My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children
Are you an illustrator as well as a writer? And are you intending to illustrate your own book? If you have a story you’d like to see published and you want to go down the traditional publishing route, you’ll need to complete a few illustrations and send them with your manuscript to publishers or literary agents. You’ll need to show publishers just what you can do.
DEVELOP YOUR STYLE
First of all, you need to develop a style. Now a style may come easily to you — perhaps you already know exactly how you’ll illustrate your work and which materials you’ll use, but if you are anything like me, you could go any number of different ways. Each time I create a picture book, I again begin the process of finding a style. I could decide upon a naturalistic style, or a naïve and childlike style, and I could choose to use watercolour, gouache, coloured pencils, ink, graphite, oil paints or mixed media. I could go any which way.
So, to find your style you need to do something we don’t as adults often do. You need to play. That may sound easier than it actually is. Many of us in adult life have a difficult time switching gears. We’re so used to being punctual and productive, trying to cram as much as possible into a day or working by the hour. But to achieve flow and truly enjoy creating illustrations for children, you need to shed the professional, aware-of-every-minute mantle and play.
To begin, use the art materials you have at hand and choose some inexpensive sketching paper so you don’t feel anxious about ruining the blank page. Perhaps listen to some relaxing music, and consider turning your emails and phone off so you can’t be disturbed and reminded of other pressing responsibilities. Willingly enter the world of childlike play and experimentation. Open your mind and your heart and see what happens when you ditch the desire for perfection and instead try to capture the spirit of your characters.
Take your time and don’t expect to find your style in one sitting. You may find it takes several days or weeks to find a style with which you are truly happy. Try using different art materials to see which ones you best like to work with. Watercolour will lend your illustrations a very different quality to gouache or acrylics, and painting on smooth paper looks very different to painting on rough. Don’t be afraid to branch out and try things you’ve not tried before. You may find something you love.
It is also worth mentioning that your illustrations do not always need to be entirely drawn or painted by hand on the one piece of paper. For my first three picture books, I drew or painted each element of the illustration, then scanned each and collaged them using Photoshop. This technique has the advantage of allowing you to shift around the elements of your illustration until you are entirely happy with the whole image. You don’t need to begin all over again if you find you don’t like one part of your illustration. The downside of this technique is that it sometimes disrupts the flow of the illustration. It can look a little fragmented or stiff. Try it out and see if it works for you.
You will need to find the right look for your characters — what do they look like, what do they wear? Do your best not to conform to stereotypes. For example, don’t assume your bear needs to look like Paddington Bear, or your boy needs to wear blue, or your grandmother needs grey hair and glasses. Consider depicting your characters in unusual ways and find what about them makes them unique. Depict your characters in different positions — from the front and from the back; running or standing or sitting — and find a style that works for you.
You will also need to play with the backgrounds and surrounds for your characters. You are creating a world for your character to live in, and a look and feel for your book. Experiment until you are happy, and then you can begin to create a few illustrations for your book.
Now, be aware that, should your book be accepted for publication, it is more than likely your manuscript will be edited and, through that editing process, changed. Don’t, at this stage, attempt to illustrate your entire book. You may find you’ve wasted your time if, as has happened to many author/illustrators, your lead character needs to change form or the story is significantly altered. You are better to complete a few illustrations and do a beautiful job. A publisher can soon decide if your book is right for their list and the current market. You may also wish to consider including a storyboard with your manuscript submission, particularly if there are elements to your story that are to be communicated through the illustrations, rather than through the text.
On that note, remember in your story to leave room to show, not tell. Not everything needs to be spelled out in the text. Some illustrations may simply enhance the text, but in the best picture books, the illustrations tell half the story and contain surprises. Children love discovering hidden things in illustrations. Think about the things, other than the obvious, that you can include in your illustrations. Your illustrations will be richer and more warmly received because of it.
Once you have completed a few illustrations, you will need to have them scanned. You don’t want to send your precious original illustrations to publishers through the post. The publisher may well reject your submission and will not want the responsibility and cost of returning your package. These days, some submissions are electronic and others are sent through the post. Either way, you will need to have your illustrations scanned, ready to send.
From my experience, scanning on a home printer/scanner is dodgy. Not only are you unlikely to have anything larger than an A4 scanner at home, which means the size of your artwork will be extremely restricted, the domestic printer doesn’t pick up the colours or detail as well as a professional scanner. You’ll need to do your research and locate a professional flat-bed scanner, or ask around for recommendations, especially as not all professional scanners are equal.
