Illustrating picture books


There is a lot of advise out there about getting your work published as an author and illustrator. However, some of the recommendations yield little or no results.

Over the years I have read many books and tried many approaches to get your illustration portfolio in front of the right people. In this article I will show you the useful and not so useful things you can do to get your picture book published.

What is NOT likely to get your book published

An old fashioned way of approaching the publishers by going to their websites, seeing submission requirements and sending a manuscript rarely works. First of all, most publishers these days do not even accept any new submissions. And even if they do, the waiting list to get your work seen is too long so you will probably have to wait months to get a reply.

The biggest problem with this approach is that editors have well established relationships with agents and “big” illustrators already. It is extremely hard to get your foot in as a beginner illustrator this way.

There are some better ways of getting your picture book project in front of the big editor’s eyeballs. These are approaches that worked for me personally.

What works to get your book published

1. Bologna children’s book fair

Bologna Children’s Book Fair is a fantastic event for anybody interested in the publishing industry, and particularly for illustrators.

Bologna Fair hosts over 1,390 exhibitors from the international children’s publishing world, including publishers, agents, and artists, giving attendees over a thousand potential opportunities in children’s publishing.

I attended the fair every year for three years in a row religiously and it yielded me great results. This is what you get if you visit:

1. Opportunity to meet publishers in person
2. Learn more about industry trends in children’s publishing
3. Great place to meet agents and get a portfolio review

Plus, it’s a very social place to get to know other illustrators and make international friends.

So, now that you have already decided to attend next year’s fair, I want to share my special tips to help you hit the ground running so that you get the most out of your days in Bologna.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

A portfolio is essential. Only bring work that is relevant to children’s publishing. Include colour and black and white illustrations. Make sure there are some examples that show your narrative and character skills – the publishers want to see that you can create a well-developed character. Include handwritten typography samples if it’s your thing.

Dummy books are desirable. I believe that dummy books can be executed in any way, shape, or form. They can even be unfinished as long as the main idea is clear and there is a short summary, I recommend that you write the text out on a separate sheet. Any extra sketches and character development is a bonus. If you don’t have a dummy book, then a portfolio will be sufficient. You will still get valuable feedback and make personal contacts.

You don’t have to print your portfolio out, but if you do, then keep the size to A4-A3. Personally I have always brought an iPad with me and only one publisher ever mentioned that they preferred to see work on paper.

In fact, I had a meeting with an illustration agent there and got signed (my dream come true), just by showing her illustrations on my iPad. Make dummy books (if you have any), print postcards and business cards to give away.

2. Get business cards and postcards printed.

These are great to leave behind following meetings and give away to the publishers and agents. Print as many as you like, roughly 100 should be enough. If you use services like Moo, you can print different designs in one order. Vistaprint is another popular choice. Make sure you include your name, website, email, and all your social media handles.

3. Set appointments with publishers if you can.

Here is my top tip and it’s a biggie. To find contacts of publishers and agents, go on Twitter. Start searching through the #bcbf fair official hashtag and you will find posts by editors and agents who attended in the past. If you know their name, you can then find their email address. Try to email them well in advance to set up a meeting. You will also that summer publishers offer timed slots for portfolio reviews. Definitely try to book one, they are usually published a month or two in advance. The same goes to portfolio reviews in what is called “illustration corner”. These are super valuable so keep your eyes opened for them around February-early March.

4. Attend portfolio reviews if you want extra feedback

Walking through the fair, you will see long queues of illustrators with portfolios. I
have a very mixed feeling about these. These sessions are useful for new illustrators. You will get some feedback but you will rarely land a commission or a book deal.

To find out about the times of portfolio reviews, make sure that you follow publishers on twitter. They publicize times up to a month in advance. Also, provided you get to the fair early, you can have a quick walk around to see if there are signs on the actual publishers’ stands with review times.

If you don’t feel that your work is ready, but you have a portfolio to show, it might be worth attending anyway as you will get pointers on how to improve. Please don’t worry about leaving a bad impression on the publisher with your half-baked portfolio, chances are they won’t remember you, and you will be able to see them again next year to make a better impression once you have made improvements.

5. Just come up to the publishers

I hear loads of advice given to illustrators to never approach the publishers directly, because they are busy selling rights. I find this advice very bad for illustrators. It makes illustrators look like some begging minions.

If you are an illustrator, remember that you are part of the industry and a professional, that’s why you are part of the fair. It is totally fine to just walk up to the stand and request to see an editor. Most big stands have a “doorman” person who will book you a meeting or turn you away. But please don’t feel like you are interrupting some big important people with your little portfolio. Obviously, be polite and respectful but feel free to ask for a business meeting. Because you CAN!

