Monday, October 27, 2008

Matchmaking: finding the perfect style and illustrator for a text

This past Saturday I was down in Arlington, VA for the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference. It was a wonderful, smoothly-run event.  I was asked to give a talk about how illustrators are chosen. For those of you not familiar, SCBWI stands for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and I have to say, this is the first time I've ever been asked to address the "I" in SCBWI. Which is why I started my talk by declaring, "There IS an I in SCBWI!"

I also declared that the audience was about to witness a historic moment, perhaps more momentous that having the first black president or first woman vice president. They were about to witness my very first presentation with Powerpoint!

Every talk I give, I think, "I'm going to do a Powerpoint!" but of course never end up pulling it together. Well, this time I was talking about illustration, so I HAD to do it. And I did. And it was pretty fun preparing and choosing the images, although I have to say, it took a long time to do.

Anyway, I won't post the whole talk, because it's quite long, but here's a sampling:

There are generally three types of projects that we may need to find illustrators for. The first and probably most obvious is for a picture book text. The second is for a novel cover—oftentimes a cover is photographic, and we tend to use stock photos a lot, but sometimes we really do want the perfect illustrator to capture just the mood and image we want. And the third project that we’d commission an illustrator for are interior illustrations for a novel. Generally, this is for middle grade chapter headers, or chapter books where the illustrations are more integrated, but it’s becoming more common to also have illustrations in young adult fiction, such as in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

As I was preparing for this talk, I was realizing that calling it “Matchmaking” perhaps wasn’t the most accurate analogy. There’s matchmaking involved—you’re trying to match the text with the perfect illustrator, and hope it results in a loving marriage of picture and word. However, how I really feel when I’m trying to find an illustrator for a project is more like a casting agent trying to find the perfect actor for a movie role.

At Little, Brown, picture book art is generally driven initiated by the editor, or in other words, the editor is the casting agent, while for cover and interior illustrations it’s the designer that’s the casting agent, although in both cases the editor and designer will work together to make the decision.

Generally, the editor and designer will come up with a list of possibilities individually, and then meet to compare lists, and then come up with a master list which will then be approved by the publisher. At this point, I would also ask the author if he or she had any suggestions for illustrators, or had a vision for what style they envisioned. It's very rare for an author to have actual consultation or approval over an illustrator choice, however, but of course we want the author to be happy with the illustrator we ended up going with.

Now, I’ll be talking about two picture books and three novels today and the process we went through in order to find the perfect illustrator. I think this examples will help you understand the process of how this all works.

The first picture books I’ll be discussing is Jerry Spinelli’s I CAN BE ANYTHING! (This is a tentative title—as of this past week, it had been called WHAT SHALL I BE?)

Jerry’s picture book is a simple poem outlining all the fun things one can be in the world. And what I love is that it isn’t really a book about jobs, it’s more of a whimsical look at the things you can do. Here's a sampling:   

When I grow up,

what shall I be?


Of all my many many jobs,

which one will be the best for me?


pumpkin grower

dandelion blower


paper plane folder

puppy dog holder


puddle stomper

apple chomper


tin can kicker

mixing bowl licker


Because Jerry Spinelli is a well-known author, we didn’t feel that the illustrator would also need to be a “big name.” I suppose this is like when you have a movie with a big star like Tom Hanks, you may not necessarily need another star of his caliber in the movie to drive the audience into the theaters—instead, you can have a little more freedom in casting that up-and-comer or B-list star, like Ellen Page or Jason Bateman.

But because the text was so simple and straight-forward, but also imaginative, we felt that we needed someone very creative who could bring another layer to the book—therefore, we didn’t want a complete newcomer. I guess you could say that we wanted a character actor—someone whose skills are proven. Like William H. Macy or Philip Seymour Hoffman before they became big stars.

Like casting, picturing an illustrator style is like trying to envision a certain actor in a role. Sometimes the matches seem fairly obvious, like Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire or Kate Winslett in a Jane Austen movie, but sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch at first, like Adam Sandler in a drama or Charlize Theron in Monster.

Anyway, I won't go more into specifics, but I will give a sneak peak of the final art for this book--we ended up choosing illustrator Jimmy Liao, whose books from Taiwan we've adapted for the U.S. children's market: Sound of Colors and The Blue Stone.

Here are a few spreads:

The book will be published at the beginning of 2010. 

And then here was the end of the talk:

So, to summarize, when we’re thinking about possible illustrators for a project, there are several things we consider. What is our budget? How well known is the author? Do we want to pair a famous author with an up-and-coming artist? Or a newer author with an established artist? What tone and style lend itself to the story? How long would we have to wait for the illustrator to have room on his or her schedule? Have we worked with the illustrator before, and do we want to work with him or her again?

