Finding and Hiring A Freelance Illustrator: Three Tips From An Illustrator's Perspective
Updated: Feb 27
I decided early on in my writing practice that I wanted to self-publish. For various reasons (read more in this article) I knew self-publishing was the right path for me. I quickly realized I needed to hire an illustrator to bring my picture book to life. After further investigation, I realized I couldn't afford one!
I've never been one to back down from a challenge. So naturally, instead of hiring an illustrator, I taught myself digital art. I got pretty scrappy with my iPad and apple pencil. I illustrated my first picture book; it is for sure not my best work, but I am proud of it because it got me started as an Illustrator!
Related Article: WHY I CHOSE TO SELF-PUBLISH MY FIRST PICTURE BOOK
Since then, I have illustrated four more picture books that have been featured on local and national media. I am focusing on self-publishing projects while I build my illustration portfolio for art agencies. I understand from personal experience how difficult it can be for an author to find and afford an illustrator; I also understand from personal experience how to work with a freelancer and how to foster the relationship. In the end, we all want the same goal - a beautiful picture book we are proud of!
FINDING AN ILLUSTRATOR
As an author, I first took to Google to find an illustrator. I also Googled how much does an illustrator charge. I found the following websites were very good for connecting with freelance illustrators who were willing to work with self-published authors:
The prices were affordable enough. It has been several years since I have researched freelance illustrators, but at the time it was about $2,000-$3,000 to work with an illustrator (it may have increased since then). Though, I was not too satisfied with the quality of illustrations I saw. They were not bad by any means! They simply were not what I wanted. It felt more like graphic design, not like children's illustrations.
Next, I looked for places I could find children's illustrators specifically. It led me to the following sources:
These sites are great because they include children's book illustrators specifically, or editorial artists which are great for publications. Though, here I also found that many of the artists were represented by art agencies. This meant I had to work directly with the art agency; one agency told me no less than $10,000 for a project which was for sure something this self-published author could not afford! Other artists were completely closed to working with self-published writers, only accepting work from publishers or art directors.
In my experiences, word of mouth is the best way to get a good illustrator. This is a general rule for small businesses; word of mouth and personal referrals are a wonderful way to find freelancers. I recommend looking at other self-published books who have artwork that you admire. Contact those authors and get their feedback or referrals to the illustrator.
All this goes to say that illustrator costs are extremely variable. If an Illustrator is experienced, has many publishing projects on their resume/portoflio, has a degree, has exhibits or galleries, has awards, and so on - expect to pay a high price for that level of high quality work. Unfortunately, many authors don't realize how time intensive good artwork is - so from the perspective of an author, it is difficult to guess or understand the price. The best you can do is get many quotes and look for a style you like the most. Also, talking to other self-published authors to get referrals.
WORKING WITH A FREELANCE ILLUSTRATOR
After illustrating my first picture book, a friend contacted me and asked if I could illustrate her picture book, Hair Like Me. She was my first paying client and was very gracious about my learning curve, though I was trying my best to be professional. After that project, I have worked on a few more picture book projects and have gotten a good grasp of what makes a successful author-illustrator relationship. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Have an introductory meeting
Before starting projects, I do an intake phone call or video call. I didn't always do this, but experience taught me that not all authors and illustrators are a good match. An intake call is a wonderful way to understand each others workflow and intentions. For instance, I have spoken with several authors who want a very collaborative process, while others want to be completely hands off from the illustrating process. Understanding this about yourself and the illustrator BEFORE you begin helps with communication once the project is underway. For instance, an illustrator who is used to authors being uninvolved may not do well with authors who want a collaborative process. I do not believe that email could capture this dynamic, this is why I highly recommend in-person or over the phone conversations when possible.
Some information I talk about with prospective authors are: what inspired the manuscript, what are the intentions for the book and long term marketing, what is the intended timeline, what experience do they have in publishing or working with an illustrator, and also just let the conversation guide us organically.
Sign an Illustrator Agreement
An Illustrator Agreement is EVERYTHING! It is so essential to have an agreement in writing. Even if the illustrator agreed to do the work for free, still have an agreement in place. It is important that both the author and illustrator protect themselves, and an Agreement will do that. An Illustrator Agreement is a binding contract that lists out the terms and conditions of the business transaction taking place.
Illustrators: DO NOT begin or turn in any work without an agreement in place.
Authors: DO NOT make any payments without an agreement in place.
What exactly goes in an Illustrator Agreement? I go in to much detail in this article, but for the sake of this article I will give a quick overview. You want to list the "deliverables", meaning that the illustrator is going to turn over a complete manuscript (if you can, specify how many illustrations or how many pages will be completed). Include a timeline and payment schedule for both to keep track of. Include a clause about Copyrights and Credits. Also, it is very important to include a section about steps to follow if there are any changes to the Agreement later on, for instance a chance in payment, in services, or in timeline. Anything can happen over the course of several months that it takes to illustrate a picture book; you want to have all of your bases covered by signing an Illustrator Agreement.
Beyond the Illustrator Agreement, you as the Author have to respect whatever price your illustrator is charging. If you feel it is more than you can afford, it might not be the right illustrator for you. It doesn't hurt to ask for a discount, but please make sure you are no being stingy or nickle-and-diming your illustrator. Illustrations are a time intensive process, very much a laborious job, and less money will inevitably mean less time and attention to your picture book project. Don't put either of yourselves in that position.
Many Authors have ideas and visions for their book and the illustrations they want for their book. I know I did! The problem is that to those visions exist in your mind, no illustrator can replicate that for you. Unfortunately, without this understanding, it can be frustrating for authors when the illustration they see is not what they had in their mind. This is why I encourage authors to do their due diligence when finding an illustrator to work with: do the intake calls, get referrals, look for an art style you like.
Since an illustrator cannot replicate what exists in an author's mind, the best they can do is use the resources at hand to illustrate the story. Providing reference photos may be helpful, sometimes artist notes are helpful. But ultimately, the illustrator has to take many liberties and artistic freedoms to bring it to life. Of course, in children's books, nothing is ever too outlandish, but perhaps an illustrator might add details that were not ever mentioned in your book, yet they add depth to the story in a way the author could not have imagined. Be flexible with your illustrator, don't be married to the idea you had in your mind, and provide positive feedback when you can.
The only advice I give in earnest is DO NOT MAKE CHANGES TO THE MANSUCRIPT ONCE THE ILLUSTRATIONS HAVE BEGUN. If your manuscript is still being edited, then it is not ready for illustrations. Sometimes there will be minor grammatical errors that are noticed before publication, perhaps fonts might change; but in terms of story, structure, plot and content this should have been completed by now. When you continue to make changes to the story, it affects what the illustrator has produced or will produce, it adds more time to their process, which overall frustrates creativity and artistic freedom. If you want your picture book project to go smoothly, have the manuscript completed before it is sent to the illustrator. This most likely means that your manuscript will go to an editor or critique group first.
As always, I wish you the best on your writing endeavors! Writing is an ongoing practice, not a destination to be arrived or a benchmark to be reached. Was this helpful? If you want more articles and resources like these, join my email list to receive my free Self-Publishing From Start To Finish Guide.