6. Advertise your services on “The Wall”.

“The Wall” literally refers to a big wall (or a few walls to be precise), where illustrators leave their posters, cards, and flyers.  There you will be able to post any promotional material you have for everyone to see (note – bring something sticky to attach your work with). From my experience, having A3 or A4 sized posters with a strong image that looks like a book cover works best. I personally know a few people who got commissioned and even published from publishers noticing their work on “The Wall”.

P.S., Don’t get upset if another illustrator covers up your work with theirs,
it’s part of the game. Treat the wall as a living, breathing thing and check on your flyers from time to time and add more copies if necessary.

7. Take part in the illustrators’ competition (and win).

The illustration competition is organised by The Bologna Fair and is open to every illustrator: published and unpublished. The deadline for submitting your work is usually in October, so make sure to put it on your calendar. Submitting your work to the competition also gives you a free entry ticket to the fair, cha-ching! If you are shortlisted, your work will be exhibited in a beautifully presented illustration gallery right at the entrance of the fair. And if you win, then you will participate in the award ceremony, adding to your professional credo. Which will put you in the spotlight for future commissions from big publishers.

2. Anglia Ruskin Picture Book Illustration MA

If you want your book published, have a year or two to spare and a lot of cash, then go and treat yourself to an MA. Doing a masters is a luxury in the current climate but it will give results. That particular course attracts top publishers to its degree show and a good percentage of graduates get snatched up by top publishers and agents. Yes, it’s not a fast route but as a bonus you will improve your storytelling skills and have a fun time studying in Cambridge.

3. Get a literary or illustration agent

Again, not the quickest route, but super effective for getting published. You can approach illustration agents at Bologna fair. Or, try to find the name of individual agents and follow them on twitter and linked in. Attend professional fairs like TopDrawer, Surtex, Spring Fair etc. Make real connections with decision makers in your field.

Yes, the road to getting published traditionally is not straight forward. But it is possible.

Work on your social media presence, get your work in front of people who make decisions and you will succeed.

If you enjoyed this article, let me know in a comment, follow me on Instagram or subscribe to my mail-out here for more tips and news.

I have always wanted to illustrate a children’s picture book for as long as I can remember. There is definitely something magical about creating your own visual world that you can share with others. Just over a year ago I had no idea how to go about illustrating a children’s picture book, and the thought of ever getting a book contract seemed improbable. Today I am writing this post as a published illustrator – my debut picture book “Make a Face” came out in 2017 with an incredible independent children’s publisher Pow!Kids, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Last year I also illustrated a lovely title for Scholastic Asia “Pete the Penguin gets lost”.

In this blog post I wanted to share the background story of illustrating my first picture book. Hopefully other illustrators who have the same dream of seeing their stories and ideas come to live in a children’s book will find this post useful. Without much more rambling, here are my seven revelations from illustrating a picture book, based on the lessons that I have learnt while working on “Make a Face”.

PS: If you do find this article useful, do check out my book on Amazon!

Illustrating your first children’s picture book – tips from Anya Kuvarzina

1. Show your work – get published!

Your first picture book commission can come to you in a number of ways. I received an email with an offer from my publisher while laying in bed  recovering from a bike accident – true story. My editor discovered my work through SCBWI portfolio – and that was how I got my book contract! The easiest way to show your work to potential clients is to join a professional organisation such as SCBWI (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators). Once you join, make sure that you upload a selection of your drawings into a “Portfolio” section.  There are also other online directories for illustrators out there, but I found SCBWI to be the most useful and rewarding in terms of community engagement and work prospects. They also have lectures, workshops and meet ups globally, so it is a fantastic resource for illustrators-to-be. I find their regional Facebook Groups particularly useful, as it’s a great chance to connect to other published authors and illustrators. Other ways of getting published are to submit your work to publishers directly. You can find the full list of publishers and their contact details in this useful book. Also, go to trade shows, such as Bologna Children’s Book Fair. (I wrote a detailed article about the fair here). It also helps massively to get signed with an agency. I am now represented by the Bright agency and couldn’t be happier. If you are thinking of writing and illustrating books then it may be worth seeking a literary agent rather than an illustration agency.

2. Start by looking at the bigger picture.

Once my contract was all sorted and good to go, the actual work of illustrating the book could begin. Words for my picture books were written by the author Ricardo Alegria Jr, who has a really great sense of rhythm and pace. Personally, I enjoy working with text written by somebody else. My background is in graphic design, so I start the book project with a general page organisation, deciding which words go onto which spreads. You only get 32 pages in a typical children’s picture book, and that includes endpapers and a title page. So there are only about 12 spreads left for the actual narrative. To be honest, it was quite tricky to fit all the text into the limited amount of spreads. My editor did a great job breaking down the text and creating a page plan. I always ask for editor’s help with this step. Some text had to be sacrificed, even though it was funny, so you have to be ruthless sometimes in order to make sure that the final layout is coherent and easy to understand. Once you know which sentence falls on which page, you can start with the fun job of visualising that narrative.