I once did a series of mandalas that I needed scanned. Each illustration was A2, far too large for many professional flat-bed scanners. A roller scanner was out of the question as I’d used gouache to paint the mandalas and rolling would risk damaging the artwork. In an attempt to save money — a false economy — I initially took the illustrations to an architectural scanner. Because the images were detailed and very subtly coloured, areas of the scanned illustrations simply disappeared. After further research, I located a professional archival-quality scanner who could do the job. It meant quite a bit of running around as I needed to deliver the originals and pick them up once done, and it cost substantially more, but the scanned illustrations were an accurate representation of my original work. The scanner also printed out high-quality prints of my work so I’d have them to send to publishers through the post, if required.
Now, let’s imagine your book has been accepted for publication by a fabulous publisher, and you’ve already gone through the process of editing your work with the editor selected by your publisher. The manuscript is finished, and you, your editor and your publisher are happy for you to begin illustrating your book. The first thing you are going to need to do are the roughs.
A storyboard is a different thing to roughs. Roughs are completed by the illustrator before beginning the illustrations. Roughs, like a storyboard, show each of the pages of the book in chronological order, but the sketches depicted on the pages are far more sophisticated and more accurately represent the final illustrations.
Some illustrators like to do the roughs to scale and then use them as the base of their illustrations — they colour the roughs and work with them until they become the finished illustrations. Other illustrators prefer to sketch their roughs on inexpensive paper, and refer to them later when they’re creating the actual illustrations — on sheets of quality paper or on the computer.
Roughs, like storyboarding, take time, but it is time very well spent. Roughs not only show the publisher how the illustrator is intending to proceed, but the process of drawing roughs helps to uncover any potential problems, which can be resolved before beginning the illustrations proper.
You will need to send your roughs to the publisher and editor before you begin to do the final illustrations for your book. Once you have the tick of approval, you can begin.
You may choose to stick with the style of illustrations you had initially developed to submit to your publisher, or you and your publisher may feel that your story deserves a different style, now it has been edited and changed. At this point, you may need to begin the process of finding a style all over again. Or, if everyone is happy with the original style, you can begin creating the illustrations using your roughs as guides.
As you complete your illustrations, you will more than likely submit them to your publisher and editor for review. You may be asked to adjust an illustration here and there, or change something altogether. It can be a very time-consuming process, depending upon the style of your illustrations.
In my case, as I illustrate and design my books, I submit first and second pages for review. This means that I not only complete the illustrations, but lay them out in InDesign and submit them as they will look once printed, with text. I need to consider such things as the font I will use, and whether or not I will have borders around my illustrations or if they will bleed off the page. Once the publisher has sighted first pages, I am sent a list of any changes, suggestions or questions, which I attend to as required. I then submit the second pages for review and, hopefully, approval, and the internals are ready for print.
The book cover requires quite a different process. As the illustrator and designer, I am usually asked to submit three different designs of the cover, which means creating three different illustrations and thinking of three different design concepts. The three cover designs are reviewed not only by the publisher and editor, but by their sales and marketing team. Cover design is crucial to sales and the team will nominate the cover they feel will best stand out on bookshelves. If none of the covers you’ve submitted really grab the publishing team, you may be asked to try a couple more. Of course, if you are not designing your cover, this may well be someone else’s job.
Once the book — cover and internals — is ready for print, it is usually sent to a pre-press company that specialises in colour reproduction. Colour reproduction is the process of matching and adjusting illustrations to suit the paper stock on which the book is to be printed. The colour reproduction process guarantees your illustrations will look their best when printed. Full-colour proofs of the final files will be sent back to the publisher, and you will have an opportunity to look over them to check everything is as it should be. You will check that the colours are true and that you cannot see any splotches or spots. This is your final chance to check your book for any errors before it goes to print.
I hope this guide to illustration is of use to you, especially if you are an author and an illustrator who wants to illustrate your own books. Stay tuned for Part 7 of the series: Traditional publishing or self-publishing.
Happy reading, writing and drawing,
If you found this post helpful, you may like to read other posts in the series: My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children. I will publish the posts over the coming weeks and announce them on Facebook and Instagram, but if you want to make sure you don’t miss a post, subscribe to my newsletter for free.
My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children:
Part 1: Know and love your readers
Part 2: Ideas and inspiration
Part 3: Character, theme, rhythm and rhyme, and all of that writing stuff
Part 4: Who’s who in the zoo (writer, illustrator, editor, designer, publisher)
Part 5: Editing and storyboarding
Part 6: Illustration
Part 7: Traditional publishing or self-publishing
Part 8: Submitting your manuscript — the slow business of traditional publishing
Part 9: Contracts, advances and royalties
Part 10: PR — book launch, web presence, book talks and more
Part 11: Who are you and who do you want to be?
Part 12: Resources