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All about the illustrator search, interview & hiring process (and tips to avoid Ai/clipart users!)

Updated: Feb 23

Erica Leigh, a brunette, curly-haired artist in a sleeveless white button down shirt is standing in front of a canvas, holding a paint brush. She has paint splatters over her hand and shirt.
Erica Leigh, captured by Kelsey Gayle Photography

If you're an indie author and in search of a qualified, professional illustrator, who you can trust to bring your heart's story to life, you might be unsure of where to start. You might even be nervous about the potential of investing in the wrong person, and falling prey to Ai or clipart scams.

Not to worry: here is a 10-step method of finding an illustrator that will guarantee a successful partnership. This guide gets nitty-gritty, but every step is crucial if you care about your book being the best it can be and avoiding major headaches.


1. Know What You Want

It all begins with YOU. You need to know what you look for in an illustrator, so you can more-easily sniff out a bad fit. That means two things: (a) knowing what aesthetic you are drawn to when it comes to art, and collecting references that reflect your preferences; (b) knowing what services you need from your illustrator and what skills those services require. Here's why...

A colored pencil illustration of a little asian boy in three dress-up outfits: a football player, a princess, and a monster. Next to him is an overflowing trunk filled with costumes and a clothes rack.
Kai's Stuff: Character design by Erica Leigh

The more you browse through the sea of illustrators and define what style you are looking for, the easier it will be to weed out the ones you don't want. (See Tip # 3: "Look in the Right Places") When you feel your body buzzing with excitement, and you start to envision your story brought to life by their hand, you know there's a chance you've struck gold. It's time to investigate this artist further to see if they are the real deal; keep reading to learn how.

What services do you require? Did you know that some illustrators also do book design? Some, like myself, provide design and publishing assistance. You might be able to save money and time AND get a consistent aesthetic throughout your book if you have the right professional working alongside you through its creation and taking into consideration how your text can best be incorporated with the artwork. (See my blog post about illustrators who also design!)

Middle Grade Novel Cover Design by Erica Leigh

What skills are needed? If you need help preparing your book for publishing, you're going to want to make sure they are skilled in pagination, file formatting and exporting for print. You should ask what programs and settings they use to do so--an example of an industry standard program would be Adobe InDesign. A professional designer should know that print files have to be a minimum resolution of 300 dpi, and in CMYK. If you need book cover design, you want to make sure they can provide samples of other covers they've done and perhaps you want to find out if they offer hand lettering?

Okay, if you've figured out exactly what you want for style, services and skills, you are almost prepared to find and interview illustrators--just one more important step: budgeting.


2. Budgeting for Success

Before you hire someone to illustrate your story you should understand the cost. The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines provides the current industry rates. Per this guide, the flat fee for a children's picture book is quite a broad range when you consider both traditional and self-published projects: $3,500-25,000.

If this is your first book and you're self publishing, that might be overwhelming to see those numbers. Maybe your budget is tight, and you will need to fundraise using a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter or Indiegogo in order to meet the bare minimum of that range.

Van Gogh Quote, illustrated by Erica Leigh

You may even be asking yourself, why pay full price if I don't have to?! Here is why you shouldn't hire an illustrator for under $3,000 for a picture book: If an artist feels stressed about being undervalued, they won't do their best work. And that goes for anyone, not just artists. If you hire a plumber who claims to have the proper skills and tools to fix your leaky toilet, but they are charging much lower than all the other plumbers, you might be little skeptical about the quality of their work. And don't be fooled when you see simple illustrations (See the book: Harold and the Purple Crayon) because so much planning and skill are needed to tell the story effectively and show what hasn't been told.

Creativity especially, can become stifled if the artist isn't able to earn enough to sustain their cost of living, and a picture book might take 3-6 months of hard work to complete. I see folks looking to pay as low as $100 a spread, without realizing that the time it took that artist (including thumbnails, sketches and consulting) was 10 hours or more. If you solve for only the hourly rate, and don't include the other factors that add value (an artist's demand/availability, other services like design, their skill, etc.) that's still an unlivable wage. ...Chances are, that artist is going to have to skimp on your project and distract themselves by juggling other work so that they can afford to eat. The quality of your project will suffer in the worst way possible, since it's the artwork that makes the first impression with your customers.