3. Keep calm and do your roughs

Once you have an idea of the layout, it is time to do the most exciting part – sketch out the drawings! I have to admit that I was absolutely terrified when it came to doing this! All those fears and negative thoughts came to my mind: what if I can’t do it? What if I’m not good enough? That’s when procrastination kicked in and I found myself looking for hundreds of ways to distract myself rather than tackling the project head on. This is due to my own psychological background of fearing to make a mistake and creating something “not good enough”. But after a while I had to find a way to get out of this mindset in order to move forward. So, when I sat down to do the sketches, I decided not to think about the pressure of producing a final product, but instead to just have fun while doing something I enjoy the most – just dreaming, creating fun characters and imagining how they would look like. I listened to music, and let my mind wonder. Eventually, I sketched the whole layout while on a long train journey to Scotland – and it was great. No distractions, nice views from the window, and my sketchbook. Here is a word of advice. If you ever get stuck,  just hop onto the long distance train!

sketches of swinging monkeys

4. Find a way of working that works for YOU

When it comes to creativity and self expression, I am a firm believer that there is no one recipe that fits all in terms of the creative process. I have been through years of art education being continuously encouraged to use sketchbooks, plan colour schemes and prepare in advance – and hell did I try! I tried to work in a ‘professional’ way, and spent weeks trying to sketch some layouts out. The results were simply dull and I slowly felt the excitement for illustrating was going down the drain. I knew that it wasn’t the right way to work for me. That was when I made a conscious decision to forget all that advise and find an easier way to create, that suited my personality. I found that I liked to concentrate on the spontaneous individual drawings first, so I just spend hours and hours drawing various characters and plants – most of which found a way into my book eventually. I really enjoyed myself and found a way to move forward.

Some approaches you can use if “traditional sketching” isn’t right for you:

1. Cut out individual sketches and move them around on paper.

2. Sketch the layout on an iPad if you have got one. It’s much easier to manipulate the drawings digitally if you use apps like Adobe Fresco or Procreate.

3. Try thumbnail sketches. These are really tiny sketches about an inch wide. Concentrate on the overall sense of balance on the page.

5. Flexibility is key

Once I had hundreds and hundreds of individual drawings, I scanned them all in and started laying the pages out digitally. Because I only had a rough plan in advance, I made sure that I have as much flexibility in my work as possible. For instance, I scanned my drawings at 600 dpi just so I could enlarge them if I needed to. I also made sure that each design element was on a separate Photoshop layer, so I could move it around and edit it easily. This process has really paid off as I was able to deal with correction requests from my editor quickly. There were changes going into the layout and even some of the character up until the final stages of the book and I was able to address them without much sweat on my part. God bless computers!

In terms of materials, I used these incredible Tombow dualbrush markers to draw art for the whole book. I also used their colour pencils, which come in a variety of pastel colours, which are hard to find in other brands. Both products I totally recommend.

6. Learn by doing

It was terrifying and exciting to work this book out. It was great to have encouragement and support form the publishing team all along the way. Some days it was a mess and some days were full with little design victories and revelations. Did I feel ready when I got my first book contract? Was I 100% confident about my style and skills? No way! I knew how much I wanted it, but I didn’t feel that my portfolio was 100% (50%?….) perfect. I’m saying this because I think that you should start doing things you like even if you don’t feel ready for it. The perfect day when you are complete and ready might never arrive. Get your work out there – now! Learn to be okay with where you are at. After completing this project I felt myself light years ahead in terms of skills and confidence from the moment when I started the project.

7. Know when it is time to let go

One thing that I wasn’t quite prepared for was a time scale of illustrating a children’s picture book. All the design from start to finish took almost a year to complete! I never worked on such a long project before. By the time I submitted the final artwork I felt that I was a new person all together. A part of me wanted to just sit down and re-draw the whole thing! The inner perfectionist was kicking in, begging me to make more changes and do it better. At the same time, another part of me knew that I should honour the work that went into it and feel happy with it. The trouble with perfectionism is that it prevents you from enjoying the results of your work, which are actually really good! So I’m glad that eventually I found a place when I had to let go, and be happy with my first book!

8. After the book is published

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the criticism. Once my book was out in the world, I started receiving reviews. There were good and bad reviews, of course. It was hard not to take negative reviews personally. I had to remind myself that it was just someone’s subjective comment about my work.

I also learnt that I needed to promote the book by doing a book launch and public readings. However, this is more common in case of writing AND illustrating a book by yourself.

My first picture book was a very big task for me emotionally and creatively. It took a lot of effort, but it taught me many important lessons. My most recent picture book took me just 2 months to illustrate and I had a much better idea of how to approach it thanks to my previous experience.

Please share your experience about making your picture books here too.

I hope that these ideas will be helpful for you when you are starting out with illustration. If you enjoyed this article, let me know in a comment, follow me on Instagram or subscribe to my mail-out here for more tips and news.

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