 PM by ctnovelist »

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You've gotten the best advice out there already.

If you want to try publishers who accept unagented submissions, go for it. My advice is to do that without illustrations, for all the reasons mentioned.

I would also recommend that you join a PB critique group, if you haven't already. And get involved in your local chapter of SCBWI, if you aren't already.

Good luck!
#8 - January 23, 2020, 04:40 AM
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The packager you spoke with is right only in that it IS hard to sell a PB manuscript (but it's hard to sell any manuscript) Publishers are very careful about what they invest in and rightfully so, PB's are VERY expensive to produce.
But I disagree with your Lawyer and the Packager, in that having completed art (especially the kind only $1K will buy) is NOT an asset but a liability. As Karen points out,  Agents and Editors/Publishers, love to see subs from an Illustrator who also writes but not from a writer who has hired someone that the publisher never would have. Keep in mind that in PB's, the Illustrations are 50% as  important as the text. It's the first thing seen by potential book buyers, it's what the children who can't read yet focus on and a Publisher will offer contracts with the same advance and royalty percentage of the book to both the Author and the Illustrator. It can sometimes take yrs for a PB to be completed and that's partly due to the publisher willing to wait for the Illustrator to be free to take on the project, because they know the art (or as Debbie say the Artists reputation/fan base) will help sell the book.
Publishers have an Art Director work with the Illustrator (the same way they have an Editor work with the writer) Illustrators much prefer having that experienced set of eyes (the AD) to help them achieve the best possible art and ensure continuity of character and colours.
An Author doesn't remain in control once they pursue Trade Publication. There are many people involved in producing a book, each with  their own special skill set, which (hopefully) results in bringing it to life and making it a success.

I would say don't concern/worry yourself about the art, being the art director, in essence being the publisher. Free yourself up to focus on your own special skill you bring to the table, which is that of a writer :)



#9 - January 23, 2020, 04:41 AM
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I would say don't concern/worry yourself about the art, being the art director, in essence being the publisher. Free yourself up to focus on your own special skill you bring to the table, which is that of a writer :)

This is gold and worth repeating.

Good luck as you study both the craft and business of writing PBs. It will shape and clarify your goals, what you want to be in control of, what you want to let go, what you can reasonably do in the time you've been given.
#10 - January 23, 2020, 06:31 AM
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You've received a lot of very good advice, and it looks like you are inclined to ignore it. And that's your prerogative. Perhaps things actually will work out the way you imagine. I've been in children's publishing for 30 years, and in my experience they don't, but there are always exceptions. Perhaps you will be the exception. However, I do want to comment on two points in particular, for others reading this thread if not for you:

The belief that you and your copyright attorney share that there is an advantage to submitting your PB with illustrations. This might help with small or "hybrid" publishers who would be wanting to make you pay for the illustrations anyway. It won't help with larger publishers, the ones with national distribution, the ones who can get your book in the hands of more readers.

The belief that you'll save money by not having an agent: It's true that agents receive 15% of your earnings. However, they can make all that back for you just by negotiating a larger advance, or a royalty escalation, or better sub rights terms, something you on your own wouldn't be able to do. They can also get you in the door at larger publishers, which you also can't do on your own. Most if not all writers with agents will tell you that they have been well worth it financially.

Good luck, whatever you decide to do.
#11 - January 23, 2020, 06:37 AM
« Last Edit: January 23, 2020, 05:51 PM by HaroldU »
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$1000 for 22-24  pages of color picture book illustrations is way too low.  Think about how many hours that is per illustration at a living wage (or even minimum wage).  It's not much.  Not enough time for high quality color picture book illustrations.  Unless, maybe, you're hiring from overseas where the wages are much lower?

You've heard the saying about fast, cheap, and good?  You only ever get to pick two.  At that price, you've chosen fast and cheap. 

Again, you should ONLY be hiring an illustrator yourself if you're self-publishing.  But, if you do go that route, I recommend buying a current copy of the Graphic Artist Guild's Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook.  Or checking out a copy from your local library.  Look up picture books.  The rates listed are union rates, so they do run a little high, but it will at least give you a decent idea of what the prices should be.  My copy from 2018 (15th edition, page 251) shows a flat fee contract for an original hardcover picture book (32 pages is standard) should be between $4,000-$20,000.  Now, take off a bit of that because you only have 24 pages and aren't hiring a GAG illustrator.  But, still, $1,000 is way too low. 
#12 - January 23, 2020, 03:46 PM
« Last Edit: January 24, 2020, 07:49 AM by karen-b-jones »
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$1000 for 22-24  pages of color picture book illustrations is way too low. 

