Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Finding and Working with an Illustrator when Self-Publishing a Picture Book

An Interview with Author Cathey Nickell


In traditional publishing, the job of hiring, instructing, and collaborating with an illustrator falls on the shoulders of editors and art directors. An author rarely interacts with the illustrator of their book. The opposite is true in in self-publishing, where the author works very closely with the illustrator.

Knowledge of book design, layout and printing is also essential for any author who chooses to go it alone.  We sat down with Houston, TX-based author Cathey Nickell and asked her to discuss her book production process and the ways she collaborated with the illustrators of her two highly successful self-published picture books.



Tell us about your picture books and why you decided to self-publish them rather than sell them to a traditional publisher.

I launched my first picture book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, in 2016. It’s a story about a grandfatherly man who turns his plain car into a mobile work of art and makes friends along the way. Houston boasts more whimsical art cars than any other city in the country, and it’s also home to the world’s first and largest annual Art Car Parade. I decided to self-publish because my book has a niche appeal that is unique and special to Houston. Three years later, I saw a photograph of an art car covered in yarn, which led to the idea for Yazzy’s Amazing Yarn, my second picture book, which focuses on the phenomenon of yarn bombing. I self-published this one as well, because both stories focus on a similar theme of outsider art—a type of self-taught folk art. I wanted the books to have a similar size and appearance, so self-publishing the second one made sense. Plus, the first book had done so well that I now had funds to re-invest into a second project.



How did you find illustrators for your books?

I found my first illustrator, Bill Megenhardt, through an internet Google search. Since art cars carry such a specific-to-Houston appeal, I wanted to give a local artist a chance to do the job. Bill and I met for lunch, and I fell in love with his cross-hatch illustration style. I discovered that Bill had already illustrated more than thirty picture books, primarily for other self-published authors in our community, so I trusted his high level of experience. He also had a background of involvement with the SCBWI, which gave me another layer of confidence in his abilities. For the second project, I wanted my two books to look similar but not too much alike, so I felt a new illustrator could add a unique flair to Yazzy’s Amazing Yarn. This time, I searched the SCBWI website for Texas freelance illustrators and discovered Emily Calimlim’s gorgeous watercolors. The yarn-bombing book launched in 2019, and since that time, Emily has found agent representation and hopes to be traditionally published someday. In both cases, I made personal calls to prior clients and asked if they recommended the illustrator and what their experience in working with them was like.


What kind of fees can self-publishing authors expect to pay illustrators?

Both of my illustrators charged me about $150 per page. So, for a 32-page picture book, I paid around $4,800. For this fee, my illustrators included the layout of the book pages, which means the files were designed and ready to upload to the printing company. 

That being said, I recently spoke with another illustrator, and she said she was paid $12,000 to illustrate an indie picture book, so pricing varies. I think authors should plan on a range of anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 for professional illustrations when planning for their self-published picture book.


How did you negotiate your contract with them and what issues do writers unfamiliar with illustrator contracts need to be aware of?

Both of my illustrators presented me with their own contracts, and together we went through the specific details of each book deal before signing. Writers need to know that they will typically pay either one-third or one-half of the total cost up front. If the project stalls or if there is a falling-out with the illustrator, the author does not receive a refund of the down-payment. Fortunately, this did not happen with either of my books; Bill Megenhardt and Emily Calimlim were talented, professional, and timely, and I couldn’t have been happier. I’ll also add that I paid my illustrators a fair and competitive self-publishing rate that gave value to their experience levels, and they do not receive royalties for copies sold. I joyfully give them full credit on the book covers and throughout all my marketing and advertising endeavors. 


How did you and your illustrators work together to create your books? What issues came up and how did you deal with conflict?

My illustrators and I came up with some mutually-agreed-upon deadlines, and we communicated regularly—sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly—to see that the timeline was observed and respected. Both projects took approximately ten to twelve months to complete the original hand-drawn or hand-painted illustrations and graphic design layout. The illustrators gave me pencil sketches first to approve before they actually put ink or paint to the pages. I was allowed to suggest alterations during the pencil-sketch phase only; after that, things were typically set in stone unless I was willing to incur additional costs. With my first book, I changed my mind about a particular illustration. Bill had done a great job, but I felt the page needed something different, and I called him to discuss my idea. He gave me an additional charge to re-illustrate that page, and we were both happy with the new results. On my second book, I decided to alter a small detail on the front cover—after Emily had already finalized the watercolor painting; she was agreeable and charged me a small fee for the change order. I think I was lucky that I didn’t have any conflicts with my illustrators, and they remain my friends to this day. Bill, in fact, went on many school visits with me, and we presented to elementary students together for several years before he moved to another state. 



What knowledge of art direction do self-publishing picture book authors need to have going into the process?

I believe authors need prior experience with printing and art direction in order to take on a self-published book project. I have a strong background in public relations, and, for many years, I worked with photographers, artists, graphic designers, ad agencies, and printing companies to create brochures, newsletters, and marketing pieces for various employers. I was already well-versed in printing options, paper and binding choices, page layout, font selections, and various art styles. The author will need some business know-how, since they will be handling book sales, sales tax expenditures, year-end tax reports, and social media. I still have much to learn, but I do believe I brought a skill set to the table that allowed me to produce two lovely, original books that will hopefully stand the test of time.



Anything else you want to add?

Publishing my own books was not an easy endeavor. It took financial resources, a marketing plan, courage, and a risk-taking spirit (since there was no guarantee that my books would sell). I chose an off-set press printing option, rather than print-on-demand, because I wanted a high-quality product that would mimic those being produced by the traditional publishing houses. My books have allowed me the opportunity to speak to children about writing, inspiration, and creativity at more than 100 elementary schools, bookstores, and children’s museums in Texas and other states. And while I’ve greatly enjoyed this self-publishing experience, I do hope to be traditionally published someday. I’m currently querying out a middle-grade novel, and I hope to find agent representation. 


For more information on Cathey and her books, visit her at