I am asked a lot of questions regarding my first book job, illustrating the chapter book Azalea, Unschooled by Liza Kleinman. How did I get the job? Did the illustrator choose me? Did we submit together? How much say did I have in the design and how much say did the author have in my illustrations? As all writers and artists know, the journey isn’t a straight shot.
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I was contacted by the wonderful editor of Islandport Press, Melissa Kim, by email. I had been scrolling through my inbox while on a break at work. Scanning it quickly and thinking it was an SCBWI list serve message, I almost deleted the email but at the last second I saw it was addressed to me specifically. (That was a close call.) Melissa was interested in my work for a picture book, she had seen me on the RISD website, and was wondering if I could send along some samples. (Um, yeah!) I had just moved and all my stuff was packed in boxes and stacked to eye level, filling the room that was to by my studio. Sure, I could send some, if I could find them. I let her know I had just moved and she said to take my time as nothing would be decided for a few months. Well, of course I dug through my boxes immediately and found the best copies I had. The next day, I slowly drove to the post office on a wicked snowy day and mailed them off. I drank a celebratory beer and then I waited.
A decision was to be made in January. By the end of the month I had not heard anything, so I followed up with an email inquiry to be sure my samples made it to her safely. All was good, no decision had been made yet. It was the end of February before I got the word they were going a different route, thanked me for submitting and let me know that they would keep me in mind for future projects since they all liked my work. Whomp whommmp. I laid around and binge watched t.v. in a slump. So close and no prize. The kite eating tree had struck again.
Another month went by and Melissa emailed me to ask if I would be interested in illustrating a chapter book called Azalea, Unschooled. So, I did what every person in the KidLit world says to do. I said yes while freaking out royally because I had no idea what I was doing. She attached the sample of my work that fit the style they liked the most, as well as other artist examples. It was to be a full-color cover with black and white illustrations every chapter or so. The fee schedule would be a flat fee, no royalties, and they expected the cover in about three months at the beginning of summer with the chapter illustrations to follow in the fall.
It was my first book contract and I didn’t have an agent, so I was slightly clueless and had a ton of questions. What is typical for payment? What things should I look for in the contract and what things do I need to be sure are there to protect me? I immediately contacted two wonderful KidLit friends about the contract and offer details so they could tell me what was what. They scraped me off the ceiling, and I learned that chapter book illustration contracts are typically flat fee (a.k.a. work for hire) unlike picture books which usually include royalties. They gave me an idea of what I should expect to be paid and as well as advice as to how to include statements about who owned the original artwork and for what purposes it could be used.
Armed with my friends’ contract information, I made sure:
1) Islandport Press and I could both use the art for promotional material but…
2) I retained the rights to the original artwork
3) the original art would be returned to me. (I work traditionally in pen and watercolor, so sending my images off in the mail was scary, too!)
4) there would be authorship credit whenever my images were used
5) my name would appear on the cover (a huge point to push for)
6) we had a “kill fee” in case the project was scrapped and I’d already done most of the work!
Other things to know are the expectations for initial and final sketch timelines, how many revisions you are willing to do, and payment schedule. (I was paid in halves, first when contract signed and the remainder when finals were submitted.) The contract was signed and accepted. I met Melissa and got the final version of the contract at the NESCBWI conference.
Illustrating a Chapter Book:
First, I read through of the manuscript to get a sense of the story. The second time through I started a list of the characters and noted any physical descriptions that were given. I sketched some initial faces (aka floating heads) to get a feel of what each would look like.
I was given specs (the size of the book), how they would work and a timeline of due dates. The front cover was due first, and it is hard to do this so early in the process. By the time you are done with a book, you are so accustomed to drawing your characters that the images are fresher and less stiff. However, the cover is needed early for promotional purposes. I sent in super rough ideas of the characters and cover, and Islandport Press let me know what they liked. There was some back and forth with Melissa and the book designer, Karen Hoots, tweaking the approved image until the final was agreed upon.
While most of the feedback was from Melissa and Karen, Melissa did show the images to the author, Liza Kleinman, and she liked them all. The only suggestion I was given was to change Gabby’s appearance slightly, as Gabby was of mixed race. It was a bit of a challenge, since my interior illustrations were simple line work and black and white. I revisited my sketches of Gabby, altered a few things, and it worked. It’s amazing how subtle changes in even the simplest images make all the difference.