Excellent point.
#13 - January 23, 2020, 05:52 PM
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I have three things to add, one is that the children's publishing industry isn't quite like the rest of the literary world. Make sure your lawyer has experience in work for children. In work for adults, there's only cover art and maybe a spot illustration or two to consider.

The second is that you'll also have to pay for art for the book jacket. The art isn't only on the pages that have text. Often picture books have illustration on the copyright and title pages as well.

And the third is that when you share your art with others, you lose some control over it. Readers will not interpret it the way you want them to no matter how carefully you write it. You cannot control the audience. So if your goal is to have a broad audience and let your book baby (we use this metaphor commonly for a reason) flourish, you will need to give up some control at some stage. If the book is about you, then self publish and maintain control across every phase of production and marketing. If it's about your readers, than traditional publishing with or without an agent may be the better choice for you. Looking over the self publishing board may help you decide.

You have sound advice from everyone above. But it's not an easy choice. Good luck whichever way you go.
#14 - January 23, 2020, 08:55 PM
« Last Edit: January 30, 2020, 09:10 PM by Debbie Vilardi »
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Thank you all very much for the great feedback and advice.  Certainly I am not inclined to ignore it.  I wanted to check the various things I've heard and read, as well as my own logic, about publishing picture books with real people who have been there, and I feel that objective has been met here.  Given the advice received, it really does seem that submitting the text manuscript without illustrations is the way to go.

What I think I'll do now is find a children's book editor to go over my text on its own merit, and continue from there with submission.  (If anyone has recommendations for this, that would be awesome.)

Thanks again to everyone for the responses and advice!
#15 - January 24, 2020, 09:06 AM

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Before you pay for a children's editor to review the text, do you have a critique group? Fellow PB  writers are a great resource in evaluating your work. In addition, you can post your story for critique on these boards at this link:

https://www.scbwi.org/boards/index.php?board=73.0

Best of luck!
#16 - January 24, 2020, 10:29 AM
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Paying for an editor is the last step before sending a book out. Before that, you need critique partners, as said above.  A good editor is expensive. You don't want to have to pay for one twice.
#17 - January 24, 2020, 06:13 PM
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Ah, okay...sure, that makes sense.  Sort of like having beta readers for adult novels.  (My "default" genre is epic fantasy, so children's books are a completely different dynamic for me...but still very interesting!)  I will definitely check out the critique board and appreciate the suggestion!
#18 - January 24, 2020, 06:56 PM

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Actually we use beta readers for full manuscripts, especially novels, and critique partners for sections of the work. Beta readers are the step before submission. Critters are when you still really need work. But you've got it.
#19 - January 25, 2020, 06:45 PM
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You already have great advice here - just wanted to chime to say I agree that in traditional publishing, if you're not the illustrator then submit text only. It will mark you as an amateur who hasn't done the research if you get your own illustrator.

I'm a PB writer and got an agent a couple of years ago with my text-only PB, and my agent then sold it to Random House. Random House then got an illustrator for it. That's pretty standard for how text-only PBs usually work (of course there are always exceptions!).

For me, getting an agent is definitely worthwhile. My agent negotiated clauses in my contract that I would not have even thought to question. 15% is the regular agent commission. Many publishers (especially bigger publishers) only accept submissions from agents rather than directly from writers, so you have limited places to submit without an agent. There are publishers that do accept manuscripts from writers though, you just need to research which ones. If you go to conferences then often you have a chance to submit directly to editors on the faculty.

As others have mentioned, if you do want to query agents then you should have at least 3 PBs ready to go (stand alone books, not in a series). And research agents who accept text-only PBs, as some only take author-illustrators. All of it takes a lot of research, patience, and time! Good luck with whichever way you decide to go!
#20 - January 29, 2020, 03:08 PM

Thank you to everyone for the responses.  It seems pretty unanimous that I should proceed with text-only.

Given that I have a NY literary attorney on deck who can help on the contract end, it's tempting for me to try going unagented at first...but I'm not really decided on that yet.  Kats, can you recommend a starting point for finding an agent such as yours who was able to sell to Random House.  That sounds fantastic.  I'm also curious how long it took for the book to be illustrated and finally go to market...?

And what conferences might you guys recommend?
#21 - January 29, 2020, 10:25 PM

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Thank you to everyone for the responses.  It seems pretty unanimous that I should proceed with text-only.

Given that I have a NY literary attorney on deck who can help on the contract end, it's tempting for me to try going unagented at first...but I'm not really decided on that yet.  Kats, can you recommend a starting point for finding an agent such as yours who was able to sell to Random House.  That sounds fantastic.  I'm also curious how long it took for the book to be illustrated and finally go to market...?

