Whenever new illustrators ask me for advice on how to make a living making art, I always say that the most important thing is persistence, persistence, and more persistence. I know this sounds simplistic, but it’s really the truth. Most illustrators don’t make it because they give up too soon, or become discouraged by how hard it is.
Here’s the reality: It can take a long time to get a toegrip into this field, which is incredibly competitive. It can take years to make a decent living. And it’s gotten worse in the years I’ve been working professionally. Digital art has made it easier for art directors to Photoshop a stock photo or illustration to meet their needs. Anyone with a computer thinks they’re a design professional. Why go to the trouble of commissioning an illustrator, which costs more than licensing an existing piece of art? What can you bring to the table they can’t find elsewhere?
Here’s tips for those starting out in the field:
1. Have an easily accessible website that looks professional. Don’t rely on your Facebook page, Flickr, Pinterest, or an advertising-supported freebie webhost to sell your work. First impressions count.
2. Put together a good mailing list. To find appropriate publishing markets, you can check out magazines and publishers at any library or Barnes & Noble. Once you have a list, go online: most of the time their websites will list submission information and policies. Info not there? Look at the Literary Marketplace, which is available as a reference book in most public libraries, and lists art directors and editors. Writer’s Digest publishes an Artist’s Market (similar to Writer’s Market), which includes this information. That written, I always doublecheck their information because sometimes the information is incorrect or outdated.
3. Create an illustration mailer with your best work. Follow up on a regular basis with new mailers. Make sure your website url is prominently listed on them. For cheap mailers and postcards, I use Vistaprint.com. They’re obnoxious with their follow up e-mails, but they’re the cheapest kids on the block. Sometimes you can even get postcards for free, if you time your printing for one of their ubiquitous promotions. And their printing quality is very good.
4. If you’re targeting the children’s book world — ie: you want to illustrate a picture book — I encourage you to put together a book dummy as part of your portfolio. This offers an art director information about how you would handle sequential illustrations in a book. For content, I encourage you to use your own story so you’ll have something to show, as well as something to submit to a publisher for publication. If that’s not enough convincing, author-illustrators make double the royalties than an illustrator alone. Plus you’re not dependent on a publisher to match you with a manuscript to illustrate.
But don’t despair if you’re not a writer. Instead, use a story that’s in the public domain for your book dummy. For example, Grimms Fairy Tales are in the public domain, meaning they are not constrained by copyright since the authors have been dead for more than seventy-five years.
(I’m giving you the Cliff Notes version of copyright law. To learn more, visit the Library of Congress website at www.loc.gov.)
5. If you’re looking to place already completed illustrations with a publisher, you’re looking to conquer the world of licensing or merchandising. This is often a good fit for illustrators who have a clear niche or branding identity. Do you paint only fairies? Or wildlife? Or have a sassy way with a phrase, a la Mary Englebreit? Again, market research is the way to go: spend an afternoon at a book store or stationary store checking out who’s publishing what.
6. When it comes to researching markets, Amazon.com and other online bookstores are your friends. So is the internet. Many publishers have websites that list their submission policies are; you can also get a sense of their taste in art too. Amazon.com is a virtual Books in Print. Have an idea for a book? Check out Amazon to see if someone’s published something similar. They also list books that are out of print (or OP, as they say in the trade). This is a good way to see if your brilliant book idea has been published before.
7. How much money do illustrators make? Well, this depends on the market and the publisher. The Graphic Artists Guild and the Authors Guild offer guidelines for what should be included in a publishing contract as well as some financial information. Unless you’re a very clever entrepeneur or win a Caldecott or have a bestselling book or are able to sell your originals for a lot o’ dough, most likely you’re not going to get rich. (Sorry!) But you may be able to make a living — if you work hard enough.