John Ruskin – a 19th century English poet said it best: “There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey. It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money — that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”

If you've considered all of this but you're still unconvinced, you may find an inexperienced artist who's style you love, and who is way undercharging--but know the risks: they might not be able to work efficiently and thus they take shortcuts (like Ai or clipart), they may not understand how to draw characters consistently, or tell an interesting story through their scenes, or set up their files in the right resolution, or leave room for the text in a visually pleasing way, etc.

An experienced illustrator will have learned what their time is worth and will charge accordingly.


3. Look in the Right Places

There are many places to find illustrators. If browsing the deep sea of social media is too much for you, start by going to a trusted organization like the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).

Dr. Suess Quote, illustrated by Erica Leigh

They have a database of illustrators and you can filter your search with key words. You can follow hashtags like #KidLitArtPostcard to see promotional postcards made by illustrators looking for work on social media. You could go by recommendation and ask your peers who illustrated their book, especially if you belong to a writer's group like 12x12 or SCBWI, and can connect with folks who have already been down this road. As an illustrator and designer myself, I've been contacted by people who have found me in the SCBWI database, but my favorite unexpected collaborations were with authors who found one of my books in their local book store or gift shop and took the initiative to look me up!

When you find an artist who's style you like though, you still have some more investigating to do! Keep reading for the particulars of what to look for and how to interview them!

Wordless Story by Erica Leigh

4. Consistency is King

At the time I am writing this blog post, Ai is still terrible at consistency across multiple images. Remember, it's pulling (stealing) images from many different artists in order to create the image based on your prompts. So if you're worried about being tricked by someone using Ai but claiming the work is their own, look at their portfolio (better yet, previous books they have illustrated) and check for character consistency. Can they draw that same character believably from many different angles, showing varied expressions, gestures, and in action poses, interacting with other characters and objects? This is a key indicator of whether or not the work is clipart or Ai. Also look for consistency of style: your illustrator should have an overall style to their portfolio. Even if there are some variations from image to image, you should be able to soften your gaze, scroll through their gallery and see that it was all done by the same hand.

(More below on what shortcomings of Ai to look out for)


5. The Proof is in the Process

Check their portfolio and their social media for process videos. No, not just slideshows of sketch vs final, because this can be faked by reversing the process--tracing an Ai image, and fabricating their "process". Instead, look for live action documenting of their hand drawing either in a time-lapse or in real time. If they work in a program like Procreate, they can even export time-lapse videos easily.

Moreover, you can ask them about their process and what you'll get to see in terms of deliverables and revisions during your interview.

(For more on interviewing, keep reading!)


6. Understand the Beast (Ai flaws)

Apart from lacking the ability to create consistent character designs over multiple images as I mentioned above, Ai currently has trouble with accuracy of hands, feet, eyes and other structural details. Look closely and spend time analyzing the artist's portfolio. You'd be surprised how Ai can look normal at first glance, but then you look at it longer and it begins to unravel. Suddenly you realize the baby has 6 fingers. Now, Ai will likely improve on this over time in the next few years, but if you follow the last step and ask to see their process, it should help!

Another thing to consider about Ai is that it isn't copyrightable. You cannot protect your book if the images are Ai.

Now, some artists may use Ai to create reference images and openly disclose this--This is the same as googling for reference images, as long as the art they create is their own. So don't be afraid of the idea of Ai being used as a planning or reference tool, since artists have used Google and Pinterest and the old-fashioned library for the longest time to learn and be inspired.

Sample spread from "Amelia's Teacher : The Neta Snook Southern Story" by Jeanne Snook Anderson, illustrated by Erica Leigh

7. Write a Brief

This step goes back to # 1, knowing what you want. You should be prepared before contacting an artist with a written brief that pitches your book--everything from it's major themes, to your vision and plans for selling it. Come to the table with your homework done, so that you can speak with authority and ask the right questions of your potential illustrator. (It helps us artists with vetting authors, too, because we know they take the partnership seriously!)

