FAQ: How do I find an illustrator for my book?

Here’s another in my Frequently Asked Question series.

So you’ve written a picture book manuscript; now you want to find an illustrator.

Before we get to that, we need to clear up some misconceptions about how writers work with illustrators, and consider how they’re paid and contracted.

Working with illustrators

It’s a common belief that the writer and illustrator work together when they make a picture book. It seems to make sense. Norman Jorgensen and I worked together to develop our picture books The Last Viking and The Last Viking Returns, but we were actually exceptions to the rule.

In mainstream publishing,
the author doesn’t get to choose the illustrator. 

The publisher does that. Also,

the author doesn’t usually interact with the illustrator
or tell them exactly how they want the pictures to look.

The publisher takes care of the art direction process too.

It’s much more efficient for the publisher to keep the writer and illustrator apart; it helps them to control and streamline the creative process, and to ensure the quality of the outcome. By separating the writer and illustrator the publisher can focus on editing the writing and illustration processes individually (you can’t start too much of the illustration before the words are finished, anyway). It also means you can ensure that the two creatives, who may not be good at collaborating, or who may not get along, are able to do their best work individually without distracting or directing each other.

Another important point to note here is expertise. Illustrators have studied many many years to become good at what they do – they create visual narratives. The best illustrators add an extra layer of story and meaning to the text of a picture book. So when I hear a writer say, “I’ve written a picture book manuscript and I know exactly how I want every picture to look,” alarm bells start ringing. You probably don’t actually know how the pictures should look. Not really. If you did, you would have illustrated them already.

In relation to that point-

in mainstream publishing, picture book manuscripts
DO NOT include any notes to the illustrator.

The only exception is when a major plot point revolves around something that needs to be included in the pictures that isn’t mentioned in the text. Other than that, it’s considered impolite to impress upon the illustrator how you think everything should look, and it’s a turn-off to publishers as well. Picture books are a collaborative medium – not in the sense that the writer and the illustrator develop the story together (because usually they don’t) – but because the words and the pictures interact to form the whole story.  The best picture book writers know this, and allow gaps in their text for the illustrator to fill out the narrative, to inject their own ideas and expertise. They know that they have to let go of some control once the illustrator comes on board.

It’s different of course if you’re a writer who’s self-publishing. Then you get complete control over the project, and who your illustrator is, naturally you get more say in what and how they illustrate, too. But it would still be advisable to allow the illustrator to have input into the development of the visual narrative; as I said earlier, if you were the expert at illustrating, then you would illustrate it yourself. If your illustrator is worth their salt then it’s likely they’ll have some interesting ideas for visualising the story that you couldn’t have imagined.

Paying and contracting illustrators

In mainstream publishing
the writer and the illustrator receive individual advances,
and split all royalties 50/50.

It’s the fairest way to split the proceedings. The publisher takes care of all that for you and sends you a royalty statement twice a year.

If you’re self-publishing,
you need to negotiate payment with the illustrator.

Self-publishing involves a significant financial risk and a huge workload; you need to organise graphic design, printing, storage, marketing and distribution. How will your illustrator be involved in this? Will they also design the book and get it ready for print, or will they just provide you with the illustrations? Will they help market and distribute the book? Will they want to be paid on a royalty basis, or will they want to be paid upfront for their work, or do they want a mix of both – i.e. an advance that’s set against future royalties? Will they be willing to sell the copyright on their artwork so that you can do what you like with it afterwards (i.e. prints, merchandising, etc)? All of these things need to be considered and negotiated with the illustrator before they start work. It’s too hard to sort it out afterwards. Get it all sorted before the illustrator starts work, and put it in writing.

The Australian Society of Authors website includes a list of standard book illustration rates and a standard publishing agreement for you to download.

Finding illustrators

Now that you know all about how to work with illustrators, and how they’re paid and contracted, you’re finally ready to find the perfect illustrator for your self-published book!

You can find Australian children’s book illustration specialists at

You can find general illustrators and some children’s book illustrators at

Please note that I DO NOT provide illustrations for self-published manuscripts. I’m a full-time professional author and illustrator and that keeps me very busy. But the websites above are chock full of incredible illustrators, one of which could be perfect for your project.

Good luck!

Author: James Foley

James makes books for courageous kids. His books include 'The Amity Kids Adventures', 'In The Lion', 'The Last Viking'. A couple of these books have won awards. People have also bought copies, and for that he is grateful. His new book 'The Last Viking Returns' is out now. Follow James at www.facebook.com/jamesfoleyillustrations , @James_R_Foley on twitter and instagram or at www.jamesfoley.com.au

6 thoughts on “FAQ: How do I find an illustrator for my book?”

  1. Great article, James. An art director once said that, after a text has been contracted, she chooses an illustrator who she believes will create what no one else would imagine from the author’s words. This is very very hard for the author because after they have spent years ‘perfecting’ their story, it gets changed. It is no longer what they visualised and intended. It becomes ‘our story’, with the illustrator and the art director. But giving this freedom to the illustrator is the way that the most pleasing and inspiring books are produced, with publishers investing tens of thousands of dollars to bring them to print and sold in stores. Keeping author and illustrator apart works. When self-publishing authors start limiting and controlling illustrators, unfortunately the resulting books are often/?usually ‘unlike successful traditionally published books’.

    1. Hi Pete, sorry it took me so long to reply – I thought I’d done this months ago! You make some good points. Having an editor as the go-between for writer and illustrator can be very helpful. It can definitely make the process much more efficient, and the editor can be a mediator between the two creative parties. The flipside is that sometimes letting an author and illustrator work together results in the creation of new ideas that wouldn’t have been thought of otherwise; however in my experience it takes longer than working separately.

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