Friday, August 24, 2018

Stolzer and Skaggs Talk on Working with an Illustrator

Article by Lauren Miller
Photos by Steven Langhorst

Illustrators Jennifer Stolzer and Craig Skaggs spoke July 14  at the St. Louis Writers Guild’s monthly workshop about the process of authors working with illustrators.

Jennifer Stolzer

Jennifer Stolzer
Stolzer’s talk focused primarily on picture book illustrations, as well as examples of interior art illustrations for traditional chapter books for older readers. Putting out a picture book is quite different from books for older readers, she said. Before contacting an illustrator, have your manuscript completed and in traditional manuscript format. Some authors separate the story into pages, leaving spaces for pictures, but this forces the illustrator to scroll through dozens of mostly blank pages looking for the actual written content. Don’t annoy your potential illustrator by making this rookie mistake!

The age range of your target audience will dictate what subjects publishers will be looking for, based on what’s commonly taught/experienced. Here are some standards:

·         Board Books: Feature individual words, no story, basic concepts like colors, numbers. Parents read these books to their children.

·         Pre-School Books: These will begin to have stories with a theme (e.g. going to the park, visiting the library, etc.)

·         Kindergarten – 2nd Grade: At this age, children are learning to read for themselves, but they need a simple vocabulary and a good story.

“There’s a swamp of color books. If you don’t have a specific angle, try something different [for board books],” Stolzer said. Common Core guidelines are a great way to find out what the government’s guidelines on age-appropriate levels are, especially if you’re hoping to have your book eventually picked up by the Scholastic book fair (and potentially purchased by hundreds of schools).

Market Research

It can be difficult breaking into the book market when there are a gazillion books already out there on a handful of basic concepts. How will your book be better than what’s already available? Doing market research for comparative titles can be a time-saver. Also keep an eye out for what’s trendy now, because it won’t be by the time your book is in bookstores. “It takes about two years for a concept to get from manuscript stage to being put out by a major publisher,” Stolzer explained. Instead of chasing trends, look at what the children around you are interested in. Chances are good the   next great trend may be nearer than you think it is.

Test your future book on children (with parental permission, of course!). Create a dummy copy of your book with mockup illustrations and the text as you’d like it laid out in the actual publication, and then share this with a child. How do they respond? Is it a winner? Also test the idea out on parents. Even if you’re not an illustrator, use your skill with writing to convey in words what you want the illustrations there to be (ex: there’s a picture with a rabbit eating carrots, etc.) What do parents, educators, librarians think of your book? Take notes.

Please remember that this dummy copy is solely for testing out your idea with your potential reader base. Your future illustrator does not want this! Chances are high if you sign a contract with an illustrator, they’ll have their own ideas on layout and illustrations.

Your future picture book probably will be shorter than you think it is.  A standard picture book has 32 pages of actual content, and an additional 8 pages of front and back matter. As a writer, unless you are self-publishing, you won’t need to worry about the layout of the story and the photos, your publisher will handle that. If you do go the indie route, the minimum page count is 24, comprised of 12 leaves, printed front and back.  Color as an option is always more expensive than black-and-white-only images.

On Publishing

In fact, if you’re going the traditional publishing route, it’s likely better not to even hire an illustrator if you’re hoping to get picked up by one of the larger publishing houses. Stolzer explains: “Big publishers have a stable of illustrators they’ll draw from […] the publisher will have a say in the final product. Illustrators may be paid by the house, or may be the author’s responsibility.” Research these larger publishers to identify their backlist – what have they been publishing? What are their new releases? Children’s literature is a huge category. When a publisher says they want children’s, do they mean board books, chapter books, middle grade, or young adult? Their focus can vary widely per publishing house.

If you do need to select an illustrator on your own, make sure you understand the rights you are paying for, and always, always have a contract. How do you find a great illustrator? Find a children’s book you love, and then contact their illustrator directly. You might also contact various artist’s guilds like the SCBWI. (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Some authors may even find success on sites like or Check the artist’s portfolio. Ask for samples. Keep in mind that the more rights you request, the higher the price. Ideally, if you can obtain the rights to the work, you may want to consider reprint rights for related products (marketing materials or products you can sell).

For the indie publisher, every aspect of the book is your responsibility, from initial concept to finished product. Don’t hesitate to admit you might need help in an area and outsource. Maybe you need an editor. Probably you need someone to organize the layout of your book (they’re called book designers). When working with an illustrator, from storyboards and dummies, to layouts and artwork, trust them to get what you are hoping to accomplish. Ending with a smile, Stolzer summed it up by quipping, “Pick something that you are proud of showing off. It’s kind of like taking someone to the prom.” In other words, when they look good, you look good, too.

Craig Skaggs

Craig Skaggs
Fine illustration artist Craig Skaggs has a colorful career ranging from product design (he has several patents) and medical publications to cover artwork and most recently, as an official painter for Lucasfilm. Skaggs presented several examples of his work during his portion of the talk and expounded on the business end of being an illustrator.

Asking “what do you charge to do an illustration?” is like asking “what do you charge to build a house?” he said. “My answer is, ‘well, is it a chicken shack or a mansion?’” A lot depends on your budget. Be upfront with a potential illustrator and don’t skirt around the money talk. A direct conversation about your budget will quickly reveal whether it’s something the illustrator can work with (or not) and what you can expect to get for the price, Whatever number you throw out at them is very likely not going to be “too high.”

For an illustrator like Skaggs, your asking price won’t include the original artwork. Most illustrators will offer print rights (so you can include their work in your book, or on the book’s cover). The cost goes up exponentially to purchase the original artwork as well -- that’s called a “buyout.” As an alternative, you might consider partnering with your illustrator to share a booth at a convention where the original of your book cover/illustration can be on display, advertising both your services (and likely, prints for sale) and your book, as well.

At the minimum, when you approach an illustrator, say for a book cover, you should have in mind what you’re hoping they’ll be able to convey. What is a strong visual element in your story? What mood do you want to evoke? When you picture your book for sale, what’s that image in your mind you think will capture someone’s attention and say, “Buy me!” This is your concept for the artwork.

Based on a concept, a good illustrator should be able to do a sketch and go from there. Depending upon skill level, this may take as little as an hour, and a finished painting, much longer. Your purchased product should be a digital file that you’ve purchased the rights to use on your books, on a giant banner for book sales, etc. Expect to pay anywhere from $500-$1,000 for a cover design (or more) depending upon the artist, likely less for children’s book illustrations.

The workshop concluded with an exercise in dissembling a short story (provided by Stolzer) and breaking it down into a layout for a children’s picture book. Stolzer recommends The Artist and Illustrators Ethical Pricing Guide for researching the rates, which can vary widely.

Speaker Bios:

Craig Skaggs has more than thirty years’ experience in illustration. He recently became an official fine artist for Lucasfilm, but still does covers for self-published authors. His work can be seen at Craig Skaggs Illustration on Facebook, and his official Star Wars art can be purchased at ACME Archives Direct and Dark Ink Art.

Jennifer Stolzer Illustration has served both independent authors and publishing houses for over eight years. She graduated from Webster University with a degree in digital media and animation, and uses this skill set to create bright and engaging characters in both pictures and words. She will discuss strategies available to both writers and illustrators to best utilize visual storytelling for all markets and age groups. Find samples of her work at or on Facebook under Jennifer Stolzer Illustration. She is also the author of Threadcaster and other books for children and young adults.

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