Once you've written a brief and followed the previous steps, you'll be ready to interview potential illustrators.

Spot illustrations by Erica Leigh; "Ryan Goes Mountain Biking" by Katie Dalton and Craig Friedman

8. Conduct an Interview

Never hire an illustrator without interviewing them--remote interviews count, too! Better than a phone call is a video call, because you want to get a vibe for the person who is going to be doing the major lifting of creating a picture book, and working with you on such a personal project. You want to read their demeanor and overall energy when you talk to them. Ask them about their background in art, their previous projects, their process, how many revisions they include in their fee, etc. GET GRANULAR! The interview is the time when you gather all the information before the two of you sign on the dotted line. (More about contracts below!)


9. How to Read Them Like a Book

Erica Leigh holding "Forever Home" by Cathy Stenquist, illustrated by Erica.

An effective interview is a two way street. Not only should you have done your homework and have plenty of questions for your artist, but they should be interviewing YOU too! If they are conscientious about asking you details, it's a sign that you're talking to a true professional. A real pro has a ballpark price for their services loaded and ready to go but WONT give you a quote till they read your manuscript and find out your deadline, level of detail and number of illustrations, services required, etc.

The way they conduct the interview, and how curious they are about you and your project directly translates to how much attention to detail they will put into your book. It's like going to a restaurant: how clean their customer bathroom is will give you an idea of how clean their kitchen is. First impressions are everything.

If you would feel more comfortable with references, ask if you can talk to a previous author client of theirs.


10. Contract

A rookie mistake made by authors and illustrators alike, is to enter into a collaboration without a signed agreement in hand. Your illustrator may already have an agreement they use, that you can review together, and customize. It's a really good sign if they have one--just another level of professionalism that bodes well, and here's why: if they care about protecting their artwork, that means it's likely to be THEIR OWN artwork! Similar to the previous section about budgeting: the way an artist values their work or protects their work is an indication that they are the real deal in most cases. People who are trying to use Ai and lie about it are going to be hesitant to put something down in writing for fear of legal repercussions. And remember, they're all about taking shortcuts, so negotiating a contract is a time suck for that brand of con-artist. (Pun intended!) In summary, the illustrator who doesn't rush you through the interview and contract negotiation, and comes across as thoughtful and intentional, is the person you want bringing your story to life.

If they don't have an agreement but you have thoroughly vetted them and feel confident with them, consider hiring a contract lawyer to take your draft and translate it into legalese. Even Upwork is a great way to find someone with good reviews who you can trust at an affordable rate. The plus side is that you can keep using that contract in the future as a template.

There are many things to include in a contract, and maybe that's another deep dive, but for the purposes of protecting yourself from Ai (artificial-artists, lol) consider the following: there should be specifics about phases of creation and what they are responsible for giving to you (the deliverables) like thumbnails/storyboard, sketches, and character designs. There should also be a provision for number of revisions included per phase. I usually call these "rounds of revision," meaning I share the sketches, we discuss, I take notes on changes, and then I complete those changes--thus finishing a "round." if we surpass the agreed upon number of rounds, there is a fee for additional requests.

Illustration by Erica Leigh

Side note: If an illustrator really took the time to understand the vision, and approve thumbnails/storyboard with you (and you did your homework to hire them in the first place) there might be 1, maybe 2 rounds needed, if any. So contract for 2-3 rounds of revisions on each phase, and that way both you and your illustrator's work/investment are protected.

Someone who is using clipart or Ai can't guarantee all this transparency and will be scared off.

Erica Leigh, next to two G Pa Rhymes books she illustrated at a bookstore in Cape Cod.

Thank you for reading! I hope this guide was helpful and wish you the best of luck in your illustrator search!

If you have any more ideas to add to these ten steps, then please share in a comment. I'd love to hear from you and help spread this helpful information to more authors.


Erica Leigh

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