I asked another editor at Little, Brown what she considers when trying to pick an illustrator, and this was what  she said: 

I consider where the illustrator is in her career.  Is the artist a seasoned pro or someone new who we could build on our list?  I evaluate whether the artists’ technique will have broad commercial appeal or if it will be better suited for the library market.  And, I consider how accessible the artwork is for our target audience of kids between the ages of three and six.  Lastly, I evaluate what the artist can bring to the story—humor, emotion, warmth, and so on.

In terms of the places we look for illustrators, I think all editors and designers have their own personal art file, some more organized than others. Mine is simply a folder where I throw the postcards and tear sheets that I like. Others might have their organized by style or age group. Many of us tack up postcards of our favorite images. There are also reference books such as PICTUREBOOK and WORKBOOK—these are huge, thick books where an artist would pay a certain amount per page to be included. I’ve also used the brochure from the Original Art Show that the Society of Illustrators in NY produces every year.

And then, of course, there’s the internet. Everyone I spoke to mentioned checking out both artist rep sites, as well as blogs. One of our editors really loves searching through, both to shop, and to find talent. Our Senior Art Director loves the illustrator blog Drawger. And a lot of people said that they love just following links—they might find the blog or website of one artist they like, go to their links section, and just keep exploring, going from one artist to another, bookmarking sites that they like along the way.

For novel covers, many of the designers look at websites for editorial artists as well, because they tend to be able to do jobs very quickly, while a picture book artist may be completely booked up with book projects.

So, what should an aspiring illustrator do? I think the #1 thing you can do is to make great art! If you’re interested in picture book illustration, make sure that you have children and/or animals in your portfolio. It’s also a good idea to include two or three pieces that feature the same characters, so an editor and designer can see that you’re able to maintain characters throughout a book. Another editor mentioned that she always looks to see if the artist can capture emotion.

One designer recommended having at least a few pieces that are stylized in a unique way, even if that technique is not representative of the bulk of your work, because if there’s a style that’s uniquely yours, it’s bound to garner attention, and then people will also see your other work.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, postcards are a great investment, because they’re relatively cheap to produce. Send them both to editors and designers, because we do both use them, and if we like your art, we’ll both look at your website and keep your art on file—you never know when it might turn into something.

And speaking of websites, if you’re an illustrator, you HAVE to have a website. If you don’t have the budget to build one, then just use one of the free blogging services like blogger and start posting illustration samples. Start linking to other artists and authors and have them link to you. 

And that concludes my very first talk with Powerpoint. I will leave you with this quote from Emile Zola who said, “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” So work hard and keep on, and I hope to someday play matchmaker with your art.

And that's it! Any questions?


Jean Wogaman said...

Funny, I was at the conference on Saturday, but I didn't make the connection between you and this blog. I've been following for about a month now.

Your talk was certainly a highlight of the day. I was afraid there'd be nothing for illustrators. I'm a newbie, writing MG fiction and drawing pen-and-ink illustrations for it. At the moment I'm working on developing a portfolio for my online presence. Your discussion on the style ranges of various illustrators is really helping me think through how I want to sell myself. Thank you.

BonnieA said...

This is the best breakdown I've ever seen of the process.

I've passed the link on to fellow illustrators at SCBWI-Carolinas.

Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another behind-the-scenes glimpse. :)

Nicole Tadgell said...

Thanks, Alvina! I've always wanted to be a 'fly on the wall' for this process!

Daniel Mahoney said...

Hi Alvina,
Thanks for this super post. It's wonderful information to know. And Jimmy Liao's art is spectacular! I think you made the perfect choice-nice match-making!
Daniel J. Mahoney

Natalie said...

Hi Alvina,

I was also there on Saturday (I'm the one who asked about your marathon running mere minutes before your talk...sorry about the timing!).

Although I'm a "W" and not an "I" in SCBWI, I really enjoyed your talk. I was amazed at how much time and effort can go into finding just the right illustrator. I'm looking forward to seeing the books you discussed on the shelves, especially the yet-unnamed one. Thanks again!

Christine Tripp said...

Alvina, that was all a little disheartening. Though most of us illustrators have HEARD that it's the Editor that does begin the illustration picking process, we have always been TOLD it's the Art Director we should send our samples and promo's to. I don't think an author gets such mixed signals. I'm wondering, with a large house, are Illustrators who are either A) not known by their name/history or B) unagented, ever used? How would an Editor have heard of them or is it that the AD will bring some outstanding promotion to the Editor, thus the Ed has these promo's to put in their file?
All very confusing but as the SCBWI Illustrator Rep for Canada, I'd love to know whom I should suggest our members send their samples to:)

Christine Tripp said...

