The Self-Published Author’s Guide to Finding a Children’s Book Illustrator

Combining narrative and imagery unlike any other medium, children’s books have the potential to captivate and inspire readers both young and old. Finding an illustrator to bring your vision to life, however, can be a different story entirely. We’re here to help guide you through every step of the way, from finding an illustrator to negotiating a contract.

How do you find an illustrator?

With the rapid growth of self-publishing and online resources, it’s now possible to find freelance artists entirely online. Two great places to start are the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and ChildrensIllustrators.com. Both include online portfolio directories that you can browse by style, medium, topic, and even region to find excellent illustrators for hire.

With so many options at your fingertips, the question is not where to find illustrators, but how to choose. It’s important to know what you’re looking for. This may seem backward—you’re not an artist, how can you know what kind of art will work for your book? But knowing what you like will focus your search and ensure you get the results you want.

Paint, pencil, pen—each medium has a different look and feel. Browse your local library to see if you’re drawn to any specific medium. Then consider the different artists’ styles, which Bradley defines as that “difficult-to-define thing that makes the work of one illustrator different from others.” It’s what makes a fairy tale feel different than an ABC book. The key will be to find an artist working in a medium and style that feels right for your story.

How much does it cost?

The short answer is, it depends! There’s no hard and fast rule. Illustrators’ rates are based on their experience and training as well as the amount of time and materials involved. In order to properly estimate your project, you’ll need to know how many illustrations you need which will depend on the number of pages in your project. (Use our guide to page counts to determine the number of pages you need in your book.)

You may be thinking, okay, that’s all well and good, but how much does it actually cost? Bestselling author Joanna Penn estimates that the average pay for a 32-page picture book is $3,000 – $12,000, meaning a 32 page book with 20 illustrations equates anywhere from $150 to $600 per illustration. Publishing expert Anthony Puttee estimates a slightly lower standard rate of about $120 per illustration. It really depends on your illustrators hourly rate and the number of hours it takes for them to complete an illustration, which will depend on the complexity of what you’re asking for. It’s also worth noting that an illustrator who is willing to work at an extremely low rate is not likely to provide the quality and professionalism you want for your project.

Nuts and bolts: getting the contract right

“A contract,” says literary agent Susan Hawk, is “the best way to make sure that the agreement between author and illustrator is clear.” The contract lays out exactly what you’re getting for your money, how you’ll be working together, and what will happen if anything goes south.

The core of your contract is the project schedule. This should include the exact date for each deliverable, the payment schedule, and a plan for what will happen if a deliverable or payment is late. Don’t forget to specify feedback periods and the exact number of revision rounds expected.

Your contract will also cover legal details like crediting, copyright, and royalties. In self-publishing, the author usually pays a flat fee for the illustrator’s services, rather than ongoing royalties. When the project is complete and payment has been made in full, the contract specifies that the copyright for the images is transferred to the author to publish, market, and sell their book. The artist may retain some rights to use the images in their portfolio or website. There’s usually also a clause stating that if illustrations are reused for other products, such as merchandise, the illustrator gets a certain percentage of the profits as royalties. The contract will also usually include crediting, such as requiring that the illustrator’s name appear on the book cover.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the legal details, Jeanette Bradley provides a useful sample schedule and contract to help you out. It’s perfectly okay to negotiate different details with your illustrator, as long as it’s all spelled out in the contract.

Keys to a fruitful partnership

Illustrators think in pictures,” Jeanette Bradley says, while writers think in words. This sentiment describes the potential difficulty of explaining your artistic vision and why it’s extremely important to work collaboratively. It’s great to meet in person if you can, so that you can both point and gesture when words fail. If not, use technology: if you just can’t quite picture what your illustrator is describing, ask them to make a quick sketch, snap a picture, and text it to you.

Do try to be as concrete as possible. In constructive feedback, every detail you can give is helpful. Bradley gives a useful example: instead of saying “I don’t like this page,” you might try, “I’m not sure what is bugging me about Grandma on page 10, but she feels a little creepy to me.” Giving your illustrator constructive feedback early on will help guarantee you’re satisfied with the results.

Joanna Penn offers some important final advice: “Trust in the illustrator you hired to breathe life into your story.” Constructive feedback is important, but confidence and a degree of creative freedom will go a long way toward fruitful collaboration.

How long will it take?

Expect the process to take a minimum of 3-4 months for a 32-page picture book. If you have a tight deadline, expect the overall cost to go up accordingly. “Allowing at least 6 months for the illustration process is a reasonable time frame,” Jeanette Bradley says. Busy illustrators or those who work in more time-intensive mediums may require longer. Once you start, the contract will be critical to keeping your project on schedule. That’s why every deliverable—including your feedback and revisions—needs to be accounted for.

Design considerations

Consider the final design of your book from the start. It’ll help you calculate your overall budget, and it will help ensure that your contract with your illustrator is clear and complete. Our handy calculator will help you estimate how factors like page size and finish can affect the overall cost of your project.

Be sure you know how you want the text to integrate with the illustrations. If your text will simply sit under each image, you’ll probably be able to lay the book out yourself in software like InDesign using our detailed tutorials. If you’d like your text integrated within your illustration communicate with your illustrator what you’re envisioning.

Likewise know if your illustrator is going to digitize their artwork or mail you physical copies that you’ll digitize yourself. When you submit your files, you’ll want to make sure the color is optimized from print. Review our offset color requirements for any questions or concerns you may have.

Picture books have been proven to play an important role in child development, fostering imagination and building reading skills. Vivid illustrations will not only engage kids, they’ll also help sell your book. Hiring the right freelance illustrator is an important investment in your success, and you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed at the prospect. We’re here to help every step of the way, so get in touch today.