Faery in Ink
Interview with Katerina Koukiotis
How To Become a Children's Book Author
How To Become a Children's Book AuthorWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
So I'm a children's book author.
I've been one for about two years, and that qualifies me to speak about how you become one just about as well as folding paper airplanes qualifies me for my pilot's license. But I still get occasional e-mails asking about it -- and they all ask the same question -- so I'm going to stick my neck out and give it a go.
Now, being a children's book author is awesome. Hard, but awesome. The money is fantastic -- at least, compared to being an artist -- and there's a dark joy that wells up from the base of the soul when I wear black leather corsets and giant stompy boots to conventions and people turn to me and say "So what do you do?"* It's fantastic, and if you can get a gig doing it, I recommend it highly.
It's not EASY, though. Writing kid's books is not simple. Go into it thinking that it's simple and the kids will believe that you are talking down to them, and they will look at your book and make a solemn, private vow that if they find you bleeding to death in a ditch, they will poke you with a stick, and put the book down and go play Pokemon.
Do not go into a kid's book believing that you are getting off lightly and that it's easier than writing for adults. It's shorter, yes, but that just means you have to work quickly and confidently, like a surgeon treating a sucking chest wound that somebody has poked with a stick. You don't get to dither all over the page.
Also, don't dumb down your vocabulary. If you're prone to using words like "amanuensis," then maybe, but otherwise, avoid the temptation. Otherwise you come across as patronizing, and if there is one thing in the world that children hate, it's being patronized.
Sadly, nobody ever asks me about those things. I wish they would. I could go on for hours about them.
No, the question everybody asks is "I've written/am writing a children's book. Where do I find an illustrator?"
It occurs to me that maybe they ask this in hopes that I'll volunteer, since I started out as an illustrator and sort of slithered sideways into the writing bit, but if that's what they're hoping, they're disappointed, because I have to give them the same advice every time.
Don't hire an illustrator.
Really. I mean it.
You take your book to the publisher, and they buy it. And THEY hire the illustrator. You don't pay for it. You also get very little say in it. If you're lucky, the editor sits down with you and says "If you could have anybody to illustrate this, who would you like? What kind of style?" and you have creative input. If you're not lucky… well… anyway.
"But Ursula!" you say. "I want my book to have a better chance! If there are already illustrations, the publisher will pay more attention!"
No. No, no, no, NO, a thousand times no, go directly to ditch, do not pass go, someone will be along with a stick to poke you shortly.
Listen to me carefully. Hiring your own illustrator A) proves that you are an amateur who doesn't know how this works, and B) you make it a much harder sell.
Why? Because artists are flakes.
I hate that this is true, I don't want it to be true, but sadly, it's true enough that publishers cringe at the notion of working with an unknown artist because there's a sadly high chance that they will drop out of communication, hand in work a month late (or never) and send back garbled transmissions about how they're just not feeling it, man.
Publishers generally have a stable of illustrators that they know will take direction, provide uniform, competent work, and meet deadlines. That is why they keep them. If you bring them your manuscript, they will hire one of the stable. But if you bring them samples and say "My cousin Bob is doing the art!" they will cringe because they don't know Bob, Bob may be a flake, or inept, or both, and they don't WANT to use Bob, but now you've brought Bob into it. Now they have to separate you from Bob, and what if Bob was involved in the writing? Is Bob going to sue? What if the illustrations that their pros come up with resemble, in any way, Bob's samples? Is Bob going to sue more? Will you get pissed if they point out that Bob's work sucks donkeys?
Suddenly your manuscript is a lot less attractive. It involves a lot more work and hassle and headache. And hey, this manuscript over HERE doesn't have that problem, and it's almost as good, and you know, if you just got rid of some of the commas and the adjectives, it'd be perfectly acceptable, and there'd be no Bob to deal with…yeah, let's buy that one.
And your manuscript is rejected, because you tried to make it more attractive to the publisher and just made more hassle for everybody, to say nothing of being out the money for the illustrator.
Now, there are two exceptions. You are allowed to have illustrations with your manuscript if A) you drew them or B) you are part of a writer-illustrator team who already has publication credits under your belt.
If A) then you had better be pretty dang competent. Sure, there are things like "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" where you get to draw stick figures, but there's also stuff like "Dinotopia," and I don't need to tell you that the higher up that spectrum you fall, the better. You also need to know how to submit artwork, and you need to work to a deadline. The art director will be no kinder to you than to the hired illustrators. I do my own art, but I had an illustration career for seven years before I ever sold my first kid's book—you may not need that, but you do need to be professional. I'd suggest at least doing some freelance illustration work before you embark on such a project, just so that you know what to expect, and get all the edges knocked off your sensibilities so that it's not an emotionally agonizing experience.
B) is a Catch-22, since if you had that, you wouldn't be asking me for advice in the first place.
So there it is, the answer to the number one question -- "Where do I find an illustrator?" You don't. And your chances will be much better for it.
*I got to do this to George R. R. Martin.
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