An Author/Illustrator’s Journey From Self to Trade Publishing
Featuring Just Dance Picture Book
I have a picture book idea! — Now what?
Since I self-published my first book, Animals In My Hair, in 2013 I’ve discovered that there were steps in publishing a book I should have taken, but didn’t, because I had no idea they existed. Seven years later, I still doubt that I know everything about publishing a book, but what I do know is that the process is different depending on if you are an author, illustrator or an author/illustrator.
Since I am the latter and I intend to both write and illustrate my upcoming picture book, Just Dance, this blog will focus on the author/illustrator’s journey. However, here are a few tips to keep in mind if you are an author.
Though rules are created to be broken, a picture book is usually between 400 ‵ 600 words. DO NOT break your script into pages, do not suggest illustration ideas (that is not your strength), have your manuscript edited to the best of your ability, try not to include text that can be shown with an illustration (for example, descriptions). A picture book is a melding of text and illustrations, usually, one cannot exist without the other.
If you are an illustrator, but not a writer… I have no idea how that would work. I know that Art Directors match up illustrators with authors, but would they find an author for an illustrator? Can your book exist without text?
If you wish to publish a picture book, here are a few things you should keep in mind:
- Picture books are fully illustrated books created for children between ages 3 – 8.
- Word length is between 400 – 600, with 500 words being the sweet spot.
- According to Kait Feldmann, editor at Scholastic, most picture books are 32 pages long, made up of 2 signatures (a booklet of 16 pages), but when necessary the page count can be increased by half-signatures, 8 pages. Therefore, picture books can be 40pgs, 48pgs, 56pgs, or 64pgs. However, if you are a new author/illustrator on the scene you should try to get your story down to 32 pages. Please remember that the 32 pages can include mock endpaper, title page, copyright page… In a 32-page picture book you may only have 45 – 15 spreads for the story.
- The Art Director and/or illustrator will breakdown your text into pages, so do not include page breaks. However, as an author try and see if the text has natural breaks that can fit within the 30 pages.
- Illustrating a picture book takes 6 months or more.
- A Picture Book takes about 2 years to be trade published.
Idea and the Purge
As mentioned above, I’m an author/illustrator. When I get a new story idea my mind is flooded with images and possibilities. It is a chaos of creation that I have to interpret for the audience.
Sometimes, I get little phrases of text that tickle me, and I need to jot them down before they flitter away.
I usually begin putting down my story with doodles, but then comes a point when I realize I must write the story down or I will lose it.
This results in a great verbal purge. I write and keep on writing until I reach the end. I suppose you can call the resulting mess of text and doodles my first draft.
The trouble is that that mess can rarely be seen as a book by anyone other than myself. I’ve learned that if I want to be taken seriously by trade publishers, I should take that mess and turn it into a Book Dummy.
When I was working on Animals In My Hair, I broke down the text and created a quick series of sketches that I thought of as page spreads. Without knowing it, I crated a Book Dummy.
A Book Dummy is a sketch booklet that is the size and number of pages of the finished book. It can be a physical booklet or a PDF.
A couple of pages from the Idea Dummy Book I’m currently working on. The background is sepia, to protect my eyes.
What comes first, the Book Dummy or the Design Pack?
I think that depends on the author/illustrator.
For Just Dance I decided to create an Idea Book Dummy (IBD) first. I’m taking the text and breaking it down into pages using the visual information provided by the doodles. It is important to note that the pages I am creating will be different from final illustrations, because at this time I’m not considering camera angles or layout. To include that information, I need the Design Pack. I’m creating the IBD to help me figure out what I need to design.
At this stage what I am doing is going through the text and chopping as much as I possibly can. The question I keep asking is: “If I take this out, will the story make sense?” If the answer is yes, out the text goes.
One of the earliest drafts of Just Dance.
The same text after editing.
The final illustration color test sketch. Ready for finishing.
I am also thinking, Which characters should I include in this page to tell the story?
Since I intend to submit the IBD with my book proposal, I am keeping the sketches clean enough so that an Art Director can follow the story.
I do not wish to make the sketches too clean and perfect, because that would take more time, also, the Art Director may wish to make changes. It is far easier to change a sketch than to change a finished piece of artwork.
To submit my book proposal to a trade publisher as an author/illustrator I must have the text, the Book Dummy, and sample illustrations.
The idea behind sample illustrations it to show the Art Director what your finished illustrations will look like.
Ay, there’s the rub.
Image example of a sample illustration, but am I 100% happy with it?
(Image example of a sample illustration, but am I 100% happy with it?)
Though I’ve created a few sample illustrations, I’m not fully set on the design or the final technique. Something within me is telling me that I need to experiment more. I feel there are still options I should explore and questions I should answer. What style is best to tell this story? Should my illustrations be clean and delicate, bold and sketchy, or stylized (Art Nouveau)? Speaking of style, should I simplify my characters and design, or should I make them detailed and complex? Realistic? Graphic? Should I paint traditionally with watercolor, or should I paint digitally using watercolor brushes? What are my color schemes and how can I use colors to communicate the mood I wish my audience to feel?…
These questions will be answered once I create the Design Pack. The Design Pack provides visual information reference. It will include ¾ views of layout locations from above, character rotations, character line-up, expression sheets for characters, local color schemes for characters, how a character’s color changes under different lighting, what kind of lighting will I have, palettes for each character and location,…
Finding Time and SCBWI Narrative Art Award
If you are not a member of SCBWI and you wish to publish children’s and YA books I highly recommend you invest in the membership. That organization is an excellent community of published and unpublished authors and illustrators in touch with the trade publishing industry. It has so much information that I cannot find the time to digest it all.
Recently, I received an email from the organization regarding the Narrative Art Award for Illustrators. The organization provided us with a prompt and we illustrators had a month to illustrate the concept in three sequential narrative images.
This year’s prompt was “Silver Lining”.
Concept illustrations for Just Dance showing the change in mood.
I jumped at this prompt because it fits perfectly with the concept of Just Dance. Ellen is born to dance, but she has an accident that leaves her in a wheelchair. Will she recover to dance again? Even if she does not, wheelchair dancing is her “silver lining”.
I tend to swamp myself with too many projects and therefore never have enough time to do all the things I want to do.
At the moment I have about nine different projects going, I also have family time, fitness (which I must get into before I fall apart), promotion (I must get my stuff out there), looking for work, volunteering, …
This award provided me with an opportunity to combine several tasks into one. It gets my work “out there” in front of the eyes of the people in the industry, it helps me to illustrate the mood and concept for my story — elements I need in my Design Pack, it allows me to create sequential illustrations (which I recently realized are missing from my portfolio) and it creates Social Media content.
If you have a full-time job, school, or a life, it is hard to find the time to create a picture book.
Therefore, I will leave you with this challenge: Look at your life and see if you can do one task that will help you reach several goals.
Until next time, keep on being creative!