Alvina, after reading again what you posted I may have found my problem.... by designer are you referring to the AD? THAT could be all there is to my confussion, if so, sorry, it all makes sense now:)

Rita said...

That art by Jimmy Liao is awesome.

And so is this post. I'm forwarding it to a few SCBWI Schmooze leaders for sharing. Thanks!! :D

Anonymous said...

Alvina, This is great stuff! As a beginning illustrator (but long time writer) I'm trying to figure out the new angles, and one BIG question I have is when and whether to publish illustrations from a book that is under contract but not published yet. What's the protocol with the publisher? What are the pros and cons? Thanks and love, Wren

Anonymous said...

Oops, I don't mean when/whether to PUBLISH illustrations, I mean POST them on your website.

alvinaling said...

Karen--I think it's fine to post a sampling of the art, but I wouldn't put the whole book up! My fellow BRGs often post their work-in-progress, and I think it's great to see.

Christine, yes, I suppose the AD and Designer is the same--within a publishing house, the Art Director is generally the person in charge of the art department and the designers report to the AD or the Creative Director, but yes, the Designer would be the art director of the book. Semantics, really.

In terms of who to send samples to, I've always advised illustrators to send samples to both editors and designers (or art directors), because you really need to reach both.

And yes, "unknown" illustrators are used all the time, especially on novel covers. We're always looking out for new talent!

alvinaling said...

Oh, and Wren, the pros and cons of posting the art:

pros: you create some advanced attention for the book, maybe peak people's interest and have them anticipate the pub date

cons: I guess the chance that someone could steal the image? And if you put the whole book up, people might not feel inclined to actually buy the book, although really, I don't think this is the case (DIARY OF A WIMPY kid was up no the author's website in its entirety before publication).

Christine Tripp said...

And yes, "unknown" illustrators are used all the time, especially on novel covers. We're always looking out for new talent!

Thank you Alvina, this is GREAT to know and I think I have a perfect young woman in mind to advise now on where and to whom she should send her amazing art. I talked her into coming to our SCBWI Agent Day here in Ottawa 3 weeks ago and both of the US agents gave her their cards, loved her portfolio.
I knew she would do well, her work SO suits novel covers (along with so much else)

Daniel Mahoney said...

Do you know what medium Jimmy uses? I'm very intrigued about his work, I'd love to learn about his process.

Anonymous said...

Very cool article, and very helpful!

your pal, ELIO

alvinaling said...

Jimmy used watercolor and acrylic on watercolor paper for this book--I don't know anything of his process beyond that!

Daniel Mahoney said...

Maybe a future post could be a little something about how Jimmy works, kind of like how you did with Ed Young and Wabi Sabi-I'm sure faithful BRG readers like me would LOVE to read about it!

Kristi Valiant said...

Your talk is a wealth of information, Alvina!

A couple years ago I began sending postcards to editors in addition to the ADs. Then I heard David Gale from S&S say that since he's an Editorial Director, it would be extremely rare for him to work with a new illustrator; Junior staff will work with new illustrators more often. My question is, where is that line between Junior and Senior staff? Who should I send postcards to and who should I skip because whoever opens their mail won't show it to them anyway?

Maybe it's just me, but I'm not sure of all the totem pole ranks at a publishing house. I figure Publisher/President is at the top, and Editorial Assistant is closer to the bottom, but I'm not sure of the order of the promotions in between. Would you mind listing them please?

Thanks, Alvina, for being willing to take our questions!

Anonymous said...

It was an illuminating talk, Alvina. Thanks so much for coming, and for posting your notes here!

alvinaling said...

Kristi, the general progression from entry level to top is:

Editorial Assistant
Assistant Editor
Associate Editor
Senior Editor
Executive Editor
Editorial Director

I guess it's true that the top-most levels might not be working with as many new illustrators, partially because they're probably editing people they've worked with before, and are also probably not acquiring/editing as much as someone younger would be, but I wouldn't count them out completely. If you had to limit the number of cards you sent, though, I'd probably recommend focusing on the first four or five levels.

yamster said...

Keep in mind that you don't have to send postcards to every level of editor — at L,B in particular, art samples are circulated within the editorial department, so every editor has a chance to look at them. At other houses, there is probably a similar sharing system. Also, editors looking for illustrators will ask other editors for suggestions too.