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, and years to make a decent living. And it’s gotten worse in the two decades 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. So why would they go to the trouble of commissioning an illustrator? What will you bring to the table that they can’t find elsewhere?
Here’s advice 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. Most art directors check out work online. First impressions count.
2. Put together a good mailing list. To find appropriate publishing markets, you can check out magazines, publishers, etc. at any library or Barnes & Noble; you can call them and ask for the art director’s name and any submission guidelines. Sometimes this information is listed in the Literary Marketplace. There’s also an Artists Market (similar to Writers Market) published too, which lists much of this information. I always doublecheck it before sending out any mailers, since sometimes the information is incorrect or out of date.
3. Create an illustration mailer that you send out to appropriate markets. 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 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 to show. 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. Frankly, this is the way to go: You have something to show as well as something to submit to a publisher for publication. And from a financial point of view, this is a better deal: author-illustrators make double the royalties. Plus you’re not dependent on a publisher to match you with an author.
But not to despair if you’re not a writer. Instead, you can 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 75 years.
(I’m giving you the Cliff Notes version. To learn more about copyright, 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 faeries? 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 friend. So is the internet. Many publishers also have websites which list what 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 often list books that are out of print (or OP, as they say in the trade).
7. How much do illustrators make? Well, that all 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.