Illustrators can work in many different ways: some have partnerships with authors, others create their own stories and concepts, and still others are brought in by publishers to work on a specific book or series.
Reaching out to illustrators
When Ben Hughes, deputy art director at Puffin, is looking to appoint an illustrator, he’ll always contact their agent first - if they’re represented by an agent.
“We pitch the project and visual intentions, plus fee and schedule,” he explains. “If all is agreed and the artist is available, we then work to their preference.
“Some have their agent deal with all communications, but most prefer to then be connected directly to us to work on the project. I personally prefer direct contact with the illustrator, it’s a far more efficient and enjoyable way of working.”
Not sure how to get an agent as an illustrator?
Working with the author
Connections also happen the other way round - when illustrators' agents approach publishers. Author illustrators, and illustrators who work in partnership with an author, will likely come to a publisher in a similar way that an author of an adult book might: they or their agent will submit an idea (in this case an outline or manuscript, and some illustrations) and the publisher will decide whether to acquire it.
“Nathan and I were friends prior to working together, as we’d worked together on small projects previously. So when he approached me about Look Up! it was a no brainer for me,” says Dapo.
“A major thing I’d advise if you’re coming into this as a partnership is to make sure you have a signed agreement/contract between you that clearly states to what extent you’re both contributing and have control over the project.
“Nathan and I are co-creators and as such we signed a 50/50 agreement which has served me well when it comes to having my contributions towards the direction of the book we worked on actioned."
Although authors and illustrators who work in partnership exist, you're far more likely to be paired with an author or illustrator who you haven't met before. And what's that process like? Rashmi Sirdeshpande, author of Never Show A T-Rex A Book shares her experience:
"I think it varies for every team and project. With Diane Ewen, and Annabel Tempest for the How To books, we have quite a strong curtain between us – I work with the editor, and the illustrator works with the designer. I think it works, and maybe that's because we don't step on each other's toes – and maybe I'd just waste time fangirling if I had a room with Diane or Annabel! But I think the editor and designer sneakily feed back our thoughts and we do incorporate them so it really is a collaborative thing." And after the book is published, you may end up working closer together with your author or illustrator on other projects, "Diane and I are working together more directly on virtual school visits, which I'm really excited about. It's like that curtain has lifted."
On the input she has in the illustrations that are made alongside her writing Rashmi explains, "The editor and designer will have gone through it all before showing it to me, and they'll have suggestions of their own and some questions for me too. This is where if I have some thoughts on the artwork and how it impacts or drives the story, or a lightbulb moment about some other things we could include if the illustrator likes the idea, then I can share it here.
"But I always make clear that my thoughts are exactly that - just thoughts! The illustrator is the expert in this area. And on the flip side, my editor and I often tweak the text (or overhaul it) to make it work with a particularly amazing piece of art."
As with all other parts of the publishing process, it comes down to collaboration. "Diane's artwork captures the spirit of the story so perfectly," says Rashmi, "Picture books are a real collaboration - I tell half of the story, Diane tells the other half, with lots of overlap in between. She's so wonderfully creative so I love leaving space for her - zero illustration notes unless I need to explain something that isn't in the words.
"I often keep the text minimal and leave the magic to her - like in this one scene in Never Show a T-Rex a Book where we talk about what might happen if a little girl takes a bunch of dinosaurs to school. The text simply says 'That'll be...er...interesting!' That's it. No notes. And Diane has packed those spreads with so much fun!"
Creating the visual identity of the book
Nadia Shireen is both an author and illustrator, and for her, ideas start as doodles in a notebook. “I tend to start doodling characters, and if I particularly like one, I keep drawing it until the seed of a narrative suggests themselves. For example, I might draw them looking sad and then I’ll ask myself, why are they sad? Then I try to answer that question, both in text and image.
“I’ve been working with my editor for a while now, so she’s really good at interpreting my scribbles and doodles. She helps me coax a full story out of them. A lot of the process is trial and error.”
Trial and error is welcome in children’s illustration, with Ben advising that even experienced illustrators have to be open to re-shaping their work.
“We work with experienced illustrators on new styles and projects to differentiate from their usual style. I’ve spoken to really experienced illustrators about this and they all said that they’re constantly trying to improve or try new styles.”
How long does it take a book to be ready?
"The book schedule is affected by numerous factors," says Ben, "such as schedule and work commitments for both author, illustrator and of course the designer and editor.
"But the ideal is to have the cover finalised nine months prior to the actual publishing date and the full book is sent to print six months prior to that. Sometimes we also have to work a year in advance if material is required for Book Fairs such as Bologna (an industry event focused on children's books).
"The designer usually aims for delivery of the final cover art within two months of commissioning the illustrator, whereas heavily illustrated interiors usually span across three months: from initial brief – to rough art, then final art delivery, this includes editorial copy edits, plus inhouse and author tweaks approvals."
If you want to learn more about a designer's perspective during the creation of a book, you can also read about the life cycle of a book cover.
Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin