Finding Success with Illustrators

There’s no more important step in the creation of an illustrated book than selecting the perfect illustrator. Success in this genre relies not only on the talent of two separate individuals (author and illustrator) but also on a seamless and natural melding of the two individuals’ talents. Your best friend, your daughter, your dentist, your dog may be an illustrator—and is doubtless quite talented—but if her style isn’t right for your book, you’re in for a world of headaches culminating in a disjointed, perplexing, and ultimately unsatisfying book. Imagine Goodnight Moon illustrated by Ralph Steadman. (Okay, so that would actually be pretty great.) Imagine Horton Hears a Who! illustrated by Kate Greenaway. A flop, despite gobs of talent from both parties. So how, then, does one find the perfect illustrator?


1. The Brief

First and foremost, you must know what you want. That may seem obvious, but it’s often a book’s author who has the most difficulty describing its aims (this is why agents exist). Before you start reaching out to illustrators, take the time to write a detailed Creative Brief. This is the single most important tool in bridging the gap between author and illustrator. Include your title and trim size, as well as a one- to two-sentence description of your book and its themes. Describe the style of illustration you’re after. Are you looking for “simple black-and-white line drawings” or “complex, full-color, spread-spanning scenes with lots of detail and hidden gems”? Perhaps something in between. Give at least three examples of existing books or illustrators whose style would work well for your project. Identifying a style means you must stick to that style for the duration (so make sure it’s accurate!), but it also gives you an objective standard by which to judge an illustrator’s work along the way. Your Creative Brief should also include the project’s scope—i.e., the number and size of illustrations needed (e.g., “6 full-page, full-color illos and 17 black-and-white half-page spots”). Finally, note the format in which you’d like the final artwork delivered. Hi-res (300 dpi) TIFFs is standard.

2. The Search

Next, figure out what you’re willing to spend. Illustrator fees can vary widely, and typically a more detailed style means more money. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $200 each for simple black-and-white spot illustrations and up to $500 or even $1000+ for complex full-spread showstoppers. Cast a wide net, as the person whose style is a perfect fit may be out of your price range or unavailable. Reach out to at least five illustrators whose style matches your vision. Ask them for their standard rates and how much time they typically take. Where to look? Sites like,, and are a good starting point; there’s no shortage of online illustrator portfolios.

3. The Schedule

A typical illustration project begins with “roughs” (sketches), then moves through a round or two of refined or “tight” sketches before arriving at the “final” artwork. Note that even if your book calls for color illustrations, your illustrator may prefer to work in black and white initially, focusing first on composition. If your book is character based, it’s not a bad idea to have the illustrator work on faces and figures alone before working them into any scenes. Ask your potential illustrators how they like to work, and discuss some rough dates for each revision stage (as well as deadlines for your feedback).

4. The Handshake

Once you’ve found the perfect illustrator—someone who’s responsive, eager and enthusiastic, willing to work within your budget and deliver files according to your schedule, and whose work coincides with your vision, let her know that she’s got the job. It’s not a bad idea to send your illustrator—your illustrator!—a contract in case something goes awry; you may also ask if she has a contract she likes to use. At the very least, be sure the schedule, payment terms, and scope are listed clearly in an e-mail, and hang on to that e-mail—as well as the illustrator’s acceptance of terms—for at least the duration of the project.

5. The Work

Provide your illustrator with an outline describing what each illustration should depict. Don’t go crazy, but generally speaking, more is more here. (It’s not uncommon to send the illustrator your manuscript as well, for context.) As the rounds start rolling in, it’s up to you to provide concise, specific, and appropriate feedback. It’s acceptable to say, “I don’t like the way Eddie looks—he’s too tall and not friendly enough” at the rough sketch phase, but by round two that ship has most likely sailed, and wholesale revisions may incur additional fees. By round two, your feedback should sound more like, “I still think the woodchuck’s smile could be bigger, and his tail is too bushy.” By round three, you’re essentially picking nits. Remember that an illustrated book is a collaboration between two artists; if your illustrator senses you’re waffling, or fishing for unpaid revisions, her enthusiasm in the project could wane, and the work will suffer. A really good illustrator may push back or make suggestions to you. Be open to these suggestions—you hired this person for a reason.

6. The Money

It is common to split an illustrator’s payment into two or three parts—a half or a third at project start, a third at some agreed-upon midway point, a half or a third upon approval of the final artwork. After you’ve approved your illustrations and have received your final files, send the final payment to your illustrator and thank her for her fantastic work. By this point you will likely have worked out other details, such as placement of the illustrator’s name on the cover, gratis contributor copies, and perhaps even an agreement to work together again on your next book!