And what conferences might you guys recommend?

Glad to hear this! There are many paths to finding an agent--almost as many as there are authors with agents, as you'll learn when you hear people's stories. Querying is one path. Meeting agents at conferences is another.  There are even Twitter pitchfests. I put together some resources on my website around finding agents. Start with that linked page, and as you'll see there are others you can go to as well.

The publishing process can be lengthy, and if you want quality, it can't be rushed. Typically, it will be at least two years from the time a picture book is acquired to the time it hits the market, and often three or more. Much of that is time for the illustrator to work, but not all of it. These days, publishers aim to be done with a book 6-9 months before the publication date to allow for publicity and reviews.

Finally, regarding conferences, your local SCBWI conference is a good place to start. SCBWI conferences are listed on the website. You might in particular look into some of larger regionals, such as the New England one at the beginning of May. People fly into that from around the country.  For in-depth workshops, you should also look into the Highlights Foundation.

Good luck!
#22 - February 02, 2020, 07:23 AM
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I swear i answered this yesterday. Must never have hit send. Make sure your lit attorney is familiar with the children's side of the industry. It does vary from the adult side.

There are many places to start your agent search: Agent Query, Query Tracker, MSWL, agency websites, conferences, the AAR, and pitch events. You can even look on websites (or at acknowledgement pages) for authors writing in the same style as you or that you just love. Be sure to research every agent you come upon. Not all are legit.

Good luck.
#23 - February 02, 2020, 05:53 PM
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I'm so glad you brought this up here. You've received fantastic advice!

Whether or not you choose to submit to agents or editors, finding great critique partners will be a huge help! Even after years of writing, revising, participating in the Blueboard and conferences/workshops, I'm amazed at how many things my critique partners point out that help take my work up several levels, explore angles I never considered, and make sure it's as clear as possible. Plus it's incredibly helpful to have someone else read your manuscript out loud (my local groups take turns reading a manuscript from another member).

You can query publishers after polishing one picture book manuscript...but like others said, the more editors you submit to, the less likely an agent will want to sign you for it. Having at least three different, strong manuscripts is so important when submitting to agents because if they don't love the others as much as a first, it could be a no or they might ask for even more. I've been asked for as many as five after the original submission.

Definitely check out your local SCBWI. I'm lucky to live in an extremely active state with two large conferences, a one day Boot Camp, plus free two hour meetings most months in 5 areas of the state. Plus, you might have a critique group near you. It would be a great compliment to getting critiques here and/or an online group since critiquers who know your manuscript well can tell if you've taken a backwards stumble and fresh eyes are incredibly helpful.

Inexpensive SCBWI webinars are getting more and more popular. You can find a bunch of them on our board. I've taken two by Pat Zietlow Miller and she's amazing, and has another one coming up on Feb. 22.

Check out #PBChat on Twitter--there's a lot of great advice there. If you sign up on Justin's website, he'll notify you about upcoming chats: http://justincolonbooks.com/about-justin/

He has lots of wonderful classes, challenges, blogs, etc. listed on his resource page.

I'm a member of 12x12PB and love the community and motivation to try to write and/or revise 12 PB each year. They have amazing webinars included with the annual fee: https://12x12challenge.com/membership/
#24 - February 02, 2020, 11:09 PM

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Another good starting place for PB agents is this list by Shari L. Scharwz: https://sharischwarz.wordpress.com/picture-book-agents/ I recommend researching each agent so you can really target who you're sending it to. Agency websites, online interviews, Twitter etc can all give you a good idea of agents' tastes and what they're looking for, and if they sound like a good match for you. When I was querying, I had the most positive responses from new agents who were actively building their lists (there is lots of info out there about new vs. established agents, but the general advice is new agents at good agencies can be a great opportunity).

You could start by looking at the Kidlit agencies Andrea Brown,  Erin Murphy, and Pippin as they have multiple agents who represent PBs. Each agency have their own guidelines on their websites on how to submit to them.

Query Tracker is a great place to research agents, and you can also use their tools to record your queries if you want to.  Absolute Write forums are also a good place for research (although their website is down right now). And of course, these forums here at SCBWI! I agree that joining your local branch of SCBWI is a good idea too, and you can check out what local conferences you have.

As for time, as Harold said it takes about 2 + years from the time of sale of a PB to the time it's released. My PB sold in May 2019 and is due to come out in summer 2021 (the illustrator is currently working on the art!).
#25 - February 03, 2020, 11:23 AM

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